Trollope [née Milton], Frances [Fanny]
(17791863), travel writer and novelist
, was born at Bristol, possibly at Stapleton, on 10 March 1779, the middle child of William Milton (17431824), vicar of Heckfield, Hampshire, and his first wife, Mary (d
. 1784×6), the daughter of Francis Gresley of Bristol and his wife, Cecily. Her maternal grandfather, a respected apothecary who lived in Bristol's fashionable Queen Square, could boast Norman ancestry. Her paternal grandfather, however, was in trade, variously described as a distiller and saddler in Bristol.
Early life, marriage, and motherhood, 17791826
The Revd William Milton took up the living of Heckfield in 1774, but after only a year he installed a curate and moved to Bristol, then to the nearby village of Stapleton, and eventually to Clifton, a fashionable spa town overlooking the city. He preferred inventing gadgets to saving souls, and his most important idea was the creation of a tidal bypass to control the water levels of the Avon, allowing ships to sail in and out of Bristol more freely. Of his three children, Francesor Fanny as she was known to her friends and familyresembled her father most. Like him, she was incapable of sitting still and doing nothing if there was a problem to be solved or a situation to be improved. Without the guidance of her mother, who died when Fanny was only five or six years old, she also learned to be self-reliant. Together these traitsinitiative, tenacity, and independence of mindwere to give her the courage, strength, and ability to overcome the many crises which she would have to face in her lifetime; but they also made her sometimes act rashly, without thinking, and thus court disaster.
In 1800 William Milton married Sarah Partington of Clifton, and the following year, after a twenty-seven-year absence, he returned to the quiet Hampshire village of Heckfield with his new wife and family to resume his duties as vicar. The relationship between Fanny and her stepmother was never very close, and within three years of her father's marriage she and her sister Mary, aged twenty-four and twenty-seven respectively, moved to London to keep house for their younger brother Henry, a clerk in the War Office. Fanny had a petite figure, a pleasant face, and the neatest foot and ankle on the dance floor (F. E. Trollope, 2.286), but she was also intelligent, well read and outspokenin a word, blueand she was still a spinster when at twenty-nine she met the shy, sober barrister, , five years her senior. After a year's courtship, on 23 May 1809 they married and settled into conventional domesticity in Keppel Street, near Russell Square. Over the next nine years Fanny gave birth to seven children: , Henry, Arthur, , Cecilia, and Emily. The Trollopes' first-born daughter, another Emily, survived only long enough to be privately baptized.
Fanny adored her children, and her oldest son, Tom, had happy memories of the nursery: My mother's disposition … was of the most genial, cheerful, happy, enjoué
nature imaginable … and to any one of us a tête-à-tête
with her was preferable to any other disposal of a holiday hour (T. A. Trollope, 1. chap. 3). Fanny had the knack of making almost anything fun, even learning. By contrast, Thomas Anthony, whose great ambition was that his sons should follow in his footsteps to Winchester College and New College, meted out punishment with a pull of the hair for any blunder made in reciting their lessons. As the years passed Thomas Anthony became ever more argumentative and erratic, almost certainly owing to the effects of calomel, a mercury-based drug which he took for chronic migraine.
The Trollopes' secure world soon began to fall apart. Although he had no experience of farming, Thomas Anthony leased some 160 acres in Harrow from John, Lord Northwick. The Trollopes moved to Julian Hill (Anthony Trollope's model for Orley Farm) and set about improving the property. In 1818 they built a large house, christened Julians after the Hertfordshire estate of his uncle Adolphus Meetkerke, which Thomas Anthony expected to inherit. His prospects were dashed when his elderly uncle married and produced an heir in 1819. The Trollopes' finances went from bad to worse during the agricultural depression of the 1820s, and in 1824 their twelve-year-old son Arthur died of tuberculosis.
Travels in the United States and Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832)
When Henry, fun-loving but idle, left Winchester in 1826 before completing his studies, his father was furious: he could not afford to support an indolent son. Within a year Thomas Anthony announced that financial pressures made it necessary to move yet again, this time to a run-down farmhouse. In an almost desperate act Fanny, Henry, and her two young daughters set sail for America on 4 November 1827 to join the charismatic reformer Frances Wright at Nashoba, a community in the backwoods of Tennessee dedicated to the education and emancipation of slaves. Fanny thought it Henry's best chance to find a good prospect in life; she also hoped to ease the family's financial burdens back home while escaping her husband's dreadful temper. She left her two remaining sons, Tom and Anthony, at home to continue their education. When her friend's utopian dream turned out to be a malaria-ridden swamp, Fanny decamped and headed up the Mississippi to Cincinnati, Ohio, then a booming frontier town dubbed the Athens of the West.
