Reviewed: O My America! Second Acts in a New World by Sara Wheeler

British women across the pond.

An 1845 image of Frances Trollope. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

O My America! Second Acts in a New World
Sara Wheeler
Jonathan Cape, 288pp, £18.99

The travel writer Sara Wheeler’s ninth book, O My America!, tells the story of six remarkable British women who journeyed to America over the course of the 19th century. Frances Trollope, Fanny Kemble and Harriet Martineau are quite well known, if infrequently read nowadays. To these, Wheeler has added the adventures of Rebecca Burlend, Isabella Bird and Catherine Hubback, whose stories she found in archives.

After lives as wives and mothers, all six, for very different reasons, began to write about their adventures in the new world. As Wheeler was also facing middle age, she explains, these women provided for her an imaginary sisterhood, offering solidarity and hope for new beginnings.

Fanny Trollope, the mother of Anthony, published more than 100 volumes over the course of her life. Her Domestic Manners of the Americans, describing her travels in the US, came out in 1832, when she was 53. (The first volume of Alexis de Tocqueville’s better- known Democracy in America appeared some three years later.) Trollope’s book was immensely popular in Britain; though it was as widely read in the US, it was far less popular there and inaugurated a new slang term, to “Trollopise”, which came to mean “to abuse the American nation”. Kemble could see that Trollope was striking a national nerve: “How sore all these people are about Mrs Trollope’s book,” she wrote. “She must have spoken the truth now, for lies do not rankle so.”

Fanny Kemble. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Kemble, the most famous actress of her day, was on an acting tour of America when she met Pierce Butler, a wealthy slave owner. She quit the stage to marry him and their disastrous union led to much unhappiness and two books. The first was Journal of a Residence in America (1835), a tactless account of the people she had met, which unsurprisingly made Kemble unpopular with her new neighbours. She followed it up decades later with the far more significant Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, her excoriation of institutional slavery from the horrified perspective of someone forced to live alongside it for years. Kemble’s passionate arguments for abolition were credited with helping to persuade Britain not to support the Confederacy during the American civil war.

Harriet Martineau was, like Kemble, a famous woman when she sailed for America in 1834 and also a social reformer and outspoken critic of slavery. Her Society in America was published in 1837 but Martineau is more fun to read about than to read, as Wheeler admits. For her voyage to the US – on-board the sailing packet United States – Martineau carried a stone hot-water bottle and horsehair glove, with which she rubbed herself down in lieu of exercise, and tied herself to the post of the binnacle to watch hurricanes. Martineau thought that the moral degeneracy of the slave-owning American South might be countered by teaching the people there to play cricket, which she thought would improve their moral fibre.

She was a popular writer but an unpopular woman. Dickens said that she was “grimly bent on the enlightenment of mankind” and based Bleak House’s Mrs Jellyby on her – but he also said that Society in America was the best book ever written about the young republic. He spoke of her “vomit of conceit”; Hans Christian Andersen had to lie down for the rest of the afternoon after meeting her. Mary Wordsworth, whom she often visited in the Lake District and probably thought a friend, considered Martineau a “pest” and Matthew Arnold’s response to her death was, “What an unpleasant life and unpleasant nature”, which is quite an epitaph.

The lesser-known women get less space. Burlend was a pioneer homesteader; Bird a neurasthenic invalid at home, a kind of British Alice James, who suddenly burst into vigorous life when she travelled. Her journeys in the Rocky Mountain region with a one-eyed prospector read like tall tales. Last comes Hubback, who was Jane Austen’s niece; after her husband’s mysterious breakdown left him in a mental asylum, she followed her adult children to America in the 1870s.

Wheeler wants to claim more significance for these women than perhaps they merit: she declares Burlend’s history “a masterpiece of oral literature, a Homeric black earth saga”. Perhaps, but none of the brief précis Wheeler offers in any way substantiates this claim, although some of the anecdotes are memorable.

Indeed, it is a book filled with rollicking anecdotes and entertaining facts. Trollope was appalled by American manners, including “strange uncouth phrases” and “loathsome spitting”. “Let no one who wishes to receive agreeable impressions of American manners commence their travels in a Mississippi steamboat,” she counselled: “I would infinitely prefer sharing the apartment of a party of well-conditioned pigs.” She found that Cincinnati had no municipal sewerage system for a city of 28,000 people; garbage collection was left to the pigs roaming the streets. The female population of Milwaukee was a grand total of seven and there were more duels than days of the year in New Orleans. On Lake Huron, Martineau “shared a cabin with a fat man, their bunks separated by a white counterpane fastened by four forks”.

And yet Americans were also absurdly prudish: Trollope claimed that one American woman fainted upon hearing the word “corset”. Bird shocked the inhabitants of a drawing room by taking out her quill; a porter told her that writing in public was not permitted. Class, race and slavery are recurring themes, as Trollope and Kemble both struggle with the bizarre American idea that servants are people, too. Kemble dined with the former president John Quincy Adams, who shared his edifying reflections upon Shakespeare: Desdemona’s fate was “a very just judgement upon her for having married a nigger”.

In addition to telling these wonderful tales, Wheeler’s conceit is to “follow” these women to America, sometimes physically retracing their steps, at other times imaginatively linking their experiences with her own. Yet her sense of identification with her subjects too often tempts Wheeler into presumption. She repeatedly refers to these redoubtable women as “my girls” and tells us that Kemble “was the most like me, internally, of all the women in this book”. Kemble “lived enough life for all seven of us” – namely, Wheeler’s six subjects plus herself. Wheeler continues to equate Kemble’s experiences with her own in increasingly problematic ways.

As Kemble pours out her “regret and anguish” at slavery and her sense of entrapment by a husband who took the notion of wifely obedience as his God-given due, Wheeler adds: “I had the dimmest insight into that, having written myself through the throes of a bitter parental divorce when I was 15.” She tells us that after decades of life as a pioneer, Burlend came to like her adopted compatriots. Wheeler continues: “Her experience was close to my own. On the whole Americans are a friendly, polite lot, lacking that northern- European reserve that edges so easily into froideur. I remember, on my first ever visit, fetching up as a 19-year-old at the University of Tuscaloosa when the students were engaged in the frenzied ritual of Rush Week.” Yes, that sounds just like Burlend’s tales of near-freezing, near-starvation and delivering her own children in a wilderness. I wouldn’t want to abandon my American friendly politeness but such passages left me decidedly froid.

I will forgive much, however, in a book that informs me that when Mark Twain was in San Francisco, a prostitute at the Hotel Nymphomania handed him a card advertising: “Three hundred pounds of black passion. Fifty cents.” And it is also true that one of Wheeler’s stories might give good reason to question the wisdom of American scholars. A scholar whom Trollope encountered told her: “Shakespeare, madam, is obscene and, thank God, we are sufficiently advanced to have found it out.”

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O My America! Second Acts in a New World

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Sara Wheeler

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Jonathan Cape, 288pp, £18.99