“Fanny: A Fiction” by Edmund White— Shifting Gears


White, Edmund. “Fanny: A Fiction”, Harper Perennial, 2004.

Shifting Gears with Edmund White

Amos Lassen

Edmund White gives us quite a surprise with “Fanny” as we leave gay fiction and nonfiction behind and meet two extraordinary women from the 19th century. It is through them that we explore what is idealism, what constitutes a hero and how the American Dreams rests as an illusion over our heads.

Mrs. Frances Trollope (Franny) is in her fifties and is the author of a book which attacks the United States. The book made her famous but it is now some 25 years later and she is ready to write another book, one that again will be controversial but this time she tackles the biography of an old friend, the radical feminist, Fanny Wright. Thinking about Fanny, Franny remembers her ideas of utopia and the fact that it was Fanny who talked her into coming to America and the relationship between the two women.

White pulls off quite a literary coup here by giving us a novel within a memoir that includes the stories of two women, Fanny and Franny. Franny was regarded as the maven of domestic manners of Americans and Fanny was, as stated above, a utopian feminist. Not only had she caused Franny to come to this country, she had a scheme to abolish marriage and solve racism here at Neshoba, a community that she had founded in Tennessee. Now Franny is 76 with failing health and memory has written yet another book about her life in America some 30 years earlier after Fanny had left her almost at the moment they arrived. Franny was left to take care of herself and her children and companion, Auguste. In writing about Fanny, she realizes that her idea of humanism came at the expense of humanity.

While Franny wrote about Fanny, White concentrates of Franny Trollope—“caustic, witty, self-aware, genteelly impoverished, cursed with a cold, hypochondriac husband”. Her first book has become a classic and she has struggled to remain civilized as she went through some uncivilized experiences. It is her travels that take center stage but there is also her affair with Cudgo, an ex-slave who she began to love in Ohio. Edmund White, through Franny, shows us the power of domestic manners. Franny, a critic of American life, was the mother of Anthony Trollope, the novelist. Fanny was an aristocrat who believed in and advocated for the equality of all people. She became involved in the abolition of slavery. Using Franny Trollope’s biography of Fanny Wright we move back and forth between fiction and nonfiction with the introduction of famous historical characters (Lafayette, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison) and as we read the biography becomes Trollope’s memoir and what she and Wright went through together in Neshoba.

While this may seem like a departure for White, we soon realize that what Edmund White is doing here is showing us that he is skilled in all forms of literature and that he is ready and able to write them all. But then again, he might just be playing with us and I could not help but wonder if Trollope was not White himself relaying to us gossip and opinions about life in the new world. We certainly see the details of the life of a person during the period in which they lived and we become very aware of what happens within a minority that lusts for equality which is something that those who have worked in the gay movement know all too well. I had the feeling that White was telling us to re-examine our history.

White’s writings have been very important, both historically and emotionally, for the gay community and now that he has departed from that a bit, the rest of society get the chance to share in his writing. Here the story moves between biography written almost as autobiography and narration with comedy. There is only one very small gay reference here and it is not fleshed out.

Fanny” is so beautifully written that it pulls us in and holds us making us want to read it in one sitting. Add to that, the fact that I had never heard of Fanny Wright or Frances Trollope and so I learned something as well.

Fanny: A Fiction”, it seems to me, is about the changing and tumultuous geo-political landscape of America during the 1820’s with its religious fervor, and the evangelism of the mid-west. At the same time, Fanny is trying to create a society which outlaws marriage, where the races are equal and where the spirituality is eschewed. Frances gives us her observations of the New World and they are filled with fact and humor. Once again, we see what a national treasure we have in Edmund White.