Jennie Fields was in Paris walking in the historic Faubourg Saint-Germain on the street where her favorite writer, Edith Wharton, had once lived. During that walk she had no idea that the life of Wharton would consume her own for the next three years. Arriving back at her hotel she picked up a phone message from her literary agent in New York, Lisa Bankoff. “I have an idea for you,” Bankoff said when Fields reached her. “How would you like to write a novel about Edith Wharton?”
“I was thrilled!” Fields told me. “I couldn’t sleep that night. The serendipity of having just been to Wharton’s house and then having this fall in my lap was too perfect.”
When Fields smiles, she smiles with her whole face, like a little kid. She has warm dark brown hair, bobbed to the length of her chin, and intelligent, observant eyes. Jennie Fields doesn’t miss a thing, much like Wharton, who has become her muse.
As we sat together in her cheerful writing room—a converted sun porch—we discussed Fields’ work-in-progress, The Age of Ecstasy, to be published this fall by Viking. Noticeably absent from this workspace was a desk and piles of books and papers. Fields’ preferred writing place is in her comfy, upholstered chair, legs up on an ottoman, with her computer on her lap. She writes for two to three hours every day, producing at least five pages. To date, the manuscript is over four hundred pages.
After having published three previous books—Lily Beach, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, and The Middle Ages— Fields had not yet caught fire with a new idea for her next novel. Confessing this to her agent resulted in the suggestion that became the genesis of a research and writing journey that has lasted close to three years and has changed her life. The first eighty pages sold the book. She was given a healthy advance, allowing her to quit her advertising job at McCann Erickson in New York City and move in with her Nashville-based husband, ending her ten-year commute. For the first time in her life, Fields was a full-time writer.
The experience of this book, as she put it, has been magical. Another perfectly timed circumstance offered up a rare opportunity.
“One night, I’m in my nightgown at my computer, and I had just entered Edith Wharton in a Google search, when I see that Christie’s is going to auction off letters that Edith had written to her lifelong companion, governess, and secretary Anna Bahlmann. I’d already identified Anna as my other main character, though she’d barely been mentioned in Edithss autobiography, or in any of the Wharton biographies. These letters had been in an attic for one hundred years and had never been seen by anybody!
“I called up Chris Coover, senior vice president and specialist in manuscripts at Christie’s, who is a wonderful man, and he said, ‘If you want to come see the letters before they sell, I’ll be happy to set you up at a table so you can read them.’”
This windfall of original source material led to Anna Bahlmann’s becoming a central character in the novel. “It was really a love story about two women who took care of each other in life. Edith had a very difficult mother, very cold, and Anna was this very warm, available person. She was also an intellectual companion.”
Happily, Fields discovered that Edith Wharton was one of the best-documented writers. She wrote six letters every day, resulting in a goldmine of correspondence; she kept diaries, wrote forty novels, an autobiography, poetry, and essays.
“All I really knew about her life when I began was that she had taken a lover when she was forty-five. There are love diaries that she wrote just after the affair started with Morton Fullerton. There are also letters from Edith to Morton. He saved their entire correspondence although she begged him to burn it.”
Fields discovered that Edith Wharton had a “white marriage”—meaning she and her husband didn’t sleep together. Teddy Wharton suffered from mental illness, was an adulterer, squandered her money, and, as he deteriorated, became dangerous to Edith. After twenty-eight years they finally divorced. Teddy joined Fields’ small cast of central characters. Edith’s lover became another.
“Edith Wharton was practically a virgin when she met Morton. He was brilliant, had gone to Harvard, and was a writer himself. What was so interesting was that Edith was a person who was so sexually closed up, who did not think that sexuality would ever touch her life, and then she gets introduced to a world of pleasure that she never knew existed, by a complete cad. Morton was bisexual and utterly promiscuous. In her diaries she was very circumspect about the sex, but later it was discovered that she wrote pornography under another name. I’ve read it. It’s very intense.”
I asked Fields what most challenged her about writing this book. “Not to stray from the basic story line of Edith’s life and to tell a much more in-depth story about what happened between the lines. There are things that I read in the letters that I don’t really understand, so the challenge for me, and the exciting part, was finding my way into what she was thinking, trying to figure out explanations for behavior, or the meaning of something she said.”
Curious about the differences between the process of writing her previous novels, which came from her imagination, and this one, which is research-based and grounded in fact, I asked about her writing methods.
“In this book, I’m working with the outline of reality, and I am overlaying my interpretation of what was going on in people’s heads. In the past, the way I wrote a first draft was by finding characters I cared about, and then I would put then in a situation that seemed unsolvable to me. I would let them figure it out. I like not knowing what is going to happen. I don’t like outlining books. I find that bores me. This book about Edith is different because the outline is already there. What I’m doing is creating the internal argument in every one of my characters. That’s where the mystery comes from while writing. When I don’t know what’s going to happen until it’s written—that’s the best.”
“And the research?” I asked. “The ability to capture the mindset and be authentic to the period—isn’t that daunting?”
“I’m lucky,” Fields said, “because there is such an abundance of material from that period. I read the newspapers and magazines of the time, and I have the best resource—Edith’s novels. Her eye for dress, environments, manners, and speech are a continual frame of reference. I immerse myself in all my research until I actually feel that I am there and I can live and breathe it.”
Then I ask the question that fellow writers are always curious about. How many drafts? How much revision?
“I’ve always done two or more drafts before handing the manuscript in. But I’m always rewriting as I go. I’m always looking back and thinking, oh I can fix this. The hardest thing for me is making the inner editor just shut up so I can get the words down. On a first draft, you just have to spew.”
Finally, no matter how many books or successes a writer has, there are the insecurities, different each time, that just come with the territory of being any kind of artist. “It’s a scary process. I’m not Edith Wharton. I could never write the social dramas that she did. I am not trying to write an Edith Wharton book about Edith Wharton. I am writing a Jennie Fields book.
“My books are about women who are trying to understand how their happiness fits into the world and are struggling to find that answer. For Edith, her happiness is her writing. Her writing validated her in a world where women were not validated at all. Her personal life was in many ways a disappointment to her.
“But there was one man whose name was Walter Berry who had been in her life from the time she was a young girl and had always loved her. When she died, she was buried next to him.”
Then she added, almost like a superstitious knock on wood: “Edith was a very private person. I hope she forgives me and that she’s not rolling over in her grave because I’m writing this book.”
by Sally Schloss
The Age of Ecstasy
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Wharton. We’ll have to turn off,” Cook announces. “It’s slippery up here still. We need to put chains on the tires.” He turns onto a packed-earth dogleg, meant as an overlook. As he heads back to the boot to find the chains and Eliot joins him, Edith gets out of the car and stretches in the chilly mountain air. Fullerton stands beside her and presents an open silver cigarette case. “Care to?” he asks. She takes a cigarette and waits for him to find a match.
“What do you say,” she asks after he’s lit her cigarette, “shall we go down and sit on that bank? There’s no snow right there.”
He nods, and she lifts the heavy plaid rug from the motorcar. The view from the bank is breathtaking. Indigo mountains braid the horizon, fallen and falling red and yellow leaves embroider the landscape. Snow sits in every crevice but the one they’ve intended as their perch. But before she sits down, she spots it.