Writing some two decades after the events she describes, prolific novelist Frances (“Fanny”) Trollope (1780- 1863) recalls her friendship with social reformer Frances (“Fanny”) Wright (1795-1852) and decides she must commit her memories to paper before it is too late. It is soon clear, however, that the book Mrs. Trollope produces is not so much a conventional biography of her high-minded friend as a reminiscence of her own life at the points where it intersected with the life of the elusive, never fully-realized Fanny Wright.
In this mostly comic account, author Edmund White has by his own admission “played fast and free” with history. While both Fannys were historical figures—Fanny Trollope was, in fact, the mother of the equally prolific Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope—it is doubtful that they took the journeys together described in the book: a visit to the Utopian communities of New Harmony, Indiana, and Wright’s own Nashoba in Tennessee; a voyage to post-revolutionary Haiti, a former French colony now ruled by freed slaves; and side trips to the homes of such eighteenth century luminaries as Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette. Frances Wright, however, certainly had these adventures, and White’s fanciful inclusion of Mrs. Trollope as narrator serves both to provide a novelist’s detailed and realistic account of unfamiliar times and places and to provide context for Mrs. Trollope’s own most famous book, Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832).
Unlike a more conventional historical novel, Fanny focuses on people and places once important and now forgotten in American life, such as the failed Utopian communities of the early nineteenth century. The book’s emphases on race relations, on social idealism, and on early manifestations of the American Dream create connections with an American past that have been mostly forgotten.