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

22nd Jul 2013

O My America Sara Wheeler
“I was approaching fifty – that treacherous female age,” travel writer Sara Wheeler recalls, when she decided it was time for something a bit different.

Her previous seven books had mostly highlighted forbidding Arctic regions and eccentric male explorers; now she longed to feature milder climes and the female experience of travel.

Specifically, she wished to revisit the America she had first encountered as a teenager 35 years before, this time retracing the steps of six lady travellers from Britain who, instead of meekly fading away in middle age, took off for America to seek new adventure.

O My America! is the result: a delightful, beautifully written composite of travel, memoir, social history and biography.

Wheeler’s six subjects are less role models than spirit guides, encouraging her – and readers – that personal reinvention is always possible, even as middle age approaches.Sara Wheeler begins with Fanny Trollope (mother of Anthony and a prolific novelist in her own right), who at age 50 journeyed to Tennessee to join the short-lived Nashoba Commune.

The family stayed on in Ohio, where Fanny became a critical observer of American democracy. “She was convinced that American equality ‘levelled people downwards,’” as witnessed in acts of public uncouthness (spitting, in particular, drove Fanny mad).

Her book Domestic Manners of the Americans was a controversial bestseller and is still of enduring importance as a social commentary, rivalling Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Like Trollope, Harriet Martineau became unpopular for her brutal honesty about America. Years spent campaigning against slavery in Massachusetts and Kentucky were distilled into her Society in America, which Charles Dickens declared the best book ever written about the States.

Martineau bore great affection for America – she likened being there to “stepping into a warm bath” – but Americans didn’t appreciate outsiders pointing out their faults.

Criticism was especially unwelcome from this peculiar, foreign female who used an ear trumpet and may have been Dickens’s model for busybody philanthropist Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House.

Hypochondriac Scotswoman Isabella Bird found that intrepid travel in Hawaii and Colorado kept illness at bay. She travelled on horseback, lived alone in a cabin in the Rockies, and fell in love with frontiersman ‘Rocky Mountain Jim’ Nugent.

Bird would become the first female Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and her memoir, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, is still available from Virago Press.

The other subjects of O My America! may be less familiar: readers meet Fanny Kemble, a celebrated actress who married a Georgia plantation owner and later wrote a tell-all autobiography condemning slavery as well as her adulterous husband’s cruelty.

Yorkshire-born Rebecca Burlend, who with her husband went to farm an Illinois homestead and became a true pioneer woman, once bringing in a wheat harvest single-handedly; and Jane Austen’s niece Catherine Hubback, who at age 52 voyaged to San Francisco, where she saw both the new transcontinental railroad and the birth of modern photography.

Whilst painting rich, sympathetic portraits of six very different women – whom she fondly terms “my girls” – Sara Wheeler also documents the rapid changes of the latter half of the nineteenth century.

The America she revisits in the early twenty-first century is still, in some ways, alarmingly similar to what Trollope and Martineau observed: Wheeler encounters economic collapse, inequality, natural disaster, and a dispiriting obsession with money and status. Yet she also finds an optimistic, friendly place where people overcome physical hardships.

Wheeler’s six subjects are less role models than spirit guides, encouraging her – and readers – that personal reinvention is always possible, even as middle age approaches.

Their example leads her to an inspiring conclusion: “People say all the journeys have been made, and all the adventures covered. I no longer believe that; it is never too late.”

Published by Jonathan Cape, O My America! is available in hardback now.