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Europe and America Criss-Crossing Perspectives, 1788-1848

Jacques Portes

Première partie. America Viewing Europe

I.3. An English Lady Looks at America: Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans

Alberta Fabris Grube

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  • 1 Frances Wright was a Scottish woman of independent means. She had been fascinated by the American ’ (...)

1Among the many books written on the New World, Domestic Manners of the Americans deserves a special mention. Mrs Trollope, its author, was an intelligent, cultured woman with a large family and a financially precarious husband; she sailed to America chiefly to find a positive solution to her pressing financial problems. She left England on November 4th, 1827, attracted by the possibility of living in the utopian community of freed slaves organized by her friend Fanny Wright1 at Nashoba, Tennessee; dismayed by the primitive conditions of the place, she left it and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, then a bustling town famous for its pigs. She travelled accompanied by her three children, two servants and, daringly, by a young French artist, Auguste Hervieu, her protégé in England. After living in Cincinnati, for two years, facing with great courage and enterprising spirit the ordeal of sheer survival, helped by her ever faithful Hervieu, Mrs Trollope travelled East, first to Washington, D. C., then to New York and the Niagara Falls, in a leisurely way, until finally she embarked for Europe in the summer of 1831. Out of despair over her economic situation and hoping to solve it by writing she decided to produce a book on her adventures. As soon as she was back in Harrow, relying on her copious notes, she set about to write and completed a book which was published by Whittaker, in March 1832. The charming and witty illustrations were by Hervieu.


  • 2 Such a dismayed reaction was typical of other travellers. As Christopher Mulvey points out in his i (...)
  • 3 Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, ed. Richard Mullen (Oxford: Oxford University (...)

2Her first impression upon arriving at the mouth of the Mississippi river, on Christmas day 1827, was a negative one. She was impressed by the forlorn aspect of the place2; it was vast, colourless, uninhabited, the huge masses of drifting wood carried by the sluggish current suggesting "the fragment of a world in ruins."3 It was a primordial, forbidding landscape, a world which, although new, was paradoxically old. Things improved when Mrs Trollope visited New Orleans, an exciting place, with its multicoloured, varied population, its graceful buildings reminding her of a French provincial town. In the passages in which she describes her walks in the surrounding forests, or her impressions of the luxuriant gardens, bright with oranges and red peppers, one can feel a deep sense of wonder. Her delight in seeing exotic plants and flowers reminds us of a similar attitude in Marvell’s poem "Bermudas". Here, however, she also experienced what she calls her first example of democracy, "being introduced in form to a milliner." She was puzzled, although ready to admit that the person in question was well educated and pleasant; we, living in a less class-conscious society, are struck by her delightful characterization of the woman she met:

... not at a boarding-house, under the indistinct outline of ’Miss C-–’, nor in the street, through the veil of fashionable toilette; but in the very penetralia of her temple, standing behind her counter, giving laws to ribbon and to wire, and ushering caps and bonnets into existence, p. 7.

3But on the Mississippi boat the real adventure begins; her shock at meeting other travellers was great because of their excruciatingly bad manners and their indulging in chewing tobacco and spitting, a habit which disgusted her as it did most of her countrymen. Besides, Mrs Trollope could not help noticing the poor, sick look of the men who made a scant living cutting wood for the steam-boats. The atmosphere of the place was, in short, very unpleasant, the scenery on the river banks was so monotonous that she talks of "heavy horror wearying the spirits" (p. 18), but it is a vivid picture of the wild, poor country which was then America.

  • 4 Also later on, in the Allegheny region, she will regret the lack of a Gothic castle, because "the t (...)

4After the great disappointment of the colony of freed slaves at Nashoba, too primitive and rough for her refined taste, Mrs. Trollope decided to try her luck elsewhere, but still in the West. This time she voyaged with her small family on the Ohio river, which she considered very pleasant, with many signs of human habitations on its banks, perfect in fact, "were there occasionally a ruined abbey, or a feudal castle, to mix the romance of real life with that of nature." (p. 27)4 Finally the small party landed at Cincinnati, a new town of about twenty-thousand inhabitants, which had been very well spoken of but which caused no end of amazement to the English lady. She easily found convenient lodgings, but the sanitation left much to be desired. There was no cistern, no pump for water, no drain; the rubbish was thrown in the middle of the street, where roaming pigs would eat it.