Fanny's life in Cincinnati was a tragicomedy of failed business ventures, scandal, and illness. In an early effort to make money she devised the Infernal Regions
, a Dantesque spectacle featuring waxworks and electric currents. But Fanny's most ambitious undertaking was what might be called America's first shopping mall, the Cincinnati Bazaar. The townspeople failed to patronize it, and Fanny ended up bankrupt and deathly ill with malaria. Cincinnati society never accepted Fanny. She had arrived in the city penniless, without references and in the company, not of her husband, but of a young French artist, Auguste Hervieu, who, despite the gossip, was in fact nothing more than a devoted friend, without whose help the Trollopes would have starved. After two miserable years in Cincinnati, Fanny admitted defeat and retreated to the east coast, where she travelled for a year before returning to England in August 1831.
Fanny turned her experiences to good effect in her Domestic Manners of the Americans
(2 vols.), published in March 1832, just three days before the final reading of the first Reform Bill
(and nine days after the author's fifty-third birthday). Reformers frequently hailed the United States as a beacon of democracy. Mrs Trollope, who had left England something of a Liberal, had returned home very much a Conservative, and her criticisms were seized upon by the bill's opponents. She set out to expose Americans' boast of equality as a sham. You will see them, Fanny wrote:
with one hand hoisting the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves. You will see them one hour lecturing their mob on the indefeasible rights of man, and the next driving from their homes the children of the soil, whom they have bound themselves to protect by the most solemn treaties. (chap. 20)
Domestic Manners of the Americans
, which is above all extremely funny and entertaining, created a furore on both sides of the Atlantic and became the touchstone against which subsequent accounts of the United States were judged. It launched Fanny's career as a writer, and it remained in print from the time of its publication to beyond the end of the twentieth century.
Residence in Europe, and family and social circles
The earnings from Domestic Manners
allowed the Trollopes to move back to their old home Julian Hill and live in relative comfort while Fanny continued to write. Her husband had long since given up his law practice, and Fanny was now the sole breadwinner. However, despite three more books from her pen in two years, the debts incurred by the Harrow farm and Cincinnati Bazaar proved too great, and the Trollopes were forced to flee to Bruges to escape debtors' prison. Within a year both Fanny's beloved 23-year-old son Henry and her husband were dead: the former from tuberculosis, the latter from premature old age. Thomas Anthony's death came almost as a relief. Anthony later remarked that the touch of his father's hand:
seemed to create failure … But the worse curse to him of all was a temper so irritable that even those he loved the best could not endure it. We were all estranged from him, and yet I believed he would have given his heart's blood for any of us. His life as I knew it was one long tragedy. (A. Trollope, chap. 2)
Fanny was free to return to England after her husband's death, but she did not settle in any one spot for long. From 1836 she lived in Monken Hadley, a village north of London, until her eldest daughter, Cecilia, announced her engagement to John Tilley, one of Anthony's Post Office colleagues. After a brief period in London at 20 York Street, Portman Square, Fanny undertook to build a house in Penrith, Cumberland, christened Carlton Hill, to be near Cecilia and her husband, who was by this time (1841) surveyor of the northern district. But within a year Fanny had made up her mind to leave Carlton Hill: she found both the neighbours and the weather too dull. In 1843 she fulfilled her lifelong dream of visiting Italy, and there she remained for the rest of her life. From 1850 she shared the Villino Trollope, in the piazza dell'Indipendenza, Florence, with her son Thomas Anthony and his wife, , also writers.
In 1849 Cecilia, thirty-three years old and the mother of five, died from tuberculosis. Consumption had been the family curse: as well as her two sons, Arthur and Henry, Fanny had also lost eighteen-year-old Emily to the disease in 1836. Throughout it all Fanny supported her family through her writing: six travel books and thirty-five novels over a period of twenty-five years. Anthony Trollope recalled that:
the doctor's vials and the ink-bottle held equal places in my mother's rooms … Her power of dividing herself into two parts, and keeping her intellect by itself clear from the world, and fit for the duty it had to do, I never saw equalled. (A. Trollope, chap. 2)
As her son Tom testified, Fanny had the remarkable ability to throw sorrow off when the cause of it had passed (T. A. Trollope, 1. chap. 14). Fanny loved society, and she seemed to have boundless energy to host at-homes, devise charades, stage amateur theatricals, or organize picnics for family and friends. Yet she was invariably at her desk between four and five the following morning to write the allotted number of pages before breakfast. Anthony's wife Rose said of her:
there was nothing conventional about her, and yet she was perfectly free from the vice of affectation … She was lavishly generous as regards money; full of impulse; not free from prejudicebut more often in favour of people than otherwise,but once in her good books, she was certain to be true to you. She could say a sarcastic word, but never an ill-natured one. (F. E. Trollope, 2.244)
Over the years her circle of friends encompassed such diverse characters as the actors Edmund Kean and William Charles Macready, the political figures Ugo Foscolo, General Lafayette, and Prince Metternich, the reformer Frances Wright, the artists George Hayter and Hiram Powers, and the authors Mary Russell Mitford, Charles Dickens, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Travel writing and novels
Fanny's books, seven of which featured Auguste Hervieu's engravings, were hugely popular in their day. Thackeray once confessed, I do not care to read ladies' novels, except those of Mesdames Gore and Trollope (Fraser's Magazine
, 28, 1843, 350). Certainly no other author has been so much read, so much admired, and so much abused, declared one critic (New Monthly Magazine
, 55, March 1839, 417). By 1839 Fanny could command £800 per manuscript. She thought of herself primarily as a travel writer: Paris and the Parisians
(2 vols., 1836) and Vienna and the Austrians
(2 vols., 1838), a fascinating if uneven portrait of Metternich and la crème de la crème
of Viennese society, are still worth reading. However, when Fanny calculated that travelling costs outstripped her earnings, she turned to novel writing.
