The Magazine

Under British Eyes

Edmund White's novel about two real-life Fannys and their visits to America.

Jan 12, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 17 • By CYNTHIA GRENIER
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Fanny

A Fiction

by Edmund White

Ecco, 369 pp., $24.95

FANNY TROLLOPE, mother of the great Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, was a prodigious author--in quantity if not quality. Born in 1780 and living till 1863, she wrote in her long lifetime some 41 works of fiction and nonfiction, the best remembered being her "Domestic Manners of Americans," still in print today. Readers on both sides of the Atlantic heaped opprobrium on her when the book appeared in 1832, but Mark Twain later came down squarely in her favor. He wrote: "Of all those tourists I like Dame Trollope best. She found a 'civilization' here which you, reader, could not have endured; and which you would not have regarded as a civilization at all. Mrs. Trollope spoke of this civilization in plain terms--plain and unsugared, but honest and without malice, and without hate."

There was another Fanny to reckon with in those days: Frances Wright, a young Scottish heiress and something of a gerontophile groupie. She endeavored to get the aged General Lafayette to adopt her and her younger sister (the general's family resisted the maneuver, although he continued to address her in letters as "my dear daughter"), and wangled an invitation through him to Monticello and a meeting with the eighty-two-year-old Thomas Jefferson. Fanny Wright made her first trip to America in 1818 at age twenty-three--and, like nearly every British traveler, she promptly produced a book of her impressions: "Views of Society and Manners in America in a series of letters from that country during the years, 1818, 1819, and 1820, by an Englishwoman," which had a surprisingly large sale on both sides of the Atlantic and was translated into several European languages.

Now the writer Edmund White has taken these two Fannys and thrown them together in his new novel, "Fanny: A Fiction." It's a clever enough idea. Suppose one Fanny were to have written a biography of the other. What would the book look like? What would the tart (as in acidic) Fanny Trollope have to say about the tart (as in a trollop) Fanny Wright?

In fact, in 1824 Fanny Wright embarked, with her younger sister in tow, to the States once again, this time to partake in some of the glory being accorded to Lafayette on his first triumphal tour of a grateful United States. It was on this trip that she became acquainted with the English philanthropist and experimenter in social reform Robert Owen, who had bought outright the whole village community of New Harmony--a religious society, entirely communistic in principle and practice--on the banks of the Wabash in Indiana, where he confidently planned to transform society into an uplifting communal way of life.

Toward the end of her book on the United States, Fanny had mentioned slavery, which she found shocking and repugnant, predicting its complete disappearance in the not-too-distant future. After meeting Owen, she became enamored of the idea of using the New Harmony model as a way to prepare slaves for freedom.

She purchased a plantation called "Nashoba," thirteen miles south of the Mississippi River at the old Indian trading post of Chickasaw Bluffs (today's Memphis), and set to work.

Visiting England again in 1827, Fanny Wright met Fanny Trollope--and somehow convinced her to come join the wondrous world-transforming experiment, bringing along one son and three young daughters, leaving behind her husband and the two oldest sons in school at Winchester. Nashoba was a complete disaster in every possible way for Fanny Trollope and her children. She found on her arrival the people "were without milk, without beverage of any kind except rain water. Wheaten bread they used very sparingly and the Indian corn bread was uneatable. They had no vegetables but rice and a few potatoes we brought with us, no meat but pork, no butter, no cheese. I shared Frances Wright's bedroom. It had no ceiling, and the floor consisted of planks laid loosely upon piles."

Fanny Trollope quickly moved on to the nascent community of Cincinnati, where she made quite a mark, before retreating back to England, by building a very bizarre bazaar and bankrupting the Trollope family. Still, her sojourn in the United States gave Fanny Trollope dandy material for her bestselling work on America and its citizenry.

The material has also served Edmund White splendidly for his novel, allowing him, in the persona of Fanny Trollope, to speculate on such details as whether Fanny Wright had actually had an affair with Lafayette. (White rather thinks she did.) It also allows him to make free use of the two women's none-too-flattering comments on our early fellow citizens, particularly reflections on racism and materialism.

White's novel "Fanny" is, on the whole, a thoroughly engaging read. In the "acknowledgments," the author admits that much of his book relies on "invention"--Mrs. Trollope's passionate relations with the powerful blacksmith slave Cudjo, for example, and the sexual proclivities of the young French artist Auguste Hervieu, involving young Henry Trollope--some of which is less than convincing. Still, "Fanny" will have done an admirable job if it sends readers back to the original works of these two clever, witty Fannys, discoursing on the United States in its infant days.

Cynthia Grenier is a writer in Washington, D.C.