In 1830, Frances Trollope—a petite Englishwoman whose acidic wit would later earn her the sobriquet “Old Madam Vinegar”—arrived in Montgomery County, Maryland, with three children in tow. She had come to summer at Stonington, a friend’s Potomac estate near Great Falls.
Immediately, Trollope was taken by the beauty of the Montgomery County countryside. It “perfectly astonished us by the profusion of her wild fruits and flowers,” she later wrote. Cedars, tulip poplars, junipers and tall, ancient oaks shaded the paths that wound throughout the estate. Strawberries in full bloom, violets, anemones and wild pinks covered the ground.
But it was the Great Falls of the Potomac River that made the biggest impression. She and a small party trekked two miles through the woods from the manor house to get there, where she beheld a spectacle unlike any seen in England. “The falls of the Potomac are awfully sublime,” Trollope wrote. “The dark deep gulf which yawns before you, the foaming, roaring cataract, the eddying whirlpool, and the giddy precipice, all seem to threaten life, and to appall the senses. Yet it was a great delight to sit upon a high and jutting crag, and look and listen.”
If the natural landscape was captivating to Trollope, though, the human landscape was not. She saw fields worn out by years of tobacco, lying fallow and unproductive. Farmsteads were ramshackle affairs, hardly reflective of the fabled land of opportunity. Every home she visited seemed to subsist on four staples: pork fat, salted herrings, cornbread and whiskey. “And in almost every cottage, a slave,” Trollope observed.
She paid a visit to a young Potomac family with two children, “a female slave, and two young lads, slaves also.” The home stood in the middle of 300 acres of hardscrabble land. “The house was built of wood, and looked as if the three slaves might have overturned it, had they pushed hard against the gable end,” Trollope wrote. Inside was one 12-foot-square room with another adjoining it, hardly larger than a closet. The slaves lived in the separate kitchen out back, “a shanty, a black hole without any window.”
The sight of slavery profoundly affected Trollope. “And it is not the less painfully felt from hearing upon every breeze the mocking words, ‘All men are born free and equal. ” Trollope recorded these impressions in her 1832 book, Domestic Manners of the Americans, a virulent attack on what she believed was the hypocrisy of an America “with one hand hoisting the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves.”
The book was a sensation in Great Britain. “I am convinced that there is no writer who has so well and so accurately (I need not add entertainingly) described America,” Charles Dickens raved.
Here in the States, the reaction was not so warm. “Mrs. Trollope was so handsomely cursed and reviled by the nation for telling the truth,” wrote Mark Twain.
Trollope went on to pen a number of melodramatic novels revolving around such hot-button social issues as the impact of industrialization and the plight of the factory worker. But none achieved the same level of success and notoriety as Domestic Manners.
About markwalstonWriter, historian, creative director, poet, playwright, author of nine books and nearly 200 essays and articles exploring a broad range of American social, cultural and historical topics.
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“Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans was a huge transatlantic sensation when it was first published in 1832. In it, Trollope used the cover of travel narrative to offer a not-always sympathetic portrait of the young United States that was brash, extreme, and more than a little naïve. Trollope published Domestic Manners at the age of 53, and it has come to stand for the entirety of her work, but this was far from the case. Thanks to Sara R. Danger’s painstaking editorial work in this volume and her insightful observations about transatlantic relations, Jacksonian America, early Victorian England, and Trollope herself, this new edition is a vital contribution that establishes the socio-cultural significance of both a woman and her times.” — Brenda Weber, Indiana University Bloomington
“Scholars, teachers, and students alike rely on Broadview’s ability to reframe familiar classics and recover neglected works, and Sara R. Danger upholds this tradition in her edition of Domestic Manners of the Americans. Though Domestic Manners was intended for her British audience ‘at home,’ Trollope’s unflattering caricatures so riled the American public that her book created a transatlantic publishing phenomenon. This new edition reminds us why Charles Dickens called the book ‘one of the great pioneer exercises in transatlantic disparagement,’ and offers readers a feast of Anglophone print culture.” — Pamela Corpron Parker, Whitworth University