‘Beautiful in bodily shape and gifts of soul’

Scottish PENScottish PEN is the Scottish centre of PEN International, a worldwide organisation committed to promoting literature and protecting freedom of expression. An important strand of PEN’s work is the support of women writers, so often marginalised. Scottish PEN has produced a revised version of its 100 Scottish Women Writers poster. Twelve writers from the poster will be featured as part of the Dangerous Women Project, in a contribution each month by a member of Scottish PEN.

by Dorothy McMillan

Frances Wright (1795-1852), Scottish by birth, is better known in America where she accrued a lot of firsts: first woman to write a serious book about America; first person to set up an experimental colony, Nashoba near Memphis, with the object of enabling slaves to work for their freedom; first woman to co-edit a newspaper in America, first female public orator in America, attracting huge mixed audiences. She became a powerful icon of radicalism, celebrated, according to Fanny Trollope (who took some of her children with her to try out Nashoba but quickly fled in horror) ‘as the advocate of opinions that make millions shudder’. This seems dangerous enough: yet her ideals were accompanied by a way of life that could have attracted few. If she had seemed less dangerous, she would probably have been more dangerous, more effective in achieving change.

After her death her teeth were quickly pulled. Since her oratory was not available, her fame and danger depended upon memory. Her work went out of print; her acolytes died; her ideas faded. In the British newspapers, as danger to established power came increasingly from group pressure on the State, dangerous women like Mary Wollstonecraft and Frances Wright were from time to time even invoked as less worrying than the braying herd.

There is quite a lot of online information about Frances (Fanny) Wright. As well as reliable official articles, like the ODNB entry, there are enthusiastic pieces, mostly American and sometimes a confusing combination of fact and inaccuracy. One by Kimberly Nichols in NewtopiaMagazine is lengthy and lively. Following Fanny Wright’s life is exhausting. She crossed the Atlantic at least 15 times – and in between she travelled all over America, nipped over to France from time to time, at first to visit the ageing General Lafayette, a hero of both France and America, and later to look in on her husband, Phiquepal d’Arusmont and daughter Sylva who were living in Paris, at least when they hadn’t gone back to America; and she even travelled more in Britain than most people at the time. At the height of her fame she was adored and reviled: Catherine Beecher, herself a feminist, but a religious and in some ways submissive one, hated the public display of her lecture tours:

There she stands, with brazen front and brawny arms, attacking the safeguards of all that is venerable and sacred in religion, all that is safe and wise in law, all that is pure and lovely in domestic virtue.

But Walt Whitman, who was only 17 when he first heard her, was captivated:

I never felt so glowingly towards any other woman. She was one of the few characters to excite in me a wholesale respect and love: she was beautiful in bodily shape and gifts of soul.

To Beecher and many others, Wright was a dangerous woman in the most negative sense. It is a cliché to talk about reformers being ahead of their time and it is one that most of Fanny Wright’s commentators buy into. Yet to be ahead of one’s time is perhaps not to understand it: Fanny Wright might have been a good deal more dangerous, if she had been more in tune with her time. But how, given her background and upbringing could she have been?

Frances Wright wrote her own Life in 1844: she called it not a Memoir but a Biography, writing rather awkwardly about herself in the third person.

In early life she pronounced to herself a solemn oath, to wear ever in her heart the cause of the poor and the helpless; and to aid in all that she could in redressing the grievous wrongs which seemed to prevail in society. She not unfrequently recalls the engagement then taken, and feels that she has done her best to fulfil it.

Frances Wright had a strong sense of her own rectitude and no sense of humour, but then nothing happened in her life that was at all likely to give her one.

She was born in Dundee on September 6, 1795. Her father was politically a radical, although clearly a family man, but both he and his wife died when the children were very young, Fanny two and a half, her brother five, and her sister Camilla an infant. The family was split up, Fanny and later Camilla went to her grandfather in London and after his death to her hyper-conventional aunt in London, her brother to cousins, where he seems to have been happy, but he did not see his sisters for 8 years and died young. Fanny hated her wealthy, indolent and constrained life, contrived to quarrel with her aunt and removed herself and her sister to the home of her great-uncle, James Mylne, Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. In Glasgow Fanny enjoyed a more liberal and socially responsible environment and in the college library consolidated her interest in the new land of opportunity, America, which had already been sparked by her discovery of Botta’s history of America, found in an old trunk of her aunt’s (nobody ever seems to ask if her aunt had read it).