5Amusing is her description of the typical American town planning: Cincinnati was built in "squares", solid instead of hollow, the ’blocks’ one still sees today. Cincinnati was certainly a showpiece of the enterprising spirit of the West, but Mrs Trollope thought that such liveliness was due not so much to the spirit of democracy but, more plausibly, to the fact that everyone had to provide for himself. America was a land of opportunity but also a land with few or no provisions to help those in distress, no poor-law, no charity from the upper classes, partly due to the fact, she notices, that people were too proud to accept any gifts. Rugged individualism: this myth of American society, still so powerful today, was something our lady reluctantly admired, without abandoning her deeply felt reservations. In a delightful passage, speaking of her real experiences as confronted with the fashionable talk of London, we find the same attitude some of us have towards the so-called radical-chic of today:

And here again it may be observed, that the theory of equality may be very daintily discussed by English gentlemen in a London dining room, when the servant, having placed a fresh bottle of cool wine on the table, respectfully shuts the door, and leaves them to their walnuts and their wisdom; but it will be found less palatable when it presents itself in the shape of a hard greasy paw, and is claimed in accents that breathe less of freedom than of onion and whiskey. (p. 101)

Other interesting observations refer to the loneliness of the pioneers who tilled the land, after clearing the forest; they endured more hardship than the men who worked in Europe, being without the comfort of a close-knit community such as still existed in England. Even field labourers and farmers fared less well than their English counterparts, because, we are amused to hear, although in the United States wages were higher (10 dollars per month, with lodging, boarding, washing and mending), provisions cheaper, “the American poor are accustomed to eat meat three times a day" (p. 96). English cottagers, on the other hand, were surviving on a simpler diet of bread and cheese. People in general were certainly more independent in the New World, but at what price?" No village bell ever summoned them to prayer, where they might meet the friendly greeting of their fellowmen" (p. 42-43). Also later on, in Virginia, she will comment on the lack of comforts in the households of small land-owners who, in spits of their slaves, lacked many amenities which were common among farmers of the same level in England.

6Another thing that shocked her was the problem of servants; they were in such abundance in England, but seemed much rarer and quite deficient in Ohio. In the elaborate household arrangements which were typipcal of a period which did not know many labour-saving devices, the lack of good, reliable servants was obviously a major drawback, particularly if the lady of the household had any intellectual interests.

The horror of domestic service, which the reality of slavery, and the fable of equality, have generated, excludes the young women from that sure and most comfortable resource of decent English girls; and the consequence is, that with a most irreverent freedom of manner to the parents, the daughters are, to the full extent of the word, domestic slaves. This condition, which no periodical merry-making, no village fête, ever occurs to cheer, is only changed for the still sadder burthens of a teeming wife. (p. 98)

Furthermore Mrs Trollope must have found it extremely unpleasant and disagreable to be treated without the respect she had been accustomed to in England. Most girls she had to deal with were in fact of British origin; their defiant or at least nonchalant behaviour could not be easily accepted by someone who was their countrywoman. Social life in general left her perplexed; she remarks that, at least in Cincinnati, but also elsewhere, as she will later discover, it was almost non-existent. When people met socially they generally had big meals, exceptionally big ones, if compared to the rather meagre teas of the more Spartan members of the English middle-class; otherwise men and women entertained each other in different rooms, the gentlemen enjoying a bountiful supper, while the ladies had to accept a much less substantial repast. Equally revealing are her remarks on food, which she considered cheap, compared to English prices; beef was excellent, but veal and mutton were less good, not to speak of fruits, which she found very poor compared to what one could get at home.

