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rances (Fanny) Trollope, the mother of Anthony Trollope, was a prolific and polemical writer. She was the third daughter of the Reverend William Milton and Mary, née Gresley born in Bristol in 1780. Her mother died after the birth of a son, and her father was left with three children to raise. As a young girl Fanny read English, French, and Italian literature. In 1803, her brother Henry Milton was employed in the War Office and moved to Bloomsbury in London. Soon he was joined by Frances and the other sister. In 1809, she married a barrister, Thomas Anthony Trollope, with whom she had seven children. In 1827, she sailed to America, hoping erroneously to improve the family’s finances in the New World. When her impractical husband went bankrupt and was unable to support the family, Frances, at the age of 52, took to writing in order to earn a living. She wrote 40 books: six travelogues, 34 novels, numerous polemical articles and poems.

Two stipple-engraved portraits of Frances Trollope. Left: By an unknown artist (National Portrait Gallery, London), and Right: By W. Holt [?] of a drawing by Mrs. L. Adams. From the Berg Collection, New York Public Library. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

After return to England from the United States, she published her first and most successful travelogue, Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), which contained scathing remarks on American society and became a bestseller. Trollope, who criticised the rough manners of American men, also expressed a concern for American women who, she believed, were subjected to an oppressive religion that led to excessive devotion, mental confusion, and even illness.

How is it that the men of America, who are reckoned good husbands and good fathers, while they themselves enjoy sufficient freedom of spirit to permit their walking forth into the temple of the living God, can leave those they love best on earth, bound in the iron chains of a most tyrannical fanaticism? How can they breathe the balmy air, and not think of the tainted atmosphere so heavily weighing upon breasts still dearer than their own? How can they gaze upon the blossoms of the spring, and not remember the fairer cheeks of their young daughters, waxing pale, as they sit for long sultry hours, immured with hundreds of fellow victims, listening to the roaring vanities of a preacher, canonized by a college of old women? They cannot think it needful to salvation, or they would not withdraw themselves. Wherefore is it? Do they fear these self-elected, self-ordained priests, and offer up their wives and daughters to propitiate them? Or do they deem their hebdomadal freedom more complete, because their wives and daughters are shut up four or five times in the day at church or chapel? [274]

Trollope claimed that American women were more confined to the domestic sphere than their English sisters. They were virtually denied access to the public sphere with the exception of public religious meetings where, incited by preachers, they displayed their religiosity in an excessively emotional way.

Trollope wrote other travel books, which were once popular and now almost forgotten. They include: Belgium and Western Germany in 1833 (1834), Paris and the Parisians (1835), Vienna and the Austrians (1838), A Summer in Western France (1841), and A Visit to Italy (1842). None of these travelogues contained such explicit social and feminist messages as Domestic Manners. Apart from travelogues, Trollope wrote fiction. Her most successful novels were The Widow Barnaby (1839) and its sequel The Widow Married (1840). Frances Trollope died in Florence on 6 October 1863 at the age of 84. “At one time or another during her life — as Pamela Neville-Sington writes — her popularity matched, and even exceeded, that of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and her son Anthony.” (Ayres, 12). Some of Trollope’s novels contain profound social concern and impel social reform. Trollope also wrote the first anti-slavery novel, Jonathan Jefferson Whitlaw (1836).

The Vicar of Wrexhill

The Vicar of Wrexhill (1837), Trollope’s best novel, is a powerful satire on Evangelicalism, which she despised. According to Douglas Murray, “the novel The Vicar of Wrexhill is, in fact, a well-argued Anglican refutation of the Evangelical position, an astute commentary upon its typical methods, and an almost prophetic analysis of its effects” (Ayers, 73). Her novel satirises the Reverend William Cartwright, a character who resembles John William Cunningham (1780-1861), the Evangelical vicar of Harrow whose views and conduct she detested. Incidentally, Cunningham occupied the house which her husband had built but which the Trollopes had to leave it due to financial problems.

Unlike some of his famous precedents in English fiction, such as Henry Fielding’s Parson Adams in Joseph Andrews, Goldsmith’s Charles Primrose in The Vicar of Wakefield, and Sterne’s Yorick in Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey, Cartwright is a true villain. He effectively manipulates his female parishioners and hence anticipates Dickens's more comical Parson Stiggins in Pickwick Papers. Cartwright's first victim is Clara Mowbray, a rich widow, whom he marries in order to control her estate. However, Cartwright’s influence extends to other women who respond uncritically to his preaching. Trollope developed a growing disgust for Evangelicals’ religiousness, which she found as fanatical as that of Roman Catholics. She interpreted their dedication to humanitarian and social reform as mere hypocrisy, self-interest, and a desire for power — something perhaps a bit ironic given her own passionate interest in social reform. Jonathan Swift's Tale of a Tub may have satirized the connection between emotional Christianity and sexuality, but she was probably the first who dared to suggest that virtuous and submissive women could be easy victims of abusive priests. Education of women is Trollope’s solution to the Woman Question. If women were better educated, they would become better mothers and daughters who could interact confidently with men in the public sphere.

Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy

In Michael Armstrong, the Factory Boy (1840), which is among the first industrial novels published in Britain, Trollope’s maternal feminism is focused on the plight of child labourers. Rosemarie Bodenheimer calls Trollope’s work “a Tory-paternalist novel written in support of the Ten Hours’ Movement” (26). The novel, which deals with labour conditions in Manchester, exposes the abuses of child employment in early Victorian England. Trollope was probably inspired by A Memoir of Robert Blincoe (1828), a classic document about child labour and factory system, written by John Brown. She also made use of Parliamentary Blue Books, the Sadler Report (1832), and her own personal observations from her visits to factories in Manchester and Bradford.

