"My Dear Governess": Letters from Edith Wharton to local author's aunt basis of new books

Monday, September 24, 2012
Letters that Laura Schoffner of Beaver Lake found in her family home provided source material for two books published this summer: "My Dear Governess: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann," who was Schoffner's great-great aunt, and "The Age of Desire," a novelized account of Wharton's love affair with a journalist.

BEAVER LAKE -- In 1972, Laura Shoffner went to Kansas City to help close the family home, which was being sold. A published author, Shoffner was interested in saving any records related to family history. When a brown folder, "Letters from E.W." surfaced among the papers and photos, Shoffner had an idea who E.W. was.

"Because I had heard my grandmother speak about Edith Wharton, and as an English major, had studied Edith Wharton in college, I thought that's who they were from," Shoffner said. "And sure enough, they were."

Inside the folder were 126 letters written by Wharton, starting when she was 12 years old, to Shoffner's great-grandfather's sister, known in the family as Aunt Anna. Now in Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book Room and Manuscript Library, the letters have served as source material for a historical novel published in June, and in August, as a collection under the title "My Dear Governess." The subtitle: The Letters of Edith Wharton to Anna Bahlmann," who started as tutor and governess to a young girl named Edith Jones and ended up as literary assistant to America's premier woman author.

"Edith Wharton wrote her novels in bed in the morning, then would shove the pages under the door," Shoffner said. "Aunt Anna would pick them up and go type them."

The letters to Bahlmann, which cover more 42 years, start in 1874, when Edith wrote to extend her mother's invitation to visit the family's summer home in Newport, Rhode Island. Edith's parents originally hired Bahlmann, who was living in New York City, to tutor their daughter in German. Bahlmann added German folk tales to Edith's curriculum, Shoffner said. In her early letters, teenage Edith writes letters discussing literature and poetry with Bahlmann, who became her governess, revealing a precocious talent for literary criticism. The early letters are particularly valuable, Shoffner said.

"Wharton was a copious correspondent, and thought nothing of dashing off 30 letters a day," Shoffner said "But hardly any, maybe three, exist that cover 1874 to 1900. Forty of mine do out of the 126."

The letters to Bahlmann continue after Wharton married in 1885 and started writing articles about architecture, gardening, and travel. Some letters vividly describe places she visited, including Venice in the late 1890s. Bahlmann was part of the household off and on between 1900 and 1916, Shoffner said.

"Aunt Anna was a rung above a servant, but there was that distance between her and Wharton, the grande dame of society and letters," Shoffner said. "She wasn't part of that society."

Shoffner, who has lived at Beaver Lake for 20 years, transcribed Wharton's letters to Bahlmann, keeping them in order because most were only dated by day and month. She planned to publish them or write a novel based on them, she said, but came to realize she didn't have the resources. Three years ago, she put them up for auction at Christie's along with related items, including a three-page letter that Henry James wrote to Aunt Anna, offering advice on places to visit in England. Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book Room and Manuscript Library, which holds Wharton's manuscripts, was the winning bidder.

"It was my first choice," Shoffner said. "I knew how much else was there."

After the auction, Shoffner received a call from Jennie Fields, asking to use the letters as source material for an historical novel about a love affair Wharton had with a journalist and how it affected Wharton's relationship with Bahlmann, who disapproved. Shoffner also got a call from Irene Goldman-Price, a retired literature professor who wanted to edit the letters for publication. A two-year friendship between Shoffner and the authors via telephone and internet developed. This week, Shoffner is in Nashville to meet Fields and Goldman-Price in person and attend their Sept. 20 presentation on "The Age of Desire" and "My Dear Governess" at the Nashville Public Library.

The last letter in the collection is a condolence letter Wharton wrote to Bahlmann's niece, Shoffner's grandmother, in 1916. Bahlman had been living in Paris, Wharton's base during World War I, when she was diagnosed with cancer. Returning to Kansas City, Bahlmann died at the family home at the age of 63. In her letter of condolence, Wharton offers to pay for a headstone and any expenses incurred during Bahlmann's illness.

"I shall never have a friend like her, so devoted, so unselfish, so upright, so sensitive and fine in every thought and feeling," Wharton wrote.

Shoffner, who remembers her grandmother talking about "Miss Edith," doesn't have a good photo of Aunt Anna, just one in a group and her passport photo, both now in the Yale library. But the family documents included a handwriting analysis that Bahlman had done, describing her as loyal and very bright. Where she was educated is a family mystery, however -- orphaned at age 2, Anna was sent to live with an aunt, but nobody knows where she was until she pops up again at age 26.

"It's presumed she spent part of the time in Germany, where some of the family still lived, " Shoffner said.

Shoffner, who is the author of 15 published romance novels, said she is glad authors who are not family members wrote the books, as they add credibility to the contribution Aunt Anna made to Wharton's education. Along with the books, there's a gravestone in the Warrensburg, Missouri, cemetery that reads: "Anna Bahlmann. Born March 5, 1849. Died April 15, 1916. In loving remembrance of her Goodness, her Patience and her Courage. This stone is placed here by her friend and pupil, Edith Wharton."

Born in 1862, Edith Jones Wharton was the only daughter of wealthy parents -- the saying "Keeping up with the Joneses" probably refers to her father's family. She wrote more than 85 short stories and several novels, including "The Age of Innocence," which received the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for literature, making Wharton the first woman to receive the award.

Wharton was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for her relief work in France during World War I, during which she also wrote articles from the front. She died in 1937 at her home northwest of Paris, and is buried in the American Cemetery in Versailles, leaving a literary legacy of life in the Gilded Age.

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  • Absolutely "lovely" story. Our area never ceases to divulge wonderful historical secrets. How blessed are we?

    -- Posted by penny sullivan on Thu, Sep 27, 2012, at 11:33 AM
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