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In O My America!, the travel writer and biographer Sara Wheeler embarks on a journey across the United States, guided by the adventures of six women who reinvented themselves as they chased the frontier west.
Wheeler’s career has propelled her from pole to pole—camping in Arctic igloos, tracking Indian elephants, contemplating East African swamps so hot that toads explode—but as she stared down the uncharted territory of middle age, she found herself in need of a guide. “Fifty ...
In O My America!, the travel writer and biographer Sara Wheeler embarks on a journey across the United States, guided by the adventures of six women who reinvented themselves as they chased the frontier west.
Wheeler’s career has propelled her from pole to pole—camping in Arctic igloos, tracking Indian elephants, contemplating East African swamps so hot that toads explode—but as she stared down the uncharted territory of middle age, she found herself in need of a guide. “Fifty is a tough age,” she writes. “Role models are scarce for women contemplating a second act.” Scarce, that is, until she stumbled upon Fanny Trollope.
In 1827, Fanny, mother of Anthony, swapped England for Ohio with hopes of bolstering the family finances. There, failure and disappointment hounded the immigrant for three years before she returned home to write one of the most sensational travel accounts of the nineteenth century. Domestic Manners of the Americans made an instant splash on both sides of the Atlantic, where readers both relished and reviled Trollope’s caustic take on the newly independent country. Her legacy became the stuff of legend: “Trollopize” emerged as a verb meaning “to abuse the American nation”; Mark Twain judged her the best foreign commentator on his country; the last king of France threw a ball in her honor. Fanny Trollope was forty-nine when she set out for America, and Wheeler, approaching fifty herself, was smitten. Fanny was living proof of life after fertility, and she led Wheeler to other trailblazers: the actress and abolitionist Fanny Kemble, the radical sociologist Harriet Martineau, the homesteader Rebecca Burlend, the traveler Isabella Bird, and the novelist Catherine Hubback—women born within half a century of one another who all reinvented themselves in a transforming America, the land of new beginnings.
In O My America!, Wheeler tracks her subjects from the Mississippi to the cinder cones of the Mayacamas at the tail end of the Cascades, armed with two sets of maps for each adventure: one current and one the women before her would have used. Bright, spirited, and tremendous tantrum-throwers, these ladies proved to be the best travel companion Wheeler could have asked for. “I had more fun writing this book than all my previous books put together,” she writes—and it shows. Ambitious and full of life, O My America! is not only a great writer’s reckoning with a young country, but also an exuberant tribute to fresh starts, second acts, and six unstoppable women.
“It probably cannot be taught—a writer either is or is not sympathetic, amusing, insightful and informative. Sara Wheeler has had it from the off. You want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind.” —Roger Hutchinson, The Scotsman
“Precise . . . Compelling . . . A tribute to female exuberance in that most unsung of settings: middle age . . . Wheeler is consistently deft both at conveying atmosphere and character.” —Talitha Stevenson, The Observer
“Perfect for women who want to shake a fist at the fading light.” —Ginny Dougary, The Guardian
“A true celebration.” —Ruth Scurr, The Daily Telegraph
“Wheeler is a writer of great composure and energy, and out of these American adventures she fashions something unexpected and compelling.” —Anthony Sattin, The Spectator
“Filled with rollicking anecdotes and entertaining facts.”—Sarah Churchwell, New Statesman
“Touching . . . Carefully observed and finely written . . . [O My America! ] is not quite biography or history or memoir or the kind of travelogue for which this writer is justly praised but an oddly successful hybrid of them all.” —Kate Colquhoun, Daily Express
“[Wheeler] went looking for inspiration from women who traveled to America and found ‘second acts.’ Fanny Trollope (mother of Anthony), Fanny Kemble, Harriet Martineau, Rebecca Burlend, Isabella Bird and Catherine Hubback (Jane Austen’s niece) all left Britain—some permanently and some for shorter trips—to find something in America. Some loved the United States, and some hated it, but all were changed by the experience. Those experiences make up the meat of the book, and they are worthy of chronicling. Kemble was a British actress who eventually contributed to the cause of the Union in the Civil War. Burlend conquered the harsh wilderness of Illinois with her family and left a legacy that can still be found today. The stories are at once varied and remarkably similar, and the resilience of the women is impressive . . . asides about menopause and middle age personalize the author’s fascination for her subjects . . . Wheeler’s gift for biography is strong, and . . . the author ably captures these women and their travels.” —Kirkus
MERELY TELLING THE TRUTH
Fanny Trollope Goes to Ohio
Fanny Trollope was broke when she turned fifty, and on intimate terms with pig manure. She had made the three-month trek to Cincinnati, she said, “to hatch golden eggs for my son.” The frontier might have glittered, but not all of it was gold—Cincinnati turned out to be one big stinky pig factory (Easterners knew it as “Porkopolis,” if they knew it at all). After three years Fanny slunk home with a suitcase of smashed-up dreams and three children incubating tuberculosis. Then she wrote Domestic Manners of the Americans. The voice that sings from its pages speaks with the inflections of another age, but it is Fanny’s voice: stylish and pithy, elegant, sardonic and witty. The author refused to acknowledge any taboo, complaining about the way American museum curators covered up the penes of the statues. There is something true at the heart of Domestic Manners. It is a story of disillusion, of seeking and not finding, of the gap between expectation and reality.
The book appeared on both sides of the Atlantic on March 19, 1832, when Fanny was fifty-three. A British subaltern in New York reported, “The Tariff and Bank Bill were alike forgotten … At every corner of the street, at the door of every petty retailer of information for the people, a large placard met the eye with, ‘For sale here, with plates, Domestic Manners of the Americans, by Mrs. Trollope.’ At every table d’hôte, on board of every steamboat, in every stagecoach, and in all societies, the first question was ‘Have you read Mrs Trollope?’ The more it was abused the more rapidly did the printers issue new editions.” In Britain the book whizzed through multiple reprints within weeks, and when Fanny’s son Anthony produced his first novel, his roguish publisher placed adverts naming the author as MRS. Trollope. The family finances were at last secure, and Fanny’s harrowing American experience brought her freedom in the long run. No wonder she laughed at the personal attacks pouring from the United States. A lithograph was published depicting a fat grotesque (her), a mysterious young artist friend with a brush in his mouth, and her husband in front of a stag’s head sporting cuckold’s horns. A waxwork in New York represented Fanny as a goblin, and a traveling menagerie in Maine advertised “an exact likeness of the celebrated Mrs. Trollope” in which she appeared puffing on a pipe. “Trollopize” became a verb that meant “to abuse the American nation.” “No other author of the present day,” wrote a critic, “has been so much admired, and so much abused.” On and on it went, for years. The author “Nil Admirari” published a verse epic called The Trollopiad about a band of pompous gentlemen travelers observing the United States.
Later, Fanny picked up one fan in America: Mark Twain. In his own maudlin middle years he took a library of European commentators on a nostalgic Mississippi voyage, and on the last page of his copy of Domestic Manners noted, in his sprawling hand, “Of all these tourists, I like Dame Trollope best.” She was, said the master stretcher-teller, “merely telling the truth.” He recognized in her his own unquenchable gusto for life. Meanwhile, in Britain, invitations tumbled through the letterbox. Fanny rented a flat in a top London square and hurried between parties. “Lady Louisa Stewart,” she gushed to her son Tom, “told me that I had quite put English out of fashion, and that every one was talking Yankee talk.” The young Dickens praised her. “I am convinced,” he wrote, “that there is no writer who has so well and so accurately (I need not add entertainingly) described America.” Tory papers loved Domestic Manners while Whigs and Radicals noted that the author’s background was not quite up to scratch. Britons can never escape their origins. In Anthony Trollope’s novel Is He Popenjoy?, the Dean of Brotherton’s father is a former groom. “The man looked like a gentleman,” the author says of the Dean, “but still there was the smell of the stable.” In Domestic Manners, Fanny insists that there should be a stable smell, so that one knew where one was—the alternative was a social free-for-all of the American kind. She needn’t have worried. When the book came out, the cultural elite showed that hierarchies were alive and well in Britain. They resented the author of Domestic Manners for entering their territory. The poet Robert Browning announced that Fanny was vulgar and pushy.
Over the next few years, following the appearance of Domestic Manners, Fanny nursed her tubercular offspring with one hand and dashed out novels with the other, “So that,” as Anthony put it, “there might be a decent roof for the children to die under.” When there was nobody left alive to nurse, Fanny swanned round the great capitals: Prince Metternich escorted her into dinner and the last king of France held a ball in her honor. It was one of the most dramatic reinventions of all time. She loved life, and never gave up on it. “Of all the people I have known,” Anthony wrote, “my mother was the most joyous, or at any rate, the most capable of joy.”
