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Fanny: A Fiction

Fanny: A Fiction

by Edmund White

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In her fifties, Mrs. Frances Trollope became famous overnight for her book attacking the United States. Twenty-five years later, she sharpens her pen for her most controversial work yet — the biography of her old friend, the radical and feminist Fanny Wright. She recalls the 1820s when the young Fanny erupted into the Trollopes' sleepy English cottage like a


In her fifties, Mrs. Frances Trollope became famous overnight for her book attacking the United States. Twenty-five years later, she sharpens her pen for her most controversial work yet — the biography of her old friend, the radical and feminist Fanny Wright. She recalls the 1820s when the young Fanny erupted into the Trollopes' sleepy English cottage like a volcano, her red hair flying, her talk aflame with utopian ideals. Before long, Wright has convinced Frances to follow her to America, a journey of extreme penury, frontier hardships, and the most satisfying sensual romance of Frances Trollope's life.

The biography soon degenerates into a settling of scores and digressions on the misadventures of Mrs. Trollope's own family. By turns noble and petty, comic and tragic, it introduces us to literary lions, battling political theorists, gamblers and escaped slaves, and even the aging General Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. With hallucinatory realism, Mrs. Trollope paints French châteaux, Belgian fogs, Mississippi mud, and the gaudy splendors and cruelties of Haiti. And throughout this sparkling narrative, we find love in all its forms — in the family, between races and generations, and within the same sex.

Fanny: A Fiction is a wonderful new departure for Edmund White — a quirky, dazzling story of two extraordinary nineteenth-century women, and a vibrant, questioning exploration of the nature of idealism, the clay feet of heroes, and the illusory power of the American dream.

