Flying the Coop

John Sutherland

  • Fanny Trollope: The Life and Adventures of a Clever Woman by Pamela Neville-Sington
    Viking, 416 pp, £20.00, November 1997, ISBN 0 670 85905 2

Most male novelists have learned to read at their mothers’ knee. Only one comes to mind who learned to write novels from observing his mother. The essence of what we think of as the Trollopian method – early rising, tradesmanlike application to the task, and indomitable ‘cheerfulness’ – can be traced directly to the novelist’s novelist mother. There is a description in An Autobiography of Mrs Trollope heroically penning her light fiction to keep the wolf from the door, while her children die, one by one, from consumption:

She was at her table at four in the moring and had finished her work before the world had begun to be aroused ... 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 to know that they would be forthcoming at stated intervals – and they were always forthcoming. The doctor’s vials and the inkbottle held equal place in my mother’s rooms. I have written many novels under many circumstances; but I doubt much whether I could write when my whole heart was by the bedside of a dying son.

The main lines of Fanny Trollope’s life are laid down in the second chapter of An Autobiography – ‘My Mother’. There is no corresponding chapter on ‘My Father’. The sprightly daughter of a West Country clergyman, Frances Milton waited until she was 30 before making a good match with a London barrister. Thomas Anthony Trollope had professional prospects and ‘expectations’ of a rich, unmarried and conveniently antique uncle. The dutiful Mrs Trollope had seven children in ten years (only two were to survive into mature age), while her husband contrived to ruin the family finances buying land, losing briefs and antagonising patrons. The uncle married at the age of 60-plus and produced heirs as lustily as his nephew. In the crisis of their affairs, in November 1827, Mrs Trollope, aged 48, went off to America for three and a half years. She had in tow her favourite son Henry, two small daughters, a couple of servants, and a young French artist who was devoted to her, Auguste Hervieu. Mr Trollope was not in attendance. Nor was 12-year-old Anthony.

Mrs Trollope’s first destination in America was an Owenite community – Nashoba – in backwoods Tennessee, founded by her friend, Fanny Wright. What Wright had in mind was a commune in which black and white children would be educated together in a Temple of Science. The Nashoba community also advocated the practice of free or ‘rational’ love. Mrs Trollope’s views on this and other aspects of the Nashoba programme, and the degree of her commitment to Owenite ideals, have been carefully excised from the record. The community was a squalid shambles. After ten days and the inevitable rupture with Wright, Mrs Trollope and her brood moved on to Cincinnati. Here she put on dramatic shows and erected a ‘bazaar’ – ‘Trollope’s folly’, as it came to be called – a kind of proto-shopping mall (the Paris arcades evidently gave her the idea for it).

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