Fanny Kemble

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Engraving of Fanny Kemble

Frances Anne "Fanny" Kemble (27 November 1809 – 15 January 1893) was a notable British actress from a theatre family in the early and mid-nineteenth century. She was also a well-known and popular writer, whose published works included plays, poetry, eleven volumes of memoirs, travel writing and works about the theatre. In 1834 she married an American, Pierce Mease Butler, heir to cotton, tobacco and rice plantations on the Sea Islands of Georgia, and to the hundreds of slaves who worked them.

They spent the winter of 1838–39 at the plantations, and Kemble kept a diary of her observations. She returned to the theatre after their separation in 1847 and toured major US cities. Although her memoir circulated in abolitionist circles, Kemble waited until 1863, during the American Civil War, to publish her anti-slavery Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839. It has become her best-known work in the United States, although she published several other volumes of journals.

In 1877 Kemble returned to England with her second daughter and son-in-law. She lived in London and was active in society, befriending the writer Henry James. In 2000 Harvard University Press published an edited compilation of her journals.

Youth and acting career[edit]

Formal facial portrait photo of attractive young woman with ringlets, smiling softly and looking into the camera.
Fanny Kemble as a young girl

A member of the famous Kemble theatrical family, Fanny was the eldest daughter of the actor Charles Kemble and his Viennese-born wife, the former Marie Therese De Camp. She was a niece of the noted tragedienne Sarah Siddons and of the famous actor John Philip Kemble. Her younger sister was the opera singer Adelaide Kemble. Fanny was born in London and educated chiefly in France.

On 26 October 1829, at the age of 20, Fanny Kemble first appeared on the stage as Juliet in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet at Covent Garden Theatre. Her attractive personality at once made her a great favourite, and her popularity enabled her father to recoup his losses as a manager. She played all the principal women's roles of the time, notably Shakespeare's Portia and Beatrice (Much Ado about Nothing), and Lady Teazle in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal. Perhaps her greatest role, although not as a lead, was that of Julia in James Sheridan Knowles' The Hunchback; he wrote it especially for her.

In 1832, Kemble accompanied her father on a theatrical tour of the United States. While in Boston in 1833, she journeyed to Quincy to witness the revolutionary technology of the first commercial railroad in the United States. She had previously accompanied George Stephenson on a test of the L&M prior to its opening in England and described the tests in a letter written in early 1830. The Granite Railway was among many sights which she recorded in her journal.

Marriage and daughters[edit]

In 1834, Kemble retired from the stage to marry an American, Pierce Mease Butler. Though they met and lived in Philadelphia, Butler was the grandson of Pierce Butler, a Founding Father, and heir to a large fortune in cotton, tobacco and rice plantations. By the time the couple's daughters, Sarah and Frances, were born, Butler had inherited three of his grandfather's Sea Island plantations and the hundreds of people who were enslaved on them.

The family visited Georgia during the winter of 1838–39, where they lived at the plantations at Butler and St. Simons islands, in conditions primitive compared to their house in Philadelphia. Kemble was shocked by the living and working conditions of the slaves and their treatment at the hands of the overseers and managers. She tried to improve conditions and complained to her husband about slavery, and about the mixed-race slave children attributed to overseer Roswell King, Jr.

When the family returned to Philadelphia in the spring of 1839, Kemble and her husband were suffering marital tensions. In addition to their disagreements over treatment of the slave families at Butler's plantations, Kemble was "embittered and embarrassed" by Butler's marital infidelities.[1] Butler threatened to deny Kemble access to their daughters if she published any of her observations about the plantations.[2] By 1845, the marriage had failed irretrievably, and Kemble returned to Europe.

Separation and divorce[edit]

In 1847, Kemble returned to the stage in the United States, as she needed to make a living following her separation. Following her father's example, she appeared with much success as a Shakespearean reader rather than acting in plays. She toured the United States from Massachusetts to Michigan, from Chicago to Washington.

The couple went through a bitter and protracted divorce in 1849, with Butler retaining custody of their two daughters. At that time, with divorce rare, the father was customarily awarded custody in the patriarchal society. Other than brief visitations, Kemble was not reunited with her daughters until each came of age at 21.

Her ex-husband squandered a fortune estimated at $700,000. He was saved from bankruptcy by his sale on 2–3 March 1859 of the 436 people he held in slavery. The auction, at Ten Broeck racetrack outside Savannah, Georgia, was the largest single slave auction in United States history. As such, it was covered by national reporters.[3]

Following the American Civil War, Butler tried to run his plantations with free labour, but he could not make a profit. He died of malaria in Georgia in 1867. Neither he nor Fanny remarried.

Later life[edit]

In 1877, Kemble returned to London to join her younger daughter Frances, who had moved there with her British husband and child. Kemble used her maiden name and lived there until her death. During this period, she was a prominent and popular figure in London society. She became a great friend of the American writer Henry James during her later years. His novel Washington Square (1880) was based upon a story Kemble had told him concerning one of her relatives.

Literary career[edit]

Kemble wrote two plays, Francis the First (1832) and The Star of Seville (1837). She also published a volume of poems (1844).

Kemble published the first volume of her memoirs, entitled Journal, in 1835, shortly after her marriage to Butler. In 1863, she published another volume in both the United States and Great Britain. Entitled Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, it included her observations of slavery and life on her husband's Southern plantation in the winter of 1838–39.