And so Fanny upped once again and, cushioned by the inherited money which throughout her life was her opportunity and her curse, set off with the faithful Camilla to London and Liverpool from where in August 1818 they embarked for New York, while Mylne vainly suggested that Italy was nice. Her experiences produced her 1822 Views of Society and Manners in America, the eulogistic bias of which even Wright herself later admitted had a ‘Claude Lorraine tint’. The British journals were mostly outraged by her praises of American practice and explicit and implicit criticism of British behaviour. The Quarterly Review suggested that ‘By an Englishwoman’ concealed a male author, possibly even a chauvinistic American male. But then, when she published her defence of the principles of Epicureanism, A Few Days in Athens, in the same year, the Literary Gazette recommended that she lay down the pen and take up the needle.

Unsurprisingly, when Fanny Wright found approval from figures both authoritative and politically acceptable, she revelled in it. She sought out Jeremy Bentham, travelled to France to meet Lafayette, and then shadowed him on his tour of America in 1824, during which she met Robert Owen who had gone from the success of New Lanark to purchase the Rappite colony of New Harmony in southern Indiana, and visited Jefferson at Monticello. Her neediness, a consequence of her deprived childhood, is generally given as the explanation of her desire that Lafayette marry her or adopt her as his daughter. Lafayette’s family certainly thought Fanny was a dangerous woman.

By now, however, Wright could no longer ignore the blot on the land of the free. The Nashoba experiment followed: it began with the purchase of land in 1825 and ended in failure with the shipping of the slaves to Haiti in 1830, by Wright and Dr William Phiquepal D’Arusmont, the French educationalist with whom Fanny was shortly to have a child and then marry.

The Nashoba affair is much too complicated to do justice to here: early on Fanny became ill with malaria and had to return to Britain and things went from bad to worse in her absence. By the time she got back reports of free love, miscegenation, floggings, and general chaos were rife. Opinions are divided about whether Nashoba could ever have worked, but by 1828 Fanny was becoming more closely involved with the New Harmony community and her editorship of The New Harmony Gazette, later The Free Enquirer with Owen’s son, Robert Dale Owen. And her celebrated lectures were beginning.

The next two years were the splendid period: Fanny Wright was unquestionably the most famous woman in America; thousands attended her lectures and listened to her opinions on marriage (she didn’t much like it), free love (more or less ok), miscegenation (probably the best solution), religion (on the whole a bad thing). Although all this was dangerous, it didn’t put off the crowds in New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. In 1830 Wright came very close to being really significant in national politics when the Working Men’s Party candidates in the 1830 election became known as the ‘Fanny Wright ticket’. But this was also when the Nashoba problem had to be solved and the journey to Haiti produced the pregnancy that was to change Fanny Wright’s life. To protect her reputation or that of her supporters Fanny fled to Paris where Camilla who had already married and lost her child had retreated (she died shortly afterwards). In Paris Fanny married d’Arusmont and when another child was born and died, her birth date was given to the first child, Sylva, to legitimize her.

This was the beginning of the end of Fanny’s fame. After a reclusive period she attempted lectures again in England and America. But her marriage was an increasing mess, her published writings and her lectures became more obscure. She crossed the Atlantic at least seven times more, got involved in legal wrangles with her husband and others, filed for divorce, became estranged from her daughter, lived briefly in Nashoba, settled in Cincinnati, broke her thigh in a fall and after considerable suffering died in Cincinnati on 13 December 1852.

Looking over the life of this dangerous woman again, I was filled not with the exhilaration that I had expected but rather with pity, even a desire to look after her, to bring out feelings that seem buried beneath her rigidities. From time to time there are surprising effects in her Biography. I remember best of all her moving phrase ‘the heart solitude of orphanhood’. If her parents had lived we might never have heard of her, but on the other hand, their emotional support might have made her that most dangerous of all dangerous women, one whose social and political reforms really worked.

But we owe to the actual, not the imagined woman, renewed attention, for nothing comprehensive has been attempted since Celia Morris Eckhart’s 1984 biography. And there are other stories still to be unearthed both about her and those around her. Her husband seems to have been a rotter, unsupportive except when he needed her wealth, anxious to use laws he ostensibly deplored to get his hands on her money on the unconvincing pretext that he would handle it better for their daughter. And there are so many little unelaborated stories: on Saturday 29 January, 1848 a soirée was held in the Hall of Science, Sheffield, in honour of the birthday of Tom Paine. The meeting was addressed by various local dignitaries and by Madame Frances Wright D’Arusmont. ‘At 8.30 dancing commenced.’ Did Fanny Wright stay for the dance? We do not know.

But we do know that in the heyday of her rhetorical skills, she expressed incomparably well, principles that we still may be guided by:

Until women assume the place in society which good sense and good feeling alike assign to them, human improvement must advance but feebly. It is in vain that we would circumscribe the power of one half of our race, and that by far the most important and influential. If they exert it not for good, they will for evil; if they advance not knowledge, they will perpetuate ignorance. Let women stand where they may in the scale of improvement, their position decides that of the race.

Frances Wright may have been poor at the practice but no one has put better what the aims should be.