An 1845 image of Frances Trollope. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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Reviewed: O My America! Second Acts in a New World by Sara Wheeler

British women across the pond.

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.”

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

FOX
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Will the latest wave of revivals, with X-Files leading the way, serve or undermine loyal fans?

How fandoms are affected when their favourite characters return to their screens.

The X-Files has returned to television. The beloved sci-fi drama, which was on screen for nine years (plus two feature films, including nobody’s favourite, 2008’s I Want to Believe), wrapped up in 2002. More than a decade later, the show is back on FOX for a six-episode run, a length that’s standard in Britain but new to American broadcast audiences used to 22-episode seasons.

And last night, before the US watched the fourth episode, everyone in the UK who hadn’t already found another way to watch it saw the series premiere on Channel 5.

Watching America watch the premiere was a curious thing. I’ve never been an X-Files fan (for no particular reason, I just never got down to it), but spending your time deep in fan culture means having plenty of friends who cut their teeth on X-Files fandom in the mid- to late-Nineties.

Modern media fandom was born in online X-Files communities, laying templates for a lot of our current language and practices. The most prominent example might be the term “ship”, short for relationship, because the fandom was (and still is?) divided between shippers – proponents of MSR, or “Mulder/Scully relationship”, a desire to see the two leads move past platonic affection onscreen – and “no-romos”, who, as you might guess, wanted the opposite. Two decades later, “ship” has spread far beyond the fandom where it originated, or even beyond fandom at large.

The X-Files wasn’t just a fan favourite, though: far from some cult sleeper hit, it was the kind of mainstream success that the network tapped to air after the Super Bowl one year (that particular episode, in 1997, earned 29m viewers). So when the new series premiered, I watched with interest as America seemed to fall over itself in excitement. The start-time was pushed back due to a late NFL championship game, and the entire internet seemed to be clamouring to get the football off the screen. And when the show finally came on, I watched the collective glee.

It was fascinating to see a Nineties mainstay get the instant-collective-reaction treatment of the social media era, but I was abstractly worried, too: people who’d seen preview screenings were reporting that the first episode was pretty terrible, and I was ready for some serious backlash.

I messaged a friend, one of those whose first fandom experience was The X-Files, and she told me, with considerable confidence, that it didn’t matter. “Nobody cares,” she said.It’s not about that – it’s about having them on TV again.”

Sure enough, as the episode concluded, I gauged a similar sentiment among fans: “That wasn’t very good . . . I’VE MISSED THIS SHOW SO MUCH.”

I got in touch with a few long-time X-Files fans to ask if they felt this ambivalence. Aloysia Virgata told me that, despite initial trepidation (she’s been wary since the 2008 film), she was hopeful. “As the filming progressed, as David and Gillian proved to have developed a lovely friendship that was a joy to watch, as the promotional team got their feet under them, I found myself back in the Nineties, scheduling appointment TV.”

And Dasha K said: “Mulder and Scully are wonderful, complex characters and I'd watch them doing just about anything as long as we got snappy dialogue and longing looks between them. The X-Files revival is more than a nostalgic experience for me. It’s setting off with some old friends for new adventures.”

Fans tend to stick by their favourite characters. It’s sort of one of our defining features. Some people watch a film again and again to memorise every fact; others might build on fictional worlds in stories of their own – there are a lot of reasons to write fanfiction, but a common one is that you aren’t quite ready to give up the characters you love.

We hold on to them after shows are cancelled too soon, or after individuals or relationships are massacred in the writers’ room. But one question leaves us divided: if you could have these characters back, if this show could come back on the air, would you even want it to?

If the past decade has been the era of the reboot, we’re embarking on the era of the revival. The X-Files isn’t the first big show to be resurrected – Family Guy springs to mind, or the Netflix series of Arrested Development, or the 2014 Veronica Mars film, notable not just because it brought a show back from oblivion, but because it was literally done by fans, via a Kickstarter campaign.