She was born Frances Milton in Bristol halfway through the long reign of George III, the Hanoverian known as The King Who Lost America. Like me, she was descended from generations of hardy West Country stock. Her father was a parson and her grandfather a distiller, and she grew up on a street that runs between Clifton Hill and York Place, close to the Hot Wells spa where the slavers’ wives took the waters. As a young woman Fanny moved to London to keep house for her brother in a dirty red-brick terrace sheathed in fog, and when she was thirty she married Thomas Trollope, a tow-headed barrister with a penchant for reckless schemes. Choleric (according to a colleague he was “industrious and disputatious in equal measure”) and an original Casaubon, Thomas was compiling an ecclesiastical dictionary and practicing law in what Anthony described as “dingy, almost suicidal chambers at No. 23 Old Square, Lincoln’s Inn.” At home at 16 Keppel Street the couple shared a ruinous sense of entitlement that led to the purchase of French marquetry desks, grand pianos and glazed wallpaper, and they maintained a minimum staff of half a dozen. During the first decade of their marriage they produced seven children and regularly leaped over the back wall to escape a creditor. “My father,” wrote Tom, their eldest, “was a poor man, and his establishment [the chambers] altogether on a modest footing. But it never would have occurred to him or to my mother that they could get on without a manservant in livery.” When Thomas senior’s law practice finally petered out, the family abandoned London for Harrow on the Hill, five miles outside the city, first renting a farmhouse, then leasing land to build a larger home with French windows, a lawn and a commodious parlour. Thomas was determined to set up as a gentleman farmer. The project, Anthony said, was to be the grave of all his father’s hopes, ambitions and prosperity. Calomel prescribed for sick headaches raised Thomas’ cantankerous outbursts to new heights (no wonder—it is mercurous chloride). “He is a good, honourable man,” Fanny confided to a friend, “but his temper is dreadful—every year increases his irritability—and also its lamentable effects upon the children.” Two of the seven children died: one a baby, the other, the beloved Arthur, at the age of twelve. Fanny, undiminished, held the family together. Thomas was, according to Tom, “a highly respected but not a popular or well-beloved man. Worst of all, alas! he was not popular in his own house … My mother’s disposition, on the other hand, was of the most genial, cheerful, happy, enjoué nature imaginable. All our happiest hours were spent with her; and to any one of us tête-à-tête with her was preferable to any other disposal of a holiday hour.” He said she “carried sunshine.” Fanny marched her brood through London’s smoking gaslights and yellow fogs to watch Hamlet or Doctor Faustus, and once queued for four hours to see Mrs. Siddons play Lady Macbeth. She enjoyed dancing, hiking and throwing parties, and above all was a passionate reader: unfinished books lay about the house like partly eaten sandwiches. Fanny considered herself a progressive radical, and knew many of the freethinkers floating round the capital in the 1820s. The Harrow farmhouse became a refuge for liberals seeking a temporary berth.
When the red-haired writer and social reformer Fanny Wright appeared dressed in Grecian robes, she dazzled Fanny, and introduced her to the idea of America. Tall and lithe with milky skin and a substantial inheritance, the Scots-born Wright had visited the States twice and was passionate about that country’s potential as a utopian democracy free from the conservative conventions of the Old World. She was close to the septuagenarian General Lafayette, the aristocrat who had served in the American War of Independence. (Washington said Lafayette was the only Frenchman he liked.) Wright had even accompanied the old soldier to America on his triumphal return tour in 1824; some said she had joined him in his bed. She stayed in America for two years, visiting Economy, a commune near Pittsburgh, and the Wabash River bottomland in Indiana where the Welsh industrialist Robert Owen had founded New Harmony, a communitarian experiment in which money was banned. Socialism, rationalism, women’s rights, free love—Wright was for it all. Convinced that she could prove the equality of the races, she had bought 200 acres on Tennessee’s Wolf River to establish a cooperative community where black and white would live in peace and harmony. When she met Fanny Trollope in Harrow, she had left her sister Camilla in charge at her commune, which she called Nashoba (Chickasaw for wolf), and had returned to Europe to recruit candidates willing to join her in the Tennessee co-op. Fanny was like a ripe plum, just right for picking. Thomas had just moved the family into a semi-derelict outbuilding and installed tenants in the main farmhouse. The accommodation, Anthony remembered, “always seemed to be in danger of falling into the neighbouring horse pond. As it crept downwards from house to stables, from stables to barns, from barns to cowsheds, and from cowsheds to dung heap, one could hardly tell where one began and the other ended.” No wonder Fanny became obsessed with Wright. She confided to a friend, “Fanny Wright is at once all that woman should be … I feel greatly inclined to say where her country is, there shall be my country. The more I see of her, the more I feel convinced that all her notions are right.” Tennessee was Fanny’s last best hope.
People did not expect menopausal women to reinvent themselves. “I can scarcely believe,” one acquaintance wrote to another, “that Mrs. T is actually on her way, and Trollope in his old age alone in London.” “Will wonders never cease?” wrote another. It was indeed a wonder, and I admired it. I didn’t know what home meant until I had children, and I can barely imagine the courage required to uproot as Fanny did. When I became a mother, I worried that I would never be truly free to take off again. I know it’s heretical to say it. At the time it felt heretical to feel it. I was forty-one when I had my second son, and I asked myself if, once he and his brother were gone, it would be too late.
As for Fanny’s children: twelve-year-old Anthony and seventeen-year-old Tom, boarders at Hampshire’s Winchester College, were to stay in England. Fanny took the other three with her—the feckless sixteen-year-old Henry, who was to teach Latin, fencing and dancing at Nashoba; Cecilia, who was eleven; and Emily, nine. Two servants agreed to take a chance with the party, and so did Auguste-Jean-Jacques Hervieu, a thirty-five-year-old French artist with a heroic moustache and republican views unappreciated by the authorities of his homeland. Hervieu was in search of a family: his father, a colonel in Napoleon’s army, had perished on the outskirts of Moscow. The Trollopes had unofficially adopted him, installing him as drawing master at the farmhouse, and as an artist they held him in high regard. Hervieu was, Fanny said, “among the many young Frenchmen who have been exiled for wishing for more freedom than the Bourbon fools and knaves allowed … if I have any knowledge of what is meant by the phrase, a man of genius, I conceive it to belong to him.”
* * *
The sailing ship Edward reached the mouth of the Mississippi in December 1827. “The first indication of our approach to land,” Fanny wrote, “was the appearance of this mighty river pouring forth its muddy mass of waters.” Flights of pelicans thrilled her, and so did alligators, which she called crocodiles. Trunks of mighty trees uprooted by a hurricane span in the current “like the fragment of a world in ruins.” Bristolians are accustomed to narrow, placid rivers like the Avon, which subsides to a trickle twice a day, and Fanny’s description of the Mississippi as it decants into the Gulf of Mexico displays a touch of the Gothic. “Only one object rears itself above the eddying waters,” she wrote. “The mast of a vessel long since wrecked in attempting to cross the [sand] bar, a dismal witness of the destruction that has been, and a boding prophet of that which is to come.” Above all she was amazed at the flatness of the shores and the ferocity of the river, “looking so mighty, and so unsubdued all the time, that I could not help fancying she would some day take the matter into her own hands again, and if so, farewell to New Orleans.”
The party found lodgings on Canal Street early in the evening, as the nabobs were talking on their second-floor verandas. Below, crowds drifted towards the Vieux Carré and its Franco-Spanish houses of yellow adobe or stuccoed brick, the hinges on the gates a yard long, and on past the white walls of the St. Charles Hotel, where planters danced in the Salle de Condé. New Orleans was the fifth-largest city in the nation and the unofficial capital of the South. West African freemen, Europeans and Creoles traded with Atakapa hunters bringing alligators they had speared through the eye, and with shaggy French-speaking Acadians who rode into town to barter sugar for tin pots. Twenty-four years after the Louisiana Purchase—the biggest land sale in history, and one that doubled the size of the U.S.—the city had already established its place in American geomythology: sexy, hot and slightly dangerous. When Fanny arrived the sugar elite had just appeared from the plantations for a three-month spree. Shopkeepers beckoned chatelaines who craved everything French, from yards of Parisian lace to cases of Sauternes, and the city imported so much Limoges china that an entrepreneurial Limousin had shipped in a team of potters and set up production near a clay pit. But the people of New Orleans didn’t want that. The dinner service had to be made in France. (The thing was to go full circle. When I was living in Paris in the 1970s, older people still said, “Mais c’est l’Amérique!” to describe something luxuriously desirable.) Fanny liked it all, but when she entered a milliner’s shop, another customer introduced her to the milliner—a shopgirl—and the two enjoyed an “intellectual” conversation. It was “the first symptom of American equality that I perceived,” Fanny wrote. The incident was to reverberate throughout her American sojourn. In New Orleans she kept an open mind, noting the division between “two distinct sets of people”: the white Creole, and the mixed-race Quadroon. The latter she admired. They were, she wrote, “exquisitely beautiful, graceful, gentle and amiable.” She herself was short and stumpy with a wide, toad-like face, and her protruding blue-grey eyes held a gaze with masculine authority. Her waist had thickened and she had lost the taut curves of her youth, with the result that her torso resembled a tube. She dressed badly, and according to an American observer walked “with those Colossian strides unattainable by any but Englishwomen.” There was something of the grotesque about her, or at least of the rackety Regency. A West Country burr—almost Barsetshire—added a fatal final touch.
* * *
In July 2010 the New Orleans sky was enamel in the morning, and slabs heaved along the sidewalk. The Big Easy is a hundred years younger than Boston but soaked in suggestion, from the decayed scent of tupelo that drifts through Coliseum Square to the live oaks that arch over the St. Charles Avenue streetcar. I was using, like Fanny, a print of David Vance’s 1825 cartographic engraving, which I carried rolled up in a cardboard tube. Marigny appeared as a forest of palmettos and Spanish moss that Vance called drowned woods. The Marigny night still smelled of the swamp, and the daytime sky held the watery reflection of the Mississippi. The novelist Richard Ford once lived in New Orleans. It was a place, he wrote, “where the firm ground ceases and the unsound footing begins. A certain kind of person likes such a place. A certain kind of person wants to go there and never leave.” You had to enjoy living close to the edge; to feel the current pulling, and to grasp what Fanny had called “the fragment of a world in ruins.” It was the opposite of sinking into suburbia. You felt the tension, even now. In a Bywater park I joined a public crawfish boil. People talked about hurricanes as if they were family members. “After Rita was here…” they said, or, “When Ike arrived…”
A friend had passed on a contact—an employee of the state legislature who had stayed throughout Katrina, despite Mayor Ray Nagin’s mandatory evacuation. We met for Sunday brunch at Surrey’s on Magazine Street. John was a young lawyer with four generations of relatives in the St. Louis Cemetery. It was not yet hurricane season, but I noticed, through the office windows, that people had installed satellite weather sites as their home page. Did they live in fear of the next one? John shrugged. “You grow up with an awareness of it being part of life. My grandmother used to say that as a girl, through the parlour window she watched ships sailing past higher than our house.” After we had eaten, John drove me over to the Lower Ninth, the downriver ward devastated when Katrina broke the levees on both the Industrial Canal and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. On the way, he reeled off advice about food, a New Orleans preoccupation. My notebook records Central Grocery muffalettas, fried oyster po-boys from anywhere, red beans and rice on Mondays. The Lower Ninth was a harlequin of plots from which clean-up teams had removed the debris of the worst destruction, leaving hollowed-out homes cross-hatched with numbers listing the body count, stigmata of the first rescuers. It was thirty-six degrees, and a lowering cloud pressed the humid air down on tracts of spindly grass. Katrina created the biggest storm surge ever recorded in the U.S.: a woman reported a giant sea turtle swimming through her kitchen while she sat on the counter waiting to be rescued. For the first time, as the disaster played itself out, Europeans watched television images revealing the poverty endemic in parts of America. It was not “Farewell to New Orleans,” as Fanny had predicted, but it was apocalyptic enough. Residents of the Lower Ninth had painted Do Not Demolish on their walls before they fled. “There were about 5,300 homes in the Lower Ninth before Katrina,” John said, “and every single one was flooded or wrecked. We reckon about 1,200 have been rebuilt. Geography meant the area was the worst hit, but economics means it’s not recovering. Katrina revealed just what a divided city this still is, just like it’s always been.” On the front door of one house—uninhabited and collapsing—someone had daubed, in another color under Do Not Demolish, Eddie come to Superdome. Almost a Katrina haiku.
