Reviewed by Harriet Devine
No author of the present day has been at once so much read, so much admired and so much abused.
So wrote the New Monthly Review in 1839 of Frances Trollope’s best-selling Domestic Manners of the Americans. Published in 1832, the book offered a first-hand account of a nation about which most people knew very little. America had declared its independence from Britain in 1776, almost exactly fifty years before Trollope began her three-year visit there in 1827, and everyone was naturally curious to see how well this new country was working. But while Trollope admired the beauty of the countryside, she was generally unimpressed with most features of American life, one of which started to distress her within days of her arrival and continued to do so until her departure:
I hardly know any annoyance so deeply repugnant to English feelings, as the incessant, remorseless spitting of Americans.
Although it might seem to be a minor detail, the habit of spitting seems to have come to exemplify all that Trollope found disturbing about this new country. The word uncouth recurs very often in her descriptions of people and their attitudes and she is relentlessly critical of everything from pigs wandering in city streets to religious fanaticism. She finds American people unrefined and totally lacking in spiritual, intellectual and emotional attainments, and is highly critical of American democratic beliefs.
Trollope had travelled to America following an invitation from the freethinking radical reformer Frances Wright, who had set up a commune with the admirable aim of demonstrating her belief that black people were as intelligent as whites. But her ideal school had deteriorated into a muddy terrain of incomplete cabins and sick people, so Trollope and her children quickly moved on. During their stay they spent nearly two years in Cincinnati, and also visited Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and finally New York. And everywhere she went, Trollope was casting her critical, satirical eye on all she saw.
She never lost her interest in, or opposition to, slavery, and was deeply shocked by the attitude of a slave-owning family who she was visiting when they discovered that an eight-year-old slave girl had mistakenly eaten a biscuit laced with arsenic intended for the rats. When Trollope manages to save the child by making her vomit, one of the daughters exclaims, ‘My! If Mrs Trollope has not taken her in her lap, and wiped her nasty mouth!’. Trollope makes the comment that:
The idea of really sympathising in the sufferings of a slave, appeared to them as absurd as weeping over a calf that had been slaughtered by the butcher.
Elsewhere she writes with sympathy about the Native Americans, sees them as tragic figures, admires their artefacts, and is impressed by a powerful sermon preached by a member of one of the displaced tribes. As for women, she is shocked by the ridiculous custom of having them eat separately from men, and their inability, as she discovers at an art exhibition she visits, even to view classical sculptures if men are in the room. She’s also highly critical of their appearance:
The ladies have strange ways of adding to their charms. They powder themselves immoderately, face, neck and arms, pulverised starch; the effect is indescribably disagreeable by by day-light, and not very favourable at any time. They are also most unhappily partial to false hair, which they wear in surprising quantities…
Trollope wrote, towards the end of her book, that she was sure it would bring ‘a transatlantic anathema on my head’, and so indeed, hardly surprisingly, it did. She was attacked in the American press, and made the subject of satirical cartoons, plays and poems. But at the same time her book was hugely successful, going through four editions in its first year and being translated into many languages. A new verb, to ‘trollopize’ was added to the language.
Domestic Manners was Trollope’s first book, written at the age of fifty-three, and led her to have a successful career as a novelist, though not as successful as that of her son Anthony. It’s still a hugely entertaining and informative read, and the new Oxford World Classics edition has all the extras you’d expect from this publisher, including an excellent introduction and notes, and even some of the illustrations from the original 1832 edition. Splendid stuff.
Harriet is one of the Shiny editors.
Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans (Oxford University Press, 2014), 292 pp.