Kemble, Fanny (1809–1893)

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Kemble, Fanny (1809–1893)

English Shakespearean actress who divorced a prominent American slave-owner and condemned slavery in her best-known book, Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation. Name variations: Frances Anne Kemble or Fanny Kemble (1809–1834, and in print); Frances Butler (1834–1849); Mrs. Fanny Kemble (1849–1893). Born Frances Anne Kemble in London, England, on November 27, 1809; died in London on January 15, 1893; daughter of Charles Kemble (an actor and theatrical impresario) and Maria Theresa (De Camp) Kemble (an actress and dancer); sister of Adelaide Kemble (1814–1879); fraternal niece of Sarah Siddons (1755–1831); married Pierce Butler, in 1834 (divorced 1849); children: Sarah Butler Wister (1835–1908); Frances Butler Leigh (1838–1910).

Appeared as an actress (1829–34, 1847–49); toured as a public dramatic reader (1849–70); was a lifelong writer and poet.

Selected writings:

Journal (1935); Year of Consolation (1847); Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation (1863); Records of a Girlhood (1878); Records of a Later Life (1882); Further Records (1884); Far Away and Long Ago (1889).

Fanny Kemble was one of the first trans-Atlantic celebrities—she crossed the Atlantic 30 times and remained popular in British and American high society from almost the beginning to the end of her life. Famous in her youth as a beautiful Shakespearean actress, she fell passionately in love with and married a rich American slave-owner, reacted violently against him and his way of life, and wrote a superb antislavery tract in the form of a journal at his Georgia Sea-Island plantation.

She was born in London in 1809 into a leading theatrical family, and in 1823, when she was 14, her father Charles Kemble became head of the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. Her mother Maria Theresa Kemble had been a dancer, but Fanny herself was educated in the ladylike arts, learned singing, French, German, and Italian, and went to a French finishing school. She was saturated in the romanticism of the era and was very proud to have met Sir Walter Scott, the most popular novelist of the day. An attack of smallpox in her teen years marred her complexion, but she remained strikingly attractive.

The death I should prefer would be to break my neck off the back of a good horse at full gallop on a fine day.

—Fanny Kemble

Her father was a good actor but a bad businessman, and his company was on the brink of bankruptcy in 1829, facing heavy debts and litigation. Fearing its collapse, he asked his beautiful 20-year-old daughter to play the heroine's role in a new production of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. It was only because her own aunt, Sarah Siddons , had demonstrated in the previous generation that a woman could be an actress without losing her high moral character that Fanny agreed (at that time most actresses had a social reputation as "loose women"). Untrained but highly intelligent and gifted, she was an instant success, and the company, after its triumphs in London, capitalized on it in a provincial tour. By the time she was 21, Kemble was famous throughout Britain. As the sensation of the moment, she was invited in 1829 to ride on the locomotive during the historic inauguration of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the world's first public railroad. She found the iron horse, which ran at 30 miles per hour, wildly exciting and said she worshipped the dour, 50-year-old George Stephenson, the project's designer and builder.

Fanny also contributed to the family's fortunes by writing a historical drama, Francis I, and playing the leading female role. The profits enabled the family to buy an army commission for her brother. Despite her success on stage, she regarded herself more as a writer than as an actress. In fact, she disparaged the stage as an inferior career, and often wrote that she would rather abandon it and take up writing as her real vocation. In 1832, unfortunately, money troubles recurred and the Kembles decided to visit America on an acting and fund-raising venture. There, too, they enjoyed critical acclaim, with many critics arguing that Kemble was the best actress ever to appear in the United States. One young Philadelphia law student, after watching her perform, wrote: "It would be hard to depict the wild intoxication that overtook me. I forgot everything else, law included. I did nothing but frequent the theater and abandon myself to the fascination of this bewitching actress." He added that "to the sorcery of the stage [she] added rare charms of person, brilliant accomplishments and high culture."

Fanny, however, was appalled by many aspects of American life and kept a diary expressing her displeasure at American manners and customs. She compared the roads, the servants,

the horses, the food, and everything else with its British counterpart and always found the American version inferior. She was shocked that store clerks tried to chat with her and did not call her "Ma'am." She found many of her hosts and hostesses vulgar and boring, lacking elements of the refinement she had come to enjoy in her years of English celebrity. As Elizabeth Fox-Genovese comments of this journal: "Above all she is English. From first to last, England affords the standards by which she judges everything American. From first to last England figures as the sign of everything she values." She relented a little as she became familiar with American manners, and she was impressed by the drama of Niagara Falls and the beauties of the Hudson River valley.

