Joining the burgeoning genre of novels concerning famous people's unknown subordinates, Fields (The Middle Ages, 2003, etc.) offers a fictionalized account of Edith Wharton’s troubled love life in large part through the eyes of her former governess and lifelong secretary, Anna Bahlmann.
By age 45, Edith has found literary success with the publication of The House of Mirth, but is miserably unhappy in a sexless, lifeless marriage. Teddy Wharton is a simple man, totally unsuited to Edith, although 60-year-old Anna has always admired and been secretly a little in love with him herself. During their annual winter in Paris in 1908, Edith meets and falls headlong in love with Morton Fullerton, a Harvard-educated journalist. More than one literary acquaintance warns Edith that Morton has a licentious reputation—that he has been one of Henry James’ “favorites” should be warning enough—but Edith, elated by her new sense of herself as a desirable woman, pursues Morton as much as he pursues her. Witnessing the growing infatuation, Anna is torn between her devotion to Edith and her loyalty to Teddy, who sinks into a severe depression, a harbinger of the madness to come. Anna’s moral disapproval irritates Edith’s own guilty discomfort, and she sends Anna temporarily away. With Morton, Edith discovers sexual passion (in some excellent erotic writing) but is frustrated by his emotional slipperiness. Meanwhile, Anna has her own, much quieter romantic adventure, although her first commitment remains with Edith. Fields does not simplify their relationship; they call themselves friends, but Edith often treats Anna as a servant, a role Anna accepts with a sanguinity modern women may not appreciate. As in life, fictional Anna never becomes more than a foil to the fictional powerhouse that is Edith. Teddy is a tragic figure, his basic decency eroded by Edith’s understandable inability to appreciate him. Morton remains the mystery, neither his motives nor his charms made quite clear enough.
One doesn’t have to be an Edith Wharton fan to luxuriate in the Wharton-esque plotting and prose Fields so elegantly conjures.