Ever since they emerged on to the world stage after the Revolution, The United States of America and the unique features of their society have been the object of much comment both from their own citizens and from external observers. Probably the most famous of these were de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens, but there have been others whose writings, now largely forgotten, throw illuminating shafts of light upon both
1. THE ENGLISH LADY – 1820s
Mrs Frances Trollope was the mother of the more famous Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope. She herself was an accomplished and voluminous writer, whose pen kept the family from economic disaster for prolonged periods. Her husband was an unsuccessful barrister and farmer, and they had several children, one of whom, Henry, had left school early without career prospects.
An acquaintance of the Trollopes was a rich, charismatic young lady, Miss Frances Wright, who was a convinced social reformer in the Owenite mould and had purchased a tract of land in the backwoods of
The party sailed up the
With seemingly boundless energy and determination, Mrs Trollope set the hapless Henry to giving Latin lessons to local gentlemen. When these did not materialise, Henry became the main attraction at the
An exotic building, partly modelled on the Brighton Pavilion, was commenced on a central site and Mr Trollope [who had returned to
Throughout her time in
Fanny had crossed the Atlantic with strongly democratic sympathies, but these moderated as she encountered ceaseless American self-praise and often ignorant observations about
These uncouth table manners contrasted comically with the Americans’ extremely prudish attitude towards literature and the subordinate place occupied by American women. A well-to-do American housewife, Fanny said, spent a day of almost unrelieved tedium until her husband’s return for dinner, when “he comes, shakes hands with her, spits, and dines. The conversation is not much, and ten minutes suffices for dinner. The husband then goes off to his club for the rest of the evening. And so ends her day.”
Religion made matters worse, with itinerant preachers of many denominations who sound positively creepy [not much change there, then!] insinuating themselves into the good graces of their female congregations with sometimes untoward results. Fanny went to both a revival meeting in
It didn’t always stop with encircling arms, though. Mrs Trollope relates, in suitably shocked fashion, the tale of a young Philadelphian lady whose feelings for one of these preachers was “a curious mixture of spiritual awe and earthly affection”. Luckily her father noticed what was going on in time to forbid the preacher the house before irreparable damage was done; he left the city, but a few months afterwards “no less than seven unfortunate girls produced living proofs” of the father’s wisdom. Not surprisingly, Mrs Trollope is scathing, and also highly amusing, about the abundance of religious hypocrisy she encountered.
She is also very critical of the Americans’ strange mixture of crudeness and prudery, and their civic hypocrisy. Ceaselessly proclaiming that they enjoyed the best constitution and government in the world, and their devotion to democracy and equality, they nevertheless for the most part enthusiastically endorsed the “peculiar institution” of slavery, and Fanny was shocked to discover that negroes were being bred in the “free” northern states for export to the south, where they were sold as slaves. “You will see them with one hand hoisting the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves”, she remarked. American treatment of the native Indians she characterised as “treacherous and false almost beyond belief”.
Attitudes to the British were patronisingly contemptuous, and often invincibly ignorant. “One lady asked me very gravely, if we had left home in order to get rid of the vermin with which the English of all ranks were afflicted.” She had been told, on “unquestionable authority”, that it was quite impossible to walk though the streets of
Mrs Trollope had gone to
Needless to say, Domestic Manners was a scandalous hit on both sides of the
FANNY TROLLOPE: Domestic Manners of the Americans, with introduction and notes by Pamela Neville-Sington. Penguin Classics.