- Re-Thinking the Governess
Letters function as a central trope in Edith Wharton’s fiction. Often a plot hinges on a carefully worded note: to whit, Charity’s letter of release to Harney in Summer (1917), May’s fate-sealing telegram to Archer in The Age of Innocence (1920), Alida’s forged love note in “Roman Fever” (1934). A number of Wharton texts ask what is to be done with a stash of private letters. In a prophetic moment in Wharton’s novel The Touchstone (1900), whose plot hinges on whether or not to publish a late novelist’s letters, one character argues against publication, noting that the missives translate to the author’s “whole self laid bare;…it’s too much like listening at a keyhole.” Another insists that one relinquishes privacy in becoming a household name: “It’s the penalty of greatness—one becomes a monument historique.” Because she so fiercely guarded her privacy, Wharton expressly asked that the letters she penned be destroyed. And yet as her own penalty for greatness, Wharton became the very kind of “monument historique” to which her fictional counterpart is compared. Given this, our grasp of Wharton has been meaningfully transformed with the arrival of My Dear Governess: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann (2012). The private papers of Anna Bahlmann—heretofore known as the “dear governess” briefly mentioned in Wharton’s memoir A Backward Glance (1934)—came up for auction in 2009 and were purchased by Yale University. The archive includes four decades of letters from Wharton to Bahlmann, the woman who served as Edith’s German tutor, governess, literary secretary, confidante, and lifelong companion. These 134 letters, which have been transcribed, introduced, and annotated by Irene Goldman-Price, provide an enormous service to readers interested in Wharton’s life and work. The letters range from 1874 (when Bahlmann was 25 and Wharton 12) to 1916 (Bahlmann was 67, Wharton 54). From cover to cover, the book is a pleasure for those interested in literature, visual art, travel, dogs, female friendship, and life as it was lived from the Gilded Age through the Great War. For scholars of Wharton, this is a must-read, as the letters reveal a new—in many cases tender, affectionate, vulnerable, hopeful—side of Wharton and challenge previously held conceptions of the writer and her biography. The letters also fill an important gap, as until now readers had at their disposal only three from Wharton’s childhood and early adulthood.
Taken as a whole, the volume makes a strong case for Anna Bahlmann as an enormously important influence in Wharton’s life. It is abundantly clear that Wharton highly prized Bahlmann’s opinion and that the two shared an “intellectual sympathy” (Wharton’s phrase). For instance, young Edith writes: “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….” Edith so clearly relies on the view of her beloved “Tonni” (from the German for “aunt”) that one is reminded of the letters exchanged between Emily Dickinson and her sister-in-law and confidante Susan Dickinson. Elsewhere, the young Edith confesses: “You are my Supreme critic in these matters & I look upon your verdict with infinite faith & respect.” Edith trusted Bahlmann to respond to her translations of Goethe with “frank criticism, which is so much more of a compliment to me than the polite, unmeaning, ‘Oh, it’s lovely,’ which I so often get when I beg for an honest opinion.”
The letters to Bahlmann compel us to revise a number of assumptions about Wharton. For instance, Wharton shows herself to be a hopeful, devoted daughter to Lucretia Jones, which corrects the long-held notion that the mother-daughter relationship was strained from the start. In fact, it becomes clear that the disconnect resulted from the adultery of Wharton’s oldest brother and the mother’s insistence on siding with him rather than his former wife and daughter, who had...