Fanny is the portrait of two ladies erased by history. In 1829, Frances “Fanny” Wright was the most controversial woman in America: the first female to speak out against slavery, a leading labor activist, a proto-suffragette, and the founder of a utopian commune. Rather than resurrect her forgotten life in a biography, Edmund White has chosen a more playful route—a radiant historical novel presented under the guise of an unfinished manuscript written by Wright’s erstwhile friend, Frances “Fanny” Trollope.
Trollope is best known—if at all—for her anti-U.S. screed, Domestic Manners of the Americans, and for being novelist Anthony Trollope’s mother. (She also wrote 35 minor novels of her own.) White fashions her as a supremely unreliable narrator. As she languidly declares on the first page, “I am too burdened with other literary projects to be able to track down the minutiae or verify even the main dates of her passage on earth.” Trollope’s account is curdled by her personal disappointment with Wright, which sometimes leads to hilarious cattiness (“she gave off, in truth, the smell of a wet collie when she was sweating”), but is usually softened by lingering affection and admiration.
By the time the two Fannys meet, Wright is already notorious, a young Scottish firebrand smitten with American democracy. In comparison, Trollope is a frump: mother of six, wife to a downwardly mobile waster and drug addict. Wright befriends her, regaling Trollope with wondrous tales of the American republic, even inviting her to travel there. Wright’s attentions electrify Trollope. “I understood that I’d allowed my life to be fettered to the ground by Lilliputian cares, that I’d forgotten that people could live for an ideal and not just against the tribulations threatening survival,” Trollope admits, though she’s equally excited by Wright herself: “her way of addressing such lofty ideas to me, as her hand held mine or as her fingers massaged away a pain in my shoulder . . . this physical attentiveness and extreme proximity somehow convinced me I was capable of understanding her, or at least worthy of her words.” This isn’t one of those revisionist books in which the historical heroines are outed as lesbian lovers (though White can’t resist a running joke about the sexuality of Trollope’s fey son, Henry)—more like a complicated and compulsively entertaining glimpse of a passive-aggressive friendship between two remarkable women.
Wright sometimes resembles a 19th-century Great Man groupie who uses men to further her causes. First there’s Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution, whom Wright and Trollope accompany on his triumphal return to Washington. Wright quickly becomes disillusioned with this grotesque old ex-revolutionary, now feted like a king by an America obsessed with wealth, convention, and religion. She next sets her sight on Jefferson as the man to help her end slavery, but he’s evasive on the questions of abolition and miscegenation, even as he is helped upstairs by two mulatto men with distinctly Jeffersonian features. Eventually Wright sets off on her own to found the commune of Nashoba deep in Tennessee, where she plans to help slaves buy their freedom, and encourages free love, atheism, and equality between the sexes.
Sounds good, but as Trollope discovers on her arrival at Nashoba (with three of her children in tow), the place is a desolate, disease-ridden heap. Feeling betrayed, Trollope realizes that Wright sees her not as a friend but as “another warm body she had ‘recruited.’ ” And so the Trollopes flee Nashoba for their own American adventure, which Fanny documents in great jaundiced detail. The novel resounds with Trollope’s indignant observations of American manners (or lack thereof): “Every man in America spits, and when one visits the White House, for instance, one sees that the hems of the women’s gowns are all soaked in the brown expectorations as are the little Aubusson carpets.” Yet underneath Trollope’s snobbery lurks genuine curiosity. She absorbs the tales of “peasants” she meets, unlike Wright, who crusades on behalf of the people but rarely listens to them.
Fanny is a departure for White, best known for his elegant autobiographical novels—A Boy’s Own Story, The Beautiful Room Is Empty, and The Farewell Symphony—and for his Francophilic bent (biographies of Genet and Proust, and an extended essay, The Flaneur). White has always cast a watchful eye on mores and manners, whether of gay men, aristocrats, or expats. Only this time he assigns the observer role to Trollope, who lets rip with withering sketches of ordinary Americans as well as famous figures like Stendhal, James Fenimore Cooper, and Lafayette. White probably researched this novel as thoroughly as his proper biographies, but he doesn’t let that bog him down. As he explains, “My usual method has been to take an occasion only briefly presented by Mrs. Trollope and to reimagine it entirely.” His imagination only fails him on a few occasions, as in the episodes that have no basis in reality, like Trollope’s corny romantic interlude with a runaway slave, a contemporary fantasy projected onto the past.
Although she sets out to write a biography of Wright, Trollope ends up telling us most about herself. Where Wright is a humorless ideologue who neglects her personal life while nursing an as yet unfulfilled dream of America, Trollope just battles her way through the years with staggering chutzpah, snatching pleasure where she finds it. For all her pettiness, she’s an immensely likable narrator who observes society with an Austen-like acuity. And Fanny turns out to be an immensely likable novel about two women who briefly found—and then lost—their places in the annals of history.