Edith Wharton Predicts Her Future
A trove of 136 Edith Wharton letters—some written when Wharton was just fourteen years old—sold at Christie’s yesterday to an American educational institution for $182,500. It’s a tremendous treat for Wharton aficionados, because prior to this discovery—as Rebecca Mead points out in her essay this week—there was only one known letter by Wharton from before she was married, at the age of twenty-three, in 1885.
Mead explains that Wharton asked Anna Bahlmann, her governess and the recipient of the letters, to destroy them. But she didn’t, and Bahlmann’s niece, who inherited them, held on to them, too. They sat for some fifty years in an attic and for another forty in a safe-deposit box. The Christie’s auction is the first time the letters have been publicly shared.
A friend of mine pointed out that Edith Wharton’s first novella, published in 1900, is eerily apt. “The Touchstone” tells the story of a betrayal committed by an impoverished lawyer named Stephen Glennard, who is hoping to marry his beautiful and equally impoverished fiancée. By chance, Glennard discovers that he can sell the love letters written to him earlier by the famous late writer Margaret Aubyn. They sell for a hefty price, allowing Glennard and his fiancée to wed. But Glennard is preoccupied with the guilt over the sale, and feels incapable of overcoming his sense of shame and betrayal to Aubyn.