7If food, although incredibly abundant, was often of indifferent quality, worse things could be said about the intellectual activities of Cincinnati. Today, with all of us aware of the riches of American museums, one can laugh at the description of Mr Dorfeuilie’s collection of art, a combination of ethnographic artefacts and natural history specimens to which he had added, in order to attract more people, an elaborate wax museum which Mrs Trollope ironically calls "pandemonium, " with paintings by Hervieu and wax figures by the still unknown Hiram Powers. To make it more effective, it was visible through a "grate of massive iron bars" which, if touched, produced a kind of mild electric shock. What she forgets to add, however, is that this contraption called "Mr Dorfeuille’s Hell" had actually been invented by herself-

8Cincinnati, although a fairly new town, had a theatre, but the attendance was poor, and English actors were exerting themselves in vain in front of an audience which had horrible manners. Lack of culture, lack of leisure, where characteristics of American life observed by many travellers, but Mrs Trollope found life particularly boring for the women of the middle class whose only evasion from domestic routine was offered by prayer meetings. Religion, of the Methodist and Presbyterian persuasion, played an important role in the lives of most women who enjoyed periodical ’revivals, ’ where the faithful, led by itinerant preachers, reached a state of exaltation, which often came close to hysteria, extremely distasteful to Mrs Trollope, who belonged to the less ’enthusiastic’ Church of England-In some fascinating pages she describes in full detail what was called a "camp-meeting, " a gathering of innumerable people in a clearing of the forest, at midnight. In the open space, surrounded by majestic trees, there was a circle of tents enclosed by a circle of carriages of various types. In the center "four high frames, constructed in the form of altars" had been erected. A platform was reserved for the preachers (15 of them, who preached in rotation from Tuesday to Saturday, day and night.) “We contrived to look into many [tents]; all were strewed with straw, and the distorted figures that we saw kneeling, sitting, and lying amongst it, joined to the woful and convulsive cries, gave to each the air of a cell in Bedlam. " (p. 140) There was a crescendo of drama and tumult which astonished Mrs Trollope’s quiet Anglicanism: the preachers, inviting everyone, but especially young females, to confess their sins, seemed particularly vicious:

One woman near us continued to "call on the Lord", as it is termed, in the loudest possible tone, and without a moment’s interval, for the two hours that we kept our dreadful station. She became frightfully hoarse, and her face so red as to make me expect she would burst a blood-vessel. Among the rest of her rant, she said; "I will hold fast to Jesus, I never will let him go; if they take me to hell, I will still hold him fast, fast, fast! (p. 144)

Ironically, she also notices, however, that the following morning all these people ate a most substantial breakfast. Sects of every kind and description were flourishing, and Mrs Trollope was convinced with a prophetic spirit that "if a fire worshipper or an Indian Brahmin, were to come to the United- States, prepared to preach and pray in English, he would not be long without a very respectable congregation." (p. 106)

9Full of curiosity, amused or dismayed, she tries nevertheless to keep a balanced view of what she sees around her. An interesting example of such an attitude is given by her comments on the celebration of the Fourth of July, the only national feast shared by all Americans. She cannot help mentioning the "bad taste and bad feeling to utter an annual oration, with unvarying abuse of the mother country, to say nothing of the warlike manifesto called the Declaration of Independence" but immediately after she adds that

... our gracious king himself might look upon the scene and say it was good; nay, even rejoyce, that twelve millions of bustling bodies, at four thousand miles distance from his throne and his altars, should make their own laws, and drink their own tea, after the fashion that pleased them best. (p. 71)

The Puritan influence was remarkably strong in as remote a place as Cincinnati; its impact on the American view of English literature could lead to some astonishing statements. In a conversation with a person she adroitly calls "a serious gentleman", famous names of English writers are completedely discredited, as being old fashsioned, passé, without any interest for the inhabitants of the new country. Even Shakespeare is frowned upon: "Shakespeare, madam, is obscene, and, thank God, we are sufficiently advanced to have found it out. If we must have the abomination of stage plays, let them at least be marked by the refinement of the age in which we live." (p. 75)