Pierce Butler, the heir to extensive plantations in the Sea Islands off the Georgia coast, had seen her performing in Philadelphia. He fell in love with her at once and began to follow the touring company, making himself useful as a guide and helper, and, before long, pleading with Fanny to marry him. At first, she rebuffed him, anticipating that she would soon be returning to England with her father, who expected her to continue her brilliant stage career, and telling Butler that she planned a literary career and had no intention of marrying. Butler, however, was rich, attractive and, on the face of it, highly eligible, having better manners than most of the Americans she had met, and easing the Kembles' problems as they moved from town to town. Eventually she succumbed and accepted his proposal, handing over the profits of the American tour to her father before he went home alone. The couple married in Philadelphia in 1834. She fainted during the ceremony and the next day, on a steamer to New York, wept all the way, which was an augury of difficulties to come.

Butler soon found that his new wife was anything but the Victorian ideal of female docility. She was neurotic, moody, and extremely stubborn—traits which some of her American hosts had already discovered—and she was bored by domestic confinement after her five years in the spotlight. She was determined to publish her American journals, even though he opposed the idea. Many people Butler knew were lampooned or openly criticized in its pages. She had at first hoped that by publishing them as a book she might raise money to pay the medical bills of her aunt who, traveling with them, had been badly injured in a carriage accident. Before long the project took on a life of its own. She pressed on with publication plans even after her aunt's death had made the original plan unnecessary. She compromised with her husband by deleting most of the names (circumstantial evidence still made their identities evident in many cases) but then, against his wishes, saw the book into print. It was an immediate success, capitalizing on the author's dramatic fame. Educated Americans were feeling particularly bruised in the 1830s as a succession of critical British commentaries on American life appeared, most notably those by Harriet Martineau , Frances Trollope , and Charles Dickens. This one rubbed salt into the raw wound but thousands read it anyway while English audiences were delighted.

The newly married couple argued violently, about his leisurely way of life, his gambling, and her book. She gave birth to a daughter, Sarah Butler (Wister) , within a year, but showed little interest in being a mother, and her letters from the time show her struggling against perpetual boredom, homesickness, and a sense of unwelcome confinement. The couple undertook the first of several trial separations in 1837 and Fanny, to her intense pleasure, returned to England and to her role there as a high-society celebrity. She saw the new queen, Victoria , opening Parliament, and resumed her visits to the aristocratic salons that had welcomed her in the early days of her success. Butler, however, came to fetch her back, and during a brief reconciliation she conceived her second child, Frances Butler (Leigh) . Her difficulty, then and later, was that she was passionately attracted to Butler though disgusted by many aspects of his way of life. She later wrote that he expected her to be content with being the mother of the two girls; that his attitude was: "What need of intellectual converse, have you not an affectionate husband and two sweet babies?" to which she retorted: "You might as well say to a man who has no arms, 'Oh! no, but you have two legs.'"

So long as she was in the north with Butler, she could make the most of his worldly wealth without reflecting on its origins, but once she went south to the rice and cotton plantations he had now inherited she was brought face to face with the fact that it came from slavery. Merely getting to the plantations, on the Georgia coast, was a difficult task, and her description of travel on early railroads, "corduroy" log roads, shoddy steamboats, disgusting food and filthy hotels, has become a minor classic in its own right. She spent 1838 and 1839 on the plantation and wrote another journal, mainly in the form of letters to her friend Elizabeth Sedgwick . She was already, as an evangelical Protestant, opposed to slavery in general but she was ready, she wrote in one of the first letters, "to find many mitigations … much kindness on the part of the masters, much content on that of the slaves." In fact, however, she found the slave system far worse than she had anticipated, and her book became a slashing indictment of slavery, both because of the cruelty inflicted on the slaves, and because of the way the system turned slave-masters into tyrants. She described the distinction between house-slaves and field-slaves, the use of trusted slaves as "drivers," and the system of punishing all signs of disobedience with the lash. To avoid punishments, she added, slaves became servile, flattering, and deceitful.

It was not that she befriended the slaves: she described those who served her in the house as "perfectly filthy in their persons and clothes," and the maid she had been given, known only as Mary, as "so intolerably offensive in her person that it is impossible to endure her proximity." Like many abolitionists of her era, she hated slavery without feeling any particular affection for the enslaved. Nevertheless, she tried to improve conditions, especially of the female slaves. These women lived in insanitary huts full of ducks and chickens, and gave birth to their children in a bare-earth infirmary. They were forced back to work in the fields just three or four weeks after giving birth, while the babies were put into the care of slightly older children, and they suffered—especially those who worked on the Butler Island rice plantation—from rheumatism, malaria, and other afflictions. Kemble surreptitiously taught a young slave, Aleck, to read, in contravention of the Georgia slave-code, and encouraged slaves with grievances to tell her their problems, so that she might intercede on their behalf with the master. Butler was furious, and forbade her to do it. Despite her indignation and her growing disillusionment with her husband, however, she soon recognized that there was no possibility of him freeing the slaves. She could see, indeed, that he was part of an entrenched system that would regard him as a lunatic if he voluntarily surrendered his livelihood.