It’s easy enough to quibble over the differences between reboots, revivals, sequels, and franchise continuations – where exactly does Doctor Who fall, for example – but I’m specifically interested in the swathe of shows that we’ll see in the next year or two, most with the original casts, most following on from where we left our characters before. Friends, Gilmore Girls, Twin Peaks, Full House, and a new Star Trek (aside from the one in cinemas); I can already hear those critics moaning about how we’re stuck a morass of cheap and easy nostalgia.

Let’s be real here – most of the time, the sequel is worse than the original. And there are fundamental questions at work about narrative: whether shows with structural arcs and some semblance of closure should be resurrected from the dead (never mind that many shows end for other reasons, creative differences or squabbles over salary or flagging viewing figures).

I personally occupy a place that might seem paradoxical to people who don’t write or read fanfiction: I love my characters so much that I never, ever want them back in any “official” capacity beyond the initial text – I’m too busy doing unofficial (and, to me, much more interesting) things with them.

But like it or not, our characters are coming back. This always seems to stress people out who don’t get attached to things: revivals are prime targets for accusations of “fan service”. The term originated in anime and manga, where it often meant inserting gratuitous sexy bits into the story to, well, service the fan.

But in recent years it’s morphed into the suggestion that elements of a show or film are meant for the hardcore fan alone: complicated plots, winking in-jokes, meta- and intertextuality are all recipients of the accusation. Revivals are built on intertextuality; it’s rare that a cast and writing team will reunite and not work to build from where they left off.

The age of revivals owes a lot to rapidly changing television formats, viewing habits, and funding models – David Duchovny explicitly said the that they agreed to make this X-Files series because they were only locked into six episodes, after all. But it also owes a lot to the ever-increasing exposure of fans, whether they’re actively campaigning for a show’s resurrection or just very visibly continuing to flip out over and scrutinise and dissect and love a show that’s been off the air for nearly 15 years. I can’t help but think that when people complain about reboots and revivals, they sense that people stay loyal to a show, or to its characters, out of some sort of slavish inertia, which has no connection to what actually happens in fandom.

All of this isn’t to say that fans are looking for revivals that peddle nostalgia alone. In a review of the first three episodes of the new X-Files, the Guardian expressed its frustration:

The best reboots need to make a case for their very existence, otherwise it’s just the members of Fleetwood Mac getting together to play Rhiannon for the millionth time as we clap along and remember the good old days. New episodes should create something new, should take a series to a different place or comment on their legacy rather than just muddling around in the past hoping it’s enough for some good ratings.

Fans – who are rarely satisfied, and always ask for more from their media – want to push the story along, too. (The fact that they can do this while still enjoying clapping along to Rhiannon for the millionth time might baffle some critics, but what can you do.)

But developing the story may look different to different people: take the complaints (from George Lucas, but also plenty of other guys on the internet) that the new Star Wars just spins its wheels and plays to the crowds’ expectations. And then consider how the film, with its pair of leads being a woman and a black man, both wielding a lightsaber, arguably breaks more new ground than any series of plot twists every could. And if the audience enjoyed itself along the way, seeing something new while still revelling in the old things it loved, even better. Fans, serviced.

That’s not to say that the new X-Files is necessarily progressively forging into the future. (In fact, it’s come under fire for getting a bit stuck in the past.) But the television landscape is broad and varied enough that TV no longer has to mean one thing: we’re seeing the earliest hints of the long tail of the internet reflected back on our screens.

“Reviews in the US also indicate that the series vastly improves,” The Telegraph wrote in its review of the first episode. “But on this form, it’s hard to imagine anyone but the most loyal X-philes still believing.”

I understand that shows like to have broad critical or audience appeal. I’m just not sure there’s anything wrong with a show having deep fannish appeal instead. (And by the way, from what I gather from seemingly devastated fan friends and critics alike, the show does get much better. Like, they’re devastated by their emotions, not the quality of the writing.)

If this is the first year of the great wave of revivals – potentially a new format for media storytelling, fueled by fannish devotion – then I can think of no better show than The X-Files to lead the charge.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.