Editorial Reviews

(starred) - Booklist
"A wonderful novel."
Publishers Weekly
White's most recent novel, the saturnine A Married Man, showed little of the feline, Nabokovian elegance of his early work-most famously, A Boy's Own Story. White triumphantly returns to form with this historical teaser, a novel wrapped inside a "memoir" of Fanny Wright by Mrs. Frances Trollope. The real Mrs. Trollope is best known for Domestic Manners of the Americans, an 1830s disquisition on her travels in America; Fanny Wright is best known as the utopian feminist who lured Mrs. Trollope to America with her disastrous scheme to abolish marriage and solve America's racial divide at Nashoba, a community she founded in Tennessee. White's conceit is that this is Trollope's last book, written when its author is 76, her health and memory failing, decades after her adventures in the wilds of America when she was in her late 40s. Essentially abandoned by Fanny Wright from the moment she steps ashore, Trollope must fend for herself and see to the well-being of her daughters, her son Henry and her companion, Auguste Hervieu. As Trollope discovers, Fanny, like many a progressive activist after her, implements her humanistic idealism at the expense of her humanity. But White's real subject is Trollope herself: caustic, witty, self-aware, genteelly impoverished, cursed with a cold, hypochondriac husband. Trollope's struggle to maintain her own little bit of interior civilization is a joy to witness. Since Trollope's book is a classic, White risks a lot by offering a competing narrative. He succeeds by letting Trollope's pen run into un-Victorian excesses, giving us the unbuttoned view of her travels. The emotional epicenter of the book is Trollope's affair with an ex-slave, Cudjo, in the unpropitious town of Cincinnati. White's novel, while shying from preaching, is a timely reminder that transatlantic critics of America's "domestic manners" sometimes have a good point or two to make. Agent, Amanda Urban. (Oct. 10) Forecast: The elaborate conceit may scare off some readers, but Fanny is anything but stuffy. Expect lively review coverage. Six-city author tour. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
White's latest novel is a well-researched and often wildly funny mock-biography of Fanny Wright, Scots-born American abolitionist and feminist, as "written" by her contemporary, English novelist Trollope. Wright first visited the United States in 1818; a few years later she established Nashoba, an idealistic and ultimately unsuccessful community for freed slaves. An advocate of free love, she generated gossip for a series of affairs and for her public lectures on abolition. Trollope (mother of Anthony), unaware of Wright's scandalous behavior and impressed by her idealism, visited the United States in the hope of settling at Nashoba; eventually repelled by all she saw, she returned to England to publish Domestic Manners of the Americans. White takes this historic framework and has Trollope attempt a biography of Wright; however, she frequently veers from her intended purpose, writing more about the injustices executed on her by Wright and others. While the reader is aware of various sexual and racial permutations among the characters, Trollope, the "biographer," is oblivious. Well known for his numerous novels (e.g., A Boy's Own Story) and nonfiction (e.g., Genet: A Biography), White is often called a "gay" writer, but his superb writing goes beyond simplistic labels. Highly recommended for large public and academic libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/03.]-Mary Margaret Benson, Linfield Coll. Lib., McMinnville, OR Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Novelist and memoirist White (The Flâneur, 2001, etc.) obviously had a ball playing within the double framework of this purported biography-gone-astray of Victorian radical Fanny Wright by hack novelist and travel writer Frances Trollope, Anthony's mother. White's conceit is that an aging Frances, who made her literary debut 30 years earlier with a diatribe against America after a four-year visit, decides to tell the story of her more famous friend Fanny, but Frances's self-absorption causes her to stray more and more into her own life story. The two women meet in the 1820s. Fanny, an heiress without the practical concerns that plague Frances, whose family is nearing financial ruin, is a freethinking feminist/atheist who makes Frances "feel worthy as a mind and attractive as a person." While desperately pragmatic Frances muddles through one family crisis after another, Fanny, drawn to powerful older men, becomes involved with Lafayette and follows him to America. Their relationship falters, but she becomes enamored with the aged Jefferson and then with Scottish philanthropist Robert Owen, founder of the utopian community New Harmony in Indiana. Fanny founds her own utopia, Nashoba, near Memphis, planning to educate slaves to prepare them for emancipation before transporting them to the independent black nation of Haiti. In 1827, under Fanny's charismatic spell, Frances drags her daughters and youngest son Henry to America hoping for a new start. Nashoba turns out to be a disaster-disorganized and unconsciously cruel; the semi-freed slaves are starving-and the Trollopes are plunged into deeper financial distress. Meanwhile, Fanny goes blithely on, unaware she's destroying lives in thepursuit of her ideals. Frances has little use for Fanny's abstractions but a real feel for actual people as exemplified in her wonderfully unexpected (and totally fictional) love affair with the runaway slave who lives next door. As she loses her genteel reticence, Frances begins to pack a real wallop as narrator and character. A brilliantly structured, wonderfully engaging tragicomedy of historic and panoramic yet human proportions. Agent: Amanda Urban/ICM
Seattle Times
“Delectable storytelling fun”
Booklist (starred)
“A wonderful novel.”

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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P.S. Series
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5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

Fanny: A Fiction

Chapter One

Now that her life is over I have decided to write it. To be sure I knew her only for a few intense years, but our friendship was central to both of us, if only to indicate the direction each of us did not choose to take. We spent time together on the high seas and in the United States (which she admired and I despised). We seldom agreed on anything and her followers, if there be any left, will doubtless question my right to be her Boswell.

But her numerous enemies, not her few friends, are the readers I address in the hope of vindicating her honor. Nor will I pretend that this is the complete account she merits; I am too burdened with other literary projects to be able to track down the minutiae or verify even the main dates of her passage on earth. And I am writing here in the French countryside, far from a library or the confirming or abetting reminiscences of other civilized English men and women. In fact the road outside this cottage is dusty, the peasant farmer with whom I stay for the moment shouts all day in an incomprehensible patois, there's a particularly boisterous rooster ... Fortunately in a few days I will be on my way to Florence and my beloved Villino Trollope.

Fanny Wright had undeniable virtues [develop this thought by the bye].

