You might not expect Sara Wheeler, the intrepid literary traveller, to be anxious about passing the half-century point. Surely a person who can survive the mental and physical rigours of Antarctica, as she brilliantly documented in Terra Incognita, can cope with ageing and menopause?
Wheeler herself was not so certain. In her restless, creative way, she met the advent of what she calls ‘the Frumpy Years’ by taking to the road, following the trails of six indomitable Victorian women across the United States. The combination of that nation of eternal makeover and of Wheeler’s travelling companions makes O My America! a curious and teasing book.
Her work to date has included accounts of her own travels and biographies of earlier travellers, including the polar survivor Apsley Cherry-Garrard and the Happy Valley darling Denys Finch Hatton. Here she has mixed the two. Each of this book’s six chapters tells the story of another remarkable British woman heading west in search of a ‘second act’ and of Wheeler’s pursuit of her. The names of some of these hopefuls will ring a bell, most obviously Harriet Martineau, Isabella Bird and Fanny Trollope, the novelist Anthony’s mother. The others — Rebecca Burlend, Fanny Kemble and Catherine Hubback — will be new to most. What they all have in common is that, around their 50th year, they were in America reinventing themselves.
Several of these stories are strong enough to have made interesting books in their own right and, apart from Catherine Hubback, all of the women published accounts of their American experiences. Fanny Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans and Isabella Bird’s A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains were bestsellers, while Harriet Martineau’s two-volume Society in America was at least reviewed by Benjamin Disraeli, though she might have wished that he had not, for he found her book ‘ludicrous’.
Whatever the merits of their literary output, there is no denying the inspiring examples these women set. They had little time or opportunity to mention soaring hormone levels or hot flushes: menopause would have been the least of the challenges for some of them. Mrs Trollope’s 50th year was spent overseeing the building of an entertainment centre in Cincinnati, a disastrous venture that left her so broke she had to trade her last carpet to pay rent on her lodging.
But much of the appeal of O My America! lies in the magical regenerative power of the new republic: all of these women overcame the obstacles and setbacks. The problem, though, is that we don’t get enough of them. I often wish for books to be shorter, but here I wish that we had more. Six mini-biographies in just over 200 pages means losing some of the characters’ complexities, as well as much of Wheeler’s own journey, which links the tales as she crosses the States in search of traces and whatever may have survived by way of locations.
But Wheeler is a writer of great composure and energy, and out of these American adventures she fashions something unexpected and compelling, and that is a portrait of a nation under construction. The earliest of her travellers reached the Mississippi in 1827, just 50 years after the Declaration of Independence, while the last left San Francisco in 1876. In that half century, the railway rolled across the continent and finally reached the Pacific coast and with it went the idea that hard work and a little luck would bring prosperity, the hope around which the American dream was fashioned.
Wheeler captures the excitement of this endless possibility, happy to take a sidetrip to tell us about the artist Audubon, the photographer Muybridge, the poet Keats’s lumberjack brother, and a cast of others. She is also very good at taking a teasing look at the clash of manners as her ladies confront the new nation’s lack of social structure. When Fanny Trollope asks for tea to be served in her Cincinnati hotel room, the hotelier shouts at her that she can have it downstairs with his family, like everyone else, or not at all. ‘Our manners are very good manners,’ he explained, ‘and we don’t wish any changes from England.’
Wheeler seems to have had as much fun as her ‘girls’ as she followed them across the States. Her story doesn’t quite have the force of a Thelma and Louise, lighting-out-for-the-territory sort of tale, but she describes herself at the outset as a migratory bird gone off course. By the end, she returns with some wisdom to get her through the ‘Frumpy Years’, perhaps none more precious than the suggestion that she replace anger, bitterness and self-pity with the ability to ‘salvage joy in the daily detail’.