by Cynthia Miller Coffel
Frances Trollope, called Fanny and known primarily as the mother of the late-Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, was a prolific writer herself, and certainly one who bloomed late. Indeed, one journalist, reviewing Teresa Ransom’s biography Fanny Trollope: A Remarkable Life, wrote that because of her late start and prodigious output, Fanny should be considered “the patron saint of middle aged women writers.” Her first book, the travelogue Domestic Manners of the Americans, published just nine days after she turned 53, quickly became a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. The book raced through several editions in its first year. Fanny wrote to her son Tom that shortly after the book came out, she woke to find herself famous.
The book had to succeed, though: it was the only thing keeping her family—her husband and five children—from financial ruin. Popular though it was, the book only kept the family solvent for a short time, and so, until she was 76, Fanny wrote to pay the bills, working with resolute energy: 40 books followed.
Frances Milton, daughter of a minister and inventor, lived from 1780-1863; she was a contemporary of both Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Lively and smart, a lover of the theater and of art, she married the barrister Thomas Trollope when she was 29, in 1808. It was a life-defining decision. Thomas Trollope was a man with a temper, a lawyer who could not keep from insulting his clients. Naturally melancholic, the victim of terrible headaches, he was unable to manage his finances. He and Fanny bought an expensive farmhouse, called Julians, on the expectation of an inheritance from Thomas’s uncle, which never came. When their third son, eleven-year-old Arthur, died of tuberculosis shortly after Fanny’s father died, the couple’s marriage fell apart. Grieving over the deaths of her son and her father, distressed over her husband’s state of mind, worried about her finances and anxious for the future in particular of her second son, Henry, Frances Trollope decided to move to America.
It seemed like a solution to her problems. With her son Henry, she had become interested in the American utopian, projects of a dynamic woman named Frances Wright. This reformer had asked Fanny to help her build an experimental community in Nashoba, Tennessee. Fanny thought she could help settle Henry there and also protect him and her two youngest children, her only daughters, from her husband’s moods; they would help the whole family by living cheaply in the United States. So in 1827, along with two servants, three of her five children—Henry, Cecelia, and Emily—and Auguste-Jean Hervieu, a young artist and friend who planned to work as an art teacher at the settlement at Nashoba, 48-year-old Frances Trollope set sail for America.
In the America of the early nineteenth century, Fanny did not see much that she liked. “I never beheld a scene so utterly desolate as this entrance of the Mississippi,” she wrote. For miles, as she traveled down the Mississippi, she saw only “mud banks, monstrous bulrushes, and now and then a huge crocodile luxuriating in the slime.” The Belvedere, the next ship the little group boarded, was so awful, Fanny wrote, that she couldn’t do it justice, but she disliked the manners of the men on board and was explicit about why: “I hardly know any annoyance so deeply repugnant to English feelings, as the incessant, remorseless spitting of Americans.”
It was not until she and her family left Nashoba—which wasn’t the utopia she expected, but three roofless cabins in swampy land—and settled in Cincinnati, at that time one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, that she began gathering material for her book. She had read Basil Hall’s popular Travels in North America when it appeared in the United States in 1829, and realized that a book relating her experiences of the American frontier might just sell. While she was in Cincinnati, she needed to earn money, though. She tried to organize a Bazaar, a sort of arts center: she hoped to earn money and to bring amusement and culture to the people of the city, who seemed both ill-educated and unable to have fun. The enterprise failed, however. Workmen overcharged her, and locals called her building “Trollope’s Folly.” Bankrupt, nursing Henry through malaria and ill herself, she left the city as soon as she could acquire enough money to travel. She visited Baltimore, Washington, DC, New York City, and Niagara Falls, gathering more material for her book. By the time she managed—with the artist Hervieu’s help—to get enough money to sail back to England in 1831, she had 600 pages of notes on what she’d seen.
Returning to the family home, delighted to be with all of her children again, she soon saw that while she was away money had been mismanaged; she needed to earn more. So she began the practice that would continue for the rest of her writing life: She started her day at four in the morning so she could get her work done and still be available to the family by breakfast time. She locked herself away at the top of the house in what became known to her family as “the Sacred Den” to write and revise her story.
In Domestic Manners of the Americans, a sizzling, energetic, opinionated book, Fanny Trollope inveighs against the American mixture of vulgarity and prudery, against America’s ugly buildings and bad roads. Women were treated badly in America, she told her readers, living boring lives in handsome houses, even more isolated from the public than British women were, subjected to an oppressive religion that caused them to be shut up in church five times a day. She was appalled by the treatment of black people and of Indians, too. She describes an incident in which a slave girl in a family she visited mistakenly ate a biscuit laced with arsenic intended for rats. Fanny immediately induced vomiting in the girl and then held her in her lap. The youngest girl in the family was surprised by her kindness to the slave. Fanny wrote, “The idea of really sympathizing in the sufferings of a slave appeared to them as absurd as weeping over a calf that had been slaughtered by the butcher.”
In her travels, she had learned to refute the views of her romantic friend Frances Wright, who spoke of the wise and humane treaties between the American Indians and the United States government. The most quoted section of Domestic Manners is a hard-hitting description of American hypocrisy:
You will see them on one hand hoisting the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves. You will see them one hour lecturing their mob on the indefensible rights of man, and the next driving from their homes the children of the soil, whom they have bound themselves to protect by the most solemn treaties.
