“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 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • 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>