“Fanny: A Fiction” by Edmund White

In this entertaining and large-spirited "fictional memoir," Anthony Trollope's mother visits a utopian community in Tennessee and becomes an all-American huckster.

Topics: Books,

Edmund White’s fictional “memoir,” written in the assumed voice of Fanny Trollope (mother of the great Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope), does many things usually considered unforgivable in a historical novel. It indulges in anachronism, it subjects the past to the derision of the present and, according to James R. Kincaid, writing in the New York Times Book Review, it is not as good as the book on which it is based, Fanny Trollope’s own “Domestic Manners of the Americans” — though I have my doubts about that claim. Yet “Fanny” is irresistible because it also has what every novel needs and so few these days possess: an entirely winning character who does all sorts of interesting things.

Trollope, as White depicts her, is a middle-class Englishwoman with vague intellectual leanings who gets caught up in the undertow of Fanny Wright, a Scottish-born heiress, social reformer and firebrand of the early 19th century. The book is ostensibly Trollope’s account of Wright, but it quickly dissolves into the story of how Wright turned Trollope’s life upside down by persuading her to come to America and join Nashoba, a utopian community Wright founded on the banks of the Wolf River, near Memphis. “I saw her as Athena in helm and robe,” White’s Trollope declares, succumbing to the redhead’s considerable charisma, a quality that also bewitched such notable men as Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson. “Our little village is flourishing,” Wright assures Trollope, and despite her misgivings about such Nashoban precepts as the raising of children without religion or much contact with their biological parents, Trollope books passage to New Orleans.

What Trollope and her entourage (a grown son, two daughters and a French painter named Auguste Hervieu) find when they arrive at Nashoba is not the promised village surrounded by apple orchards and cornfields but a “rough clearing in the gloomy woods” and “three roofless cabins.” The white residents have never quite materialized and Wright’s slaves are too cold, starving and downtrodden to muster much enthusiasm for Wright’s offer to let them earn their freedom. The near-destitute Trollope flees to Cincinnati, where she taps into a previously unknown aptitude for showmanship in concocting an attraction entitled the “Invisible Girl” (really her son Henry in a preposterous disguise, spouting “prophetic” gibberish), embarks on an illicit affair with an African-American blacksmith, joins Wright again for a brief jaunt to Haiti, and finally returns to Europe, where her “Domestic Manners” is to become a bestseller.



“Like so many others I departed for America a Progressive and came back a Conservative,” Trollope reflects. “Domestic Manners,” with its acerbic observations on the boastful, tetchy, oafish and uncultured Americans she encountered during her journey, became fodder for Tories arguing against social change. Wright, on the other hand, rhapsodized about the new nation as a fledgling egalitarian paradise on earth. “I suppose few people today can think their way back into that distant period when utopian schemes flourished, naive principles were fervently proposed and everything seemed possible and perfectible,” writes White’s Trollope.

The great joke of this gossipy, confiding and often ironic book, is that Trollope turns out to be more of an American — in the best sense of the word — than the idealistic Wright. If Wright betrays Trollope by lying to her about Nashoba, she also brings Trollope to the place that finally allows her considerable internal resources to burgeon. Wright preached the emancipation of women and blacks, the leveling of social class and the virtues of work, but in a pinch always remained wedded to her own kind. Trollope, as White depicts her, actually became self-sufficient, learned to see slaves as human beings (to her mind “tenderer than whites”), and saved her family from penury by the tireless work of her pen.

“She needed me to be conservative that she might be the revolutionary,” Trollope says of Wright in “Fanny,” and her willingness to play along, even after Wright has disappointed her many times, testifies to her generosity. “Fanny,” despite appearances, isn’t about female friendship — Wright isn’t warm enough for real intimacy — but about the wonders to be found in the bit players of history. White’s Fanny Trollope is plain, modest, middle-aged, occasionally fussy and obtuse, sometimes catty, but also in her own way a great spirit, certainly more human than the crusading, imperious Fanny Wright. Her resilience, humor, curiosity and common sense simply cannot be crushed. She’s like a great Dickens character with a dash of vinegar, and for some 370 pages you couldn’t ask for better company.

– Laura Miller

Our next pick: Shirley Hazzard’s long-awaited (really long-awaited!) “Great Fire”

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>