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Novels based on the love lives of well-known cultural figures have been popular in recent years. There was "The Paris Wife," about Ernest Hemingway's first marriage; and now a new novel, "The Age of Desire," tells the story of Edith Wharton's love affair with a young journalist in Paris. As NPR's Lynn Neary reports, the affair is seen, in part, through the eyes of a devoted companion who's gotten scant attention - until now.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Jennie Fields was well into her novel about Edith Wharton when she heard that a new cache of Wharton letters had been discovered. They were written to Anna Bahlmann, who was Wharton's governess as a child, and later became her literary secretary. Bahlmann had never been considered a major influence on Wharton, but Fields had decided to make her a central character in her book. She felt certain that Wharton and Bahlmann had a strong relationship.

JENNIE FIELDS: After all, they had been together for a great part of Edith's life, and I knew they had to have been close. So I imagined that was true. But when the letters came out and supported it all, it was eerie and thrilling at the same time.

NEARY: Fields got in touch with Irene Goldman-Price, a Wharton scholar who was editing the letters for a collection, called "My Dear Governess." The two bonded over their love of Wharton. Goldman-Price was fascinated by the fictional world Fields was creating.

IRENE GOLDMAN-PRICE: I love it. First of all, her imagination makes these people come alive, in my mind, in ways that they had not before.

NEARY: "These people" are, first and foremost, Edith Wharton - who, says Goldman-Price, was just coming into her own at the age of 45, as the novel begins.

GOLDMAN-PRICE: She has just finally made a success of writing, which is something that she's wanted to do since she was at least 12 years old. In 1905, "The House of Mirth" comes out. It is not her first novel, but it is her first truly successful novel. She's really feeling her oats.

NEARY: Enter Morton Fullerton, a young journalist Wharton met while living in Paris. Though he traveled in sophisticated circles, Fullerton wasn't particularly remarkable, but he was charming and, says Fields, he had a dubious reputation.

FIELDS: He was very drawn, apparently, to power and success. He had had affairs with other successful people - both men and women. He was something of a sociopath because he would have these affairs, and then he would just disappear. It was his M.O.

NEARY: Watching from the sidelines, in Fields' version of the story, was Anna Bahlmann. Devoted to both Wharton and her husband, Bahlmann is stunned as Wharton plunges headlong into her affair with Fullerton.

FIELDS: She's the person who can see it with - I don't want to say cold eyes because she wasn't cold at all, but with clear eyes; and see what was going on, and understand how Edith was affecting her own sense of right and wrong by what she was doing.

NEARY: After years of a loveless marriage, Wharton experienced real passion for the first time, with Fullerton. When he disappears, she becomes obsessed. In a letter to the writer Henry James, which Fields weaves into the story, Wharton pleads with him to find out what has become of her lover.

FIELDS: (Reading) Dearest H.J., I beg of you - I urge you to help me. I don't know what's happened to Morton. He's broken my heart with his inability - or perhaps I should say refusal - to answer any of my posts. What could be hampering him? Do you know if he is ill, or has he found someone else to love? Has he written to you this summer? Would he tell you if it were so? I am at wit's end. I am desolee.

NEARY: During this time, says Goldman-Price, Wharton's real letters to Anna Bahlmann are filled with mundane news, as if she doesn't want her old governess to know what's really happening. She poured out her true feelings in her diary, and in a flurry of missives to Fullerton.

GOLDMAN-PRICE: She writes letters to him in which she just abases herself, and twists herself into a pretzel, promising that - I'll be this way, or I won't be that way. I can barely read that diary and those letters. But, you know, love is love. And I guess I've seen it happen often enough that I'm not terribly surprised. But it's so painful because she's a genius.

NEARY: As painful as Wharton's affair with Fullerton was, Jennie Fields believes it was something the writer had to experience.

FIELDS: In the past, when she thought about people in love, there was sort of a cold wall there. You just didn't feel that she really understood that. Even when she writes "Age of Innocence" afterwards, you just get the understanding of love, obsession, longing; that I don't think she understood until she experienced it herself.

NEARY: In "The Age of Desire," Anna Bahlmann served as Wharton's conscience, but the beloved governess was powerless to save the great writer from herself. Their friendship was strained but in the end, Fields says, their affection for each other survived, and proved stronger than the passionate affair that drove them apart.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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