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While Edith Wharton had the good fortune to be born into a family of privilege, her native intelligence was another lucky card she drew from the pile that is a person’s intended lot in life. Rebecca Mead’s article about Wharton’s letters to her German governess, Anna Bahlmann, appeared in the June 29th issue of The New Yorker. After you read the article, you have to ask yourself how Wharton’s gifts could be unnoticed by her family and social class. Well, quite easily it seems. Later in her life she wrote, “I have often sighed, in looking back at my childhood, to think how pitiful a provision was made for the life of the imagination behind those uniform brownstone facades.”

At the age of fourteen, she wrote this to Bahlmann regarding Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, a book she read by sneaking it past her fiction-disapproving mother:

“But the thoughts with which it overflows are wonderfully clever—& I don’t think as ill of the hero as most people do. To be sure, he is a parcel of theories, loosely tied up, a puppet so badly stuffed that the sawdust shows—but the contents of the parcel & the doll—the theories, or sawdust—are good.” She goes on to dismiss the character of Mirah Lapidoth, the woman Daniel Deronda eventually marries. “I don’t care for your pieces of faultlessness, like the good girls of such extravagant saintliness in Sunday school books. Mirah is of that type–like diluted rose-water.”

Clearly this young woman was not Cotillion material. Edith was an early stand out in her tribe just as Florence Nightingale was in hers. She had no formal schooling and said what education she had came by way of her father’s library. When her engagement to one Mr. Stevens ended, a gossip sheet at the time wrote, “the only reason for the breaking of the engagement…is an alleged preponderance of intellectuality on the part of the intended bride.” Inexcusable, clearly.

And yet Edith Newbold Jones does give the old college try to meeting the demands and norms of her social class. It isn’t until later that her genius voice comes to through, after she has engaged in the expected ritual of mating, matrimony and subsequent marital disappointment.

Mead’s article is another of those long word feasts that writers in The New Yorker get to do, rich in detail and depth. Although I haven’t read a Wharton novel for years and have never been moved to read her autobiographical work, I’m freshly engaged once again. These letters are fascinating for a number of reasons but most particularly because they escaped Wharton’s redacting control. She had asked for them back while she was alive but was unable to obtain them. Now that they have surfaced (and were recently sold at Christie’s for $182,000) we can read the youthful words that escaped a legacy-conscious older writer. And what we get to view is a young woman who was preternaturally gifted, extraordinarily witty, and destined for greatness.

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