My Dear Governess

The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann

by Edith Wharton and Irene C. Goldman-Price

My Dear Governess

Hardcover, 296 pages, Yale University Press, List Price: $30 | purchase

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NPR Summary

The letters Edith Wharton wrote to her governess, then companion, of 40 years illuminate her life as a debutante, disappointed wife and determined writer.

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My Dear Governess is a surprising literary discovery that charts a life through letters. In 2009, the letters of Anna Bahlmann came up for auction: Bahlmann was an orphaned daughter of German immigrants who served first as governess and, then, companion to Edith Wharton for more than 40 years. One hundred and thirty five letters from Wharton turned out to be in Bahlmann's possession and they flesh out our vision of Wharton's life as a debutante, disappointed wife and determined

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Excerpt: My Dear Governess

Preface

The arrival at auction in 2009 of the personal papers of Anna Catherine Bahlmann (1849–1916) caused a stir in the literary community because Anna Bahlmann had been a lifelong companion to the American writer Edith Wharton. First in the capacity of tutor in the German language, then as governess and chaperone, as companion, and finally as personal secretary, Anna Bahlmann served Edith Wharton for more than forty years, and she was in a position to know her as well as any of Wharton's more noted friends did, perhaps better.

Wharton scholars were unaware of the existence of this correspondence. The letters and records have remained in the custody of the Bahlmann family, passing at Anna Bahlmann's death to her niece, Anna Louise Bahlmann Parker, in whose home she died, then on down until they came into the possession of Anna's second great grandniece, a teacher herself, who took great care to preserve all of the documents in the order in which the letters had been kept by Anna Bahlmann.

The most important contents of the archive, acquired by the Beinecke Library at Yale University, which already owned sixty- seven boxes of Edith Wharton's records, are 135 autograph letters from Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann, spanning the years 1874 until Bahlmann's death in 1916. Of these letters, some forty were written before 1893, a period for which we have had until now only three letters; many more were written during the 1890s, when we have had little primary documentation of Edith Wharton's life. The early letters offer an unprecedented view of young Edith Jones's emotional and intellectual development as well as her family life; they demonstrate her growing vocation as a woman of letters practicing in virtually every genre, and they suggest a close intellectual and personal relationship with her governess. Later letters include many travel descriptions, conversation about Wharton's reading and her study of paintings and architecture, and news of family and household. There is much to be learned about Edith Wharton that might alter and enhance our understanding of her. Included in this collection are all but one of the letters — a brief note inviting Bahlmann to lunch — and several postcards.

Edith Wharton is not the only object of interest in this archive. Letters and postcards from Anna Bahlmann to her family, letters to her from other former pupils, photographs she cherished, lecture notes from courses she gave, and careful expense records create a detailed portrait of an American governess, someone who spent her life among — if never as a part of — the wealthiest and most socially prominent families in America during the late nineteenth century into the twentieth. In the course of introducing the Wharton letters, I have also sketched Anna Bahlmann's life, her occupations and preoccupations, the many ways she made herself useful to the families she served and yet maintained a life of her own.

My primary goal in publishing this collection of letters was to make available to subsequent scholars an accurate transcription of the Wharton correspondence, along with thorough annotations to the many books, works of art, and people mentioned in the letters. I also wanted to reveal the life of this hitherto obscure governess and companion and to tell the story of her service to Edith Wharton.

Excerpted from My Dear Governess: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann by Irene C. Goldman-Price. Copyright 2012 by Irene C. Goldman-Price. Excerpted by permission of Yale University Press.

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