10It is a well-known characteristic of English people, particularly the upper class, to love the countryside and its pleasures. Mrs. Trollope, in the height of Summer, was finally able to leave dreary Cincinnati and rent a cottage outside the town. It was lovely, it was charming, but a much desired ramble in the woods, was actually only a great disappointment. What happened to the ’innocent’ party is vividly described by Mrs Trollope’s felicitous prose. First there was a feeling of oppression due to the density of the forest where no breeze could penetrate, then an attempt to rest on a fallen tree proved to be a disaster, the wood being rotten and collapsing under the weight of the people:

We were by no means the only sufferers by the accident; frogs, lizards, locusts, kattiedids, beetles, and hornets, had the whole of their various tenements disturbed, and testified their displeasure very naturally by annoying us as much as possible in return: we were bit, we were stung, we were scratched; and when, at last, we succeeded in raising ourselves from the venerable ruin, we presented as woeful a spectacle as can well be imagined. (p. 80)

Finally they had great trouble in finding their way home, because of the impenetrability of the forest. The landscape was certainly primeval, but Mrs Trollope was not touched by the solemnity of the scene, in spite of her occasional romantic attitude. So she talks of the forest as a dungeon, characterized by "multitudes of tall, slender, melancholy stems, as like as peas". (p. 80)

11One of the delights of the book are the frequent quotations from provincial Americans who spoke a very peculiar English marked by a strange syntax and an incredible pronunciation. Mrs Trollope, having a fine ear for language, although amazed, likes to reproduce it. As she likes to report linguistic misunderstandings, typical of people who thought they spoke the same language. Interestingly enough, again and again, she notices the strong patriotic feelings expressed by everyone she met, all convinced of being very lucky to live in a free, rich land, without king, church and taxes. In the West, in other words, nostalgia for the old country, for European civilization, was totally absent, and no longing for a different, more cultured life was ever expressed.

12When Mrs Trollope, having realized that the Cincinnati experiment was a total fiasco. was ready to leave, in order to go back to the comforts of England, there was the unexpected visit of the newly elected president of the country, Andrew Jackson. He seemed attractive, with something of the gentleman and the soldier; what disturbed Mrs Trollope, unaware of his strongly egalitarian political ideas, was the excessive lack of respect of the populace who treated him with "brutal familiarity.”


  • 5 Curiously enough she never mentions her ’bright’ ideas to make money. They included the creation of (...)

13In March 1832 Mrs Trollope finally left Ohio; with no regrets, still looking for a positive solution of her financial problems, she decided to eventually write a book on her American impressions5. Most critics agree that the second half of Domestic Manners of the Americans is less successful, simply because it relates the experiences of a traveller, albeit an intelligent one, and not of a person who lived and survived in a Western town. Nevertheless even in the second part we find certain characteristics of the first one: witty remarks, penetrating insights, amusing and telling details, but also some very acid comments and conventional descriptions of landscape. It was a trip back to civilization, to a comfortable life, with good servants and an attractive society. Descriptions, as we have said, both of natural and urban landscape abound.

14Mrs Trollope was very fond of Baltimore, the most elegant city of the Union: she depicts it with gusto not forgetting to tell us about a curious sermon she heard in the cathedral. Particularly striking and effective is a charming passage about a small chapel attached to a catholic college, in which she makes us aware of its special genius loci:

The tiny path which leads up to this sacred spot, is not much wider than a sheep-track, and its cedars are but shrubs, but all is in proportion; and notwithstanding its fairy dimensions, there is something of holiness and quiet beauty about it, that excites the imagination strangely. The little chapel itself has the same touching and impressive character. A solitary lamp, whose glare is tempered by delicately painted glass, hangs before the altar; the light of day enters dimly, yet richly, through crimson curtains... (p. 174)

  • 6 It is interesting to compare Mrs Trollope’s observations with those of Fanny Wright, who has a more (...)

