Sunday, May 15, 2016

Oh My America by Sara Wheeler

Source of book: My wife was given this as a gift.

I was not particularly familiar with Sara Wheeler, but it turns out she is a British travel writer and biographer best known for spending several months in Antarctica writing about the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition that claimed the lives of its members. (To add insult to injury, they reached the South Pole only to find out Roald Ahmundsen had already beaten them to it.)

This book is rather different in that it follows six British women who came to the United States in the 1800s looking for some sort of change. Each of the six also had a “second act” after turning 50. Wheeler spends most of the book writing about her subjects, with a few paragraphs here and there about her own journey following in the footsteps of these women. These are generally interesting, and short, so they do not overwhelm the rest of it. The one part I didn’t enjoy as much were her own thoughts on turning 50 (which she did while researching the book). As is the case for many an author, I think Wheeler is better when talking about others rather than herself. These bits were even shorter than the descriptions of her own travels - which are much better.

I chose this book in large part because one of the featured women was Fanny Trollope, the mother of one of my favorite authors, Anthony Trollope. Fanny’s husband was a barrister who never did very well and ended up bankrupt. Fanny was an enterprising woman, and supported the family by writing, among other things. In her middle age, she departed for America, seeking a better life for the younger children. (Two were left behind in England) Things didn’t work out as planned, but she did gather the material for what would prove to be her greatest hit: Domestic Manners of the Americans. Ms. Trollope was, shall we say, not impressed by said manners, and created not a little stir on our side of the pond. The book, however reviled by the Americans, was wildly popular, and made her fortune. 

No less than Mark Twain, while not a fan of the writing style, noted that Trollope’s greatest crime was actually telling the truth. Fanny found the egalitarianism of Americans (those uppity servants!) to be disconcerting, but she was more on the mark when she called attention to the hypocrisy of slavery in a supposedly egalitarian nation, and when she noted that Americans were both arrogant that everything about them was the best possible, and fragile and insecure whenever anyone doubted it. Some things haven’t changed in the 175 years since.

Fanny Trollope is just the first of the women, who are presented in chronological order.

Next came Fanny Kemble, who I mentioned in connection with Henry James. Her relation of a true story (or at least good gossip) from her stay in America led to James’ outstanding book, Washington Square.

Kemble was an actress who travelled to America with her father after domestic unrest in England led to the failure of their theater. A young woman with a striking - if not exactly beautiful - appearance, she captured the eye of young heir to a plantation in Georgia, Pierce Butler. The marriage would turn out to be a disaster in every way. Butler would inherit the plantation, and have to return home to manage it, taking his young wife. Kemble was appalled at the institution of slavery itself, but more so by the actions of her husband. The slaves would appeal to her - she was a kind and generous woman - for basics such as rudimentary medical care. She would appeal to her husband, who would fly into a rage and have the slave that complained beaten brutally.

Kemble was miserable, and attempted to leave several times, but she knew that the laws of the time would award her young children to their father. (In those days, children were the rightful property of the father, and even abuse was insufficient reason for a woman to be granted a divorce and custody.) Eventually, she couldn’t take it any more, and left, leaving her then-teenaged children behind. By that time, it was obvious that Butler was not just abusive to her but also a serial adulterer.

It didn’t help things that they were fundamentally incompatible. He expected submission, while she had a temper and lacked tact, and had no desire to be controlled. She moved out, and a nasty divorce trial followed. He claimed desertion (a grounds a man had for divorce), while she sought to prove she was forced to leave by his adultery. At one point in the proceedings, he incredulously stated that “She held that marriage should be companionship on equal terms.” That was, of course, unthinkable to most men of the time.

As was the case for many a celebrity divorce, past and present, the case played out in the newspapers, with little sympathy shown to either side. In the end, Kemble received some alimony which enabled her to survive, but he severely restricted contact with her daughters. (Fortunately, they maintained a relationship with their mother anyway, and were closer to her after they came of age.)

This part of the story was interesting enough, but it became even more so in the years to follow. Kemble didn’t read Trollope’s book, but was well aware of the fuss it created, while she herself liked the Americans far more than Trollope did, she noted that Trollope must have spoken the truth, because no lie would have caused so much hubbub. Kemble remembered the book’s success, and decided to re-write and publish her memoirs as the Civil War loomed.

