My Dear Governess: the Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann

Around 1908, Henry James wrote to a young man he knew: “You have made friends with Edith Wharton. I congratulate you. You may find her difficult, but you will never find her stupid and you will never find her mean.” This quotation appears in most Wharton biographies and many of James and now returns in this volume of letters edited by Irene Goldman-Price. (Goldman-Price somewhat surprisingly chooses to quote from Percy Lubbock’s ­version of the letter in his Portrait of Edith Wharton (1947), which changes the final clause to: “You will find nothing stupid in her and nothing small” – Lubbock was presumably quoting from memory.)

Readers interested in Wharton’s very interesting life do not lack for opportunities to learn about her: she wrote an autobiography, A Backward Glance, in 1934; she has been the subject of three major biographies in the past 40 years; and a selection of her voluminous correspondence appeared in 1989. Wharton led an increasingly public existence as the grande dame of American letters in the first half of the 20th century but documentation of her early years has been patchy. To a great extent, biographers have had to rely on A Backward Glance, in which she describes growing up in the “old New York” of the 1870s and 1880s.

Then, in 2009, an unexpected treasure trove appeared at auction: Anna Catherine Bahl­mann, who became Wharton’s governess in 1874 and was her companion and secretary until Bahlmann’s death in 1916, had kept all 135 of Wharton’s letters to her over 40 years. No one else knew of the letters’ existence and the archive is of real significance to Wharton scholarship. The majority of the Bahlmann correspondence was written before 1900, the year that Wharton’s first novel was published.

Biographers have had to fill in the gaps of the first 30 years of Wharton’s life with conjecture and inference; the Bahlmann correspondence corrects or reframes several long-standing assumptions about her upbringing and family life and even a few factual errors. Edith Newbold Jones was born into an aristocratic, wealthy New York family and raised to be a debutante; the standard story, first told by Wharton in A Backward Glance, is that the Jones familyalternated between indifference and outright hostility to her literary interests. Her mother, in particular, is the villain of the tale; Lucretia Jones is portrayed as a cold, unimaginative and rigidly conventional mother, who forbade the reading of novels and did her best to denyher daughter an education. Wharton’s portrait of the artist as a young woman suggests a heroic struggle in the tradition of the Künstlerroman, or artist’s novel – a tradition, it turns out, in which Bahlmann was carefully tutoring the young Edith Jones.

The German-speaking Bahlmann was initially hired as a language tutor but soon was instructing her 12-year-old charge in German literature. In their letters, they discuss novels freely, as Edith passes on affectionate messages from her mother urging Bahlmann to visit them at Newport over the summers – far from the aggressive philistinism of Wharton’s account. Together, Bahlmann and her charge translate not only Goethe (correcting Hermione Lee’s claim that Bahlmann thought Goethe not “suitable reading” for a young lady) and other German classics but also English, French and Italian literature; they discuss poetry, art, architecture and mythology. In a moment of wonderfully adolescent hubris, the 16-year-old Edith writes to her governess over the summer that she has finished reading Julius Caesar and doesn’t think much of it: “I cannot say that it left a very glowing impression on me. It was too much like my own earliest attempts at tragedy to move me in the least.”

The Bahlmann correspondence corrects three important biographical misapprehensions. First, the letters show that an engagement to a rich young man named Harry Stevens in August 1882 was not broken as early as biographers have thought; the gossip magazine Town Topics reported in October that “an alleged preponderance of intellectuality on the part of the intended bride” had caused the engagement to be broken off but in March 1883 Wharton writes to Bahlmann of the pretty pearl ring that “Mr Stevens” gave her as an Easter present.

The most important adjustments of our view of Wharton, however, are, as Goldman-Price notes, “numerous hints in the letters of a closer mother-daughter relationship than biographers have portrayed”– although she might have added that the daughter’s portrait of her mother was largely to blame. Edith often writes to her governess of her concerns over “Mama’s” health and spirits (her father died in 1882; this is not mentioned, but she would not have discussed such private matters with a servant, however fondly regarded) and many of the letters chattily describe what “we” have been doing. A later family dispute over her brother Frederic’s contumacious divorce and the questions about inheritance that it provoked, long thought to have been the final blow between mother and daughter, seems to have been the first blow, as well.

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