The book caused controversy in both England and the States, but two important contemporaries were great admirers: After he had traveled through the United States himself, Charles Dickens wrote that he liked Trollope’s description of the country very much: “I am convinced that there is no Writer who has so well and accurately (I need not add, so entertainingly) described it.” Mark Twain also found Fanny Trollope’s snapshots of the United States true to life: “She did not gild us; neither did she whitewash us . . . It was for this sort of photography that poor candid Mrs. Trollope was so handsomely cursed and reviled by this nation. Yet she was merely telling the truth, and this indignant nation knew it.”
The book has never been out of print.
Because of the success of Domestic Manners, there was enough money for a while, and Fanny, a celebrity now, kept writing. Her husband Thomas, having given up his law practice, began writing an ecclesiastical encyclopedia; her son Henry studied law in London; Anthony finished high school. Fanny, Henry, and the artist Hervieu toured Western Europe, gathering material for another travel book. But once again money was misspent. Soon Fanny discovered that if her husband was to avoid imprisonment for debt, they would have to flee their home. In a scene both Fanny and Anthony later used in novels, the family just barely avoided being arrested—Cecelia and Emily passed favorite household articles secretly through the hedge to friendly neighbors for safekeeping—then gathered the few belongings not sold to pay debts and escaped to France, then Belgium. In his autobiography, Anthony described what life was like once they had settled in Bruges: Fanny’s children Henry and Emily became ill with consumption, and Thomas was increasingly ill as well.
There were two sick men in the house, and hers were the hands that tended them. The novels went on, of course. We had already learned that they would be forthcoming at stated intervals, and they always were forthcoming. . . I have written many novels in many circumstances, but I doubt much whether I could write one when my whole heart was by the bedside of a dying son. Her power of dividing herself into two parts, and keeping her intellect by itself clear from the troubles of the world, and fit for the duty it had to do, I never saw equaled.
Henry soon died of consumption; six months later Fanny’s husband died as well. Her son Tom wrote about his mother’s remarkable ability to pick herself up after tragedy, and indeed she kept exploring life, and working: Over the next 20 years, she wrote books in many genres, often working on two at a time. She wrote six travel books (in Vienna and the Austrians, published in 1838, when she was 58, she describes being put into a suit and lowered into a salt mine), essays in verse, and 34 novels. Many current critics consider her best novel to be The Vicar of Wrexhall (1837), an attack on Evangelicalism complete with a villainous minister, Reverend Cartright, who manipulates his female parishioners. Certainly during her lifetime, her Widow Barnaby series (1838, 1840, and 1843) was her most loved and best selling.
She was always clear that she wrote for money (“I quake a little, but if I can get even a little money, I will not mind abuse, nor labor,” she wrote her son Tom), but she was a critic of society as well: many of her novels were arguments for social reform; one critic calls her a “maternal feminist” who wrote strong female characters and believed in the importance of women’s influence. Fanny’s Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw (1838), one of the first anti-slavery novels, is said to have strongly influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Another novel, The Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, Factory Boy (published in monthly installments in 1839—again, unusual for a woman writer) told of the cruelties of child labor in the cotton mills. Comparing this novel to Dickens’s Oliver Twist, which, just the year before, had exposed the corruption of poor children in London, a reviewer in New Monthly Magazine wrote that The Factory Boy “seeks at once to impress a deep moral lesson, and to work a great social change, and we are greatly mistaken if it do not ultimately effect its purpose.” Fanny had researched her novel thoroughly, attending meetings of reformers, visiting cotton mills, going into the slums where the cotton workers lived. Unfortunately, some critics accused her of “scattering firebrands among the people,” and wrote that “the author of Michael Armstrong deserves as richly to have eighteen months in Chester Gaol as any that are now there for using violent language against ‘monster cotton mills.’” Some critics suggest that her reading public thought it vulgar for a woman to tell stories of violent mill owners and starvation among factory families.
She wrote her last book, Fashionable Life, when she was well over 70. By that time she had settled in Florence and become a writer who in fame and influence rivaled Charles Dickens. Anthony, still angry, perhaps, at having been left behind when his mother went to America, was dismissive of her work in his autobiography, but scholars such as Patricia Neville-Sington in her biography Fanny Trollope: The Adventures of a Clever Woman, trace themes in his work back to his mother’s books, saying that Anthony wrote about a world like the one his mother described, filled with strong-minded women, motherless heroines and bothersome aunts, unctuous clergymen and controlling husbands. According to Neville-Sington, some scholars even claim that Anthony’s innovations were borrowed from his mother—that he did not create the first series novels in the Barchester books; his mother did, with the Widow Barnaby; that he did not create the first policeman-turned-detective in Samuel Bozzle of He Knew He was Right; his mother did, in Mr. Hannibal Burns of The Refugee in America.
In 1852, the New Monthly Magazine ran a series of articles on Female Novelists. Two of the writers described were Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte; another was Fanny Trollope. The anonymous author of the article castigated her for writing too quickly and famously called her “a bluestocking who travels in seven-leagued boots,” who never seemed to grow tired. Still, she was growing tired by then. When she was almost 80 she wrote Anthony, whose career she had worried over and supported, that she was proud of his industry and that she was happy “to think that you have considerably more than the third of a century to gallop through yet before reaching the age at which I first felt inclined to cry halte la!” Fanny Trollope died at age 84 in Florence, with her son Tom, whom she had financially supported for most of his life, by her side. One of her obituaries called her an “indefatigable worker,” who had “such a heart with such an ability,” and ended, “She had been tested as few women have been.”
Cynthia Miller Coffel is the author of Thinking Themselves Free: Research on the Literacy of Teen Mothers and co-author of A Critical Handbook of Children’s Literature. Her PhD, from the University of Iowa, is in literacy education. Her essay “Letters to David” won the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize in 2007.
Homepage image: Behavior at the theatre. From Fanny Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans courtesy Project Gutenberg