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).

After more than three years in America, Fanny Trollope was 51 and broke. She returned to England and published a book – ‘blowing up the Merrikins’, as Sam Weller would say. The gloriously spiteful Domestic Manners of the Americans (they have none) was a bestseller. It was, her son Tom said, as if a fairy godmother had waved her wand over the Trollope household. But it was not enough, even with a string of successors, to redeem Mr Trollope’s debts. Their house was sold over their heads and they decamped to Belgium as economic fugitives. With her husband’s death in 1835, Mrs Trollope’s life became easier – though no less industrious. Latching, with cynical speed, onto every fictional fashion that came along and allying herself with huckster publishers (like Henry Colburn), she delighted circulating library readers and infuriated the stuffier kind of male critic with her ‘unwomanly’ smartness. Mrs Trollope, the young fogey Thackeray commented on reading her maliciously anti-evangelical novel, The Vicar of Wrexhill, ‘had much better have remained at home, pudding-making or stocking-making, than have meddled with matters which she understands so ill’.

Having married off her daughter Cecilia (the unfortunate young woman soon died, leaving behind a novel), and launched Anthony into a Civil Service and novel-writing career (she found him his first publisher), Mrs Trollope left in 1844 for villa life in Florence with her older son, Thomas (another part-time novelist). She was 65. Her retirement years were characteristically active. Thomas, his father’s son in more than name, needed the cash. As Anthony recalls, ‘she continued writing up to 1856 when she was 76 years old; – and had at that time produced 114 volumes of which the first was not written till she was 50. Her career offers great encouragement to those who have not begun early in life but are still ambitious to do something before they depart hence.’

Much biographical energy has been devoted to Mrs Trollope’s life. (Neville-Sington’s is, I calculate, the eighth biography.) She is, when all is said and done, a minor novelist, of no greater intrinsic interest than, say, Charlotte Yonge, Flora Annie Steel or Ella Hepworth Dixon. She would probably never have published a line had not the men in her life been so needy. It would be nice to think that the biographical effort lavished on Mrs Trollope had resulted in a cumulative gathering and ever-more scrupulous sifting of materials. It hasn’t. What her biographies reveal is a battle between those who see her as the embodiment of family virtue and those who see her as a liberated woman before her time. Which was she: the ‘indomitable Mrs Trollope’ or ‘adventurous Fanny’?

The ground on which the Mrs v. Fanny Trollope battle is fought is the American trip. This was the defining moment in her life. But why did she take off for the other side of the world? Was it to rescue her family, or to escape the Trollopian doll’s house? Thomas Anthony was not, in 1827, a man with whom one would want to share a life. A chronic invalid, he overdosed on calomel to the point of lunacy. In calmer moments, he was a suicidal depressive. Incompetent as a provider, unlucky as an heir, a failure as a husband and a father: a Victorian loser.

Trollope gives a terse explanation for the American jaunt. Mrs Trollope (no ‘Fanny’ for him) was indeed excited by the ‘social and communistic ideas’ of Miss Wright, 15 years her junior: ‘My mother’s chief desire, however, was to establish my brother Henry; – and perhaps joined with that was the additional object of breaking up her English home without pleading broken fortunes to all the world.’ It was his mother’s bright idea, Anthony says, to build Trollope’s folly in Cincinnati. Like other new Americans, she wanted to get rich and be free. Trollope clearly saw the American episode as divorce Victorian-style. Her break for freedom failed because the commune and the superstore failed. He does not go into detail because to do so would have meant raking over her abandoning of him, at the age of 12, to the care of his neglectful father. Had the bazaar worked out, Mrs Trollope would have settled in Ohio and pensioned off her husband and the English remnant of her family. She might have called Anthony over, but who knows?

Trollope seems to accept, without reopening old wounds, that his mother went to America to save herself, not to save her family. If Anthony’s happiness was part of the cost of her freedom, so be it. An entirely different twist was put on the episode in the ‘family’ biography written by Fanny’s novel-writing daughter-in-law Frances Eleanor Trollope, published in 1895. F.E. Trollope had access to more records than any biographer since, and seems to have done the Victorian thing and burned the more sensitive papers after she had read them. As the sister of Ellen Ternan (Dickens’s ‘invisible woman’), she knew how to keep secrets and put up smokescreens. A main motive, in her biography, was to correct Anthony’s misapprehension about his mother’s fidelity to her marriage vows.