Washington pleased her, reminding her of "our fashionable watering-places" (p. 181). It was elegant and quiet, with the congressmen enjoying its charming atmosphere, having the privilege of being paid for their pains (8 dollars a day, as she dutifully notices). In the Bureau for Indian Affairs Mrs Trollope was shown a room of portraits of Indian chiefs who, according to her description were painted in the style of the period, either with an expression of "noble and warlike daring", or of "a gentle and naive simplicity" (p. 186). What was appalling was the contrast between the way they were painted and the manner the white American government treated them, chasing them away from their ancestral lands.6

  • 7 Mrs Trollope adds that the technically free Irish labourers who were digging the Potomac canal on a (...)
  • 8 The more famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin. by Harriet Beecher Stowe, will be published only in 1851. Thus i (...)

15Her indignation about the Indians is equalled by her reaction towards slavery, although she was honest enough to notice how much better served she was when slaves were around. It is true that domestic slaves were often well treated, but only because their owners realized that otherwise "a valuable piece of property would be endangered."7 8In fact, even white masters were negatively affected by this state of things:

Among the poorer class of landholders, who are often as profoundly ignorant as the negroes they own, the effect of this plenary power over males and females is most demoralising; and the kind of coarse, not to say brutal, authority which is exercised, furnishes the most disgusting moral spectacle ever witnessed. In all ranks, however, it appeared to me that the greatest and best feelings of the human heart were paralyzed by the relative positions of slave and owner. (p. 210)

16The celebrated Fanny Kemble, an English actress who had married a Virginian gentleman and had experienced the reality of Southern plantations, left more horrifying accounts of the actual living conditions of the slaves. Mrs Trollope is never sensational but makes a very interesting, profound observation on the ‘invisibility’ of the blacks, "sable shadows" who have no identity of their own- She was so moved by the plight of the Africans in America that one of her novels will deal at length with the problem. The Life and Adventures of Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw (London, 1836) is about the rise and fall of an intelligent young man of humble origins who succeeds in becoming rich. The most interesting pages in the book, however, are those devoted to the slave problem. There is great pathos in them; in Juno, an old negress expert in magic who, after a life of pain and suffering, has become a powerful character, respected and feared by whites and blacks alike, she has created an unforgettable figure.

17During her trip the writer stopped in Philadelphia which seemed to her less elegant than Baltimore and pleased her less, in spite of its great historical importance- She was struck by the lack of any coup d’oeil. as there were no landmarks to speak of, with everything "even, straight, uniform and uninteresting." (p-222) The Quaker city was very sober, completely dead and silent at night, with practically no light in the streets. "The religious severity of Philadelphia manners is in nothing more conspicuous than in the number of chains thrown across the streets on a Sunday to prevent horses and carriages from passing.” (p. 234) She confesses her ignorance about the way gentlemen passed their Sundays: women, however, were faithfully praying in church. In the museum, which she visited, she was negatively impressed by the Puritan attitude towards the collection of casts of antique statues; ladies were asked to see them in groups of their own because it was considered indecent for them to see them in the company of men! American contemporary art did not generaly impress her:

From all the conversations on painting which I listened to in America, I found that the finish of drapery was considered as the highest excellence, and next to this, the resemblance in a portrait; I do not remember ever to have heard the words drawing or composit ion used in any conversation on the subject, (p. 228)

She also stresses the point that it was extremely risky for a young American to decide to become an artist, because of the lack of patronage; "The trade of a carpenter opens an infinitely better prospect". (p. 282)

18Mrs Trollope, however, developed a great weakness for New York, or at least for its beautiful position on the sea, "bright and glorious", too splendid even for the brush and pencil of Turner. "Situated on an island, which I think it will one day cover, it rises like Venice, from the sea, and like the fairest of cities in the days of her glory, receives into its lap tribute of all the riches of the earth." (p. 297) The houses of the well-to-do were very beautiful and richly furnished, but she complains about "the extreme uniformity – when you have seen one you have seen all." (p. 299) The decoration of the interiors was also not original or personal: Mrs Trollope speaks of "little tables, looking and smelling like flower beds, port-folios, nicknacks, bronzes, busts, cameos, and alabaster vases, illustrated copies of lady-like rhymes bound in silk" (p. 298-99). This very bourgeois style will be the butt of Edith Wharton’s attacks in her pioneering work of 1897, The Decoration of Houses. Speaking of manners, our English lady gives amusing details about the custom of the so-called "spinning visits", a kind of shower party to pay the Presbyterian ministers and the constant moving of New Yorkers from one dwelling to another;