Following her separation from Butler in the 1840s, Kemble traveled in Italy. She wrote a book based on this time, A Year of Consolation (1847), in two volumes.

In 1863 Kemble also published a volume of plays, including translations from Alexandre Dumas, père and Friedrich Schiller. These were followed by additional memoirs: Records of a Girlhood (1878); Records of Later Life (1882); Far Away and Long Ago (1889); and Further Records (1891). Her various volumes of reminiscences contain much valuable material illuminating the social and theatrical history of the period. She also published Notes on Some of Shakespeare's Plays (1882), based on her long experience in acting and reading his works.

Descendants[edit]

Her older daughter, Sarah Butler, married Owen Jones Wister, an American doctor. They had one child, Owen Wister, who grew up to become a popular American novelist, writing the popular 1902 western novel The Virginian.

Fanny's other daughter Frances met James Leigh in Georgia. He was a minister born in England. The couple married in 1871. Their one child, Alice Leigh, was born in 1874.

They tried to operate Frances' father's plantations with free labour, but could not make a profit. Leaving Georgia in 1877, they moved permanently to England. Frances Butler Leigh defended her father in the continuing postwar dispute over slavery as an institution. Based on her experience, Leigh published Ten Years on a Georgian Plantation since the War (1883), a rebuttal to her mother's account.

When Fanny Kemble died in London in 1893, her granddaughter, Alice Leigh, was with her.

Controversy[edit]

While Kemble's account of the plantations has been criticized, it is considered notable for giving voice to the slaves and especially slave women, and has been relied on by many historians.[4] As noted above, her daughter published a rebuttal account. Margaret Davis Cate published a strong critique in the Georgia Historical Quarterly in 1960. In the early twenty-first century, historians Catherine Clinton and Deirdre David have studied Kemble's Journal and raised questions about her portrayal of the Roswell King father and son, who successively managed Pierce Butler's plantations, and Kemble's own racial sentiments.

Clinton noted that in 1930, Julia King, granddaughter of Roswell King, Jr., stated that Kemble had falsified her account about him because he had spurned her affections.[5] There is little evidence in Kemble's Journal that she encountered Roswell King, Jr., on more than a few occasions, and none that she knew his wife, née Julia Rebecca Maxwell. But she criticized Maxwell as "a female fiend" because a slave named Sophy told her that Mrs. King ordered the flogging of Judy and Scylla "of whose children Mr. K[ing] was the father."[6] Roswell King, Jr., was no longer in the employ of her husband when Pierce Butler and Kemble took up their short residency in Georgia. King had resigned due to "growing uneasiness. . . . born of the dispute between the Kings and the Butlers over fees the elder King thought were owed him as co-administrator of Major Butler's estate."[7]

Before arriving in Georgia, Kemble had written, "It is notorious, that almost every Southern planter has a family more or less numerous of illegitimate coloured children."[8] Her statements about Roswell King, Sr., and Roswell King, Jr., and their alleged status as the white fathers of enslaved mulatto children, are based on what she was told by slaves. In some cases, these individuals relied on hearsay accounts of their paternity although European ancestry was visible. The mulatto Renty, for example, "ashamed" to ask his mother about the identity of his father, believed he was the son of Roswell King, Jr., because "Mr. C[ouper]'s children told me so, and I 'spect they know it.'[9] John Couper, the Scottish-born owner of a rival plantation adjacent to Pierce Butler's Hampton Point on St. Simon's Island, had had marked disagreements with the Roswell Kings in the past. Clinton suggests that Kemble favored Couper's accounts.[10] But, the revelations of Thomas Jefferson's likely paternity of his slave Sally Hemings' six children also demonstrates that slaves oral history is sometimes correct.

Biographies[edit]

Numerous books have been written about Fanny Kemble and her family, including Deirdre David's A Performed Life (2007) and Vanessa Dickerson's inclusion of Kemble in Dark Victorians (2008). Earlier works were Fanny Kemble (1933) by Leota Stultz Driver and Fanny Kemble: A Passionate Victorian (1938) by Margaret Armstrong.

Some recent biographies have focused on Kemble's role as an abolitionist, such as Catherine Clinton's Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars: The Story of America's Most Unlikely Abolitionist (2000). Others have studied the theatrical careers of Kemble and her family. In the latter category, Henry Gibbs' Affectionately Yours, Fanny: Fanny Kemble and the Theatre was published in eight editions between 1945 and 1947.

Works[edit]

Available through Harvard University Library's Open Collections Program: Women Working 1800–1930:

Other publications:[11][12]

Several editions of her journals have been published in the twenty-first century:

Representation in other media[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Bell, Malcolm. Major Butler's Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family, Athens and London: University of Georgia, 1987, pp. 288–310
  2. ^ David (2007), A Performed Life, p. 154
  3. ^ "Great Auction of Slaves at Savannah, Georgia", New York Tribune, 9 March 1859, at American Memory, Library of Congress.
  4. ^ "Fanny Kemble", New Georgia Encyclopedia
  5. ^ Kemble, Fanny. Fanny Kemble's Journals/ Edited and with an Introduction by Catherine Clinton. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000, pp. 15–16
  6. ^ Kemble 269
  7. ^ Bell 254, 271
  8. ^ Kemble 10
  9. ^ Kemble 249
  10. ^ Kemble 265–67, 391–92
  11. ^ Wikisource-logo.svg Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1892). "Kemble, Charles". Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton. 
  12. ^  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Kemble". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

External links[edit]