Oh My America!, By Sara Wheeler

Funny and feisty, the transatlantic Englishwoman stars in this antidote to middle-aged blues

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The Independent Culture

After a career spent writing brilliantly about "explorers with frozen beards", Wheeler has switched to a more amenable locale and a pleasanter sex. Producing this portmanteau biography about six middle-aged Englishwomen in 19th-century America gave her "more fun… than all my previous books put together". The most significant word here is "middle-aged". At the same stage of life, Wheeler admits she was "going through a gloomy phase" but her protagonists proved to be "the best company a writer could hope for: spirited, intelligent, funny and inconsistent".

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The book is an ardent refutation of Scott Fitzgerald's claim that "there are no second acts in American life". Wheeler's first subject, Fanny Trollope (mother of the novelist) arrived in America aged 53 in 1832 with the aim of joining a commune in Tennessee established by a fellow Englishwoman, also called Fanny. As with similar ventures in the Sixties, the reality turned out less than ideal: "Buildings were in stages of disintegration, sanitation was non-existent and everyone was ill."

Retreating to Cincinnati, Trollope bounced back by creating shows for this staid and joyless community. A Dantesque spectacle called Infernal Regions ran for 39 years. Trollope expanded operations with a large bazaar. Unfortunately, the stock acquired by her pointless husband proved to be "4,000 dollars' worth of the most trumpery goods that probably ever was shipped." (In general, men do not emerge well from O My America!)

Back home in Harrow, Trollope wrote her vivid Domestic Manners of the Americans. Savaging her fellow passengers (all male) on a paddle steamer, she wrote, "I would infinitely prefer sharing the apartment of a party of well-conditioned pigs". The British, of course, lapped it up. Trollope went on to write 34 triple-decker novels, which suggests that second acts can get out of hand.

Wheeler's next heroine is Fanny Kemble (the author admits to "a superfluity of Fannies"). A notably talented member of the acting dynasty, she was "sleek and graceful as a whippet and just as highly strung". While touring America in 1830 with her father Charles, she fell for Pierce Butler, the caddish scion of "one of the principal slave owning families".

Unsurprisingly, the marriage rapidly hit the skids. Kemble enjoyed a literal second act by returning to the stage. Her one-person shows financed large houses in London and Massachusetts.

During the American Civil War, the passionately abolitionist Kemble mobilised British opinion in favour of the Union with her vivid Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation. Drawing on painful memories (a sick female slave was whipped for talking to her), the book is "remarkable for the precision with which it skewers the vapid defenses of slavery put about daily in both countries". Linking herself with her six subjects, Wheeler declares that Kemble "lived enough life for all seven of us".

Next on stage is Harriet Martineau, "an attention-seeking, willful grande dame". Obsessed with mesmerism and her bowels, she advocated atheism with Dawkins-like fervour. She is followed by Rebecca Burlend, who had never been more than 12 miles from her village near Leeds before moving to a farm in Illinois where conmen and bullies were more of a problem than cattle and crops.

The book's final second-acters are frail Isabella Bird, who took to scaling mountains and fell for a whiskey-drinking desperado called Rocky Mountain Jim, and Catherine Hubback, a failed novelist with a mad husband in England who at 52 took the train to San Francisco, where she suffered the familiar phenomenon of bank collapse. "You need not pity me for any part of my Californian life," she wrote home, "unless it is that stockings wear out so fast."

Many of the visitors' observations, particularly concerning American uniformity and obsession with money, remain strikingly true. Savouring their pell-mell adventures, recounted in this hugely pleasurable book with verve and perception, Wheeler reflects that "Dying comes to us all in the end. Living is the trick."