On the 1st of May the city of New York has the appearance of sending off a population flying from the plague, or of a town which has surrendered on condition of carrying away all their goods and chattels. Rich furniture and ragged furniture, carts, waggons, and drays, ropes, canvas, and straw, packers, porters, and draymen, white, yellow and black, occupy the streets from east to west, from north to south, on this day. (p- 309)

The passages devoted to natural beauties are many. Her attitude is generally romantic; in front of a very dramatic scenery, like the Niagara Falls, one of the great experiences of sight-seeing in America, she speaks of terror, of a strange mixture of pleasure and pain. But she could also be very meticulous in writing of flowers and plants, showing a good knowledge of botany.

19Still the second part of the Domestic Manners is less convincing, probably because its author was more self-conscious. She was appalled by what she called the "periodical trash" which newspapers, so popular in every class of society, produced. She criticized the provincialism of American literature, due in part to the lack of a solid cultural background in its writers. Even the celebrated American education of which the country was so proud, seemed to her rather poor: "At sixteen, often much earlier, education ends, and money-making begins;... When the money-getting begins, leisure ceases, and all of lore which can be acquired afterwards, is picked up from novels, magazines, and newspapers." (p. 284) But sometimes she can exaggerate, as when she talks of the "bustling, struggling, crafty, enteprising, industrious, swaggering, drinking, boasting, money-getting Yankee, who cares not who was his grandfather, and meditates on nothing, past, present, or to come, but his dollars, his produce, and his slaves, ..." (p. 260)


20The book is, in short unequal – and the modern reader seeing the American reality in a different way and from a different point of view, is alternatively entertained, surprised or shocked. Some of her observations on the lack of a court, an official church, an aristocracy, in a period in which this class had still a lot to say, are almost commonplace, similar to those of other travellers. But she could also be refreshingly original in her reactions to a democracy ’in progress’, to a ’revolutionary’ life. She had her own ideas, and was independent enough to look with her own eyes at what she saw. A revealing instance of unconventional judgement is her attitude towards the feminine question in the United States. In order to understand it one should not forget that Mrs Trollope was born in the late 18th century and, being motherless, had enjoyed an amount of liberty unknown to other Victorian ladies, having the privilege of moving freely among the intellectual circles of the day. She could not understand, therefore, the role of women in the new republic, their total isolation from men who worked hard and did not share their social activities. Women of the upper classes had so much domestic drugery to go through that little or no time was left for their cultivation or leisure. Or they preferred to live in boarding houses, not wanting to be bothered by the chores of house-keeping. These women, having little or nothing to do, spent many long hours in their respecting chambers sewing:

I always observed that the ladies who boarded wore more elaboratedly worked collars and petticoats than any one else. The plough is hardly a more blessed instrument than the needle. How could they live without it? (p. 243)

  • 9 Her comments on the woman question are remarkably ’new’ and original, particularly if compared to t (...)

Fully aware, in a Jamesian sense, of the civilizing influence of women in society, she deplores their "lamentable insignificance" (p. 244) in the American context.9

Should the women of America ever discover what their power might be, and compare it with what it is, much improvement might be hoped for. While, at Philadelphia, among the handsomest, the wealthiest, and the most distinguished of the land, their comparative influence in society, with that possessed in Europe by females holding the same station, occurred forcibly to my mind. (p. 239)

  • 10 Helen Heineman, Mrs Trollope; The Triumphant Feminine in the Nineteenth Century (Athens, Ohio: Ohio (...)

And she exemplifies her statement by describing a day in the life of a Philadelphia lady which seemed to her a triumph of inanity. As Helen Heineman, author of the major biography on Mrs Trollope remarks, such a delicate and witty description "calls to mind T. S. Eliot’s twentieth-century English wasteland where the relationship between the sexes, while having come physically closer, has remained mechanical."10

  • 11 One notable exception was Mark Twain who praised her accuracy in his Life on the Mississippi, as qu (...)