Before leaving New Orleans and heading up the Mississippi, I read the newspapers she had read. The mottled originals were stored in a 1915 beaux arts archive in the French Quarter. When I went there, music was always pounding out of some window or door nearby, often from more than one, nobody seeming to mind competing beats. I thought of her as I walked the same streets. The sun never let up, and the colors of the camelback houses throbbed. She had left two children behind, and so had I (mine were thirteen and eight)—though I had absented myself for three weeks, as opposed to three years. Astonishingly, in later life Fanny’s abandoned infants never blamed her. On the contrary, they took trouble to praise her as a mother. That gave me some small comfort.
As I indicated earlier, I had not yet resolved the tensions between motherhood and other parts of my life. Note that I do not say “career,” as being a writer cannot be said to be a career. It is what one is, for better or, as is more often the case, worse. I remember feeling sick when a well-meaning neighbor said, “It must be so hard concentrating on your work when yelping boys downstairs want to build bricks.” The truth was rather different. It was hard to concentrate on the bricks. Work was always on my mind, on a continuous loop. I’ve never admitted that before. I felt ashamed—as if no other mother felt as I did. Beached there in New Orleans, in lucid moments I knew it was all right to leave my children for three weeks; they were no longer toddling, they were in the care of a loving father, and they did not need both of us all the time. The fear was displacement, I think, for a more generalized anxiety, one that did not yet have a name.
In the archive, which was air-conditioned to igloo-standard, I touched a page of a newspaper from December 1827. Almost all the papers appeared in both French and English. L’Abeille, on sale for one piastre, printed the shipping schedules from Liverpool, Le Havre and Bayou Sara alongside ads punting crepe ballgowns from Europe and beaver hats from New York. Wet nurses advertised services, and Dr. William Hudson’s Drugstore and Medical Repository on the corner of Conti and Chartres offered a certain cure for baldness. News from the rest of the world was cursory: in three lines the Allied naval force triumphed at the Battle of Navarino, only to be overpowered by the announcement of a forthcoming sale of jars of jam.
* * *
On January 1, 1828, Fanny and her group left New Orleans for Tennessee on the paddle steamer Belvedere. Along the reaches of the wharves, columns of smoke rose from the pirogues and timber rafts nosed in alongside tobacco barges from Ohio and Indiana broadhorns piled high with hoop poles and pumpkins. Tinted rings of water formed rills on the towheads and leadsmen shouted, “Mark twain!” (pilots needed twelve feet of water to float, and a twain, being two fathoms, indicated safe water). Beyond the river, across thousands of acres of freshly cut cane and the tracery of seasonal bayous, slave gangs burned pyramids of fibrous sugar stalks called bagasse, and smoke formed a canopy in the sky. At times the plantations themselves vanished, and you could not see the rib of the embankment. After a cluster of shacks called Baton Rouge, named for a red cypress that marked the boundary between tribal hunting grounds, the river narrowed and began its passage between two thousand-mile vegetable walls that parted only for fueling woodyards. There were no women besides Fanny and Wright on the Belvedere, and the men all claimed to hold military rank. But when they sat down for supper, Fanny wrote, “The total want of all the usual courtesies at table, the voracious rapidity with which the viands were seized and devoured, the strange uncouth phrases and pronunciation; the loathsome spitting, from the contamination of which it was absolutely impossible to protect our dresses; the frightful manner of feeding with their knives, till the whole blade seemed to enter into the mouth; and the still more frightful manner of cleaning the teeth afterwards with a pocket knife, soon forced us to feel that we were not surrounded by the generals, colonels and majors of the old world.” She concluded, “Let no one who wishes to receive agreeable impressions of American manners, commence their travels in a Mississippi steam boat; for myself, it is with all sincerity I declare, that I would infinitely prefer sharing the apartment of a party of well-conditioned pigs to being confined to its cabin.” Everything turned on appearance, performance and a sense of triumph, and the American faux-generals, on hearing an English accent, were, according to Fanny, quick to dismiss the tired formality of the Old World, favoring praise of the egalitarianism that replaced it west of the Atlantic.
The water cuts the banks of the lower river into deep horseshoe curves in Louisiana, a navigational hazard in the days before government snag boats pulled the Mississippi’s teeth. At night Fanny sat on the gallery that ran round the cabins, watching the glare from the furnaces illuminate, like a bloodied lightning flash, the floating riverstores that traveled without lanterns. But flat is never beautiful to one who has looked every day over the Avon Gorge, that epic 300-foot limestone slash that runs down west Bristol. It is a swooping view, the layered rock scoured by warm uplifts and colonized by honewort and Bristol onion, and it prejudices one against the plains. (I know. I thought I was going out of my mind in Kansas.) Mississippi had already become the twentieth state but less than 5 percent of the fertile delta land had been cleared and swamp was still the dominant feature of the landscape. Cast adrift between the flatlands, Fanny longed for a bluff on “that wearisome level line.”
* * *
By ten I had cleared Baton Rouge. The sky was cloudless, and the Louisiana shore glowed in misty sunshine. North of Vicksburg (the city appeared on Vance’s map as Walnut Hills) I picked up Mississippi 1 at Mayersville. The fields dissolved into pea-green soup, the spawny surface of the swamp holed with stumps and sweetbay magnolia. One expected a dinosaur to surge through the black gum, sending spumey flumes up hundreds of meters. When the ground solidified, levee and road diverged around the flamingo legs of a water tower, and thousands of acres of corn rolled ahead. Densely packed, ten-foot stems shot out leaves broad as flags. There was something impressive in the plants’ implacable determination to swell in every direction. It did not surprise me to learn that there are three crops a year in the Delta. Three crops a night would not have surprised me. The Mississippi Delta is regularly cited as the distilled essence of the Deep South—the last Dixie stronghold. Properly the Yazoo–Mississippi Delta, its alluvial plain extends 200 miles from Vicksburg to Memphis, and the host of a local radio show boasted that the blues were born at the Tutwiler railhead. The highway crept west across the lowlands, gun racks rattling on passing pickups. Outside Greenville, a funeral cortège blocked the road, and a row of construction workers stood with hard hats covering their hearts, the air around them spangled with corn dust. In the brakes, painted houses nestled among rowan oaks, netted windows black blanks. A chunky white man piloted a mower across a long lawn. The air drooped. The radio jock had a studio guest who had come on to demonstrate that raising federal income tax was unbiblical. The light died on the highway before Clarksdale.
Rowan Oak in Oxford, an hour from Clarksdale, was the home of William Faulkner. The novelist’s central theme lay at the heart of my women’s stories: the importance of the fight to be freely oneself. In homage to a master, I made a detour to Oxford. The flat green land-sea that rolled back from the levee as the Honda barreled north provided a vivid backdrop for Old Man, Faulkner’s novella set in 1927, the year of the Great Flood. The Mississippi plays the title role. I learned more about the South from Faulkner than from anyone, or at least about that small area of northeastern Mississippi which inspired him—what he called his “postage-stamp world.” Inside his handsome house, sunshine flooded in through well-proportioned windows and the silence of the woods came with it, barring the confidential oak creak of my own footfall. Cedars cast lacy patterns on the kitchen tiles and over the hollowed keys of Faulkner’s Underwood Universal Portable. It was such a perfect writer’s house that one wondered why Faulkner drank so much. From the cool of his rear study, he ran the domestic world that provided a foil to his internal creativity. He smoked hams in a brick smokehouse, kept a cow in a timber barn and petted Tempy, his favorite horse, in stables on the west side of his paddock. Walking among the sweet shrub of his maze, Faulkner composed the famous acceptance speech he made in Stockholm in 1950 when he collected his Nobel Prize. “I believe,” he said, “that man will not merely endure, he will prevail.” Although the evidence that man as a species will endure is weaker than it was when Faulkner stepped up to the podium, his belief in personal endurance resonates as one observes one’s own crises zipping by. Faulkner was obsessed with the truth of history. “The past is never dead,” he wrote in Requiem for a Nun. “It’s not even past.” He struggled to use the material of his own background to reach a reconciliation with life and the certainty of death, sidestepping fear of oblivion, at least in part, by creating literature. But in the shadows Faulkner glimpsed the annihilation to come, no matter how many masterpieces he created. It was enough to drive anyone to drink.
On the backroads to Tennessee, a country beat edged out the blues, both competing with volleys of static when the road dipped beneath the levee. Twiddling the dial, I found a station plugging a Christian Fun Day at Wolf River Mall in Germantown, a glossy Memphis suburb. At the same time, a purple and yellow hand-painted sign welcomed me to Jonestown in Coahoma County. Lopsided tin-roofed houses on cinder blocks lined the road between vacant lots strewn with litter. The metal double doors of the single grocery store looked as if they had been shot at. Closer inspection revealed that they had. Alongside the doors, half a dozen teenagers squatted among tires and broken-down white goods. There was none of Faulkner’s prevailing spirit here. Jonestown bumps along at the bottom of every single health and education table while topping out in the unemployment and crime stakes. According to government figures, more than 57 percent of children live below the poverty line—and this on the most fertile agricultural land on the planet. Ninety-three percent of Jonestown residents are African American. Fanny had expressed shock at the housing conditions of agricultural workers in 1828. She predicted that once America had dealt with its inequalities, it would grow strong. It grew strong anyway—beefier than Fanny could have imagined—but the inequalities remained. The Delta is the poorest region of the poorest state, its startling juxtaposition of white affluence and black poverty the most enduring legacy of the Old South. As for Germantown, I drove through it later. It was a gleaming white mini-city of strip malls, multi-story churches and enclaves of housing developments and manicured estates—not quite the communitarian paradise Wright envisaged.