Wister, Sarah Butler (1835–1908)

American socialite. Born in 1835; died in 1908; daughter of Pierce Butler (d. 1867, a plantation owner) and Fanny Kemble (1809–1893); married Owen Jones Wister (a Philadelphia physician); children: Owen Wister (1860–1938, a novelist who wrote The Virginian).

Socialite Sarah Butler Wister, who married a prominent physician, was very close to her novelist son Owen Wister. When he was still quite young, the two began a correspondence that continued until Sarah's death in 1908. Early on, while on a trip out West, Wister shared with his mother his growing desire to write. "The only thing I do is to jot down all shreds of local colour and all conversations and anecdotes decent or otherwise that strike me as native wild flowers. After a while I shall write a great fat book about the whole thing." Like his grandmother Fanny Kemble , Owen had learned the importance of getting it all down. "Former experience has taught that you can hardly make a journal too full," he wrote his mother. "I hope I shall be able to keep it up and get down in notes, anyhow, all the things that are peculiar to this life and country." Always eager for her opinion, Wister sent his mother a copy of his newly finished epic, The Virginian, in 1902. She did not like it and told him so.

Owen Wister's daughter Fanny Kemble Wister (Stokes) wrote My Father, Owen Wister (Laramie, Wyoming, 1952) and edited Owen Wister Out West: His Journals and Letters (University of Chicago Press, 1958), That I May Tell You: Journals and Letters of the Owen Wister Family (Haveford House, 1979), and Fanny, the American Kemble: Her Journals and Unpublished Letters (Tallahassee: South Pass Press, 1972).

Leigh, Frances Butler (1838–1910)

American Reconstruction-era plantation manager. Name variations: Fanny Butler. Born in 1838; died in 1910; daughter of Pierce Butler (a Georgia plantation owner) and Fanny Kemble (English-born actress, author, abolitionist); married Reverend James Wentworth Leigh, in 1871.

Parents divorced (1849); returned to plantation with father from North (1866); father died (1867); worked to convert plantation to pay-basis (1867–71); moved to England with husband (1871); returned to plantation and repaired it to prosperity (1873).

In the early 1840s, Butler and Kemble visited England again. She was still a celebrity at home, feted by the aristocracy and introduced to Queen Victoria at court. A publisher, having heard about her Georgia journal, asked to publish it, but this time Butler strictly refused his permission. He was enraged when he discovered that she had instead given the publisher her diary of the difficult journey, by sea and land, from Philadelphia to Georgia, an act which he saw as a breach of their family privacy and a violation of his rights as a husband. He retaliated by intercepting and reading all her correspondence, to which she reacted by leaving him altogether. She had frequently threatened to leave him, if necessary by selling her jewelry to raise the money, but their stormy scenes had usually been followed by tearful reconciliations. Unlike most men and women of the era, she was totally opposed to the idea that a woman's freedom should be limited and controlled by her husband and that she must, as the wedding service then specified, "love, honor, and obey" him. In one letter, he wrote: "If you will govern your irritable temper, and if you can consent to submit your will to mine, we will be reconciled and may be happy. I firmly believe that husband and wife cannot live happily on any other terms and it would be vain for us to be reunited unless upon a clear understanding of the conditions I propose, and a full determination to abide by them."

Back in America and living in a boarding house (much humbler than their London splendor, which had run them into debt), Butler tried to enforce these rules on his wife with unbending strictness. He restricted Fanny's opportunities to talk with their two daughters, and ordered the governess, Miss Hall, to keep the girls out of their mother's orbit as much as possible. He even sold Fanny's horse, which she liked to ride every day, without warning her beforehand. She suspected that he was having (or had previously had) an affair with another woman—possibly Miss Hall herself. Unable to speak to each other without getting into furious arguments, she and Butler bombarded each other with letters (even though they were in the same house), each accusing the other of unreasonable conduct.

