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Fanny: A Fiction by Edmund White

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Fanny: A Fiction by Edmund White

Post by sweetpotatoboy » Fri September 5th, 2008, 4:34 pm

From Amazon:
Book Description
A completely new departure for Edmund White - a quirky, dazzling fiction about the lives, loves and battles of two extraordinary nineteenth-century women, Fanny White and the novelist Fanny Trollope.

This is a marvellously spirited, hilarious and touching historical novel - a spoof biography, written by the aging Fanny Trollope, of her friend the Scottish radical and feminist Fanny Wright (born in Dundee and brought up partly in Glasgow). From the start, our narrator is enthralled, but also baffled, by her dashing heroine, who burst into her life as a young woman, red hair flying, spouting utopian ideals. The infatuated, Mrs Trollope follows her idol first to France in the 1820s, where Fanny Wright has an affair with Lafayette, then to America, where Fanny meets Jefferson (another implied affair), and becomes dedicated to the abolition of slavery. When Fanny sets up an utopian commune in Mississippi, poor Mrs Trollope and her son and a French artist go out to join her: but instead of a paradise they find a version of hell. More adventures follow, taking both women across land and sea to fulfil their contrasting destinies. This is a story packed with comic incident, strange characters and vivid setting, from Scottish tenements, English drawing-rooms and Parisian salons, to the mud of the Mississippi and the colour and noise of Haiti. As Fanny Trollope sits in her Florentine villa gazing back across the troubled landscapes of their lives, she digresses hopelessly about her own family, none of whom she understands. Yet we realise that in her radical friend's slipstream she has found her own voice, and her own startlingly sensual form of love. In the end, we wonder, which Fanny is the real heroine? Beneath the warm humour and touching revelations of character run currents of seriousness - the nature of idealism, the clay feet of heroes, the illusory power of the American dream. In this powerful and vibrant novel, love and politics, sex and power, race and place are intertwined.

My Review:
Well, what drew me to buying and reading this book in the first place? Two reasons really. Firstly, I’m a bit of a Trollope fan, having read and loved most of the novels of Anthony Trollope and, through him, having discovered his mother Fanny, who was also a successful novelist in her own time. Secondly, I’ve read many of Edmund White’s previous novels, though this is his first historical novel and quite a departure for him.

The novel purports to be a manuscript that Mrs Trollope was in the process of polishing at the time of her death. It is a biography of her late friend Fanny Wright but, in her rambling manner, Mrs Trollope forgets Miss Wright for much of it and talks about her own adventures – though for the period it covers, their stories do overlap somewhat. Thus it is really a tale of two Fannys (or should that be Fannies?).

The appeal of the book is not really in any page-turning plot but in the quality of the writing as Edmund White imagines how Mrs Trollope would have written about her friends and family – and most tellingly herself – as she looks back twenty years later on her adventures in America and Haiti as she attempted to rescue her family from penury and to trail in the wake of her charismatic and controversial friend.

In fact, Mrs Trollope’s first and biggest success came with the publication of a non-fiction book she wrote when she came back to England from America. Her ‘Domestic Manners of the Americans’ was a highly critical work and a huge commercial triumph in England.

So why read this novel that covers much of the same ground when you can read Mrs Trollope’s real words? Well, there are a number of reasons. Firstly, Mrs Trollope’s book didn’t really cover Fanny Wright to the same degree and she is certainly a fascinating character. Secondly, to today’s reader, her book is somewhat more plodding than Edmund White’s rolling prose. Finally, White has taken a degree of freedom with the facts that adds to the entertaining nature of the events in question. (For example, as he admits in the end note, Mrs Trollope didn’t in fact go to Haiti at all and some other family details are an invention or at least speculation.)

So how successful is his book? Well, White’s Mrs Trollope is a wonderfully engaging personality with a refreshingly brave and open but still acerbic view of those around her. Her friendship and admiration of Miss Wright does not prevent her subjecting her to constant (though clearly well-deserved) criticisms. Indeed, as the book progresses, she half-reluctantly admits she has been over-critical. Whether White has captured the real Mrs Trollope is difficult to tell, but for the purpose of the novel she is a convincing character and one you miss when the book ends.

My only criticism is that certain elements seem somewhat implausible for the time in question – even for a brave and open-minded soul as Mrs Trollope. Without giving away any of the plot, there’s one personal development towards the end that, to me, seems highly unlikely to have occurred – and even if it did occur, it seems highly improbable that Mrs Trollope would have written about it in a book that she meant for publication, albeit after her death. Still, it adds some otherwise missing spice to her story. Plus, White speculates that Mrs Trollope’s youngest son Henry was sexually ambiguous and that the family’s companion, the artist Auguste Hervieu, and Henry were in love with each other, but that Mrs Trollope, understandably, had no clue. This is plausible enough (and as a gay writer, it’s no surprise that White decided to add this element), but the point is belaboured too frequently; a subtler touch here would have made the point as effectively.

In short, if you’re looking for a rollicking page-turner, look elsewhere. But, if a sedate, beautifully observed and touching semi-comedy of political and society manners is up your street, you could do far worse. And any who already fans of Edmund White or Fanny Trollope will not be disappointed.
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