Kemble, Fanny

views updated


Born Frances Anne Kemble, 27 November 1809, London, England; died 15 January 1893, London, England

Also wrote under: Frances Anne Butler, Mrs. Butler, Frances Anne Kemble

Daughter of Charles and Maria Kemble; married Pierce Butler,1834 (divorced); children: two daughters

Born into London's leading theatrical family, Frances Anne "Fanny" Kemble was an actress who became one of the most articulate Victorian women of letters in both America and England. Daughter of an actor who was also manager of Covent Garden Theatre, Kemble received all her formal education at boarding schools in France. Kemble's first stage performance, as Shakespeare's Juliet at Covent Garden in 1829, was a phenomenal success that transformed her life. She became the pinup girl of the London stage, enjoying admiration from people in England and the provinces. In 1832 she toured America.

Her marriage to a wealthy Philadelphian initiated a period of emotional upheaval. Kemble gave up her acting career for marriage, but she never became the model 19th-century woman. Instead of accepting the role of subservient wife, she demanded equality. Furthermore, instead of accepting and approving of her husband's homeland, she was quite critical of it. The record of her experiences, Journal of a Residence in America (1835), publicly announced her negative attitudes, much to the chagrin of her husband. A particularly crucial issue for him, as the owner of large Georgian plantations and hundreds of slaves, was Kemble's passionate and outspoken opposition to the "peculiar institution." After the birth of her two daughters, two return visits to England, and numerous attempts to sever her relationship with Butler, Kemble left her husband and daughters in 1844.

Kemble returned to England, published a volume of poetry, and resumed her acting career. When Butler filed for divorce in 1848, she came back to America and spent her final years in public readings of Shakespeare, frequent visits to Europe, and, finally, in devoting herself to her lifelong ambition: writing. She wrote more memoirs, a critical work on Shakespeare, poetry, a comedy, and a novel (Henry James noted that not many people published a first novel at the age of 80). She developed friendships with a number of literary figures and died where she was born—in England.

Written 22 years before the outbreak of the Civil War and published in the same year the slaves were emancipated, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, 1838-1839 (1863) describes the condition of the slaves in brutally realistic terms. Among many of the inhuman aspects that Kemble denounces, the painful life of women slaves is carefully detailed. Decrying their oppressed state of manual labor and continual childbearing, Kemble speaks of the females' "sorrow-laden existence" and their endurance of sufferings that appeared to be "all in the day's work." The book was well read during Kemble's day, although its stark realism was disconcerting to the Victorian readership.

While posterity tends to remember Kemble as an actress, perhaps her place as a chronicler of the American experience should be reevaluated. Her autobiographical works, especially Journal of a Residence in America and Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, have a particular psychological and historical significance as documents that reveal the struggles and challenges facing a 19th-century woman critical of national and regional narrowness.

The memoirs, bestsellers of their day, also contain keen insights into the enormous changes transforming the nation; Kemble recognized and evaluated the movement away from Victorian America toward the modern age. Criticized by some reviewers for her "racy" language and for her subjective judgments of particular individuals, Kemble nonetheless had the rare ability to write vivid and insightful observations of places, people, and historical changes she witnessed. Her journals are neither carefully crafted nor totally consistent pictures of life in early America, but they are rich psychological and cultural documents because of their author's complex personality, interests, and skills of observation. Perhaps Henry James' evaluation is the best assessment of Kemble: "There was no convenient or handy formula for Mrs. Kemble's genius, and one had to take her career, the juxtaposition of her interests, exactly as one took her disposition, for a remarkably fine cluster of inconsistencies."

Other Works:

Francis the First: A Tragedy in Five Acts (1832). The Star of Seville: A Drama in Five Acts (1837). A Year of Consolation (1837). Poems (1844). Poems (1859). On the Stage (1863). Records of a Girlhood (1878). Notes upon Some of Shakespeare's Plays (1882). Records of a Later Life (1882). Poems (1883). Adventures of John Timothy Homespun in Switzerland (1889). Far Away and Long Ago (1889).


Armstrong, M., Frances Kemble: A Passionate Victorian (1938). Bobbe, D., Frances Kemble (1931). Driver, L., Frances Kemble (1933). Furnas, J. C., Fanny Kemble (1982). Gibbs, H., Yours Affectionately, Fanny (1947). James, H., Essays in London and Elsewhere (1992). Marshall, D., Frances Kemble (1977). O'Grady, D. L., "Frances Anne Kemble: Actress to Abolitionist" (thesis, 1995). Ransome, E., ed., The Terrific Kemble: A Victorian Self-Portrait from the Writings of Fanny Kemble (1978). Scott, J. A., Fanny Kemble's America (1973). Thompson, J. C., Everything in "The Garden" and Other Plays (1996). Wister, F. K., Fanny, The American Kemble: Her Journals and Unpublished Letters (1972). Wright, C. C., Frances Kemble and the Lovely Land (1972).

Reference works:

AA. British Authors of the Nineteenth Century (1936). DAB. LSL. NAW (1971). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). She Wields a Pen: American Women Poets of the 19th Century (1997).


More From