* * *
Rain was falling when Fanny arrived in Memphis. According to Vance’s map, there had been little in the way of settlements since Natchez, 260 miles downriver. A large splodge of mustard yellow simply noted Chickasaw Country. Fanny lost her shoes and gloves in the climb up the bank to the inn. “The house was new,” she recalled, “and in what appeared to me a very comfortless condition, but I was new then to Western America.” Steamers had not yet displaced smaller craft on the middle Mississippi and Memphis was known as “flatboat town,” crowded with valley farmers preparing to float produce to river markets. Bears roamed between cabins, and there was no school, doctor, bank or brothel. The permanent residents were mostly poor Irish and German riverworkers. A smallpox epidemic had just disposed of many, and yellow fever was on the prowl. Visitors from President Andrew Jackson to Davy Crockett convened at the inn, and every man in town ate his supper there too. On Fanny’s first night the proprietor set a table for fifty, and the company dined on hard venison and peach sauce as rain hammered on the tin roof.
Nashoba was twelve miles from Memphis in territory hunted by the Choctaw, people who still danced the eagle tail dance under moonlight.* “It required some miles of experience,” Fanny noted during the carriage journey, “to convince us that each stump would not be our last, crashing into trees and sinking into swamp.” But green parrots made her feel she was in “a new world.” The U.S. played an Edenic role in the European imagination, and the “New World” moniker suited utopians. As early as 1609 a vessel heading to Virginia to relieve the embattled colony brought a boatload of separatists called Brownists and Familists, both radical sects with communitarian yearnings. More than two centuries later, Goethe was writing Amerika, du hast es besser, and a hundred years again after that, Auden, in “New Year Letter,” celebrated the immensity and freedom of the U.S. after the crabbed confinement of Europe. But European radicals of Fanny’s generation really pounced. The spirit of the French Revolution had fostered a fresh communitarian spirit. The Romantics were in its thrall: Coleridge and Southey planned paradise on the banks of the Susquehanna River and Mary Wollstonecraft and her lover discussed founding a farm in some western territory of the U.S., released from the bounds of class, religion and frowsty institutions such as monarchy, marriage and money. This post-revolutionary generation dreamed of turning ideals into a way of life, and where better than in the shining new republic itself?* New England transcendentalists had the same idea. Their prototype Edens were founded on noble, politically sound principles almost always hijacked by dubious theorising and crackpottery. (As were the earlier ones. The ship on its way to Virginia in 1609 foundered off the coast of Bermuda. Deciding to make the most of it, the sectarians settled—Bermuda after all was a ready-made Utopia with no indigenous people in the way. But they squabbled over what paradise should look like, and started shooting one another.) In nineteenth-century Edens, new ideas on health and hygiene flourished—Louisa May Alcott’s father Bronson, a tremendous windbag who founded a utopian farm in Massachusetts, recommended sex without thrusting. Others extended the remit of vegetarianism by allowing the consumption of “aspiring” vegetables such as tomatoes and banishing “downwards” specimens like carrots. Alcott believed it was wrong to “oppress” oxen by making them plow, a policy which made farming tricky. Many communards believed happiness was wrong. The Shakers shot themselves in their communally owned feet by banning sex altogether, as did Thoreau, who allowed nobody else into his private Utopia.
Ohio and Indiana were popular settings for these excruciating experiments as they lacked the hierarchies and elites of Eastern states, and so did Tennessee, which Wright had selected for her own experiment in cooperative living and loving. She had bought forty slaves, and, as soon as agricultural profits equated their purchase price, planned to free them and repeat the cycle. During her absence in Europe the project had not advanced toward this goal. It had retreated in the opposite direction. Buildings were in stages of disintegration, sanitation was non-existent and everyone was ill. In addition, the site was malarial and there was hardly any food. The slaves wanted to go back to proper slavery. “Desolation was the only feeling,” wrote the horrified Fanny shortly after arriving. “Mother,” asked Emily at the end of the first day, “when can we go to Nashoba?” “This is Nashoba,” said Mother. She and her daughters shared a bedroom with Wright, and rain splattered through the rafters on to the cots. Falling out of love is sad. “The Fanny Wright of Nashoba,” Fanny admitted in a description of the commune that was never published, “in dress, looks and manner, bore no more resemblance to the Miss Wright I had known and admired in London and Paris than her log cabin did to the Tuileries or Buckingham Palace.” Privately, she wrote to a friend, “the brain fever which attacked her [Wright] last year has affected her intellect.” But Fanny had a forgiving spirit. “I can never forget her many admirable qualities,” she told the same friend, “and I certainly do not believe that it was her intention to deceive me, when she gave such a description of her Nashoba, as induced us to fix upon it as a residence for a year or two, during which, from motives of economy, we had decided upon residing abroad.” Now, this was handsome. Wright had very nearly wrecked Fanny’s life with her crazed scheme, and Fanny forgave her. She instinctually let go of negative feelings, which was no small gift. It was the key to her sunny disposition.
* * *
Now she was in a fix. After ten days of hell, Fanny prevailed upon the Nashoba trustees to advance her cash to return to Memphis. After that Wright battled on, but the dream had died. In December 1829 she freed the slaves and left Nashoba. She subsequently married a Frenchman, had a child, divorced and embarked on a lecture tour around America, pontificating about “the nature of true knowledge.” According to Fanny she was “the advocate of opinions that make millions shudder, and some half score admire.” Yet in some ways Wright was ahead of her time. Public sentiment was ready for emancipation, at least in some quarters, but could not yet tolerate racial equality.
Fanny and her beleaguered group reached Memphis again on January 26. Six days later, they boarded the Criterion for Cincinnati, which she called “the metropolis of the West.” Fanny had heard, she said, “on every side, that of all the known places on ‘the globe called earth,’ Cincinnati was the most favorable for a young man to settle.” She planned to set Henry up in business, though she had not yet formed any idea of what that business might be. At Fort Johnson, the steamer left the Mississippi and breasted the muddy waters of the Ohio. After so long between uninhabited flatlands, Fanny was thrilled by the bluffs and rolling grasslands of the Kentucky shore, and relieved to see evidence of human habitation as well as hills. A glance at the 1825 map reveals just how important the Ohio was: the wiggling line through Vance’s pastels thickens with settlements from Illinois to Virginia. When the Criterion moored at Louisville to drop off a pilot who had guided her through the Falls, Fanny disembarked for a walk close to the mill on First Street where George Keats, the poet’s brother, was prospering in the lumber trade. “Louisville,” she wrote, “is a considerable town, prettily situated on the Kentucky, or south side of the Ohio; we spent some hours in seeing all it had to show; and had I not been told that a bad fever often rages there during the warm season, I should have liked to pass some months there.” Keats and his wife represented another type of pioneer: they had no interest in utopias or democracy. They wanted to chop the forest down and sell it. And they did. It was pioneer territory all right. Fanny found the inns along the Louisville wharf packed with drinking, swearing tobacco-chewers and the gambling room of a tavern on Main Street was open twenty-four hours. Men, when they fought, deployed the popular practice of “gouging,” which involved scraping out one’s opponent’s eyeball till it dangled on his cheek, or, better still, pulling the organ off to take home and display on the mantelpiece. Keats, who had built a house at the head of the Falls, was close to becoming one of the wealthiest citizens of Louisville. But he lost everything in the Panic of 1837 and died in 1841 aged forty-one.
The Criterion proceeded to the teeming Cincinnati docks. “I have seen fifteen steamboats lying there at once,” Fanny wrote, “and still half the wharf was unoccupied.” The party struggled to a hotel on Front Street, dodging dock pilings and cracked hogsheads. Exhausted, they ordered tea to be sent up. As they drank it, hotelier Joe Cromwell hammered on the door.
“Are any of you ill?” he asked.
“No, thank you sir, we are quite well,” Fanny replied through the door.
“Then madam, I must tell you, that I cannot accommodate you on these terms; we have no family tea-drinkings here, and you must live either with me or my wife, or not at all in my house.” The speech was delivered, according to Fanny, “with an air of authority that almost precluded reply, but I ventured a sort of apologistic hint, that we were strangers and unaccustomed to the manners of the country.”
“Our manners are very good manners,” yelled Cromwell, despotic as his namesake, “and we don’t wish any changes from England.”
The conviction that America was more evolved than the Old Country was to become a leitmotif of Fanny’s Ohioan adventures. “American weakness on the subject,” she noted, “amounts to imbecility.” If she challenged an opinion, her interlocutor dismissed her as a nonentity. Other nations, Fanny concluded, were “thin-skinned, but the citizens of the Union have, apparently, no skins at all; they wince if a breeze blows over them.” She had no sense of historical context. It was only twenty-two years since Lewis and Clark, halfway through only the third recorded transcontinental crossing, sent a live prairie dog in a box to the White House, where Jefferson opened it with caution. The Western United States had no past, at least for the white man. No wonder people were anxious.
