The Age of Innocence - Early letters from Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton, in her 1934 autobiography, “A Backward Glance,” made ironical sport of the fact that, as a child, she was forbidden to read novels. By then in her seventies and the author of twenty-five works of fiction, she wrote that her mother, Lucretia Jones—a society hostess who, in Wharton’s telling, was indifferent to the life of the mind—decreed “that I should never read a novel without asking her permission. . . . In order to save further trouble she almost always refused to let me read it.”

One novel that Wharton did read, however, was “Daniel Deronda,” by George Eliot. It is not recorded whether Lucretia sanctioned this tale, which centers on the ill-advised marriage between the sadistic Henleigh Grandcourt and the impoverished Gwendolen Harleth, and the unrequited love of Gwendolen for the intellectual, questing Daniel Deronda; but, one way or another, Wharton obtained a copy in September, 1876, the year of its publication, and delivered a witty critique of Eliot’s work. “The story is nothing, & I do not care for the style,” Wharton wrote, after almost completing the first volume. “But the thoughts with which it overflows are wonderfully clever—& I don’t think as ill of the hero as most people do. To be sure, he is a parcel of theories, loosely tied up, a puppet so badly stuffed that the sawdust shows—but the contents of the parcel & the doll—the theories, or sawdust—are good.” She declared Gwendolen “interesting,” but dismissed Mirah Lapidoth, the young Jewish woman whom Daniel Deronda ultimately marries. “I don’t care for your pieces of faultlessness, like the good girls of such extravagant saintliness in Sunday school books,” she wrote. “Mirah is of that type—like diluted rose-water.”

Wharton—or Edith Newbold Jones, as she was then known—was fourteen when she wrote these words; her correspondent was Anna Bahlmann, a governess who was hired in 1874, when Edith was twelve, to teach her German, and who remained in her family’s service for much of the next forty years. Between 1874 and 1915, the year before Bahlmann’s death, Wharton wrote her more than a hundred and thirty letters; after Bahlmann died, most likely of cancer, the letters came into the possession of Bahlmann’s closest relative, a niece who lived in Kansas City. Wharton, who was vigilant about her legacy, requested that the letters be destroyed; but Bahlmann’s niece kept them. For more than fifty years, they languished in an attic; for the past four decades, they have been stored in a safe-deposit box, unseen by scholars. (Their owner, Bahlmann’s great-grandniece, who is now in her seventies, had once thought of writing a book about her ancestor and Wharton, but never did.) On June 24th, the letters come up for auction, at Christie’s.

Wharton was a tireless correspondent—her archive at the Beinecke Library, at Yale, consists of twenty boxes of correspondence. But, of all these letters, only one has been discovered that was written before she married, in 1885. By contrast, about twenty of the letters written to Anna Bahlmann date from the coming-of-age of “the naughty girl, Miss Pussy,” as Wharton calls herself in one of them. To Bahlmann, who was thirteen years her senior, Wharton writes of books she is reading, and poems and stories she is writing and translating. She mentions suitors she is entertaining, and talks about the diversions of Newport, Rhode Island, and New York City, where the Jones family had residences. Her voice is by turns playful, sardonic, ardent, and self-deprecating; the narrative self-assurance and linguistic deftness of the novelist she became is already palpable. At fourteen, she writes, “I feel really beatific tonight, having received a letter from Brooklyn, practised violently one of Beethoven’s waltzes (a species of funereal hymn), made two rosettes for a new pair of slippers and generally behaved myself—a sensation having still the charm of novelty.”

Edith Wharton, who was born in 1862, is said to have been delighted in her maturity by a friend’s observation that she, like her contemporary Theodore Roosevelt, was a “self-made man”; but the deprivations of Pussy Jones were cultural rather than economic. “My childhood & youth were an intellectual desert,” she wrote when she was in her sixties. She was born at the family home, 14 West Twenty-third Street, just off Madison Square Park. In “A Little Girl’s New York,” an addendum to “A Backward Glance,” Wharton wrote, “I have often sighed, in looking back at my childhood, to think how pitiful a provision was made for the life of the imagination behind those uniform brownstone façades.” She loved Pencraig, the family’s Newport estate, which had a veranda scented with honeysuckle and a private beach. But life there was hardly more stimulating, particularly since Wharton, who had almost died of typhoid at the age of nine and was weakened by the illness, was forbidden exposure to “anything that required a mental effort.”

