Novelist and memoirist White (The Flâneur, 2001, etc.) obviously had a ball playing within the double framework of this purported biography-gone-astray of Victorian radical Fanny Wright by hack novelist and travel writer Frances Trollope, Anthony’s mother.
White’s conceit is that an aging Frances, who made her literary debut 30 years earlier with a diatribe against America after a four-year visit, decides to tell the story of her more famous friend Fanny, but Frances’s self-absorption causes her to stray more and more into her own life story. The two women meet in the 1820s. Fanny, an heiress without the practical concerns that plague Frances, whose family is nearing financial ruin, is a freethinking feminist/atheist who makes Frances “feel worthy as a mind and attractive as a person.” While desperately pragmatic Frances muddles through one family crisis after another, Fanny, drawn to powerful older men, becomes involved with Lafayette and follows him to America. Their relationship falters, but she becomes enamored with the aged Jefferson and then with Scottish philanthropist Robert Owen, founder of the utopian community New Harmony in Indiana. Fanny founds her own utopia, Nashoba, near Memphis, planning to educate slaves to prepare them for emancipation before transporting them to the independent black nation of Haiti. In 1827, under Fanny’s charismatic spell, Frances drags her daughters and youngest son Henry to America hoping for a new start. Nashoba turns out to be a disaster—disorganized and unconsciously cruel; the semi-freed slaves are starving—and the Trollopes are plunged into deeper financial distress. Meanwhile, Fanny goes blithely on, unaware she’s destroying lives in the pursuit of her ideals. Frances has little use for Fanny’s abstractions but a real feel for actual people as exemplified in her wonderfully unexpected (and totally fictional) love affair with the runaway slave who lives next door. As she loses her genteel reticence, Frances begins to pack a real wallop as narrator and character.
A brilliantly structured, wonderfully engaging tragicomedy of historic and panoramic yet human proportions.