She found a three-story brick house to rent on Hollingworth Row off Race Street, but it had no drains—there was no municipal sewerage system despite a rising population of 28,000. Cincinnati had grown twelvefold in twenty years and the absence of drains was an indication of its makeshift status. Streets changed overnight as frame houses were wheeled to new locations. When Fanny inquired about garbage collection, the landlord revealed that was the job of the pigs roaming freely through the streets. Cincinnati exported almost a million dollars’ worth of pork products a year. Streams ran with porcine blood, jawbones and tails littered the fields and Fanny said that if she walked up Main Street, “the chances were five hundred to one against my reaching the shady side without brushing by a snout fresh dripping from the kennel.” She said she would have liked Cincinnati much better “if the people had not dealt so very largely in hogs.” Besides piggy smells, after heavy rain followed by sun, the soil crumbled to dust and swathes of red cumulonimbus filled the streets, where the clouds mingled with timber dust. “Though I do not quite sympathise,” Fanny wrote, “with those who consider Cincinnati as one of the wonders of the earth, I certainly think it a city of extraordinary size and importance, when it is remembered that thirty years ago the aboriginal forest occupied the ground where it stands; and every month appears to extend its limits and wealth.” In three decades Cincinnati had grown into the first real inland American city and a vibrant manufacturing center.* Dockyards built steamboats, mills ground flour and fifty-four foundries cast iron, while the firm of Read and Watson crafted clocks with mechanical wooden parts, there being a shortage of brass. Cincinnati exemplified the whole country’s transformation from an essentially agricultural economy into an industrialised nation. It was the frontier, a zone of reckless entrepreneurialism. Every newspaper carried an advertisement for a new invention, from a candle with a tubular wick to a steam-powered carriage. Fanny loved the frontier energy. “I am delighted with this place,” she wrote to a friend. But delight swiftly curdled. She found American society crude. “The ‘simple’ manner of living in Western America,” she wrote, “was more distasteful to me from its levelling effects on the manners of the people, than from the personal privations that it rendered necessary; and yet, till I was without them, I was in no degree aware of the many pleasurable sensations derived from the little elegancies and refinements enjoyed by the middle classes in Europe … All animal wants are supplied profusely in Cincinnati, and at a very easy rate; but alas! these go but a little way in the history of a day’s enjoyment. The total and universal want of manners, both in males and females, is so remarkable, that I was constantly endeavouring to account for it.”
She was expecting her husband. “Is your father ill? Is he dead?” she wrote to the two sons left at home when Thomas failed to appear. The manservant had left, having secured a job in Memphis, but Fanny still had the maid. New staff proved elusive, “for it is more than petty treason to the Republic to call a free citizen a servant.” One young woman left Fanny’s employ “because I refused to lend her money enough to buy a silk dress for a ball.” Fanny had no money to lend. Henry advertised Latin lessons in a newspaper (“By an improved method of teaching, now getting into general use in Europe … Fifty cents an hour”) but demand for the classics turned out to be slow on the frontier. Soon they were reliant on Hervieu. After the debacle at the commune he had pursued a lucrative trade as a portrait painter in Nashville, but the settlement was so small that he had soon painted everyone. Now he joined Fanny and the children in Cincinnati, bringing his dollars. “It is more than a month,” she wrote home bitterly, “since we have had a mouthful of food that he has not paid for.” Until the end, which was to be bitter indeed, Hervieu never forgot Fanny’s loyalty and support when he was a lonely French refugee.
When Henry fell ill, his mother shifted the ménage to the health-restoring countryside. She rented Gano Lodge, a timber cottage in its own field in Mohawk, at that time beyond the city limits and accessible via rope bridges over the basin marshes. “Our manner of life,” she wrote after the move, “was infinitely more to my taste than before; it gave us all the privileges of rusticity, which was fully as incompatible with a residence in a little town of Western America as with a residence in London. We lived on terms of primeval intimacy with our cow, for if we lay down on our lawn she did not scruple to take a sniff at the book we were reading, but then she gave us her own sweet breath in return.” Fanny took marathon hikes in pursuit of millepore and fossils, “crunching knee deep through aboriginal leaves” while fighting off mosquitoes, locusts and hornets. She said she used the forest “as an extra drawing-room.” In the first drawing room, unannounced neighbors arrived on social visits and annoyed her by sitting in silence (the right to show up anywhere at any time Fanny took as a negative symptom of republican equality). But when a neighbor did talk that too annoyed her, because he or she inevitably harped on the failures of the Old Country. The English could not speak English; Britons were fake democrats, pretending to save the world but pursuing their own interests; Americans had a more refined linguistic sensibility. A man reputed to be a scholar told her, “Shakespeare, madam, is obscene, and, thank God, we are sufficiently advanced to have found it out.” She said, “The want of warmth … upon all subjects which do not immediately touch on their own concerns is universal, and has a most paralyzing effect upon conversation … [America] may, I think, be compared to a young bride … —the honeymoon is not over yet;—when it is, America will, perhaps, learn more coquetry.” Perhaps. She did not understand that the War of Independence had been defined in part by the appeal of a separate American identity. Reflecting later on his mother’s views, even Tom, her most loyal defender, wrote that it was surely unreasonable to complain at Americans’ “puffed-up patriotism” when one considered that at the time it was a “cardinal article of an Englishman’s faith, that every Englishman could thrash three Frenchmen.” And Fanny did make friends in Mohawk. “I must not venture,” she wrote, “to linger among the cottages that surrounded us; but before I quit them I must record the pleasing recollection of one or two neighbours of more companionable rank, from whom I received so much friendly attention, and such unfailing kindness, in all my little domestic embarrassments, that I shall never recall the memory of Mohawk, without paying an affectionate tribute to these far distant friends.”
Cincinnati supported nineteen newspapers and its Western Museum was one of the first scientific institutions in the country. In 1818, John James Audubon worked there. The thirty-three-year-old Audubon was a characteristically energetic and versatile first-generation American who exemplified the pioneer spirit in art, and the frontier awakened the genius within, as it did eventually within Fanny. Both, in the unlikely setting of Porkopolis, brewed books that took on international lives of their own. A skilled outdoorsman, Audubon could navigate his flatboat through broken ice up the Mississippi, reconnoitre the Louisiana backwoods and shoot his own dinner. He was a friend of the Osage and the Shawnee and learned their skills. He had reinvented himself in America—no longer a Haitian refugee or French émigré, he perceived the republic as a canvas against which he could become what he wanted to be. As a young man, he had moved to Cincinnati and got a job painting backgrounds for display cases at the Western Museum before taking up work as a portraitist. Audubon was the first great American artist. While re-creating the habitat of stuffed bears, he conceived his life’s work. He was going to paint every bird in North America, life-size, and publish the results in bound volumes. As the wild turkey was the largest bird, he began with that, as it would determine the size of the books (double elephant folio, as it turned out). Audubon and his wife, Lucy, dedicated their lives to this monumental task. Out collecting, Audubon regularly walked a hundred miles, often wading ankle-deep in cold water. Rats ate his pictures, his businesses collapsed and creditors hammered on the door, if there was a door. In Kentucky, when his sawmill business failed, he lodged with George Keats. Once, he went to debtors’ prison. When he was painting, he used wire to twist his birds into lifelike poses—so a male passenger pigeon leans upwards to pass food into the beak of his mate reaching down from the branch above. Before Audubon, birds on the page were static. His wild turkey, glancing behind to see what’s coming, looks as if he is about to fly up from between the covers. As he was amassing his paintings, Audubon collected advance subscriptions. No printer in America could create such an ambitious set of books so the artist took his hand-colored prints to Britain and oversaw production of etched and engraved copper plates, each thirty-nine by twenty-six inches. The five-volume Birds of America appeared between 1827 and 1838, with a separate five-volume accompanying text that Darwin was to quote three times in his The Origin of Species. Audubon’s Birds of America stands among the masterpieces of world art as well as being a landmark in that country’s coming of age. The pictures form a narrative: the birds hunting and nest building, tending their young and seeing off interlopers. Critics accuse him of anthropomorphism, but Audubon found meaning in the natural world and translated what he saw into human emotion—one sees naked violence in the uplifted face of the golden eagle as it lofts a live white rabbit over the mountains.*
When Fanny said she didn’t think everyone should be eligible to be president, people rounded on her. She made resolutions to keep her mouth shut. But the resolve never held. Her friend Timothy Flint, editor of the Western Monthly, one of the first literary magazines that side of the Alleghenies, said she was “voluble as a French woman and … a first-rate talker,” though he also considered her “a person of uncommon cleverness.” Observing her progressing toad-like through the streets in a foot-tall hooped green bonnet and a plaid cloak that trailed in the mud, Flint described her as “singularly unladylike in her appearance and robust and masculine in her habits.” The adjective “masculine” recurs. Yet Fanny criticized the women of Cincinnati for being flat-chested. She found most of them prudish and claimed one fainted when she heard the word “corset.”
She was convinced that the famous American equality “levelled people downwards.” Spitting in public drove her berserk, as did the chomping of foot-long watermelon slices. Fanny put poor manners down to the “universal pursuit of money.” Complaining that she never heard “that most un-American phrase, ‘I thank you,’” Fanny said that in the United States only getting ahead mattered. Like Dickens later on, she complained that Americans were too concerned about money. Yet a glance at the Victorian novels of Britain reveals an obsession with cash. A Christmas Carol is an allegory of the relationship between capitalism and charity. Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now is all about money, and his other novels are populated with characters calculating how much they are worth, or moneylenders preying on impoverished clerks. Thackeray’s books reveal an acute awareness of how money is spent and lost. “Ours is a ready money society,” George Osborne says in Vanity Fair. Later, Gissing wrote about the emotional consequences of money’s absence. You ask yourself what Fanny and Boz were moaning about.
