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In her fifties, Mrs. Frances Trollope became famous overnight for her book attacking the United States. Twenty-five years later, she sharpens her pen for her most controversial work yet — the biography of her old friend, the radical and feminist Fanny Wright. She recalls the 1820s when the young Fanny erupted into the Trollopes' sleepy English cottage like a volcano, her red hair flying, her talk aflame with utopian ideals. Before long, Wright convinced her to follow her to America, a journey of extreme penury, ...
In her fifties, Mrs. Frances Trollope became famous overnight for her book attacking the United States. Twenty-five years later, she sharpens her pen for her most controversial work yet — the biography of her old friend, the radical and feminist Fanny Wright. She recalls the 1820s when the young Fanny erupted into the Trollopes' sleepy English cottage like a volcano, her red hair flying, her talk aflame with utopian ideals. Before long, Wright convinced her to follow her to America, a journey of extreme penury, frontier hardships, and the most satisfying sensual romance of Frances Trollope's life.
Fanny: A Fiction is a wonderful new departure for Edmund White — a quirky, dazzling story of two extraordinary nineteenth-century women, and a vibrant, questioning exploration of the nature of idealism, the clay feet of heroes, and the illusory power of the American dream.
Now that her life is over I have decided to write it. To be sure I knew her only for a few intense years, but our friendship was central to both of us, if only to indicate the direction each of us did not choose to take. We spent time together on the high seas and in the United States (which she admired and I despised). We seldom agreed on anything and her followers, if there be any left, will doubtless question my right to be her Boswell.
But her numerous enemies, not her few friends, are the readers I address in the hope of vindicating her honor. Nor will I pretend that this is the complete account she merits; I am too burdened with other literary projects to be able to track down the minutiae or verify even the main dates of her passage on earth. And I am writing here in the French countryside, far from a library or the confirming or abetting reminiscences of other civilized English men and women. In fact the road outside this cottage is dusty, the peasant farmer with whom I stay for the moment shouts all day in an incomprehensible patois, there's a particularly boisterous rooster ... Fortunately in a few days I will be on my way to Florence and my beloved Villino Trollope.
Fanny Wright had undeniable virtues [develop this thought by the bye].
But she had, just as undeniably, some faults which I, as her friend and confidante, was particularly privileged to observe. Picture a blazing, ten-log fire sans fire-screen and you'll have a notion of Fanny Wright's heat and intensity (some would say her glare).
She had red hair, she was tall and slender, her complexion was as pale and lucent as opals -- but she was the good kind of redhead, without freckles, though she did have that distinctive scent of the true red-head, when she was overexerting herself, or as the French would say, en nage. [Delete remark on her bodily scent? In dubious taste? Though she gave off, in truth, the smell of a wet collie when she was sweating.]
But I anticipate. I am sitting here en déshabillé on a broken straw-bottomed chair in a room so noisy with clucking and the farmer's screeching to his fowl and the ripe scent of damp straw (this house is covered with thatch) that I might as well lay an egg myself, except I am not up to it and am waiting here until my fever subsides and my son Tom sends additional funds to complete my overland trip to Tuscany.
Frances Wright ...
Well, I should begin at the beginning. Her problems began with her parents and then their early exit from her life. She was born on September 6, 1795 [verify? I'm certain this is correct] in Dundee, a city almost as crowded and filthy as Edinburgh before the New City was constructed. In Edinburgh, in the Old City, though the streets were only five feet wide and the buildings ten stories tall, the "gentle folk" waited until ten of the evening and then, when the last watch was called, all had permission to throw their slops out the window onto the street below. Whoever was passing would be foully bespattered and the rising stench was so great one could sleep only with rose petals pressed to the nostrils. Mind you, Dundee was just as dark and densely settled as Edinburgh, but the Wrights lived on a floor of an ancient house, since torn down, by the Nethergate, I believe, whence the fields and gardens were visible and where the citizens would descend and bathe directly in the cold waters of the Tay.
Fanny was preceded by an older brother and followed by her beloved little sister Camilla, but when Fanny was only three her mother died and her father passed away three short months later. Despite this early disappearance her father, James Wright, a prosperous Dundee merchant, left his mark on the child, for James was the worst sort of freethinker. He had paid to have Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man reprinted in a ha'penny edition available to the poor, and this infamous egalitarian tract, full of mischievous sophistry, could have condemned the rash man to Botany Bay had he not been so well-connected. Mr. Wright belonged to several numismatics clubs and possessed very valuable coins; typical of his Jacobin views, he wondered why the public mints employed "the silly morsels of heraldry" in designing coins rather than "emblems of industry and commerce." Doubtless he wanted our shillings not to present the royal profiles but to show milkmaids plying swollen teats, and our crowns to enshrine dustmen wading through ordure.
Mr. Wright would also have been arrested for belonging to the infamous Friends of the People, a communistical phalanstery in Edinburgh, had he not ridden, all alone, one misty night, out into the murky Tay, where he drowned his devilish papers ... Years later, Fanny Wright read through the few notes her father had jotted down that had not been destroyed that night -- and naturally found surprising similarities in their turn of mind. He had written, "The spirit of law and the tenor of the conduct of governments in order to be well adapted to the mutable and ever-varying state of human affairs ought continually to change according to existing circumstances and the temper of the age." Notice his emphasis on mutable Circumstance rather than eternal Nature and its Laws. Fanny later told me she marveled at the "coincidence in views between father and daughter, separated by death when the first had not reached the age of twenty-nine, and when the latter was in infancy." I, too, alas, find a terrifying symmetry there, a family habit of reckless disregard of tradition and a total capitulation to Wanton Flux!Fanny: A Fiction. Copyright © by Edmund White. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Reading Group Guide Introduction
While in her fifties, Mrs. Frances Trollope garnered overnight fame for writing a book that attacked the domestic manners of Americans. Twenty-five years later, she sharpens her pen for her most controversial work yet -- a biography of her old friend, the ardent radical and feminist Fanny Wright. Mrs. Trollope recalls the 1820s, when the young Fanny erupted into the Trollopes' sleepy English cottage like a volcano, her red hair flying and her talk aflame with the utopian ideals of socialism, abolition, free education, birth control, and women's rights. She recounts how Fanny Wright persuaded her to follow her to America, where she endured a journey of extreme penury, frontier hardships, and -- rather unexpectedly -- the most satisfying sensual romance of her life.
As she wades deeper into her biography, Mrs. Trollope turns away from her account of Fanny and embarks on an extended digression on the misadventures of the Trollope clan. By turns noble and petty, comic and tragic, Trollope's work introduces us to literary lions like Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, Robert Browning, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning; battling political theorists; gamblers; escaped slaves; and even the aging General Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. With hallucinatory realism, Mrs. Trollope paints French châteaux, Belgian fogs, Mississippi mud, and the gaudy splendors and cruelties of Haiti. And throughout this charming, vivacious narrative, Mrs. Trollope uncovers love in its myriad guises: familial, homosexual, and interracial.
Questions for Discussion
About the Author
Edmund White's novels include A Boy's Own Story, The Beautiful Room is Empty, Farewell Symphony, and A Married Man. He is also the author of a biography of Jean Genet, a study of Proust, and The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris. Having lived in Paris for many years, he is now settled in New York and teaches at Princeton University.