Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Frances Trollope and Mothers of the Novel

Frances Trollope (death of her son Anthony Trollope, 6 December 1882)

I discovered the novels of Anthony Trollope when I was supposed to be doing something else, and once I found him, I just couldn't get enough--luckily, there is a lot of Trollope, some forty-seven novels (he also wrote five volumes of short stories, several travel books, a handful of biographies, and an autobiography, among other works of non-fiction). 

After I finished reading his most well-known works--the six novels that comprise the Barchester Chronicles and the six Palliser novels--I just started reading my way through the shelves, alphabetically by title (not very discriminating, I know). I love Trollope, and shortly after I retired, I decided to read the two series again--I'm hoping to avoid another full-on attack of Trollope mania, however.

The novelist Frances Trollope,
mother of the novelist Anthony Trollope
That said, although I was vaguely aware that Anthony Trollope's mother had also been a writer, it wasn't until a couple of years ago, when my son gave me a Nook for Mother's Day, that I discovered the work of Frances Trollope.

After I'd downloaded onto my new e-reader all the novels by Margaret Oliphant I could find--the free ones, at any rate--I searched for books by "Trollope," and up came Frances Trollope's name. So I downloaded The Widow Barnaby, and I was hooked.

Born on 10 March 1779, Frances Milton was the daughter of William Milton, the vicar of Heckfield (Hampshire) and his first wife, Mary Gresley.

When Frances was just five or six years old, her mother died shortly after giving birth to a son. Following her father's remarriage in 1800, to Sarah Partington, Frances and her sister Mary moved to London, where they took up residence with their nineteen-year-old brother, Henry, who was working for the War Office.

In 1809, when she was thirty years old, Frances married a London barrister, Thomas Anthony Trollope. Over the course of the next nine years, she gave birth to seven children (her first baby, a boy, died at birth). Her husband proved to be volatile and unpredictable, his temper harsh, and his finances a disaster.

In 1827, Thomas Trollope's situation grew worse--Thomas had expected to inherit a considerable estate from his childless uncle, but on the death of his childless uncle's wife, the man had remarried, and his new wife had borne a child, displacing Thomas as heir. Deprived of his expectations and facing ruin, Thomas Trollope had to break up his established home.

Frances Trollope traveled to the United States with some hope of improving her family's economic situation and establishing her second son, Henry, in a career. How exactly she planned to do that isn't clear, but she headed first to Nashoba, a utopian community established by the social reformer Frances Wright, whom she had met briefly in London.

As her son Anthony would later recall, his mother's journey was "partly instigated by the social and communistic ideas of a lady whom I well remember, a certain Miss Wright, who was, I think, the first of the American female lecturers." The Nashoba Commune, founded in Memphis in 1825, was a multi-racial community focused on providing an education for freed slaves. 

When Frances Trollope arrived at Nashoba, the community was on the brink of collapse. She moved on to Cincinnati, still in search of a way to make money for her family and find a career for Henry. She opened the Cincinnati Bazaar, which proved to be exactly what the citizen's of the city dubbed it, "Trollope's Folly" (it is sometimes said to be the first shopping mall in the United States).

It wasn't until she returned to England and began writing that she found her way to success. In 1832, at age fifty-two, she published an account of her travels, Domestic Manners of the Americans.

It was a scathing critique of the country and its hypocrisy: "With one hand hoisting the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves, you will see them one hour lecturing their mob on the indefeasible rights of man, and the next driving from their homes the children of the soil, whom they have bound themselves to protect by the most solemn treaties."

Beyond Americans' oppression of their slaves and their dispossession of Native Americans, Trollope regarded American women as particularly oppressed by a repressive brand of religiosity:
How is it that the men of America, who are reckoned good husbands and good fathers, while they themselves enjoy sufficient freedom of spirit to permit their walking forth into the temple of the living God, can leave those they love best on earth, bound in the iron chains of a most tyrannical fanaticism? How can they breathe the balmy air and not think of the tainted atmosphere so heavily weighing upon breasts still dearer than their own? How can they gaze upon the blossoms of the spring and not remember the fairer cheeks of their young daughters, waxing pale, as they sit for long sultry hours, immured with hundreds of fellow victims, listening to the roaring vanities of a preacher, canonized by a college of old women? They cannot think it needful to salvation, or they would not withdraw themselves. Wherefore is it? Do they fear these self-elected, self-ordained priests, and offer up their wives and daughters to propitiate them? Or do they deem their hebdomadal freedom more complete because their wives and daughters are shut up four or five times in the day at church or chapel?
Trollope's book was a sensation--loved by the British, loathed by the Americans. (Mark Twain would later write that Frances Trollope was "handsomely cursed and reviled by this nation" for having told the truth.) Most important for her financial situation it sold "like wildfire."

