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”