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Book Of A Lifetime: Domestic Manners of the Americans, By Fanny Trollope

Domestic Manners of the Americans is a traveller's account of the newborn republic between the War of Independence and the Civil War. An enchanting blend of topographical description, social commentary and robust rebuke, the book fizzes with the energy, fun and righteous indignation of a dumpy, middle-aged Bristolian called Fanny Trollope.

What an inspiration is Fanny! She has the essential reporter's curiosity, insisting on being lowered into Ohioan coal mines or hoisted onto Pennsylvanian factory platforms. A radical by temperament rather than ideology, she is determined to uncover the truth about the fabled American democracy. Voyaging through the slave state of Kentucky, Fanny notes with unease that all men are not as equal as had first appeared. "You will see them with one hand," she later writes of her Cincinnati neighbours, "hoisting the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves." Above all she despised "the total and universal want of manners", the manifestation of which ranged from eating foot-long slices of watermelon in public to tossing pigs' tails into flowerbeds and vomiting in the theatre pit.

When I was finding my own feet as a writer, Trollope was my role model. She was, after all, a Bristolian of modest origins, like me. She was one of the first travel writers, making an artistic form accessible long before men were usually cited as the first practitioners. I so admired the way she refused to submit to defeat, battling on through catastrophe, bankruptcy and heartbreak. Her son Anthony once declared that, "of all the people I have known my mother was the most joyous, or at any rate, the most capable of joy". To top it all she was a fine and intuitive writer - stylish, pithy, elegant, waspish.

Her refusal to acknowledge any taboo made people call her vulgar. Few 19th-century writers would have mentioned that Thomas Jefferson sired children "by almost all his numerous gang of female slaves" or complained about the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts covering up the penises of statues. In her prose and life, Fanny moved with 18th-century ease from bordello to boudoir. She is associated with the Victorians, like her famous son, but really she was raised in the world of rakes and Hogarthian vulgarity, unafraid of confronting both in print when she had found them in life.

Domestic Manners has not been out of print for 178 years. Trollope's prose slips the shackles of its period because it touches universal themes: gender; race; religion; liberty. She remains incomparable. Mark Twain took all the European commentators up the Mississippi, and on the last page of Domestic Manners he noted, "Of all these tourists, I like Dame Trollope best."

Sara Wheeler's 'The Magnetic North: notes from the Arctic Circle' is published by Jonathan Cape