You may have already guessed that the title of Edmund White’s ninth novel is a disclaimer. Of course; the author is playing fashionably and provokingly on the boundary of fiction, interrogating the very process and effect of disclaiming.
Fanny: A Fiction is written from one point of view, Fanny Trollope’s, though she reports through conversation and reported conversation a number of other opinions, tales and discourses. Readers tend to believe a narrator, in gratitude for being entertained, and from the first I was convinced by Fanny Trollope. She is certainly entertaining. She hooked me with her voice, with its joyous smattering of French, apparent deviations into background and detail and, not least, her neurotic brackets which juxtapose with the “Editor”’s brackets.
As the story progresses all these brackets diminish. She trusts her perceptions and language more and I trusted her as a good-hearted survivor who sidesteps a tyrannous husband, genteel poverty and the hegemony of the nineteenth century into a personal revolution. I did not expect the event which she confesses in the final chapter and remain exercised and amused by it. It works as a dramatic disclaimer, an entertaining reversal in the action. I was suddenly reminded of the fact that there is more than one way to tell a story, and of the effect of time, memory and emotional need on story, and thus on history. What we are given in this very dense novel is the tip of that eternal iceberg, multifaceted and reflecting.
White “relies on invention” [Acknowledgements, p. 325]
but he is building high on fact. His research is impressive. He is
drenched in the nineteenth century and cites a lead from the literary
critic Niccolo Tommaseo, who wrote in an essay in 1830 that the historical
novel “is best served when it deals in real but obscure people.”
In the Acknowledgements we read that this journey may not have been part of Fanny Trollope’s real life. No matter. She certainly had a real life and a vivid imagination. The subject of several real biographies, she was Anthony Trollope’s mother, a prolific writer of biography herself, and of what her fictional “Editor” counts here as thirty-five novels. She started late in her fifties, but must have set her son an example or early practice. His success would have obscured hers at a time when women’s public successes were obscured as soon as possible, so Edmund White redresses the balance. In Fanny: A Fiction Anthony Trollope is only occasionally mentioned by his mother. She spends far more time with his brothers Tom and Henry.
This “Editor” introduces the first “only existing draft” that we are about to read and tells us that it has been discovered at Fanny Trollope’s death. He declares before page 1 that he has decided to publish the discovered manuscript “exactly as she left it, as animated and imperfect as its maker.” The decision is contentious and already the source of argument with her sons. Reading the manuscript we learn why. Beyond the excitable first section—aiming for a biography of Fanny Wright “the celebrated (some would say infamous) social reformer” (Editor’s note), is a gentler second part in which Fanny Wright is hardly mentioned. This accidental “autobiography,” written to be burned after the writer’s death, reveals the “Tory” Fanny Trollope, the “funny little snaggle toothed old woman” [p. 38] as more daring and radical than the daring, radical heroine she set out to fix in a biography.
In real life, biographies have been written about Fanny Wright too. She appears here and elsewhere as a likely romantic heroine, even a candidate for a film, red-haired, Celtic, bright, beautiful and outspoken. Popular history, if it remembers her at all, has obscured her political effect and primarily identifies her as a courtesan, a common role for other ambitious women. For most of Edmund White’s story and perhaps for most of her life, Fanny Wright did not believe in marriage. This seems reasonable, since marrying the powerful did not guarantee power and married women of all stations in this period were not allowed to own property. Nevertheless along with other organisers and reformers in this novel, Fanny Wright believes what is convenient. Or does she merely say one thing and do another?
Perhaps, like Fanny Trollope, she believes her own lies and lives in a similar but different world of denial, or perhaps she thinks that her lies are not important or not damaging as other people’s, which of course, she can easily penetrate. The gap between theory and practice is a pervading theme. Fanny remains remote and I am not sure how to judge her, which is clearly Edmund White’s point. Fanny Trollope is in charge of the tale and everything that Fanny Wright declares must go through her. The stories she hears and tells around Fanny Wright maintain her as a fiction, even a sort of myth.
Fanny Trollope is also a great self-deceiver but her journey, as we would hope, pulls much wool from her eyes. Close to the end, this is what she can see and say of the Amelungs, when she is penniless and invited to dinner:
This sounds rather bitter, but Fanny Trollope is never bitter for long, and she instantly lightens the tone and entertains herself with dialogue:
Wherever she goes, Fanny Trollope is fascinated by characters and what they say and what they do. There are many to meet and remember, but fame makes identification of the cameo roles easier. The aging Lafayette and Jefferson are integral to Fanny Wright, as is the Utopian Robert Dale Owen. We are entertained by Boyar, President of Haiti. Hiram Powers, painter, and Robert & Elizabeth Browning, the poets, are Fanny Trollope’s friends. The American characters met on a paddle steamer brim with individual vitality. Fanny Trollope and Edmund White handle all deftly with a wry but generous humour.