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Writing a novel about real people has an unexpected benefit: the characters may have living, breathing relatives you can actually meet. Anna Bahlmann — Edith Wharton’s governess, then secretary — was one of the two main characters in my novel, “The Age of Desire”. This week, I had the great pleasure of hosting her great grandniece, Laura Shoffner. Laura is the woman who discovered over 100 letters from Edith to Anna and brought them to Christies for auction in 2009.
I was happily one of the first people allowed to read those letters, and they changed the course of my book. Not only did they support my belief that the two women were close; they also demonstrated something I didn’t know: the tremendous impact Anna had on Edith’s cultural and literary growth as a child.
This week, Laura and her husband Larry drove from Arkansas to Nashville to attend the Nashville Public Library’s event featuring both my good friend, noted Edith Wharton scholar, Irene Goldman-Price and myself. What a vibrant, delightful person Laura is! Like her great aunt Anna, Laura loves books and ideas. A beloved high school English teacher for a good part of her life, she retired early to pen romance novels and has published fifteen!
According to Laura, her grandmother, Anna Louise Bahlmann Parker (yes, she was a character in the book too!) was a bit of a packrat. Living for her last years with Laura’s family, her room was stuffed to the rafters with mementos, memorabilia and family furniture. After Laura’s parents died in 1979, Laura found two brown envelopes among her grandmother’s effects with the words “Letters from EW” penned on the outside. For years, Laura had heard that Great Aunt Anna was a secretary to “the famous Mrs. Wharton,” and realized she had something special in her hands.
For a long time, she thought that she, herself, might write a book about the letters and began to type up the contents. By 2009, she realized she’d never have the time to do it justice and wanting to find someone who could, handed it all over to Christie’s for auction.
Now Laura feels it was meant to be. Two books were published this year based on those important letters: Irene’s book “My Dear Governess,” an annotation of Edith’s letters to Anna, and “The Age of Desire”. More importantly, Laura’s Aunt Anna has at last come into the spotlight after years of being ignored by Edith’s biographers. As Laura and Irene and I sat around a dinner table after the library talk we all realized we would not be sitting together enjoying each other’s company if more than one hundred years ago two other women hadn’t been tied by deep affection and intellectual sympathy. We toasted them and basked in our friendship.
Thank you Edith and Anna. Thank you, Laura for unlocking the secret of their friendship.