The Joneses were of irreproachable pedigree. Wharton’s father, George Frederic Jones, was not among the spectacularly wealthy of the era—the family lived in Europe for six years when Wharton was a small girl, Italy and France being more affordable than New York and Newport—but he was sufficiently provided for by inherited real estate that he did not need to work. Her mother was descended from a good old New York family. In her maturity, Wharton cursed the comfortable blandness of her childhood—“stodging in New York” is how she once described her adolescence—and cast her youthful self as a misfit with an overactive imagination: “like some pale predestined child who disappears at night to dance with ‘the little people.’ ” Her father had forsaken a youthful fond-ness for poetry for books of facts (“Arctic explorations especially absorbed him,” Wharton wrote in her autobiography, with damning brevity), while her mother—whose main diversion was apparently the acquisition of fine clothing—was even less sympathetic to literature. At the age of eleven, Wharton reports, she made her maiden attempt at a novel of manners, which began with one character saying to another, “Oh, how do you do, Mrs. Brown? . . . If only I had known you were going to call I should have tidied up the drawing-room.” Lucretia’s devastating critique: “Drawing-rooms are always tidy.”

The adult Wharton depicted herself as having been alone in her youthful literary preoccupations. “I never exchanged a word with a really intelligent human being until I was over twenty,” she once wrote. In “A Backward Glance,” Anna Bahlmann is given a sideways glance, described in passing as “my beloved German teacher, who saw which way my fancy turned, and fed it with all the wealth of German literature, from the Minnesingers to Heine.” Wharton was even more grudging in “Life and I,” an autobiographical fragment written in the nineteen-twenties, saying of Bahlmann that “my good little governess was cultivated & conscientious, but she never struck a spark from me, she never threw a new light on any subject.” But the letters to Bahlmann reveal that the good little governess was a significant mentor, and a greater intellectual companion than Wharton, in her retrospective self-fashioning, cared to remember. (The letters were written when Bahlmann—who also worked for the Joneses’ Newport neighbors and other well-born families—was obliged to travel for work, or when she and Wharton were otherwise separated.) The letters show that Edith seized upon Bahlmann as firmly as the captain of a sailboat in Newport Bay grasps the tiller on a windy day. “You are my Supreme critic . . . & I look upon your verdict with infinite faith & respect,” she wrote in a letter of 1878. The strength of this attachment may speak as much to her hunger for an intellectual companion as it does to Bahlmann’s own cleverness; unfortunately, the governess’s letters, from which her measure might be taken, do not survive. But a letter from 1880 indicates that Edith believed herself to have found with Bahlmann the kind of friendship “which makes itself felt less by personal intercourse, than by those shocks of intellectual sympathy which seem to bridge over silence and space and make two minds as one.”

To Bahlmann Edith conveyed her opinions of the poems she was reading, such as Longfellow’s “The Mask of Pandora,” which she admired, but with reservations. “His poetry always reminds me of a chilly sculpture, it is so lifeless,” she wrote. “His characters want vigour. They are passionless & collected as if they were walking in a trance.” Under Bahlmann’s tutelage, Edith translated Goethe’s poetry, working on a version of “Mignon.” (She continued to quote the work into her old age.) In 1876, she wrote to Bahlmann, “I have been more than rewarded by your frank criticism, which is so much more of compliment to me than the polite, unmeaning, ‘Oh it’s lovely,’ which I so often get when I beg for an honest opinion.” She sent Bahlmann her own poems, too. “I don’t know whether they are very bad or quite good,” she wrote, after sending her a package of verses. “I think they will admit of both constructions, so you may choose.” In her autobiography, Wharton said that her poems—“which I poured out with a lamentable facility”—were often written on sheets of brown paper that previously had been wrapped around deliveries to the Joneses’ household, the provision of foolscap being inadequate to her demands. But her poetic efforts were not, she acknowledged, entirely ignored by her parents: her mother had a selection of her compositions privately published, under the title “Verses,” when she was sixteen.

Although as a grown woman Wharton emphasized the effect of her parents’ selective neglect upon her literary development, in the Bahlmann letters she seems, in the manner of adolescents everywhere, oblivious of George and Lucretia Jones except as occasionally useful facilitators. Her father performs the drudgery of copying out her translations (“Rewriting my eloquent effusions is horrible to me”), and her mother performs necessary managerial functions. “About such prosaic things as business matters”—presumably, the latest terms of Bahlmann’s employment—“what can the immortal translator of Goethe have to say?” the fourteen-year-old Edith declares, with a grandeur that seems only in part self-mocking. “I leave that to Mama, who is going to write you on rational subjects.”

When Wharton, in her autobiography, tells the story of her first, abortive attempt to write a novel, she suggests that her mother’s dismissive remarks sent her storytelling self scurrying into a hole for almost thirty years. In fact, at the age of fourteen she did complete a novel of manners, entitled “Fast and Loose.” (It went unpublished until 1977.) Concerning the exploits of the enticing Georgie Rivers, who spurns her devoted but penniless lover for marriage with a rich, elderly lord, “Fast and Loose,” which she wrote under the pen name David Olivieri, is surprisingly funny. (After dispatching a three-line note accepting the lord’s marriage proposal, Georgie reflects that it is “like answering a dinner-invitation . . . but I can’t make it longer. I don’t know what to say!”) In a particularly sophisticated turn, Edith wrote several deflationary “reviews” of the work. One, supposedly from The Nation, declares that Olivieri is “very like a sick-sentimental school-girl.”

