In 2009 the personal papers of Anna Catherine Bahlmann came up for auction. Included in those were 135 letters from Edith Wharton to Bahlmann, who was 13 years older than Wharton and her governess, chaperone, companion, and secretary for 40 years. Yet until now Bahlmann has never been given public credit for her crucial role in Wharton’s life. In fact, Wharton mentioned Bahlmann only four times in her memoir, “A Backward Glance,” referring to her once as “My Dear Governess,” the title of this collection of letters, edited and annotated, superbly, by Irene Goldman-Price.
Though privileged, Wharton had a hard emotional life: Her father died when she was 18, she was a disappointment to her mother, she was jilted by her first fiance, and her marriage to Teddy Wharton grew — with his increasing mental illness — into a prison. Yet we know she had one passionate love affair, and although it did not end well, it is proof that she was more than the cool persona she showed to the world.
Much has been made of Edith’s youthful awkwardness, but the early letters addressed to Tonni (a play on the German Tante) have a wonderful freshness, as we see an eager, confident Edith revealing an abundance of literary and personal details. Here she is at 15: “I feel really beatific tonight [. . .] practiced violently one of Beethoven’s waltzes [. . .] made two rosettes for a new pair of slippers and generally behaved myself — a sensation still having the charm of novelty [. . .] As for me, I must [. . .] ask you if you have yet read Daniel Deronda [. . .] The story is nothing, & I do not care for the style, but the thoughts with which it overflows are wonderfully clever.”
The range of Edith’s reading is amazing, thanks to Bahlmann, who was a rigorous teacher. Together they read German literature and mythology in the original, and also in translation, Norse, Greek, and Roman mythology, and Arthurian legend, as well as English and American literature. Indeed, Edith’s intellectual curiosity, the very thing that made her such an outsider in the aristocratic world into which she was born, was largely fostered by Bahlmann.
Most volumes of letters, however good, need ballast, and Goldman-Price’s wide knowledge of Wharton’s life is revealed in her nuanced, trenchant narrative. Furthermore, one of the most fascinating aspects of “My Dear Governess” is that although there are no letters from Bahlmann, she comes alive because Goldman-Price has clearly read through the archive and selected salient details. Here she quotes Percy Lubbock — “she was very small and unobtrusive, [. . .] with a droll little humour behind her spectacles, a wild little bravery behind her gentility.” Indeed, as I read, I realized that Bahlmann may have been the source of Wharton’s uncanny knowledge of need, financial misery, and longing, perhaps best expressed in “House of Mirth.”
As she matured and became famous Wharton regarded Bahlmann more as a beloved employee than soul mate of her youth; she never shared her sorrow about Teddy or her crushing disappointment after her affair with Morton Fullerton, and her letters become more travelogues, reports on her health, complete with her efforts to keep fit by walking and bicycling. It is all interesting, a terrific addition to Wharton scholarship and also hard evidence of the truth that, as Goldman-Price notes, “The romantic notion that Edith Wharton was a solitary autodidact is one of her most successful fictions.”