In the end Fanny separated from him for the last time and returned to England in 1845, now aged 36. Her sister Adelaide Kemble , who had made a successful career as a singer and then married happily, invited her to recuperate from her psychological trials by spending a year with them in Italy. After this vacation, being short of money and reluctant to depend on Butler, who had informally agreed to send her $1,000 per year, Fanny resumed her acting career in 1847, going on stage for the first time since 1834. She was a stout, middle-aged woman by then but still an accomplished actress, able to command high fees and playing to enthusiastic audiences. Back in America to finalize her divorce settlement in 1849, she gave a dramatic reading from Shakespeare to a Boston audience. It was a success and led to reading tours in Britain and America in which she gave passionate renderings of entire Shakespeare plays, reading every part with broad gestures, exaggerated expressions, and the maximum of sentiment. Critical opinions varied. Her friend Henry Greville wrote: "It is wonderful the effect she produces; it is like seeing the whole play admirably acted, and delightful to hear the beautiful poetry, which is usually so murdered on the stage, spoken by her melodious voice, and with her subtle expression." Charles Dickens and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, on the other hand, both thought the performances pretty awful, following, as they did, her father's early 19th-century convention of deliberate over-enunciation.

Kemble herself found it hard work as she was constantly on the move during these tours, staying in hotels all over Britain and America, usually accompanied by a maid. But the span of her lifetime witnessed a great change in transportation. When she began her acting career, she had to travel by stagecoach and cross the ocean by sail. By the time of her retirement, she enjoyed rail travel, throughout both countries, and steamers for her numerous Atlantic crossings. Using the proceeds from her readings, she built a house in Lenox, Massachusetts, close to the homes of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne, with whom she was friendly, and near her long time friends and confidantes Elizabeth and Catherine Sedgwick . Kemble became a familiar figure among the transcendentalists, though her own religious views were always more evangelical—earlier she had fired her daughters' best nurse out of fear that she was trying to turn the girls into Roman Catholics.

Elizabeth Sedgwick, the original recipient of her Georgia plantation letters, had urged her not to publish them even after her divorce, and she kept the book to herself until 1863. By then the American Civil War was at its crisis, and her exhusband was fighting for the Confederacy, even though debt had forced him to sell most of his slaves. Some Britons favored supporting the Confederacy—it was the source of raw cotton for Britain's manufacturing cities of Liverpool and Manchester. But humanitarian feeling in Britain favored the anti-slavery cause of the Union. Kemble finally decided to publish the Journal near the end of 1862 and by the time it came out, just after the Battle of Gettysburg the following year, Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had in effect brought slavery to an end. Even so, the book helped sway popular opinion in England against aiding the Confederacy, and contributed to the British government's decision to remain neutral throughout the war. Union reviewers in America, meanwhile, were as delighted by this book as they had been angry at her earlier journal. Harper's Monthly described it as "the most powerful antislavery book yet written." Kemble aided the Union cause by reading dramatic antislavery passages from the book aloud on her tours, and was delighted to see the Union prevail.

Of her two daughters, the elder, Sarah, was loyal to her mother and to the American north while the younger, Frances, stood beside her father, and tried to keep his much-depleted plantation going after his death in 1867. Kemble herself began writing a long memoir of her early life, Records of a Girlhood, in 1875 (her memoirs later grew to five volumes). She wrote it on one of the world's first typewriters, which she quickly mastered, and first published it in the Atlantic Monthly in installments, under the heading "Old Woman's Gossip." Fanny returned to Britain in 1877 to live out her later years there (partly in Stratford on Avon, partly in London) and on annual visits to southern Europe. She was a friend of the American anglophile novelist Henry James, whom she met in 1872 and with whom she remained on close terms until her death in London in 1893, at age 84. Her daughter Sarah, married to Dr. Owen Wister of Philadelphia, passed on Fanny's literary vocation to her son, Owen Wister, whose novel The Virginian (1902), was the first great cowboy adventure story.

sources and suggested reading:

Furnas, J.C. Fanny Kemble: Leading Lady of the Nineteenth Century Stage. NY: Dial Press, 1982.

Gough, Monica, ed. Fanny Kemble: Journal of a Young Actress. With a foreword by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. NY: Columbia University Press, 1990.

Marshall, Dorothy. Fanny Kemble. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977.

Mavor, Elizabeth, ed. Fanny Kemble: The American Journals. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990.

Wister, Fanny Kemble, ed. Fanny, the American Kemble: Her Journals and Unpublished Letters. Tallahassee, FL: South Pass Press, 1972.


Fanny Kemble Collection, Columbia University Library; Massachusetts Historical Society; Bodleian Library, Oxford, United Kingdom.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia

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Kemble, Fanny (1809–1893)

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