According to F.E. Trollope, it was the husband ‘who resolved to invest the last remnant of his capital in a speculation at Cincinnati’. It was his idea to send his wife and children ahead: he would ‘join them later, but not with any idea of settling in the United States’. As for Mrs Trollope, she called in on Nashoba as a friendly visitor, not a convert: ‘I do not find any hint of plans for a more prolonged residence there, nor of any sort of partnership in the educational schemes.’ In other words, Fanny Trollope was just passing through and paying a courtesy call on an old friend. And the Cincinnati bazaar was, all along, the husband’s hare-brained idea. F.E. Trollope introduced Hervieu into the picture, although she asserts (something which she must have known was false) that he was already at Nashoba when Mrs Trollope arrived. Even after sixty years, the scandalous rumours about Mrs Trollope’s bohemian compagnon de voyage were sore.

An authoritative portrait of Fanny was given in Michael Sadleir’s Anthony Trollope: A Commentary (1927), the book which pioneered the revival of Trollope’s critical fortunes in the 20th century. The first third of Sadleir’s account is devoted to the novelist’s mother. Sadleir sneers at Frances Wright: ‘one of that long line of earnest, noisy women whose cacophanous reformism echoes down the 19th century’. ‘Astoundingly’, Wright’s utopian visions fired Thomas Trollope: ‘from the wild talk of Frances Wright sprang Thomas Trollope’s crowning lunacy – a scheme to open a bazaar for fancy goods in Cincinnati. His unfortunate wife was to do the pioneering. He would remain at home, buy stock and later follow her.’

Why Frances Wright’s ‘communistic’ spouting should inspire the building of a temple to capitalism is not clear. Sadleir certainly gives us sources for his conjectures. But he was a clubman by nature and perhaps he wanted to show his readers a woman happy to accept women’s subordination in the scheme of things. Exemplary in loving, cherishing and honouring, she was – above all – an obedient wife. Go to America and build a bazaar, her crazy husband commanded: meekly she went.

Sadleir’s remodelled Fanny Trollope was extraordinarily influential, underpinning, for example, Eileen Bigland’s chatty and worthless The Indomitable Mrs Trollope (1953). The necessary correction was undertaken in a strenuously academic biography, Helen Heineman’s Mrs Trollope: The Triumphant Feminine in the 19th Century (1979). Scraping around in F.E. Trollope’s ashes, Heineman raked up 250 new letters – a fraction of those written, but invaluable in putting the record straight. By diligent examination of circumstantial evidence – what friends and enemies were saying about Mrs Trollope behind her back – Heineman assembled the version that came closest to the truth since Anthony’s. Citing irrefutable manuscript sources, she concluded that ‘the Nashoba venture was clearly and totally Mrs Trollope’s own idea, spontaneous and daring, with an eleventh-hour urgency about it. Her husband had opposed it to the last.’ It was Mrs Trollope who smuggled Hervieu onto the boat to accompany her to America, deliberately keeping her husband in the dark about the ruse (‘they left like hasty criminals’). Mrs Trollope’s initial intention, as Heineman proves, was to throw herself wholeheartedly into the Nashoba Experiment – free love and all, presumably. When it fell through, and she found herself in Cincinnati, it was Mrs Trollope’s idea, and hers alone, to found the bazaar, so she would not have to go back to England and her impossible husband. Moreover, the bazaar came close to succeeding. A key factor in its eventual failure was Mrs Trollope’s having affronted her potential clientele, the bourgeois ladies of the town, by living with a French artist away from her husband.

Heineman’s biography is a fine achievement but dull reading. Particularly hard going are the set-apart chapters on the novels. But, beyond contradiction, it recovers the truth about Mrs Trollope and puts down F.E. Trollope’s and Sadleir’s pious falsehoods. Fanny Trollope: The Life and Adventures of a Clever Woman follows the main lines of Heineman’s life. The American episode, for example, presents her as the heroine in flight, not the dutiful wife. Neville-Sington adds what I think is some new insight into the adolescent Henry’s influence on his mother’s decision to fly the coop. She has scrupulously re-examined the primary materials and, while generally confirming Heineman’s portrait, offers a more vivacious and in places arm-chancing narrative. Mrs Trollope, one likes to think, would have approved of Heineman but would have been more amused by Neville-Sington. And more flattered. Neville-Sington has judiciously chosen to align herself with the account of Mrs Trollope given in Thomas’s autobiography, What I Remember, rather than Anthony’s. Like Thomas, she finds Anthony’s family portraits too much ‘en noir’ and his assertion that his mother was a political nitwit plain wrong.

However scrupulous the biographer, however many libraries and PROs are visited, the bricks are necessarily lacking in straw. Earlier guardians of the family reputation have erased most of the intimate record beyond recovery. Neville-Sington stuffs the gaps with speculation (‘must have’, ‘may have’ and ‘probably’ feature too often) and with appropriate, and often voluminous, quotation from Trollopian fiction (Fanny’s, Anthony’s and Thomas’s). It’s clearly a faute de mieux, but it works well as such. She has given us a Fanny for our egalitarian times. And it is much to her credit that she has prevailed on Penguin to reprint The Domestic Manners of the Americans.