— But you will be ready to say, what was your hope in doing this? — What did you look forward to? — To any thing, every thing — to time, chance, circumstances, slow effects, sudden bursts, perserverance and weariness ... Every possibility of good was before me, and the first of blessings secured ... — from Emma, by Jane Austen (1775-1817)
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October 24, 2012

My Dear Governess


{updated}
Pen craig
Sept. 11th [1878]

My dear Tonnie,
      I wrote you a long letter of eight pages about ten days ago and as it contained a question which I think you would have been likely to answer before this, I fear it may not have reached its destination. The question was, cannot you come this month to make us your yearly Autumn visit? -- & as the month is fast escaping into October, I hasten to repeat my demand at once. Mama and Papa are as anxious as I am to have you, & we all beg that you will come very soon & make us a much longer visit than that miserable little glimpse we got of you last Fall. Will you write at once & let us know when we may expect you? The sooner the better, as far as we are concerned but any time this month will suit us & you must consult your own convenience without hesitation.
      Newport offers its usual Autumn attractions which I think you know how to appreciate of old. The season, indeed is over & I am sorry you will not see the English men of war wh. departed yesterday after spending a gay fortnight in the harbour. But we are having splendid weather, & the rocks, the sea, the goldenrod & the stewed pears are here to welcome you as usual. ...
Ever yours, E.N.J.
Do you read other people's letters? I have always loved literary letters, and I've been thinking about what draws me to them. It's probablyfor  the same reasons that I love to read biographies.  It's the glimpses into the every day moments of an interesting life, even when those moments are very, very far from ordinary.  And maybe there's some nostalgia, too -- I wrote and received letters all through college, and until sometime after.  Now it's hard to think of the last time that I wrote or received one {other than a thank you note, maybe}. And there's a loss for reading, too --  it's sad to think that we won't have these records of a life anymore.

This new book -- My Dear Governess:  The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann, edited by Irene Goldman-Price -- isn't the broadest trove of letters, if only because it's a one-sided correspondence.  The letters written when E.W. was a young girl, then a teenager, are charming; many of the others seem to have the same warm, concerned, 'I-know-what's-best,-dear' tone to them. But that doesn't mean it wasn't a joy to be reading them, intensely sometimes, one or two at a time on other days.  Anna Bahlmann first met Edith Wharton when E.W. was twelve years old, when Bahlmann was hired to tutor her in German.  She became Wharton's "lifelong companion," working as her secretary, typing and suggesting edits for her manuscripts; living with the Whartons in New York, and Lenox, and Paris; and helping to manage Teddy Wharton's struggle with mental illness.  {She even appeared, looking uncharacteristically distant, in the September Vogue ..


...all wrong, the whole thing, because E.W. was in her early forties when she lived at the Mount, and Anna Bahlmann would have been in her mid-fifties -- but c'est la vie.}

Because the correspondence collected here is just Edith's half of the conversation, I think we only get a glimpse of who Anna Bahlmann was.  I think I can see why she might be depicted as self-effacing, always accommodating, always in the background.  It's unfortunate that we can't also hear her voice as well.

{update:  this is the photo of Anna Bahlnmann's mother -- not Anna Bahlman herself -- that I originally included at the top of this post, and that Jennie Fields kindly corrected me on in her comment - thank you!  You can see the photo of Anna Bahlmann that Jennie mentions, and read more about these women, on her web site.}


2 comments:

Jennie said...

You may be interested to discover that this photo of Anna is actually a photo of her mother, according to Anna's great grandniece. The real Anna was softer and much prettier, a blond with pale eyes. There is only one photo of her as a young woman in Cuba, taken with the family who hired her as a governess for their daughter. It also resides at the Beinecke Library.

Irene said...

So glad you enjoyed the letters! I write to correct my dear friend Jennie just a bit--the photo is of Lydia Abbot Bahlmann, Anna Bahlmann's sister-in-law, the wife of her brother William. She and Anna corresponded regularly. Many more of Wharton's letters to other people can be found in The Letters of Edith Wharton, edited by RWB and Nancy Lewis. Happy reading!

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