Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Old wine in a new bottle

Fanny, A Fiction: Edmund White: The Ecco Press: 370 pp., $24.95

October 05, 2003|Vivian Gornick | Vivian Gornick is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Edmund White's new novel is a historical fiction based on the unlikely friendship of a pair of remarkably restless and intelligent Englishwomen who lived nearly 200 years ago, and who both achieved a measure of fame as a result of the trips they made, separately and together, to the promise and peril that was America in the 1820s: as richly suggestive a situation as any writer could want.

Fanny Wright was born in 1795 in Scotland into a wealthy, bourgeois family from which she emerged, inexplicably, a born radical, bent, apparently, on undoing the class from which she sprang. She was also, by all accounts, beautiful, brilliant, humorless and monumentally strong-willed. By her early 20s she had become an outspoken socialist, utopian and feminist, so passionately that, clearly, she was destined for a life dominated by ideas and devoted to positions.

In 1818 Fanny traveled to America, where she was instantly converted to the promise of the New World; she wrote a book of lavish praise for the young republic and took out citizenship papers. Returning to Europe two years later, she met the aging Gen. Lafayette and became perhaps his lover, certainly his constant companion. Three years after that, when Lafayette returned on a visit to the country in whose war of independence he had fought, Fanny came with him, and remained behind when the general left. She bought a large piece of land in Tennessee and a quantity of slaves. It was her intention to turn Nashoba (as she named the property) into a utopian community, and to free her slaves after they had been educated into self-reliance. The entire scheme failed: Nashoba ended a managerial disaster, Fanny's fortune was dissipated, and she took the slaves to Haiti.

On the boat trip, she fell into an affair with a Frenchman of low character, became pregnant, had his baby and married him (in that order), and disappeared from public view for five years. When she emerged again, times had changed so that the voice that had once thrilled hundreds of people now fell on unresponsive ears. She died in Cincinnati, alone and poor, at 57. For American feminists, Wright is a moving and important figure, as the words she spoke and wrote in the 1830s on behalf of women's rights had a galvanizing effect on many of the future feminists of the 1840s, '50s and especially the '60s. As an early English socialist, she was one of the first to identify women's rights as a cause that would always be of secondary interest to the men who mounted radical movements on behalf of the rights of all.

Frances Trollope was, for a time, a friend of Fanny's. She was born in 1780 in England, and was the wife of a failed lawyer, the mother of many children (including the future novelist Anthony) and the author, beginning in her 50s, of 40 books, which she wrote in 20 years. In 1827, urged by Fanny (then in Europe to cure herself of the malarial ill health her Tennessee utopia had inflicted on her), Mrs. Trollope returned with Fanny to America to experience life anew at Nashoba, but she found the place desolate beyond all imagining and stayed only a matter of days or weeks. She remained in the United States for another three or four years, however, and when she returned to Europe wrote a devastating book called "Domestic Manners of the Americans," upon which her fame rests. Naturally, she included in this book her lively and complicated thoughts of Nashoba and Fanny Wright.

Mrs. Trollope is the narrator of "Fanny." Now quite old, but still speaking in the shrewd, forthright, unmistakably British voice that "Domestic Manners" made famous, she tells us that she is setting out to write a memoir with Fanny Wright at its center. Clearly, we are reading a "first draft," as the pages are sprinkled with Mrs. T's notes to herself to re-write this or develop that; or, as her daughter-in-law, Theodosia, insists in more than one place: omit, omit, omit. A clever ploy: We, the readers, are to be persuaded of the boldness (that is, the genuineness) of the first thought through the winking "Oh-dear-should-I-be-writing-this" style of the second.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|