Having tried to figure out for herself how fiction works—and having understood her own failures—Edith was able to dissect the novels she read with remarkable insight. Of “Consuelo,” by George Sand, she wrote to Bahlmann, “I have given up in despair. All the clap-trap and fol-de-rol and mysticism were too much for me. . . . As if there wasn’t beauty and mystery and charm enough in real life without going over to the supernatural for your great effects. It must be the vulgarest kind of mind which has to resort to blue lights and tinsel and pantomime to produce any impression.” At sixteen, discussing George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” she wrote, “I always have a secret faiblesse for Rosamond which I suppose denotes a sympathetic flaw in my own moral structure.” She went on:
As for Dorothea, what most jars upon me is her want of artistic feeling,—a wonderful touch of character drawing, but so well drawn, that it continually provokes me. . . . Will Ladislaw is charming, but somehow although a great deal is said of the passion between him & Dorothea one fails all through to feel its power. When it was so dangerous to love at all, they might have loved a little more! A continual desire on my part to throttle Mr. Brooke, Mrs. Cadwallader & Cecilia & Sir James only shows how wonderfully life-like they all are.
The critique is as smart, and considerably fairer, than the one she gave in a 1902 review of an Eliot biography: “Her plots are as easily detachable from her books as dead branches from a living tree.”

Wharton received no formal schooling, and always said that she owed what education she had to her father’s library, which ranged from Ruskin’s “Modern Painters” to the German myths of Das Nibelungenlied. In “A Backward Glance,” she portrayed herself as a highbrow naïf: “A little girl . . . to whom the Old Testament, the Apocalypse and the Elizabethan dramatists were open, could not long pine for Whyte Melville or even Rhoda Broughton.” But her letters to Bahlmann reveal that she did not spend all her time devouring Middle High German. In 1878, she was enjoying “the most bewitching book”: “Around the World in the Yacht ‘Sunbeam,’ ” a best-selling travelogue, by Anna Brassey. And in 1878 she read the correspondence not just of Goethe and Schiller—a treasured gift from Bahlmann—but also of Mary Russell Mitford, a popular writer. “Literary merit there is none in her letters, beyond a good plain style, & social & historical interest is lacking as well, for she ‘twaddles,’ as you call it, of mere nobodies,” Pussy Jones wrote to her governess, in a tone that is familiar to readers of Wharton’s novels. “One only wishes that she & her correspondence had remained as obscure as her friends!” The Joneses hired Bahlmann, who was the American-born child of German immigrants, after returning from their European sojourn. (An undated photograph of Bahlmann that is included in the Christie’s archive reveals her to be a severe-looking woman, with a gaunt face and unadorned hair.) Those years abroad left the young Edith with vivid memories of Italy, France, and Spain, and an enduring dissatisfaction with life on this side of the Atlantic. The pursuits of her class of Americans, which served as the material for her novels, are glimpsed in her letters. In August, 1876, writing from Pencraig, she reported that she had been invited to join an archery club, and told Bahlmann of the latest craze, lawn tennis, which she called “difficult, tiresome, & destructive to pretty dresses & to the complexion, but nevertheless delightful.” “The Age of Innocence,” published forty-five years later, is set in the eighteen-seventies; the narrator notes that lawn tennis is “still considered too rough and inelegant for social occasions, and as an opportunity to show off pretty dresses and graceful attitudes the bow and arrow held their own.”

The letters also mention urban diversions. In 1880, Edith gives Bahlmann an account of attending the opera at the Academy of Music, in Manhattan. “I heard Faust sung on Friday night—at the Academy, and somehow you got mixed with the lyric rapture, and you were with me hearing it, and drinking your fill of those ‘Divine Ideas below / That always find us young / And always keep us so,’ ” she writes, quoting Emerson. By the time Wharton describes Newland Archer attending a production of “Faust” at the Academy, in “The Age of Innocence,” her perspective is considerably more ironic: “It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.” (In 1883, while staying for a time in Cannes, Wharton met Gounod, the composer of “Faust,” who performed a musicale at the home of the Duchesse de Luynes, a well-known salonnière. “What a treat!” she wrote to Bahlmann. “Such a handsome old man with a white beard & excited gestures & wild eyes. He is just out of an Insane Asylum & looks as if he might go back any day.”)

In 1880, the Jones family once again repaired to Europe, on the recommendation of the doctors of George Frederic Jones, who was suffering from nervous exhaustion. Her father’s ill health seems barely to have registered with Edith, who was eager to return to the Continent, and urged Bahlmann to accompany them: “How I am waiting for your letter to come saying, yes I will go with you, Herz—Remember, dear Tonni, your promise to come whenever we called you.” (She often addressed Bahlmann with this nickname, and signed herself Herz—German for “heart.”) When Bahlmann agreed to go, Wharton giddily quoted from “Mignon”: “We shall be standing together on the deck of the Britannic a month from today—Doesn’t it seem strange? Dahin! Dahin!”

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