More understandably, collective blindness to the double standards of a society supposedly composed of equals also sent Fanny into paroxysms of fury. “You will see them with one hand,” she said of her Kentucky neighbors, “hoisting the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves.” The existence of slaves invalidated the trumpeted American democracy. Ohio was not a slave state, but it bordered one, and Cincinnati newspapers bristled with notices about runaway slaves, each carefully identified: “She had a burn on one of her legs”; “She had arched toes”; “She was in the habit of selling cakes.” Fanny hated slavery and equality with similar passion. She was appalled when servants and shopgirls behaved as if they were her equals, and like many European visitors noted with distaste that American servants shared their employer’s dining table. “When she found she was to dine in the kitchen,” Fanny wrote of one short-lived maid, “she turned up her pretty lip, and said, ‘I guess that’s ’cause you don’t think I’m good enough to eat with you.’” Indeed it was. “You’ll find that won’t do here,” the maid ended the conversation. To someone like Fanny, brought up in the stratified society of late Georgian England, dining alongside one’s servant was like running naked through the streets. In Fanny’s interior world, people were born in immutable tiers. “Queer effect,” she noted in her Ohioan journal, “of hearing that one’s friend’s cousin is a shoemaker or a baker or a sailmaker.” Discovering the exotic private life of another servant girl, Fanny concluded, “This adventure frightened me so heartily, that, notwithstanding I had the dread of cooking my own dinner before my eyes, I would not take any more young ladies into my family without receiving some slight sketch of their former history.” As for the communal table: the custom lived on in the interior long after it died out on the East Coast. Sherwood Anderson complains about it in Winesburg, Ohio, a portrait of regional life based on the author’s own experience growing up in Clyde in the 1880s. (“In Winesburg,” Anderson writes, “servants were hard to get. The woman who wanted help in her housework employed a ‘hired girl’ who insisted on sitting at the table with the family.”) The author had lived on the coasts for many years when he wrote Winesburg and the book is a reaction to the provincialism of his childhood: exactly the characteristics that irritated Fanny. He captures the fleeting, small-town moment of those years and pins it to the page like a lepidopterist. Anderson went for the flash of lightning that revealed a life without changing it—the silent moment in the Ohio cornfield when two inarticulate men almost connect, or a conversation flaring and dying at the stove in the back of a freezing dry-goods store. At his best, Anderson is one of the best. Hemingway admired him, and so did Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe, though all his disciples deserted him in the end, as did his readers. He ended up forgotten, living in New Orleans, and died after swallowing a toothpick.
When Fanny visited a “wild and lonely farm,” she admired the pluck of the early homesteaders, though with misgivings:
I think it the best specimen I saw of the backwoods independence, of which so much is said in America. These people were indeed independent, Robinson Crusoe was hardly more so, and they eat and drink abundantly; but yet it seemed to me there was something awful and almost unnatural in their loneliness. No village bell ever summoned them to prayer … When they die, no spot sacred by ancient reverence will receive their bodies … the husband or the father will dig the pit that is to hold them … and the wind that whispers through the boughs will be their only requiem. But then they pay neither taxes nor tithes, are never expected to pull off a hat or to make a curtsy, and will live and die without hearing or uttering the dreadful words, “God save the King.”
Meanwhile, Cincinnati prospered. In March 1829, the first vessel breasted the Miami Canal from the Queen City to Dayton. When the Advertiser solicited subscribers for the Lexington and Ohio Railroad, investors fell over themselves in the race to spend. The evident availability of disposable income gave Fanny an idea. No people she had ever come across “appeared to live so much without amusement as the Cincinnatians. Billiards are forbidden by law,” she complained, “so are cards. To sell a pack of cards in Ohio subjects the seller to a penalty of fifty dollars … Cincinnati has not many lions to boast.” Fanny had noted the public appetite for spectacle—the papers constantly advertised performances by pirouetting dogs or trapeze artists. The exhibition galleries at the Western Museum were often empty, so she shrewdly approached the curator, Joseph Dorfeuille. Drawing on shows she had seen at London’s Vauxhall Gardens, Fanny sketched out a series of “talking panoramas” in which actors appeared as living exhibits. Hervieu, as artistic collaborator, co-opted the lanky young Hiram Powers, a Vermont-born mechanical genius who went on to become the most celebrated American sculptor of the nineteenth century. He was to make wax models. Dorfeuille agreed to Fanny’s scheme, and in April 1828, The Invisible Girl opened at the museum. Twelve visitors at a time paid to ask an oracle three questions in a room lit with colored images. Henry played the oracle, at last making use of his Latin (at least between the questions: he delivered his answers in English). In an adjacent Magic Chamber, spectral figures danced on the walls. It was a quality show by frontier standards, and Cincinnatians loved it—The Invisible Girl ran for eight weeks. The next spectacle, The Infernal Regions, featured moving waxworks and “Horrid groans and terrible shrieks in every direction”—a depiction of hell Fanny stole from Dante (she even translated some of The Inferno to include in the script) and a far cry from the pieties of the Pilgrim Fathers. The public loved that too, and Dorfeuille installed an electric fence to keep the crowds back. The Infernal Regions ran for an extraordinary thirty-nine years. Fanny had money at last. For all her complaints about American fondness for cash above beauty, she found herself in permanent pursuit of lucre. “Perhaps they are right,” she wrote of her neighbors. “In Europe we see fortunes crippled by a passion for statues, or for pictures, or for books, or for gems; for all and every of the artificial wants that give grace to life, and tend to make man forget that he is a thing of clay. They are wiser in their generation on the other side of the Atlantic; I rarely saw anything that led to such oblivion there.” It was only partly ironic.
The public loved the shows almost as much as they enjoyed arguing over the imminent presidential election, and Fanny was amused to discover that Americans thought they had invented the democratic process. “We do these things openly here; you mince matters more, I expect,” a neighbor remarked to her during the hustings. British suffrage might have been limited, but a democratic system had been evolving since the Great Councils that followed the Norman Conquest in 1066. That—the eleventh century—was a fertile period for the Acoma Pueblo in what is now New Mexico, but Washington, D.C., remained the lonely home of a few wandering Nacotchtank dreaming of beaver pelts. When Fanny settled in Cincinnati, Andrew Jackson was fighting it out for the second time against incumbent John Quincy Adams, and the Advertiser was batting for Jackson while its rival the Gazette came out for Adams. Most voters supported the boy from the Carolina backwoods with a bullet in his chest, and in October, in the biggest political meeting ever held in the city, 1,200 Jacksonians crushed into the candlelit theater to hear bombastic attacks on East Coast elitism. The process was only open to some. Before Fanny left Cincinnati, the newly crowned Jackson, a slaveholder whose quiffed likeness still goggles from the twenty-dollar bill, introduced his Indian Removal Act, which, in a hotly contested field, was one of the most rebarbative pieces of legislation ever passed. Elections apart, only the Fourth of July raised the citizens of Cincinnati from the single-minded pursuit of gain. “To me,” Fanny wrote, “the dreary coldness and want of enthusiasm in American manners is one of their greatest defects, and I therefore hailed the demonstrations of general feeling which this day elicits with real pleasure. On the Fourth of July the hearts of the people seem to awaken from a 364 days’ sleep; they appear high spirited, gay, animated, social, generous, or at least liberal in expense; and would they but refrain from spitting on that hallowed day, I should say that on the Fourth of July, at least, they appeared to be an amiable people.”
Thomas Trollope had finally arrived in September 1828, bringing the eldest son—his snub-nosed, shy namesake, known as Tom, who had grown into a gentle giant. Anthony remained alone in England, his school bills unpaid. “My boyhood,” the latter wrote in his autobiography, “was, I think, as unhappy as that of a young gentleman could well be.” His account of those years is almost unbearable in its misery. “I feel convinced in my mind,” he wrote, “that I have been flogged more than any human being alive.” He waited until she was dead till he said it, but she must have known. God knows how she stood it. Thomas and Tom were to stay for six months. Back at home the domestic treasury was in terminal decline, but in the Ohio forest buckeyes flamed, and when cold winds blew in from the plains, the family took up drawing-room dramas, or wrapped up for skating and moonlit sleigh rides. Fanny threw a party, inviting a hundred guests and installing a small orchestra. The hosts staged The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Henry, suitably drunk as Falstaff, went on with a pillow up his shirt. “Looking back at those Cincinnati days,” Tom wrote in old age, “I have to say that I liked Americans.”
Encouraged by the success of The Infernal Regions, toward the end of 1828 Fanny conceived the ambitious idea for a cultural entertainment center where the sexes could mingle as they did at the Hot Wells spa in Bristol, at Almack’s Assembly Rooms in London’s St. James’, or at Vauxhall Gardens. Vauxhall was the most famous pleasure garden in Europe, open to anyone who could afford the shilling entrance fee, and it had just enjoyed its most profitable decade. Anthony Trollope once danced all night in the ballroom after walking fourteen miles from Harrow, and when the sun rose, he walked back. At Vauxhall an orchestra played on the upper floor of a rococo octagon, singers crooned from balconies and for the first time the middle classes ate in public, enjoying wafer-thin slices of ham, potted pigeon and arrack punch after viewing the latest stunt: a cat arrived by parachute, poor thing, and a horse went up under a hot air balloon, its hooves nailed to a wooden platform. The Gardens were popular with lovers—Keats (John, not George) wrote the sonnet, “To a Lady Seen for a Few Moments at Vauxhall,” and the Dark Walk at one end was the scene of more transactional romance. Before Fanny left England, the Gardens had begun to specialize in illuminations. Besides fireworks and crackerjacks, thousands of train-oil lights hung on trees (Vauxhall was “a wilderness of lamps,” according to the young Wordsworth, though the Dark Walk remained unlit, for the sake of propriety, and business) and dramatic panoramas like the Western Museum tableaux represented the eruption of Vesuvius. Fanny believed she could sprinkle some Vauxhall fairy dust on the frontier. On January 20, 1829, she and Thomas purchased a plot close to the river for $1,665, almost exactly the sum she had received on her father’s death. When he returned to Harrow, Thomas was to forward funds to complete the project. He suggested the inclusion of retail space. “This frightened me,” Fanny wrote to a friend later, “as I knew we none of us understood anything of buying and selling.” Thomas insisted that the goods he was going to send would be certain to generate handsome profits. Decades later, Anthony wrote of his father, “The touch of his hand seemed to create failure. He embarked on one hopeless enterprise after another, spending on each all the money he could at the time command. His temper was so bad that he estranged every one of his family, and yet I believe that he would have given his heart’s blood for any of us. His life as I knew it was one long tragedy.”