The novel traces the outcome of miscalculated benevolence. Sir Matthew Dowling, a wealthy industrialist adopts an orphaned factory child called Michael Armstrong and takes him to his household. However, Michael feels isolated and abused in the house of his benefactor, who is soon bored with the boy and decides to send away him to the Deep Valley Mills, a particularly oppressive industrial environment, where children are subjected to exhausting hard work. They starve and are afflicted to diseases.

Fortunately, Michael manages to escape from the mill. The novel ends with an happy ending, with two implausible cross-class marriages. Michael rejoins his crippled brother Edward and his childhood friend, Fanny Fletcher, who were adopted by a rich and benevolent cotton heiress, Mary Brotherton, who is horrified by the brutality of child labour. Eventually, Michael marries Fanny, and Edward marries Mary, and they all emigrate to Germany in order to forget their traumatic experiences in England.

Trollope's fiction argues that that individual philanthropy fails to solve the problems of mass poverty — a particularly un-conservatve, un-Tory position. Her novel contributed to the revision of the Factories Act of 1844. Trollope, who described the vile living conditions of the working class, preceded Benjamin Disraeli and Elizabeth Gaskell in the description of slum housing and factory conditions. Employing a naive character, who represents her ignorant readers, she opened the eyes of her middle-class readers to the inhuman treatment of child labourers in factories. Astounded, the young woman asks,

“Do you mean, that the children work till they are so tired as to fall asleep standing?”

“Yes, ma'am. Dozens and dozens of 'em every day in the year except Sundays, is strapped, and kicked, and banged by the billyroller, because they falls asleep.”

“But, surely, parents are greatly to blame to let children young enough for that go to work at all?”

“They must just starve, ma'am, if they didn't," replied the girl.

“How many years have you worked in the factory yourself, Sophy?”

“Just twelve, ma'am, this last spring.”

“And how old are you?”

“Seventeen, ma'am.”

“Twelve from seventeen ? — You mean to say that you began to work at the factory when you were five years old?” said Mary, with some appearance of incredulity.

“I was five years and three months, ma'am," answered the girl firmly. [79-80]

Trollope’s own experiences with maternity and poverty prompted her to campaign successfully against the employment of young children in factories and mines.

Jessie Phillips: A Tale of the Present Day

Her next novel (the sixteenth in her output), Jessie Phillips A Tale of the Present Day (1843), concerns seduction and infanticide. She also criticises the New Poor Law of 1834 and reveals the plight of poor “fallen” women who could not bring charges against fathers of their illegitimate children.

Jessie is a pretty young rural girl who helps her mother with her needlework. She is seduced and abandoned by a squire’s son, Frederic Dalton. Next she lives in a workhouse and gives birth to a child. She cannot claim support from its father on account of the 1834 Bastardy Clause. Finally, she is falsely accused of infanticide. As Jessie had never been married, the 1834 Bastardy clause prevented her from claiming support from the child’s father. The author resolves the plot by getting the seducer to commit suicide while Jessie dies a natural death. The publication of Jessie Phillips created a public outcry about the Bastardy Clause. Soon the House of Commons passed a new law which held fathers financially responsible for their illegitimate children.

Maternal feminism

Trollope’s maternal feminism places her in the company of Elizabeth Gaskell and other conservative women writers who tried to advance the Woman Question in their writings. Like Gaskell, Trollope called on women to have a better education in order to become self-sufficient. She also urged well-off women to become active in the public sphere. Trollope, who vehemently opposed the idea that women should only be limited to domestic roles, believed that motherhood was not a bondage and it should transcend the domestic sphere. Mothers should not only be moral educators of their children, but they also should exert a moral influence on society at large. As Susan S. Kissel explains:

Her fictions’ structural paradigm reveals a belief that the future of civilization rests on the shoulders of bright, young women, her worldly heroines. Over and over she repeats a pattern which insists on the saving power and moral influence of the youthful heroine in a corrupt world. [77]

Frances Trollope’s maternal feminism is best manifested in her faith that although women should fulfil their domestic and maternal roles, they should not be limited by gender-based restrictions. According to Trollope, women should be able to articulate publicly their social concerns, and what is more, they should be allowed to implement their maternal values and caring rhetoric in the public sphere.


Although Frances Trollope has received far less scholarly attention than her celebrated son Anthony, critics have emphasised that she possessed profound intellect and writing skills equal to her deep humanity, self-conscious femininity and public conscience. In her novels she expressed moral and ethical concerns of her time. Her narratives, which mixed fiction with nonfiction, dealt with a number of social issues including bastardy clauses, poor laws, employment of children in factories, abolition of slavery, church corruption and the Woman Question. Trollope’s novels were to rouse public conscience and incite social reforms that could protect the victimised women and children. They were influential in shaping subsequent women’s writing.


Ayres, Brenda A., ed. Frances Trollope and the Novel of Social Change. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Bodenheimer, Rosemarie. The Politics of Story in Victorian Social Fiction. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Johnston Johanna. The Life, Manners, and Travels of Fanny Trollope ( 1979). Kissel. Susan S. In Common Cause: The "Conservative" Frances Trollope and the "Radical Frances Wright. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993.

Landow, George, P. “Victorian Women, Evangelical Religion, Criticism of It and Them”, The Victorian Web.

Neville-Sington, Pamela. Fanny Trollope: The Life and Adventures of a Clever Woman. Terry, R. C., ed. Oxford Reader's Companion to Trollope. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Trollope, Frances Milton. Domestic Manners of the Americans. London: Whittaker, Treacher, & Co., 1832.

_____. Life and Adventures of Michael Armstrong, The Factory Boy. Vol. II. London: Henry Colburn Publisher, Great Marlborough Street, 1840.

Last modified 20 November 2020