I told Betty in late August, for example, that I’d just won an online auction bid for a signature of Fanny Trollope (1779–1863). She was the mother of the prolific novelist, Anthony, but she was a writer in her own right, enormously popular once she began writing, and was the author of a famous book about America—Domestic Manners of the Americans, 1832. She lived in Cincinnati for a while and became involved with Fanny Wright’s efforts to educate former slaves at a settlement near Memphis, Tennessee, called Nashoba. (More later about this.)
Fanny Trollope, some eighteen years older that Mary Shelley, had corresponded some with her, for Fanny Wright had also approached Mary Shelley about participating in the Nashoba experiment (an offer Mary had declined). And Mary Shelley’s sole surviving son, Percy Florence, would attend Harrow School, where Anthony Trollope was also a student.
Anyway, Fanny Trollope was both bemused and amused by Americans as she reveals in her famous travel book, which I read in October 1999. Throughout, she displays both a keen eye and a caustic wit about the subjects (us!) under her microscope. She waxed humorous about a young woman being courted by men reeking with whiskey, their lips blackened with tobacco, and convinced, to the very centre of their hearts and souls, that women were made for no other purpose than to fabricate sweetmeats and gingerbread, construct shirts, darn stocking, and become mothers of possible presidents (280).
Slavery also appalled her. I could not help but think, she wrote, that the citizens of the United States had contrived, by their political alchymy [sic], to extract all that was most noxious both in democracy and in slavery, and had poured the strange mixture through every vein of the moral organization of their country (186–7).
I liked her book—laughed a lot—and also winced when one of her blades pierced my skin. But that’s the sort of thing we ought to read all the time, right? Things that pierce us? Make us wince? For winces sometimes provoke thought, which is often a good thing.
Anyway, that Fanny Trollope signature, framed with an old engraving of her I found, adorns one of our walls. And proudly so. (In a later note, I quipped darkly: Then one day my son can sell it all at a yard sale.)
Betty was still writing (in the late summer of 2000) about her course preparations, her syllabus for her classes at American University. After one note full of such things, she wrote, pardon me for thinking aloud like this. I did.
Meanwhile, I was sending her information about sea-water treatments, photocopied pages about premature infants, scurvy.
Silence for a couple of weeks—from both of us. A silence I finally broke on September 21.