Ever since A Boy's Own Story in 1982, Edmund White has been known for autobiographical fictions which subtly chart the gay experience. A restless adventurer across frontiers, he has also written rivetting biographies of Jean Genet and Marcel Proust, as well as a memorable flâneur's guide to the Paris he inhabited for many years.
Now he has plunged into new transatlantic waters and come out wondrously metamorphosed, but with his wit and wisdom intact. He has also come home to America. If White contends with it here in its early 19th-century state, this makes it no less recognisable.
The promised land of democracy is one where the pursuit of the dollar is the mightiest of ideals, civility is sacrificed to puritan correctness or spat out along with Philistine gobs of tobacco juice; and equality is a concept which rarely stretches to race, whatever the utopian scheme. It is a land where "personality is all... An odd hemline or a becoming stutter will always upstage a worrying thought."
Fanny is, in fact, a novel about two really-existing, historical Fannys. One is Frances Trollope, energetic gossip, mother of seven, traveller (by need), bestselling author from the age of 54 of 35 novels and six travel books.
It is after her death in Italy in 1863 that Mrs Trollope's unpublished biography of her younger friend, the radical bluestocking Frances Wright, comes to light. This "biography" - a form White shows is always permeable to its author's autobiography - is the fiction of Fanny. White, too, has played "fast and free" with his sources, plundering Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans, the book that launched her career, to shape his narrative.
The two Fannys could not be more different. An heiress, orphan Frances Wright also inherits the enlightened hopes of her Scottish milieu. Ideas and the future are her native habitat; revolution, or at least radical reform, her ideal: an end to inequalities of sex and class and colour and to the bondage of marriage and religion; free love; freed children, free (when transported to new lands) slaves.
These are the subjects of her articles and popular lectures across America, to which, unusually, thousands of women flocked. To this end, too, she created a utopian community inspired by Owen's New Harmony.
What this Fanny is bad at is people, unless they are great, almost dead white males, like the revolutionary aristocrat Lafayette or the heroic former president, Thomas Jefferson. These she beds, or certainly seduces, as if their radical status and ideas could be passed to her along with more viscous substances. The rest, including her fatally loyal sister, and those who people her utopia, suffer from her ideas.
Her biographer, on the other hand, is by her own admission a social conservative, a mildly snobbish gadabout, a lover of parties and salon conversation, for which she has to remember to glue in the false teeth she keeps on her fireplace. She is also an astute observer of people, their vanities and hypocrisies.
Where one Fanny never sees the dung at her feet for the horizon in the distance, the second, like some Wife of Bath greedy for experience, is viscerally aware of all the teeming life around her. Hardly a feminist, she nonetheless has to work for her living. Curious about others, she is rather more open to experience and to the plight of her fellows than her blue-stockinged friend.
As the two women engage on a journey (with three of Trollope's children) to America, to the Utopia of Nashoba, and finally to the newly-free black state of Haiti, it is the "conservative" Trollope who finds herself warmed by black arms. It is she who will eventually write an early anti-slavery novel, while the more utopian Wright gives up the cause to marry a pedantic aristocrat.
White has a genius for describing friendship and the character that emerges through it. The two Fannys turn to each other for different reasons. If there is a subliminal homoerotic attraction between the tall and stately Wright, and the rather fluffy, fluttery Trollope, this is only the backdrop on which Trollope's desires for openness, for shared feeling, for ordinary give and take, are played out - together with resentments, jealousies, blindnesses.
It is a tribute to White's powers that by the end of the book, both of his heroines have grown so laden with virtues and faults, both have become so utterly human, that they might easily join your own circle of friends.
Fanny also reminds us that White has consistently taken up Henry James's transatlantic theme, playing Europeans and Americans against one another to underscore the limitations of each. Openness to experience, a civility which allows others freedom of thought and being, are what matter for each. James's own belated return to an America where he found "proportions and values were upside down", gave rise to The Jolly Corner. In that story, the millionaire "monster" he might have become had he never left confronts him as a murderous double.
There may be no alter ego waiting in the bleak streets of Cincinnati, White's birthplace, where Mrs Trollope tries to retrieve her fallen fortunes. But limited citizens and cut-throat businessmen abound to scupper her inventive schemes. There is also, however, the escaped slave Cudjo, whose warmth and humanity bring Mrs Trollope back from the depths.
Edmund White emerges in this book as a sparkling comic writer, as garrulous and effervescent as his narrating heroine. Fanny romps and bubbles across Europe to backwoods America. On the way there are hilarious cameo appearances from Fenimore Cooper, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Owen, and tableaux with a mock-heroic flourish.
In a final scene, the aged Mrs T is at a séance when blue-stocking Fanny's deep, terrifying voice leaps out in accusation: "Lies, all lies". What else can a biographee say to a biographer? Only then, inadvertently, to admit the truths behind some of those lies - which is what fiction is all about.
Lisa Appignanesi's novel 'Sanctuary' is published by BantamReuse content