This book, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, published during the Civil War, and the memoirs, early copies of which circulated in Abolitionist circles, are considered a reason that Britain refused to aid the Confederate cause.

One other incident which I found interesting was a conversation that Kemble had with former president John Quincy Adams regarding her role as Desdemona in Othello. Adams opined that Desdemona deserved everything she got (including her murder!) as “a very just judgment upon her for having married a nigger.” Kemble found this appalling, writing a friend that she thought maybe the play would have better dramatic power if they changed the opening line by Iago from “I hate the Moor” to “I hate the nigger” given in a Southern accent.

(I recently saw a performance of Othello. You can read my thoughts on the play here.)

Next up was Harriet Martineau, a firebrand of a social reformer and lecturer. She wrote extensively, with pamphlets and lectures on subjects ranging from prisons to plumbing. Her first hit was a series of pedantic stories on moral subjects (perhaps the prototypical “Book of Virtues”) whose interest is primarily academic these days. But they sold back then, rescuing Harriet from a life of drudgery. Eventually, she too came to the United States, on more of an explicit research project than the two Fannys. 

Martineau was quite a character. She had an early engagement broken when her fiance went insane and had to be committed. Whether it was from this or from her personality, which some have opined was on the autism spectrum, she never did seem interested in romance thereafter.

One rather interesting observation by the author was that Martineau, “Like others who strive to improve humanity, she didn’t care much for its individual representatives.” Wheeler contrasts Mark Twain, who was a curmudgeon about humanity in the abstract, but admired and love the individuals he met. I will add that I have encountered the same in my own experience, particularly when it comes to people who like children in an abstract sense, but do not seem to enjoy them in person.

Harriet’s book, Society in America, was a bit different than Trollope’s screed. Harriet genuinely loved the egalitarian dream - including uppity servants. So, she had a great deal of optimism for the future of American democracy. Unfortunately, her biting observations have worn better than the optimistic prediction that slavery would be voluntarily abolished. (That cost 600,000 lives to accomplish.)

One particularly astute observation was that the very worst people among the defenders of slavery were the clergy. (Both Trollope and Kemble noted this too in their books.)

Seeing what I have seen, I can come to no other conclusion than that the most guilty class of the community in regard to the slavery question at present is not the slaveholding, or even the mercantile, but the clerical; the most guilty, because not only are they not blinded by lifelong custom and prejudice, nor by any pecuniary interest, but they profess to spend their lives in the study of moral relations, and have pledged themselves to declare the whole counsel of God.

I cannot but think that future generations are going to make the same judgment about the complicity of our own generation of clergy in fomenting racism, fear, and hate about the pressing moral questions of our own time.

Harriet began her life as the daughter of a Unitarian minister. By the time she reached middle age, her experiences led her to embrace atheism, and also, like many an inconsistent Victorian, also the charms of “Mesmerism,” an early form of hypnosis.

Given her forceful and acerbic opinions, it is not surprising that some other intellectuals that knew her, such as Sidney Smith, said he had nightmares about being chained to a rock and being talked to death by her. In what has to be one of the best lines ever, Douglas Jerrold quipped upon her public announcement of her atheism, “There is no God, and Harriet Martineau is His prophet.” I think I might steal that one from time to time.

The next woman is a complete change of pace. Rebecca Burlend was the wife of John, a decent, hard working man, who failed at his attempt in farming in England due to plummeting wheat prices. They, and the younger five of their children set off for America to homestead in rural Illinois at the suggestion of a friend who had moved there. This was back when Illinois was wilderness and hardly connected with the rest of civilization.

The move was not Rebecca’s choice, and she went only (as she later related to her oldest son, who wrote down her story and published it) because of duty.

I gave up the idea of ending my days in my own country with the utmost reluctance, and should never have become an emigrant, if obedience to my husband’s wishes had left me any alternative.

Times have changed a bit, shall we say. I cannot imagine even expecting my wife to leave everything because I wished it.

In any event, despite hard times, the family made it, barely. It is impossible not to have immense respect for Rebecca, who had to do everything herself after John had a cut go septic on him. He survived, amazingly, but was bedridden for months. Without plow animals, she had to hitch a plow to herself, later harvesting with the help only of her small children. And then, at age 40, she had to plow again by herself while John worked elsewhere to pay off a debt.

So she hitched herself to the plow again, this time seven months pregnant with twins. Bad. Ass.

