Magazine article The Spectator

'Dearest Tonni . . .'

Magazine article The Spectator

'Dearest Tonni . . .'

Article excerpt

My Dear Governess: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann edited by Irene Goldman-Price Yale, £18.99, pp. 296, ISBN 9780300169898

'I have finished Julius Caesar since I last wrote & 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.' So wrote the 16-year-old Edith Wharton in 1878 to Anna Bahlmann, her governess and literary confidante. Wharton's letters to Bahlmann only came to light in 2009. Edited and carefully annotated by Irene Goldman-Price, they chart Wharton's progress from precocious adolescent, to brilliant New York socialite, to sophisticated queen of European literary society, to tireless charity worker, divorced, estranged from her family, struggling to ease the plight of refugees in a Paris torn apart by the first world war.

Anna Bahlmann, a dumpy, penniless German spinster, was the perfect governess for the young prodigy. The early letters show how skilfully Bahlmann fed her pupil's literary appetite, introducing her to Norse, Greek, Roman, Arthurian and Germanic mythologies, discussing poets from Tasso to Browning to Longfellow, teaching her German and Italian and introducing her to contemporary debates about music, art and architecture as well as literature.

She was a sympathetic critic of Wharton's own early efforts. Edith's first novel, The Touchstone, was not published until 1900, but from her teens she submitted poems to literary magazines, usually offering them to her governess for approval before she did so. Bahlmann provided emotional support as well as intellectual nourishment; the early letters are intimate and affectionate.

In her autobiographical writings, however, Wharton's 'Dearest Tonni' - the pet name derived from tante, both German and French for aunt - is all but written out of the script. Wharton chooses to portray herself as self-taught: 'How I learned, no one ever knew.' Irene Goldman-Price suggests that Wharton wished to 'present herself as a literary orphan, a solitary child with a head full of stories and no one from whom to learn or with whom to share her thoughts.' The novelist, it seems, was more interested in turning herself into a semi-fictional character than in giving credit where credit was due. …

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