Early on Fanny experimented with several different genres, including the Gothic novel (The Abbess
, 1833). She also wrote fiction which dealt with social themes, such as the poor law. Like Charles Dickens, Fanny was able to keep to a gruelling schedule, juggling two books at once, published in monthly instalments; for a time in the 1840s Dickens saw her as a serious rival. He even switched the plot midway through Nicholas Nickleby
away from the Cheeryble brothers' factory when Fanny got in first with a damning exposé of child labour in her novel, Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy
(March 1839February 1840). This tale, published as a three-decker in 1839, elicited a strong response from the critics. The Athenaeum
(165, 1839, 58790) claimed that Mrs Trollope was scattering firebrands … among an ignorant and excited population to which her shilling numbers are but too accessible. Her equally powerful anti-slavery novel Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw
(1836) preceded Uncle Tom's Cabin
by more than fifteen years.
Above all, Fanny Trollope excelled in biting satire and broad humour. Two of her best novels are The Vicar of Wrexhill
(1837), which ridicules evangelicalism, and The Widow Barnaby
(1839), whose heroine is a female rogue, struggling to make something of herself without the advantages of youth or a large income. Fanny turned her popular Widow Barnaby
into a fictional series, an innovation in the English novel, with two sequels, The Widow Married
(May 1839June 1840), published in three volumes in 1840, and The Barnabys in America
(April 1842September 1843), published in three volumes in 1843.
In her later novels, whether set in a cathedral town, a country estate, or London's West End, Fanny combined witty social commentary with strong and often melodramatic plots. At its best, Fanny's writing is subtle and well observed and, even in the most far-fetched romance, she is able to convey with great skill the foibles and follies of human natureand of English manners in particular. She astutely aimed to hit the somewhat lowbrow taste of the circulating library, and this, as one critic noted, she did remarkably well (The Spectator
, 6, 1833, 5267). Nevertheless, her sharp satirical wit, the result of her Georgian upbringing, was increasingly seen as coarse and vulgar as Victoria's reign progressed.
Fanny died in Florence on 6 October 1863, aged eighty-four; she lies buried in the English cemetery there. She had retained her popularity to the end. In its review of her last novel, Fashionable Life
(1856), The Critic
deemed Mrs Trollope the doyenne
of English authoresses (1 Sept 1856, 420). Her books continued to be reprinted until the early 1880s, when they suddenly ceased to appear. A reason for this can be traced to the publication of her son Anthony's Autobiography
in 1883, the year following his death. Anthony Trollope's ambition to become a novelist had long been overshadowed by his mother's reputation. The chief motivation behind Fanny's writing had been to make enough money to support herself and her family. Anthony, however, was an aspiring man of letters, and his mother's reputation as a vulgar authoress was a continual embarrassment, especially as her books, reprinted and reissued, were displayed alongside his novels in shops and circulating libraries. Anthony used his autobiography as an opportunity publicly to distance himself from his mother. In it he criticizes her politics as merely an affair of the heart and condemns her novels, claiming that in her attempts to describe morals, manners, and even facts, [she] was unable to avoid the pitfalls of exaggeration (A. Trollope, chap. 2). Tom was horrified at his brother's remarks: there is hardly a word of this in which Anthony is not more or less mistaken (T. A. Trollope, 2. chap. 18).
Nevertheless, Anthony Trollope's strictures seem effectively to have buried his mother's literary reputation, and Fanny's books, apart from Domestic Manners of the Americans
, were largely forgotten for the best part of a century. Only recently have critics and readers rediscovered her writings. Anthony's comments also belie the enormous influence which Fanny had over her son. Anthony drew some of his best-known plots and characters from his mother's novels; he adopted Fanny's innovation of the fictional series for his Barchester and Palliser novels; he even copied her working habits, rising in the early hours to write before breakfast. The much-loved Trollopian world of the cathedral close, middle-class mores and strong-minded women was, in part, a family legacy passed from mother to son.