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Domestic Manners of Americans, by Frances Trollope.

August 23, 2014

Domestic Manners of Americans, by Frances Trollope. Reprint edition.  HardPress Publishing (2014), Kindle Edition, 332 pages.

 

A reprinted classic by an English woman who visited America around 1830 and wrote a witty and sometimes critical account of what she saw, an account that reminds us of the blindness of priviledge.

 

Frances Trollope was the daughter of a clergyman and the wife of unsuccessful lawyer. She enjoyed the literary and reform circles of London, where she met Fanny Wright, a radical American who planned to open a school where white and black children would be educated together. Trollope and three of her children accompanied Wright on her return to America. The plan was for Trollope to observe the school in Tennessee, but upset by the conditions there, the Trollopes moved on to Cincinnati where they spent the next year.

 

Cincinnati had been founded only thirty years before. For Trollope, it was an example of the best and worst aspects of democratized living. The American West, as seen through Trollope’s eyes, was a place empty of the refinement and pleasant luxuries that she valued. Crudity and lack of respect were rampant problems in her eyes. Chewing tobacco and spitting were intolerable to her. People were working so hard to get ahead that they had no time or interests in culture and intelligent conversations. A poor person could probably obtain a more comfortable life in the city than in England, if only they could avoid the widespread vices of alcohol and tobacco. She was also deeply offended by those whom she considered “beneath her” refusing to show her any deference.

 

When Trollope and her group moved to eastern cities, she found more that pleased her, although spitting and lack of grace continued to annoy her. Staying at a plantation near Washington, D.C., she encountered slavery firsthand. She was quick to point out the unfairness of the institution even for domestic slaves who could be sold away from friends and family and who had no personal hope for freedom in their future. (She never, however, addressed what life was like for the majority of slaves beyond the few who served in their masters’ homes.) She also viewed slavery as contributing to the coarseness of their masters and mistresses.  Trollope saw some advantages to be had from slavery, however. She believed that domestic slaves had better lives than the lower classes of whites, even of the whites who owned slaves themselves. In addition, when she was traveling, she found that slaves were more pleasant and more helpful servants than whites who thought themselves equal to those they assisted.

 

Women and home life were of particular interest to Trollope who made a point of visiting a variety of homes and writing about the practices she observed. Such topics, ignored by male travelers, added to the popularity of her book. At times she shows pity for the lives of the women she describes, but seldom any empathy. Even the women who were wealthy and well-dressed are depicted as sad and often helpless. Trollope believed that a major problem for the upper classes was that women and men were usually separated in their leisure time, leading both groups to stop trying to be pleasing. (She does not seem to notice that the work of women and men was also rigidly divided.)

 

Trollope was not totally negative about America. She made friends and tells of architecture and views that thrilled her. She found much to enjoy, particularly in the abundant natural beauty. She and her children were active explorers, hiking on a regular basis. For her,the Alleghenies viewed in the springtime with all their trees and flowering vines were the most wonderful place she had ever seen. It was the “excessive” democracy in people’s daily life that upset her.

 

Although Trollope had come to America as something of a radical or reformer, her observations here reveal her underlying conservatism. Her book was widely read, both in America and in England, in part because of how critical she was of how political democracy was affecting society. While her views are certainly biased, they remain important for understanding the sense of loss that some conservatives were experiencing. As she points out, praise of democracy is cheap. Actually encouraging others to claim equality has a cost for those who enjoyed privileges in the past. It we believe in equality, we must be willing to give up privileges.

 

This reprint of Trollope’s book includes an introduction by Sara Wheeler which provides useful background information for those unfamiliar with Trollope or conditions in the young American nation.  Frances Trollope was the mother of Anthony Trollope.  I am grateful to have received an ebook to review.

 

 

One Comment leave one →
  1. September 3, 2014 12:52 pm

    Thank you for your wonderful review – I find Fanny Trollope a fascinating character and must read this one day!

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