21Anyway when the book, Domestic Manners. was finally published, it was extensively reviewed: the Tory press praised it while the liberal one criticized it for being unfair. On the whole, however, on can say that it was a great success in England, but it was heavily attacked in America for its negative comments on the American achievements.11 A few years later it will be compared to Society in America (1837) by Harriet Martineau. Both authors were powerful ladies of the Victorian establishment, but their personalities and political ideas were different. Miss Martineau was an intellectual, but she lacked the natural gift of the born writer. The famous Victorian spinster had come to the United States as a public figure, a welcomed, lionized celebrity. Mrs Trollope, on the other hand, had hoped that the American dream of success and obtaining wealth would become a reality also for her. She was greatly disappointed when it did not materialize, but the American experience launched her into an independent career as a writer, helping her to find her real vocation. If she had been occasionally so critical it was also because she was convinced she had a role to play enlightening her countrymen on the eve of political and social reforms:

How often have I wished, during my abode in the United States, that one of these conscentious, but mistaken reasoners, fully possessed of his country’s confidence, could pass a few years in the United States, sufficiently among the mass of the citizens to know them, and sufficiently at leisure to trace effects to their causes. Then might we look for a statement which would teach these mistaken philantropists to tremble at every symptom of democratic power among us; a statement which would make even our sectarians shudder at the thought of hewing down the Established Church; for they would be taught by fearful example, to know that it was the bulwark which protects us from the gloomy horrors of fanatic superstition on one side, and the still more dreadful inroads of infidelity on the other. And more than all, such a man would see as clear as light, that where every class is occupied in getting money and no class in spending it, there will neither be leisure for worshipping the theory of honesty nor motives strong enough to put its restrictive doctrine into practice. (p. 318)


Such a statement seems to me another sign of the old, well established tradition which, from Spenser on, exalted the unique character of England, a country which in its long history always, or almost always, has stuck to the middle way, to a balanced position between opposite extremes. In order to better understand Domestic Manners one should not forget that such conviction was the starting point of Mrs Trollope, clever, amusing, occasionally preposterous, anything but the "passionate pilgrim" of Jamesian memory. In it one can find exaggerations, ignorance of certain facts; distortions, due in part to the political situation in England, in part to the author’s personality, but the book, published more than one hundred and fifty years ago, is still a lively, entertaining first-hand account of what was then the West, written by a brilliant, opinionated lady, who had her prejudices and her idées fixes. but who was also able to catch the peculiarities, the good and the bad sides of the still relatively unknown New World.

Works cited

Heineman, Helen, Mrs Trollope; The Triumphant Feminine in the Nineteenth Century. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1982.

Martineau, Harriet, Retrospect of Western Travel. London: Saunders and Otley, 1838, 2 vols.

Society in America. 3 vols. London: Saunders and Otley, 1837.

Mulvey, Christopher, Anglo-American Landscapes, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Parent Frazee, Monique, Mrs Trollope and America, Caen, Publications de la Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines de l’Université de Caen, 1969.

Stowe, Harriet Beecher, Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Life among the Lowly. Boston, John P. Jewett and Co. 1851.

Trollope, Frances, Domestic Manners of the Americans, ed. Richard Mullen, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

The Life and Adventures of Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw; or Scenes on the Mississippi. With illustrations by A. Hervieu, 3 vols. London; Bentley, 1836.

The Refugee in America: a Novel, 3 vols. London, Whittaker, Treacher, 1832.

Wright, Frances, Views of Society and Manners in America in a Series of Letters from that Country to a Friend in England during the years 1818, 1819, and 1820 by an English Woman. New York: Bliss and White, 1821.

Notes de fin

1 Frances Wright was a Scottish woman of independent means. She had been fascinated by the American ’experiment’ after reading Carlo Botta’s Storia della guerra d’indipendenza degli Stati Uniti d’America. Having lived in the United States for about three years she wrote a book, Views of Society and Manners in America. It is interesting, full of stimulating observations, but less charming and entertaining than Mrs Trollope’s. On the whole her attitude towards the new country is enthusiastic, except for the major flaw of slavery.

