Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838–1839, Kemble, Fanny

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Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838–1839, Fanny Kemble

In 1834, the celebrated British actress Frances Anne Kemble (1809–1893) married wealthy Pierce M. Butler of Georgia, moving with him four years later to the St. Simon's Island plantation he inherited from his father in 1836. The domestic union of the slaveholder and the celebrity broke down soon after, Kemble moved to Philadelphia, and the couple divorced in 1849. Butler retained custody of their two daughters, and neither he nor Kemble ever remarried. Determined to maintain her personal and financial independence, Kemble returned to the stage in 1847, and in subsequent tours had an important influence on popularizing William Shakespeare in the United States. Her lasting historical importance, however, derives from the private journal she kept during her time in the Sea Islands, which she reworked and eventually published in May 1863 as A Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838–1839.

Kemble capitalized on her dramatic reputation throughout her life, writing plays in the 1830s, publishing a volume of poetry in 1844, and bringing out a stream of travel accounts, edited journals, and memoirs. Her first venture in this area, The Journal of Frances Anne Butler, published in 1835, aroused widespread indignation in the United States over her outspoken views on American culture. Kemble's Georgia diary circulated privately in antislavery circles before the Civil War, and would have found ready publication in the wake of Uncle Tom's Cabin's appearance in 1852, but the actress withheld from public scrutiny that painful period in her life, initially at least, to mollify her exhusband. It was only in response to British support for the Confederate cause that she brought forth her journal, which was published just as the Union's political and military fortunes swung from disaster to victory. Like the pamphlets and political tracts of such other pro-Northern British writers as Frederick Edge, Kemble's diary played an important role in shifting support in favor of the Emancipation Proclamation and neutralizing sentiment for English intervention in defense of the South.

English antislavery feeling was cresting at the moment of Butler and Kemble's marriage—Britain abolished bondage in its empire in 1833—and Kemble's opposition to the "domestic institution" was no secret to her husband or the public at large. Yet she did her best to adjust to plantation life in Georgia, believing she would have enjoyed the "wild savage loneliness" of the low country were it not for "the one small thing of 'the slavery'" (Kemble 1863, p. 165).

Kemble's published Journal fully demonstrates her growing horror and hatred of the plantation regime through the pen of one who encountered it face-to-face on a daily basis. She recoiled from the crude living conditions of African Americans and the harsh treatment her husband meted out for infractions of labor discipline. She remonstrated with Butler for reform—without success—and held insightful conversations with Sea Island slaves, especially women, which provided invaluable information on their inner worlds. In many ways, the Journal of 1863 must be read first as a political document, designed to positively affect the fortunes of freedpeople and the North, and it has been castigated by twentieth-century writers for its partiality, silences, and fabrications. A generation later, Kemble's daughter, Frances Butler Leigh, wrote Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation (1883), in express refutation of the social portrait Kemble drew.

More than this, Kemble's journal presents a view of slavery she understood to be one of "credulous commiseration" at best, shot through with liberal assumptions on one side, and jarringly racist depictions of African Americans on the other. Slaves are described as akin to "savages and children," displaying "extravagant and ludicrous gesticulations," and fully in need of the guidance of elite whites such as Kemble herself (Kemble 1863, p. 171). The bondpeople she encounters are neither rebellious nor resentful; running away is attributed to fits of madness brought on by harsh treatment; the stories of illness and hardship she hears are taken at face value. In sum, Kemble sets down slavery's failures in the Journal as moral defects of the master class. For all their talk of kindly treatment, planters like her husband proved unwilling to follow the imperatives of their own paternalist gospel, unable to control the violent passions antislavery opponents so often ascribed to them.

Yet Kemble herself was uncertain as to the proper course reform of "this evil system" should take. Perhaps, as her husband warned, the kindness she showed slaves "only tend [ed] to make them discontented and idle," redoubling the punishments sure to befall them for lax discipline. Was it not better to ignore their appeals, leaving them to the "desperate uncomplaining habit of suffering" they had followed before her arrival? (Kemble 1863, p. 46). At the time of the Journal's composition, Kemble, however guiltily, entertained no thoughts of actually freeing the human beings whose labor sustained her fabulous lifestyle. Nor did she implicate herself in the oppression of others, eventually identifying the bondage of the marriage tie with chattel slavery itself. Her appeals to the "sense of truth, of duty, of self-respect" on the part of masters and servants alike came to naught. "And so I see nothing for it but to go and leave them to their fate," Kemble concluded, abandoning her marriage, slavery, and the South in a single decision (Kemble 1863, p. 171). The only alternative was a form of civil conflict of violent and unforeseeable consequences it would take Americans fully another generation to embrace.


Bell, Malcolm, Jr. Major Butler's Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987.

Clinton, Catherine. Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Clinton, Catherine, ed. Fanny Kemble's Journals. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Kemble, Frances Anne. Journal of a Residence on a Southern Plantation in 1838–1839. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1984.

Leigh, Frances Butler. Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation Since the War. London: R. Bentley, 1883.

                    Lawrence T. McDonnell

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Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838–1839, Kemble, Fanny

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