But she had, just as undeniably, some faults which I, as her friend and confidante, was particularly privileged to observe. Picture a blazing, ten-log fire sans fire-screen and you'll have a notion of Fanny Wright's heat and intensity (some would say her glare).

She had red hair, she was tall and slender, her complexion was as pale and lucent as opals -- but she was the good kind of redhead, without freckles, though she did have that distinctive scent of the true red-head, when she was overexerting herself, or as the French would say, en nage. [Delete remark on her bodily scent? In dubious taste? Though she gave off, in truth, the smell of a wet collie when she was sweating.]

But I anticipate. I am sitting here en déshabillé on a broken straw-bottomed chair in a room so noisy with clucking and the farmer's screeching to his fowl and the ripe scent of damp straw (this house is covered with thatch) that I might as well lay an egg myself, except I am not up to it and am waiting here until my fever subsides and my son Tom sends additional funds to complete my overland trip to Tuscany.

Frances Wright ...

Well, I should begin at the beginning. Her problems began with her parents and then their early exit from her life. She was born on September 6, 1795 [verify? I'm certain this is correct] in Dundee, a city almost as crowded and filthy as Edinburgh before the New City was constructed. In Edinburgh, in the Old City, though the streets were only five feet wide and the buildings ten stories tall, the "gentle folk" waited until ten of the evening and then, when the last watch was called, all had permission to throw their slops out the window onto the street below. Whoever was passing would be foully bespattered and the rising stench was so great one could sleep only with rose petals pressed to the nostrils. Mind you, Dundee was just as dark and densely settled as Edinburgh, but the Wrights lived on a floor of an ancient house, since torn down, by the Nethergate, I believe, whence the fields and gardens were visible and where the citizens would descend and bathe directly in the cold waters of the Tay.

Fanny was preceded by an older brother and followed by her beloved little sister Camilla, but when Fanny was only three her mother died and her father passed away three short months later. Despite this early disappearance her father, James Wright, a prosperous Dundee merchant, left his mark on the child, for James was the worst sort of freethinker. He had paid to have Thomas Paine's The Rights of Man reprinted in a ha'penny edition available to the poor, and this infamous egalitarian tract, full of mischievous sophistry, could have condemned the rash man to Botany Bay had he not been so well-connected. Mr. Wright belonged to several numismatics clubs and possessed very valuable coins; typical of his Jacobin views, he wondered why the public mints employed "the silly morsels of heraldry" in designing coins rather than "emblems of industry and commerce." Doubtless he wanted our shillings not to present the royal profiles but to show milkmaids plying swollen teats, and our crowns to enshrine dustmen wading through ordure.

Mr. Wright would also have been arrested for belonging to the infamous Friends of the People, a communistical phalanstery in Edinburgh, had he not ridden, all alone, one misty night, out into the murky Tay, where he drowned his devilish papers ... Years later, Fanny Wright read through the few notes her father had jotted down that had not been destroyed that night -- and naturally found surprising similarities in their turn of mind. He had written, "The spirit of law and the tenor of the conduct of governments in order to be well adapted to the mutable and ever-varying state of human affairs ought continually to change according to existing circumstances and the temper of the age." Notice his emphasis on mutable Circumstance rather than eternal Nature and its Laws. Fanny later told me she marveled at the "coincidence in views between father and daughter, separated by death when the first had not reached the age of twenty-nine, and when the latter was in infancy." I, too, alas, find a terrifying symmetry there, a family habit of reckless disregard of tradition and a total capitulation to Wanton Flux!

Fanny: A Fiction. Copyright © by Edmund White. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Edmund White is the author of the novels Fanny: A Fiction, A Boy's Own Story, The Farewell Symphony, and The Married Man; a biography of Jean Genet; a study of Marcel Proust; and, most recently, a memoir, My Lives. Having lived in Paris for many years, he has now settled in New York, and he teaches at Princeton University.

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