2 Such a dismayed reaction was typical of other travellers. As Christopher Mulvey points out in his interesting Anglo-American Landscapes. Europeans were prepared to admire the sublimity of the Niagara Falls, but not the vast, flat scenery of the Mississippi with its mud banks, bulrushes and crocodiles.

3 Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, ed. Richard Mullen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984) (p. 2). All further references to this work appear in the text .

4 Also later on, in the Allegheny region, she will regret the lack of a Gothic castle, because "the travelling for thousands of miles, without meeting any nobler trace of the ages that are passed, than a mass of rotten leaves, or a fragment of fallen rock, produces a heavy, earthly, matter-of-fact effect upon the imagination, which can hardly be described, and for which the greatest beauty of scenery can furnish only an occasionnal and transitory remedy." (p. 166)

5 Curiously enough she never mentions her ’bright’ ideas to make money. They included the creation of the Dantesque Hell in Dorfeuille’s museum and the setting up, in the same place, of the so-called Oracle of the Invisible Girl impersonated by her son Henry. More daring, but financially disastrous, was her project of building a bazar, a fancyful construction of eclectic style, part shopping, part cultural and entertainment center. Not only did it not bring any money, but it made her lose the sums invested. Harriet Martineau saw it when visiting Cincinnati and called it "the great deformity of the city-... It is built of brick, and has Gothic windows, Grecian pillars, and a Turkish dome, and it was originally ornamented with Egyptian devices which have, however, all disappeared under the brush of the white washer." (Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838, II, p. 249). The building changed hands several times; it was used for a variety of different purposes until it was finally pulled down in 1881.

6 It is interesting to compare Mrs Trollope’s observations with those of Fanny Wright, who has a more ambiguous attitude towards the Indian problem. At one point she says: "The increase and spread of the white population at the expense of the red, is, as it were, the triumph of peace over violence: it is Minerva’s olive bearing the palm from Neptune’s steed." (Frances Wright, Views of Society and Manners in America in a Series of Letters from that Country to a Friend in England During the Years 1818, 1819, and 1820 by an English Woman (New York: Bliss and White, 1821) (p. 148). Shortly after, however, she adds that the situation was dramatically difficult because of the deep contrast between two races, one too savage and the other too civilized.

7 Mrs Trollope adds that the technically free Irish labourers who were digging the Potomac canal on a salary of 10 to 15 dollars a month, when sick with fever were literally thrown out of their miserable lodgings and left to die. They were more ’expendable’ than the slaves. So, in order to diminish the tension of population pressure she suggests large migrations to Canada, as Mary Barton, the protagonisst of the homonymous novel by Elisabeth Gaskell would actually do. Fanny Wright too, by the way, had commented on the miserable plight of Irish migrant workers.

8 The more famous Uncle Tom’s Cabin. by Harriet Beecher Stowe, will be published only in 1851. Thus it was Mrs Trollope who had begun to deal with the problem in her fiction. Although in a more marginal way the theme of slavery and its consequences had appeared also in one of her early novels, The Refugee in America (1832).

9 Her comments on the woman question are remarkably ’new’ and original, particularly if compared to those of Fanny Wright who was less critical and praised the freedom America women enjoyed, the respect accorded to them. In spite of some reservationss on the way they were educated Fanny Wright saw hope of their developing as "thinking human beings".

10 Helen Heineman, Mrs Trollope; The Triumphant Feminine in the Nineteenth Century (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1982), p. 91. Another important work on the same subject is Monique Parent Frazee’s Mrs Trollope and America (Publications de la faculté des lettres et sciences humaines de l’Université de Caen, 1969).

11 One notable exception was Mark Twain who praised her accuracy in his Life on the Mississippi, as quoted by Helen Heineman and Richard Mullen.


Università degli Studi di Venezia

© Éditions de la Sorbonne, 1988

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