Construction of the Bazaar turned into a Dantean purgatory, like the talking panorama. Located on the industrial south side of Third Street, the site nestled among engine manufacturers and steam paper mills and smelled like the neighboring brewery. Thomas and Tom had left, leaving Fanny to manage the project. Every worker’s insistence that he was equal to everyone else revealed the speed of democracy in action, and in the bitter winter months mortar froze before it was applied. The snow fell and fell and ice hardened on the mud puddles on Third Street, but no money appeared from Harrow. Fanny had instructed her husband not to spend more than 150 pounds on the retail goods. When the shipment arrived, customs duties exceeded the selling price. In addition, it was all trash. Fanny declared she had “4,000 dollars” worth of the most trumpery goods that probably ever were shipped.” She ran out of money, completing the building on credit. In March 1829, with things at their worst, Fanny turned fifty. Failing eyesight, night sweats, unplanned micturition, forgetfulness, deafness, weight gain, a hairy chin—and gravity.
She had designed the building herself. The limestone frontage, inspired by the basilica of St. Athanase in Egypt, comprised three outsize arabesque windows and a battlement. The south face, an ersatz Apollinopolis, featured columns rising three stories to a twenty-four-foot rotunda. Fanny had lived her whole life under George III and the Bazaar reflected the Regency love of the flamboyant and exotic, reprising characteristics of contemporary buildings at home—Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, the second Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, the Burlington Arcade, and especially the Turkish Tent and rotunda at Vauxhall. In England the style had evolved organically. On the American frontier, according to one resident, the Bazaar “could scarcely have been more out of place had it been tossed on the earth by some volcano in the moon.” Americans favored neoclassical architecture, and Grecian restraint set the tone. Fanny had gone for the opposite effect, shaking up allusion, Orientalism and Georgian beau monde charade. As for the 3,800-square-foot interior: above the Exchange Coffee House and basement bar, the first floor had the shop, two rows of columns and a salon serving oysters and sherbets. On the second floor, Hervieu had painted the ballroom to look like the Alhambra, with trompe l’oeil columns, niches, and false windows filled in with Spanish landscapes. A staircase spiraling through four floors ended in the rotunda, which had been fitted out with panoramic screens. Cincinnati’s first gaslights were to illuminate proceedings.
At the grand opening nobody wanted to buy ices or coffee, or waste time looking at pictures, and visitors considered the prices of the bric-a-brac a joke. The gas pipes eructated with vile-smelling smoke and Fanny had to bring in whale-oil lamps, which made their own contribution to the stink. A week later, the contractor engaged to repair the pipes absconded with the advanced cash. Fanny held a musical evening of songs and recitation. The entrance ticket was one dollar, tea and coffee included. “These species of amusement, so popular of late years, both in Paris and London,” read the advert in the Gazette, “have not hitherto been introduced in America, and it is hoped the present attempt will be favourably received.” It was not. Americans on the frontier were too busy to sit on their bottoms eating sherbets or humming along to operettas. Rescue schemes collapsed one after the other: Fanny tried to rent space to merchants and offered the Great Room for dinners, and Hervieu staged a weekly musical evening. When six drunks from a passing steamer were the only attendees, he called it off. The Bazaar would have been ambitious even without the retail fiasco. In the end creditors seized everything. Trollope’s Folly, as residents dubbed the Bazaar, revealed a lack of commercial acumen, the worst crime in frontier America. On January 22, 1830, auctioneers moved in to sell piles of vases, watch cases, candlesticks, coral necklaces and gilt clocks. Unable to pay the rent, Fanny and her entourage had to give up Gano Lodge. But they could not leave Cincinnati until March, as the Ohio was frozen. Trading the parlor carpet for rent, they boarded with a neighbor, and Hervieu bought them all one meal a day. Creditors had even taken their beds, so through a hard Ohio winter, with the temperature down to three degrees below, Fanny and the two girls shared a small cot while Henry and Hervieu slept on the kitchen floor. Fanny contracted malaria and Henry fell seriously ill with an unknown malady. It was a desperate time.
* * *
At Pleasureville Pool Hall on Main Street, the owner was flipping cheeseburgers. No fries, said a sign, —no frier. A winking television on a hinge in the corner made no impact on the room. Under the high ceilings, islands of light picked out the pool tables even at two in the afternoon. Outside, one streetlight was on, the weak beam absorbed in the oven-like sunshine, and deserted sidewalks shimmered in 99 percent humidity. All the other shops had closed down—even the video store had succumbed. The Kentucky-born owner joined me for a triangle between frying burgers. “How’s business?” I asked. “Fair,” he said. He was sixty-three and had worked at the pool hall since he was ten, and recently had bought the enterprise from his uncle. It was hard to imagine anyone buying it from him. The hall was almost part of the past—about to slip into history and oblivion, swept away by a homogenizing tide of malls. But it wasn’t quite the past yet. The thwack of balls on baize still reverberated around the cavernous room and the ceiling fans went through their lugubrious motions even though the hall was air-conditioned. One had the sense of continuity—touching hands with the long list of travelers to have roamed the bluegrass, even back to Fanny.
Two days later, I crossed the Ohio. In a parking lot in downtown Cincinnati, I posted dollar bills through a metal slit; a homely, unpoliced, non-metropolitan system of a piece with the old-fashioned tone of the quiet streets, brownstone walk-ups and fire escape ziggurats. A firmly worded sign noting the consequences of non-payment, with reference to by-laws and legislative procedures, exemplified the beady-eyed provincialism for which the Queen City is infamous. (In 1990 the director of the Contemporary Arts Center was indicted on obscenity charges for putting on a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition.) The fiberglass pigs in tutus outside the Cincinnati Ballet on Central Parkway were protesting too much, and little had changed over the last half-century in the subterranean Hathaway’s diner beneath the Carew Tower. The Cincinnati coney dogs tasted great all the same—or perhaps because of the sleepy, stately charm that made the city hard to dislike. The frontier swagger of the 1820s disappeared in a generation as America rolled west, leaving Cincinnati in peace. Mark Twain said he would come here for the apocalypse, because Cincinnati was always twenty years behind the times. A lot of it had come to a standstill. In Mohawk, where Fanny had tramped through the forest looking for fossils, Sam’s Meats and Eats had closed its doors forever and most of the nineteenth-century townhouses were boarded up, or for rent, or both. This, like Jonestown, represented another side of the American dream. People sat on plastic chairs on the sidewalks, fleeing the pressure-cooker of walk-ups without air-conditioning. Vines had coiled round overhead power cables that swagged from sidewalk maples. From the top of a hill I could see the two cones of the Proctor and Gamble building, known as Dolly Parton Towers, and the annunciatory glow of the moving newsband around the Great American Ballpark, home of the Cincinnati Reds. The cetacean puffs of steam were gone from the Ohio, and so was the Bazaar. After Fanny left America, the Presbyterian Society took it over, handing it on to the Ohio Mechanics’ Institute. Subsequent businesses included a brothel and a hospital for Civil War soldiers, and in 1881 a developer tore it down to make way for an apartment block. On low ground a few hundred yards from the river, the concrete struts of Highway 77 encased any remnants of arabesques, battlements and dreams under a tide of roaring cars.
* * *
Fanny returned to Harrow with a rough draft of a book in three inky notebooks. This, now, was the only hope of financial salvation. The Scottish naval officer Basil Hall’s Travels in North America had just gone through three rapid printings and Fanny judged that the reading public wanted to know more about the independent nation that had sprung from what had been, to most Britons, an uninteresting colony. And they did. America in the end delivered what Fanny had set sail to find—financial security. So it was the promised land after all.
What is Domestic Manners? It is a vivid, funny, idiosyncratic and deeply selective portrait of America written in prose with serrated edges. Fanny sailed from England a liberal and returned a conservative, and the transformation gave her book its tensile strength. From the start, she skews the evidence in an attempt to prove that equality is an antidote to improvement, and that handing state power to the populace leads to a breakdown of social control. Fanny was suspicious both of Jefferson’s insistence that all men are born equal, and of the Jacksonian concept of popular democracy. “Were I an English legislator,” she wrote, “instead of sending sedition to the tower, I would send her to make a tour of the U.S. I had a little leaning towards sedition myself when I set out, but before I had half completed my tour I was quite cured.” A country needs a hierarchy, she believed, as a body needs a skeleton. “In the social system of Mr. Jefferson,” she wrote, “the darling, ‘I’m as good as you’ would soon take the place of the law and Gospel.” She dealt with Jefferson by referring to his numerous offspring by a slave (his long-term mistress Sally Hemings). In her prose and in her life Fanny moved with eighteenth-century ease from battlefield to boudoir. She is associated with the Victorians, but really she was raised in the world of rakes and Hogarthian vulgarity, unafraid of either in print or life. And America was not the only problem when she was writing Domestic Manners. The Reform Bill and the possibility of the first significant extension of voting rights in English history dominated the political agenda at home. The issue was so contentious that working Britons had been hanged and thousands deported to Australia; in Bristol, Fanny’s hometown, rioters burned down the bishop’s palace. Convinced by her American experiences that the masses should be denied power, Fanny hoped, through Domestic Manners of the Americans, to boost the Conservative cause.*
* * *
Fanny’s central theme—the consequences of investing the power of the state in the hands of the populace—lay at the heart of Alexis de Tocqueville’s investigations. Now the sacerdotal European commentator on the United States, Tocqueville had sailed over to Jacksonian America to compile a report on the prison system. He ended up writing a meditation on the nature of democracy that remains in print after 160 years, though that is not as long as Domestic Manners.
