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

Edited by Irene Goldman-Price.

A collection of letters. Photo: Getty Images
My Dear Governess: the Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann
Edited by Irene Goldman-Price
Yale University Press, 288pp, £18.99

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.

The other major rebuke is to biographical speculation that Wharton might have suffered a “total nervous collapse” and another “neurasthenic incident” during her difficult marriage to the bipolar Teddy Wharton. The letters to Bahlmann explain both illnesses as recurrent “nervous dyspepsia” – Wharton writes of the various diets that have been prescribed, a doctor’s suggestion that it might be heart trouble and her frustration with her low energy. Nothing in the letters suggests that she was struggling with emotional or mental illness.

Wharton was an enthusiastic traveller throughout her life and many of the letters offer what she refers to as a “describe” to the governess who couldn’t always accompany her on grand tours of Europe. These certainly contain some longueurs but we also see glimpses of a young woman not much in evidence elsewhere: amusing and a bit arch. She reports to Bahlmann that a friend would like to hire the governess’s services: “I think that he deserves encouragement for wanting his daughter to be just like me, and I hope you will do your best to produce something approaching the intellectual chef-d’oeuvre now addressing you.”

Goldman-Price is a careful editor and has taken the time to interpolate mini-biographical sketches to contextualise the letters, so that readers need not be experts in Wharton’s biography to understand what is happening off the page. But occasionally she overemphasises Bahlmann’s significance. Wharton writes an early story about a poor widow; as she knows nothing of poverty (or widowhood), Goldman-Price speculates that perhaps “Wharton’s imagination was engaged by listening to Anna Bahlmann’s tales of the people she knew and visited”. Or perhaps not.

Even more unconvincing is speculation that Wharton might have written to Bahlmann of her passionate affair with Morton Fullerton. Noting that Wharton did not do so, Goldman-Price adds, “We do not know whether there were other letters, letters sufficiently compromising that Anna Bahlmann chose to destroy them.” Absence of evidence cannot be taken as proof that evidence was destroyed; it is hard to imagine anything more unlikely than that Wharton would have discussed her sex life with her servant. The letters to her former governess are, as one might expect, quite decorous and restrained; the rest of Wharton’s correspondence, however, shows a very different side of this remarkable woman that is in almost complete abeyance here.

This collection is a valuable addition for scholars and completists but it is just one facet; we must seek the jewel elsewhere and hope that another biographer will soon add this facet to it. These letters are important enough, however, that they will probably encourage someone to do just that.

Sarah Churchwell’s “Careless People: the Great Gatsby and the Undoing of F Scott Fitzgerald” will be published next year by Virago