Irene Goldman-Price’s wide knowledge of Edith Wharton’s life is evident in her book “My Dear Governess.”
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.