John and Rebecca lived into their 80s and died within a year of each other. The Burlends went on to become a notable family in Illinois.

Next up is the incomparable Isabella Bird. Bird was a heroine to my father-in-law (who shares her wanderlust and love for solitude in the wilderness.) Isabella was sickly at home in her native England, but seemed to gain an amazing transformation while traveling. Briefly married, she began her adventures after her husband’s death. She wrote a number of books about her adventures, which have become classics. 

One has to admire her sheer chutzpah in venturing out into the Colorado wilderness (and many other places) alone, boarding with frontier ruffians as the only woman in sight, riding her horse in five feet of snow to seemingly inaccessible places (one stable agreed to lend her - and only her - a horse), climbing mountains in frozen conditions, and generally defying the Victorian view of women.

She was eventually - and deservedly - admitted to the Royal Geographic Society as its first female fellow. This honor was not universally admired, with Punch writing the following doggerel:

A lady an explorer? A traveller in skirts?
The notion’s just a trifle too seraphic:
Let them stay and mind the babies, or hem our ragged shirts;
But they mustn’t, can’t and shan’t be geographic.

A bit rich, when addressed to a woman who had clearly outdone any of them.

My favorite line of hers came after she was thrown from her horse after a grizzly spooked it.

“I dreamt of bears so vividly that I woke with a furry death-hug at my throat, but feeling quite refreshed.”

The final woman in the book is Catherine Hubback, one of Jane Austen’s nieces. She married a young barrister, and they were happy for a decade or so, at which time he underwent a catastrophic mental collapse. He ended up institutionalized for the rest of his life, and soon stopped recognizing her or their children. She was left with three children under the age of six, and had to move in with her in-laws. She devoted herself for a while to the publication of her aunt’s unpublished works. She also wrote stories of her own - although they weren’t particularly good. They do, however, hint at the anguish she felt at being in an impossible situation. She wasn’t a widow, or single, or really married. She had no place, and was an uncomfortable inconvenience. But she persevered until the kids finished school. Then, she did her best to get them established in the various family businesses. When one son moved to Oakland, California, she went with him, and proceeded to find a newly expanded life. With her mentally ill husband a world away, she came to a place where the past was less relevant. She poured herself into the founding of a society for moral improvement - and also into travel in the wilderness of California, where she had adventures which she captured in her letters to her other sons. This particular account was interesting to me in part because I know the places she visited well, from the Gold Country to Yosemite, to Lassen National Park.

This book is a chronicle of these “second acts.” All of these women made a major change in their middle age, and for each of them, the United States was the place of a significant transformation of some sort. I think the author’s point that women past the age of childbearing are - even now - disregarded as irrelevant is a good one. It is a product of millennia of sexism and the view of women primarily as resources of reproduction and service to men. Each of the women in this book made the most of opportunities to transcend that in their later years. For three, their husbands were useless or worse. For another, he was incapacitated at various times, and she had to pick up the slack. For the other, a man was never an important part in her life, and she rose on her own merits and energy.

It’s an interesting book, about women who were fascinating and admirable each in her own way.


  1. LOL. Othello may not have been too icky for quasi-"medieval" 16th/17th century England, but it WAS too icky for the more "enlightened" and "democratic" Founding Fathers 150+ years later.

    "There is no God, and Harriet Martineau is His prophet.”

    Another line I've heard on a similar theme: An atheist walks into a bar. I know because he told everyone in the first two minutes.

    "I cannot imagine even expecting my wife to leave everything because I wished it."

    I've read other stories of women raised on the East Coast whose husbands decided to go West (in the days when this still had to be done with wagon trains crossing a prairie with grass 6-10' high). The women were not completely on board but it was their husbands' decision. Unsurprisingly this bred resentment.

    And actually, the more I observe traditional gender roles/stereotypes in general, it seems like breeding resentment between men and women is one of the only things they can reliably do. And yet complementarians insist that they're God's revealed will. From a theology-of-Genesis standpoint, seems far more likely to me that Satan/sin turned humanity not only against God but against itself. After all, it's a lot harder to fight evil when you're too busy fighting each other instead.

    1. You certainly can see why a number of intelligent women decided against marriage.

      I too am leaning more and more toward the idea that the fall was more about humanity choosing antagonism and harm once they gained sentience rather than about violation of an arbitrary rule or a violation of hierarchy.