Tocqueville’s people were ultra-royalists shacked up in a chateau on the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy. Many had heard the snick of the guillotine, and Tocqueville wept when he watched the last Bourbon king fleeing Versailles in a coach with the bossed royal emblem shrouded. What, he wondered, would replace the old forms of the social contract? Like many in Europe, he saw America as an experiment which might answer that question. Tocqueville set off in 1831 in the company of his friend Gustave de Beaumont: their three-masted schooner Le Havre passed Fanny’s ship in mid-Atlantic. Both men were twenty-five-year-old assistant magistrates with patrician good looks. They toured for nine months, and took a steamboat down the Mississippi from Memphis to New Orleans, calling the latter “le Midi.” Cincinnati, they noted in letters and journals, was unfettered by the blue-blooded traditions of the East. “This is a society,” Tocqueville wrote of the nascent city, “that as yet has no bonds, political, hierarchical, social or religious, in which each individual is on his own because it suits him to be, without concerning himself with his neighbour, a democracy without limit or moderation.” The whole place seemed to embody the essence of the new country and as such was crucial to Tocqueville’s perceptions of American democracy. “The entire society [in Cincinnati],” he wrote in a notebook, “is a factory!” He told his mother that society appeared in big letters there, like a children’s book—you could read America. Unlike the troubled country of his birth, and even unlike the East Coast of the U.S., Cincinnati was a place without a past. Tocqueville liked everything American except slavery and the forced resettlement of Indians—though these were sizeable issues. Unlike Fanny, he came to believe that the development of democracy was inevitable (“God-given”) while at the same time harboring deep reservations about its institutionalisation. He warned, with foresight, that the new system was likely to produce fresh forms of tyranny, because too much equality could lead to materialism and individualism. Tocqueville did share certain Trollopian complaints. He too noted an unpleasant obsession with wealth. “The more deeply one goes into the American national character,” he wrote, “the more one sees that they value everything on earth in response to this sole question: How much is it worth?” The notion of American rapacity persisted. Henry James, in The American Scene, made the point that Americans have no respect for the old unless there is money in it. Even in the 1990s, when the American writer Bill Bryson toured Britain by train, he expressed frustration at his fellow passengers’ unwillingness to talk. It was all so different in America, wrote Bryson. There one only had to extend one’s hand and ask, “How much money did you make last year?”
“The people here seem to be stinking with national conceit,” Tocqueville wrote to his mother three days after disembarking from the Le Havre. Americans were so convinced of their superiority as “the only religious, enlightened and free people,” that they almost believed themselves “a distinct species of mankind.” But he came to recognize that what looked like vanity was insecurity, one aspect of the “restless spirit” that was the essence of Jacksonian America. The difference between Tocqueville and Fanny Trollope turns on this point. His was the more flexible mind; he was an intellectual, and in America experience informed his intellect. She was an empiricist, content to base broad judgements on a short spell of personal experience colored by her own shortcomings and prejudice. He took the nuanced view, displaying a largesse that came naturally to a wealthy boulevardier who went to so many balls in America that he wrote home for two dozen pairs of yellow kid gloves. Democracy in America might be more quoted than read but Tocqueville’s reputation as a thinker has never been higher. He has become a prophet for all seasons, continually reinterpreted as the zeitgeist shifts, and the complexity of his analysis has made it possible for ideologues of every persuasion to claim him for their team.
* * *
She tried to dissuade Anthony from the writing business. “We Trollopes,” Fanny told her son, “are far too much given to pen and ink as it is.” Their output was indeed biblically vast. After Domestic Manners, Fanny published thirty-four triple-decker novels and six travel narratives, and by the time she put down her pen, she had racked up well over a hundred volumes. The bear-like Tom wrote in excess of sixty books, from tomes on Italian politics to histories, most of them bad; he worked from eight till two every day, standing at a lectern smoking cigars. His first wife produced translations and rather good poetry before expiring of TB in 1865, and his second, another Frances (sister of Dickens’ mistress Nellie Ternan), churned out a dozen novels and a biography of Fanny, her mother-in-law, whom she had never met. Cecilia caught them up with a high-church novel. Between them they had almost every literary genre covered. Anthony clocked up a mere fifty books. Like Fanny, he places the crucial importance of marriage at the center of all his novels, but with an awful lot more subtlety and sophistication (he also enjoyed a more successful marriage than his mother). To a certain extent her novels are unevolved ancestral prototypes of his.
Fanny’s novels are bright, coarse and not very good. “Oh … that ladies would make puddings and mend stockings!” wrote Thackeray in a review of an early one. Many reprise the themes of the American book. Michael Armstrong, The Factory Boy, which appeared in monthly shilling parts, publicizes the plight of 200,000 children, some as young as five, working at looms in the north of England in the 1830s, deprived of light, beaten awake by foremen with long sticks called billy rollers and so malnourished they resembled dwarves. It was slavery by another name. A reactionary Tory she might have been, but Fanny was quick to speak out against injustice, whether in Lancashire factories, Kentucky plantations or Cherokee enforced camps. In addition, although she did not champion female suffrage, she never stopped fighting for the right of women to control their destinies. The novels are crowded with strong women who win through. She was in many ways a pioneer, in that the education and the position of women were a central preoccupation, and she often spoke up, through her characters, on behalf of women whom society judged to be foolish or wayward. One reviewer called her “a bluestocking who travels in seven-leagued boots.”
While the books poured out, Henry and both the girls who had accompanied Fanny to America developed full-blown TB. “A sadder household never was held together,” Anthony remembered. “They were all dying, except my mother, who would sit up night after night nursing the dying ones and writing novels the while.” She often worked through the night, sustained by laudanum and green tea; at other times she rose at four and worked till someone else woke or needed nursing. Then they did die: first Henry, aged twenty-three, then Emily, aged eighteen, then Cecilia, aged thirty-three.
The worst had actually happened. The deepest dread; the unspoken fear that lurks behind the joy of parenthood. Having a child entails almost too much risk: creating the most profound love, which can at any time be taken away. It so terrified me that I didn’t dare do it until I was thirty-seven. It was not so much fear of the child dying. It was fear that he or she might be damaged and unhappy. In my case this was an understandable consequence of experience. My only sibling, Mathew, fourteen months my junior, has been profoundly brain damaged since he was a baby, and for large chunks of his life incapable of finding happiness. It’s not that you love them less: the problem is that you love them more.
Of the seven children she had borne, only Anthony and Tom were still alive. The choleric Thomas also expired, at the age of sixty-one; he had reached F for Funeral in his ecclesiastical encyclopedia. “The doctor’s vials and the ink-bottle held equal places in my mother’s rooms,” Anthony wrote years later. “I have written many novels under many circumstances; but I doubt much whether I could write one when my whole heart was by the bedside of a dying son.” Talk about being two separate people. Yet was she? She had certainly done better than I had in that department. Even when the skies grew very black indeed, Fanny accepted the things that couldn’t be changed. Unlike Faulkner, she never had to reconcile herself to the annihilation to come. Death, for her, was part of life.
I sensed there was something for me to learn here. What was it that I found so hard to accept? Entering the next phase, and letting all or most of that mothering business go? Becoming myself again? There was such obscurity swirling round that next “phase.” In my grandmother’s youth in the 1920s, let alone in Fanny’s era, many in the medical profession perceived the menopause as a disaster. Doctors tried to reactivate menstruation by opening tissues of blood, in addition to the deployment of God knows what other more than useless interventions. In 1917, the Irish writer George Moore published a novel in which the narrator peremptorily announces, “At fifty a woman’s life is really over.” The heroine herself believes, “A woman dies twice, and in a very few years it is borne in upon us that our mouths are no longer fit for kisses.” She is forty-five. Whole industries still devote themselves to the pursuit of eternal youth. The message that a woman in her fifties must strive not to show her age is deeply embedded in contemporary Western culture, as if we were all, we would-be crones, screaming desperately, “Don’t let me get old!” (Reading the popular press, you would think that women of fifty and over do not exist, bar the odd prime minister or secretary of state carrying on like honorary men.) Elsewhere in these pages I made fun of Fanny Trollope’s drooping bosom and the other physical indignities she faced on entering her sixth decade. But none of those things made her less of a woman. Our culture and hers say that they did. One would think nothing lay over the hill of the climacteric (a friendlier word than “menopause,” I think) except gloomy decrepitude: twilight before death. “Old Woman” was not a friendly term when a Cincinnati neighbor used it to address Fanny Trollope 185 years ago. Little has changed. But if we don’t like ourselves as we are, who will?
Anthony’s portraits of his mother are affectionate, despite the stupendous misery of his childhood. He installed her in many stories, and in his pages she lives on. In his autobiography, he said that Matilda Carbury, the central figure in my favorite among his novels, The Way We Live Now, was based partly on Fanny. While she is a financially successful writer, Carbury emerges as a slightly dim figure of fun, seducing literary editors, writing absurd books and trying to force her children into good marriages. The victim of her wastrel son, Carbury works like a demon and rejects the role of the passive Victorian woman. Like Fanny Trollope, she was a successful transgressor. The Way We Live Now is a novel about a woman’s escape from male uselessness and worse into a mostly sunlit land of redemption and emotional freedom. As Carbury herself notes, “How few women there are who can raise themselves above the quagmire of what we call love, and make themselves anything but playthings for men.” Anthony deeply admired his mother. “She was an unselfish, affectionate, and most industrious woman,” he wrote, “with great capacity for enjoyment and high physical gifts. She was endowed too, with much creative power, with considerable humour, and a genuine feeling for romance.” In his novels, he creates people who rise from misfortune through ingenuity, hard work and even love, as she had. He saw her, as he saw his characters, with generous, forgiving eyes. But in his autobiography he said his mother was politically gullible, allowing chance acquaintance with “an Italian marquis who had escaped with only a second shirt” to shape her views. “With her politics were always an affair of the heart,—as indeed were all her convictions. Of reasoning from causes I think that she knew nothing.” Tom said his brother had got their mother wrong in this regard. It was he, Tom, who lived with her for many of her later years. “We were inseparable companions and friends,” he said, going on to defend the integrity and intellectual basis of his mother’s political opinion. “She was the happiest natured person I ever knew,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Happy in the intense power of enjoyment, happier still in the conscious exercise of the power of making others happy.” What more could one want? “She was during all her life,” Tom continued, “full of, and fond of, fun; had an exquisite sense of humour; and at all times valued her friends and acquaintances more exclusively, I think, than most people do, for their intrinsic qualities, mainly those of the heart.”
Fanny never returned to America. She saw the USA and Britain moving together, culturally, as she had feared they would.* Through it all she found patterns in the messy, contradictory details of her own experience and salvaged redemption from the suitcase of shattered dreams. She died aged eighty-three at her handsome Florentine palazzo, the Villino Trollope. Like all writers, she went on talking after she was dead, and she speaks still. One obituary referred to her as “one of the most remarkable women of her period,” which I would change to “of any period.” Hers is a story of self-made success and of winning through by grit and hard work—an American story. She was more American than she imagined.
Copyright © 2013 by Sara Wheeler