...They pay neither taxes nor tithes, are never expected to pull off a hat or to make a curtsey, and will live and die without hearing or uttering the dreadful words, 'God save the King.' These were the words recorded by Englishwoman Fanny Trollope after a visit to a "wild and lonely farm" in the Midwest of America. She would go on to write extensively about the manners, or lack thereof, of the Americans she encountered, and express her strong sympathies for the abolitionist movement.
Trollope is one of six female adventurers who left the confines of Europe to explore the possibilities inherent in the new free land across the Atlantic. Sara Wheeler, a
British writer (The Magnetic North), follows their trials and triumphs, sometimes literally traveling the routes they took in the US, though of course, the old landmarks have long since disappeared under billboards and asphalt. The greater charm here is simply to immerse oneself in the observations of these plucky, sometimes astute women: Fanny Trollope, Fanny Kemble, Harriet Martineau, Rebecca Burlend, Isabella Bird, Catherine Hubback.
Like Trollope, Martineau would decry American slavery. On her trip down South, she "saw a slave coffle, a line of chained men and women slipping through the mist, and she could not see the beginning or the end of the line." But the greatest rage over this immoral institution was undoubtedly expressed by Fanny Kemble. Kemble was an English actress who married a wealthy American plantation owner and spent a season in Georgia, where she was bored to tears by the lack of brilliant conversation among her husband and his ilk, but more significantly, deeply appalled by his apparent toleration for the pitiful conditions in his slave quarters. After close contact with the wretches who toiled to make her husband wealthy, she wrote, "It is too dreadful to have those whom we love accomplices to this wickedness; it is too intolerable to find myself an involuntary accomplice to it."
Rebecca Burland, with her husband and seven children, landed alone on a dark riverbank in Illinois after a nerve-wracking, bone-jolting journey of months.
There they eventually became successful farmers without, the author notes, the excitement of innate wanderlust or the solace of books. Isabella Bird explored the Colorado Rockies by horseback, guided at times by a disreputable, gun- and knife-toting, one-eyed rounder known as Rocky Mountain Jim. Jim was also a consummate liar, whose many tales about himself Isabella was inclined to believe ("He has pathos, he has poetry," she gushed). Catherine Hubback, niece of Jane Austen, emigrated to California and witnessed, in a few years, the astronomical growth of the Bay Area which "had developed at breakneck speed even by the standards of the American frontier."
Wheeler sews all these stories together neatly, with care to the details, giving us American women a chance to see our country, manners and history through foreign, female eyes.