Book review: O My America! Second Acts in a New World by Sara Wheeler

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‘AFTER so many years writing about explorers with frozen beards,” says Sara Wheeler in her Introduction to O My America!, “spending my life with women proved a joy.”

O My America! Second Acts in a New World

by Sara Wheeler

Jonathan Cape, 288pp, £18.99

Wheeler is best known as our finest modern chronicler of the frozen wastes, our Praxilla of the Poles. Her books on Antarctica and the Arctic are classic travelogues. They naturally obliged her to devote a lot of time to those frozen-bearded men (elsewhere she calls them “the shoe-eaters”) who first stomped out trails in the ice and snow. Terra Incognita and The Magnetic North are gender-neutral in that their quality transcends the chromosomes of the author, but it is difficult not to grasp that in writing them Wheeler finally claimed for women parts of the world which had previously been colonised solely by men.

That reputation must at times have become tiresome. Wheeler has also written superb travel books about such decidedly unfrozen places as the Greek island of Euboea, and excellent biographies of two men (one of whom was, admittedly, an Antarctic explorer).

O My America! is nonetheless a departure. It is a combination of original travelogues, biographies and essays which the author so cleverly constructs that the volume works as a single narrative rather than a compendium.

As Wheeler approached her 50th birthday she uncovered the adventures of six 19th-century British women who, at about her own age, reinvented themselves in the United States of America.

The temptation was irresistible. Wheeler followed “my girls” on their different odysseys. As her subtitle suggests, the result is in part an exploration of what F Scott Fitzgerald famously but falsely suggested was impossible: lives which were given second acts in America.

Some of her six women are better known than others. They are Fanny Trollope (to whom we do a disservice by recalling her only as the mother of Anthony); the actress Fanny Kemble (Wheeler apologises politely for the superfluity of Fannies in Victorian times); the social commentator Harriet Martineau; a tough frontierswoman from Yorkshire called Rebecca Burland; the wonderful Isabella Bird of Tobermory and Edinburgh; and Catherine Hubback, a niece of Jane Austen who made her way to California two years after the Transcontinental Railroad connected the eastern states to the west with a golden spike.

The seventh female character in this long and busy second act is Wheeler herself, following her girls across the States after an interval of 150 years, sympathising with their difficulties and admiring their stamina and resourcefulness: “For almost two months, and breastfeeding, Rebecca cooked for seven over a shared fire on the steerage deck of a sailing ship.”

One secret of first-person travel writing is the presence of the narrator as a good companion. It probably cannot be taught – a writer either is or is not sympathetic, amusing, insightful and informative. Sara Wheeler has had it from the off. You want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind.

The first of Wheeler’s women went to the New World in 1827 and the last in 1871. Only a couple of them ever met one another. They came from different British classes and regions, went to different places and had different ambitions. They spanned the antebellum and postbellum United States, witnessing slavery, the Civil War, reconstruction of the free South, the drive to the west and the birth of the superpower.

But O My America! works as a single narrative because it contains an overlap of incidental characters (Charles Dickens and Henry James keep cropping up) and towns (we find ourselves in Cincinnati more frequently than might be expected), and because the whole presents an off-the-wall, womans-eye history of the US during the most critical 50 years in its young life.

Fanny Trollope spent four years there, disliked the brash egalitarianism which manifested in such phenomena as the hired help expecting to dine with the family, returned to England and wrote a book about her travails which made her a figure of hate back in the US but rich and famous in the United Kingdom.

Fanny Kemble’s was an altogether more tragic tale. She crossed the Atlantic as the most desirable actress in Britain, quickly became the most attractive actress in the US, and equally quickly married the hatchet-faced scion of a slave-owing family. Hers is the most affecting story here. Kemble hated every moment on her husband’s tidewater plantation. Her experiences there, which she also would relate in print, denied beyond dispute the pretensions of the slaveholding South to represent any form of “civilisation”. It is doubly astute of Wheeler to indicate how, as a woman, Kemble shared a form of slavery. She could not escape the suffering of her husband’s African slaves without also forfeiting her children, her home and her savings.

If Sara Wheeler identifies most strongly with any one of her subjects, it is surely Isabella Bird. Like Wheeler, that amazing woman travelled to, and wrote about, many other parts of the globe. Even if she had never set foot in Malaysia, China or Egypt, Bird’s time spent cantering around Colorado in the early 1870s would be enough to establish her as – in the words of yet another travel writer, Jan Morris – an indomitable original.

“Already middle-aged,” writes Wheeler, “she talked about the ‘up-to-anything free-legged air’, signed letters to her sister ‘your frugiferous bat’, and fell in love with Rocky Mountain Jim, a one-eyed desperado with a whiskey habit.”

No point in sighing that they don’t make ‘em like that anymore, because they do. Sara Wheeler celebrated her 50th birthday alone at a motel high in the Mayacamas Mountains in north-western California. She had learned from her six companions, and from the country of their second acts. “Never give up. America and the trailblazing women in these pages have helped me think of myself as a single person again …”

She had a working title for what would become O My America! It was No Surrender. “After all, dying comes to us all in the end. Living is the trick.”