Trollope continued writing and produced several more travel books, but she also turned her attention to fiction, publishing The Refugee in America in the same year as Domestic Manners, followed by an anti-Catholic novel, The Abbess, the next year, 1833.

Trollope's output was varied, and she wrote in many different genres. Her 1836 anti-slavery novel, The Life and Adventures of Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw: or Scenes on the Mississippi, is widely regarded both as the first anti-slavery novel and as an important influence on Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852.

Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy, which began its serial publication in 1840 (Trollope was the first woman to publish her novels in monthly parts), was one of the earliest of the so-called industrial novels, focusing on the conditions in factories in Manchester and, in particular, on the issue of child labor. Her novel influenced the passage of the Factories Act of 1844 that reduced hours for child laborers between the ages of eight and thirteen (they still worked a horrific number of hours, but at least some regulations were enacted).

In Jessie Phillips, a Tale of the Present Day (1843), Trollope focuses on issues of sex and class--Jessie Phillips is a poor young girl seduced and abandoned by a squire's son. Because of the "Bastardy Clause" of the 1834 "New" Poor Law, "illegitimate" children were the the sole financial responsibility of their mothers, so Jessie is unable to get any support from her child's father. It's a desperate tale--after the death of her child, Jessie is accused of infanticide, Jessie herself dies, and her seducer commits suicide. This novel influenced some modifications to the Bastardy Clause in 1839, and a new law, in 1844, that allowed an unmarried woman to seek some financial support from a child's father.

Both The Abbess and Father Eustace (1847) were anti-Catholic novels, and both employed some conventions of the Gothic novel. Trollope turned her attention--and a satiric point of view--to the failings and corruption of Evangelicals within the Anglican Church in The Vicar of Wrexhill (1837), sometimes regarded as her best novel. In the hypocrisy and self-interested quest for power among churchmen that she depicts, this novel makes a nice link to the Barchester novels of her son.

But for me, Trollope's Widow Barnaby trilogy is where to begin. As I said, I first stumbled on The Widow Barnaby (1839) quite by accident, downloading books onto my new Nook. I was thrilled to discover that two novels followed: The Widow Married: a Sequel to The Widow Barnaby (published serially from 1839 to 1840, and as a single-volume novel in 1840), and The Barnabys in America: or Adventures of the Widow Wedded (published serially from 1842 to 1843, and as a book in 1843).

Trollope moved to Florence after the death of her husband (1835) and a daughter (1838). By the time of her death there, on 6 October 1863, she had published thirty-four novels and six travel books.

I spent more than forty years in English departments at universities--I started graduate school in 1972 and retired as an English professor in 2014. Never once did I hear the name of Frances Trollope. But, to be fair, Anthony Trollope was never on a syllabus either.

Anthony Trollope is experiencing a bit of the spotlight at the moment--it's the 200th anniversary of his birth, and Julian Fellowes, of Downton Abbey fame, has just adapted Trollope's Dr. Thorne into a multi-episode TV miniseries. You might enjoy Adam Gopnik's recent New Yorker essay, "Trollope Trending." It's a great essay--one of my favorite contemporary essayists and one of my favorite novelists, but I do have one big complaint. In his essay, Gopnik reduces Frances Trollope to this demeaning aside: "His mother, the travel writer and novelist Fanny Trollope, wrote volumes on 'domestic manners.'" He then adds, as if that weren't dismissive enough, "[n]ovelists of manners . . . die as their manners age." No, Adam Gopnik!! Read some Frances Trollope!!!

You can find Frances Trollope's work at Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive, you can download free editions on your Nook or Kindle, and you will find there are many reprint editions available (though they tend to be quite expensive).


  1. Hi and Happy 2021.
    I have just started to read Anthony Trollope and was most curious about his mother and her writings which brought me to your blog. I find it fascinating that mother and son wrote so many words in so short a time and starting late in life when the life expectancy was for Fanny almost over. I feel rather lazy when I think of all she accomplished. I enjoyed your thoughts on this subject and am looking forward to reading some more of your blog.
    Charlotte Kriley
    Jim Thorpe, Pa

  2. Thank you so much, Charlotte--not only for reading but for taking the time to comment. Have fun with the Trollopes!