Edmund White is a greedy writer - he loves imagining, loves words. This time he uses his considerable virtuosity to write a historical novel about two batty old women of the 19th century through the voice of one of the most redoubtable mothers of that century, Frances (Fanny) Trollope. Frances Trollope began to write at the age of 52, and mothered 40 books as well as six children - including Anthony, the great novelist who, as is so often the case, was less interesting than his raggedy old mother.
Here White supposes that she has left behind a 41st book on her death at the age of 83, a biography of her friend, the Scottish feminist Fanny Wright. His fictional Fanny Trollope is a gossip and a storyteller with a sharp eye. She is partial to the peculiarities of mankind, and also to her own opinions, so she adds a garrulous account of her own life and times.
In 1827, in her late forties, a "funny little snaggle-toothed old woman with ratty hair", Fanny Trollope ceased to languish under one of those lugubrious husbands who intrepidly pursue bankruptcy. Coaxed into starting a new life with Fanny Wright in her utopian community near Memphis, she takes her two daughters, her son Henry and the French artist Auguste Hervieu to America, "where fraternity ruled, equality was as elemental as earth and liberty flowed as freely as air, water and fire".
Fanny Wright sails first class, while the Trollope family suffers amid the vomit and creaking of steerage. Nothing improves on arrival; Fanny Trollope's adventures lead her to be disappointed with - and even to hate - America, a place where men pass the day spitting at walls, where utopians and democrats pontificate about God and indulge in an "acrobatic Christianity", which includes demonic treatment of their slaves.
On her way to America, Fanny visits Paris; after her disasters in the US she sails on to Haiti, and ends up in Florence. In this way, all the great and not-so-great of her day are knitted into her travels, from Stendhal to Jefferson, from Robert Owen to Lafayette (portrayed by Fanny as a decrepit and gouty grotesque). Fanny is not a snob and she has a Dickensian eye for rusty old eccentrics and impoverished windbags. Fanny Wright turns out to be one of those Feminist Monsters - in her case, addicted to fornicating with spindle-shanked old men - who waffle on about Human Improvement and The New Moral Order, but will not scrub a floor, as there are slaves to do that. Radicals and progressives, black and white, those who pass their lives correcting their own faults in others, are further disappointments.
Destitute in the land of the free, "the old hobbyhorse" fights on; she invents happenings, opens a bazaar, chivvies her children. Fanny Trollope has a conservative mind but a kind soul and she is not fussed as to how love expresses itself. She can love a black man - and she does; she can love and forgive the monstrous Fanny Wright, who can love no one; and her son Henry falls in love with another man. As in the best Victorian novels, her picaresque adventures provide a moral, happily never spelt out: those who speak of democracy and freedom in noble tones are often blind to the suffering of others.
If the book has a fault it is the plethora of historical detail. Not a pair of silk hose, not a powdered wig or mudbank of the Mississippi is missing. Sometimes this excess means the mask slips and you hear Edmund White manipulating his marionette, as Fanny issues forth more than we care to know about cooking human flesh in the Congo, or Robert Owen's philosophical meanderings. But some of the descriptive writing is so clever and elegant, that White's re-creations of times past become addictive. By the end of Fanny's adventures, it is hard to let her go.