By Ginny Dougary
Travel writer Sara Wheeler’s latest book chronicles the middle-aged Englishwomen who reinvented themselves in 19th-century America.
Sara Wheeler’s home is a converted Victorian butcher’s shop, close to Hampstead Heath, with Matisse-blue and Gauguin-orange walls covered in reminders of her travels: an original Herbert Ponting photograph from Captain Scott’s fateful expedition here, a figure of a penguin from one of the research stations on Antarctica there.
The author of four travel books and two biographies has written her first about women after focusing on the “frozen beards” as she calls them, Arctic explorers who tend to be male. She describes the experience of writing O My America! Second Acts in a New World as “like coming home”. The first line of the title is an echo of John Donne’s sensual elegy To His Mistress Going to Bed (part of the pleasure of Wheeler’s books are the many literary and poetical allusions). The second is a reference to what the six subjects of her book have in common: middle-aged women from England, in the mid to late 19th century, who all reinvented themselves in America. “Having second acts,” as the author puts it, “in the Land of Second Acts”.
She started with Fanny Trollope, mother of Anthony the famous novelist, who is a wonderful subject – doughty, curious, resourceful and so impressed by another remarkable woman, Fanny Wright, that she made her way to the writer and social reformer’s utopian commune in Tennessee, taking three of her children, and leaving the other two at boarding school in England, along with her husband. When this experiment failed, Trollope endured other hardships in Cincinnati, Ohio, trying to find ways of making money to send back to her impecunious family. She was inventive: coming up with magic shows and creating a doomed entertainment emporium. She made her fortune and fame, finally, with an international bestseller, the Domestic Manners of the Americans, which appalled the subjects and riveted everyone else.
Then there is Fanny Kemble, a well-known actor who fell in love with a plantation owner, leading to a disastrous marriage from which she eventually escaped to write a searing indictment of slavery; Harriet Martineau, a radical and political economist; homesteader Rebecca Burlend. Catherine Hubback, Jane Austen’s niece and a novelist, too, at 52, left her husband in an asylum and their three adult children, and travelled by railway from New York to San Francisco.
Wheeler, in her early 50s, started researching Fanny Trollope after a friend said she would be a good subject. In doing so, she stumbled on other women who were also compelling. “Part of the reason the book became a book was that I was interested in that sort of barren land of post-menopausal women, knowing that it was the next country that I was headed into … and coming to terms with it,” she says.
It is easy to see why Wheeler was beguiled by these women who were thrillingly adventurous. Her book Terra Incognita, about her hitchhiking around Antarctica, became an international bestseller and inspired women to undertake bold journeys of their own. (It is because of her book that I travelled to both poles – and a more unlikely candidate you would be hard pushed to find.)
Like her subjects, the writer has had her own hurdles in life. Both Wheeler’s parents left school at 14; her father came from a long line of builder-decorators, her mother did shift work in a hospital. There were no books in the house. Her mother gave birth to Wheeler when she was 20 and 18 months later to a second child, Matthew, who was born with brain damage. The couple split up and there were some chaotic years during which Wheeler describes herself as being the parent to her little brother.
“I didn’t know anyone else in that position, so I felt very alone” she says. She is the trustee of a charity, Sibs, which gives support to adult and child siblings. “My shrink said that it’s quite characteristic of siblings of handicapped people to run fast enough for two, and I was very motivated, which is good. That’s a gift my brother gave me. I was a fantastic hard worker and the first in my family to go to college [to Oxford to read classics and modern languages].”
She has suffered from depression and has had problems with alcohol: “I’d say I’m quite a cheerful person but I don’t find life particularly plain sailing.” She has two sons, Wilf and Reg, by her partner, Peter Graham, a dry-humoured man from Quebec.
For her 50th birthday Wheeler was given a large handmade quilt, made by her 10 best women friends. The patches have phrases handstitched by her friends – “In a yurt drinking yak butter,” a private joke by the writer Dea Birkett, “Boys” and “It’s alright for you!” (a phrase that plagued her childhood).
Her latest work, published just ahead of International Women’s Day on Friday, is perfect for women who want to shake a fist at the fading light. I ask Wheeler, finally, what her subjects gave her apart from a fascinating book. “They gave me a great sense of hope and made me feel glad to be alive and that the second act could be as bountiful as the first. I think I did have more fun writing this book than all my other books put together. They were such fantastic company and they reminded me of how wonderful it is to be a woman.”
01 Mar 2013 lloyd