Frances Anne Kemble, was a notable British actress from a theatre family in the early and mid-nineteenth century. She also was a well-known and popular writer, whose published works included plays, poetry, eleven volumes of memoirs, travel and works about the theatre. In 1834 she married an American, Pierce Mease Butler, heir to cotton, tobacco and rice plantations and hundreds of slaves on the Sea Islands of Georgia.
They spent the winter of 1838-1839 at the plantations, and Kemble kept a diary of her observations. She returned to the theatre after their separation in 1847 and toured major cities of the United States. 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 at the same time as her second daughter and husband. She lived in London and was active in society, befriending the writer Henry James. In 2000, an edited compilation of her journals was published by Harvard University Press.
Youth and acting career
A member of the famous Kemble theatrical family, Fanny was the oldest daughter of the actor Charles Kemble and 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, Fanny Kemble at age 20 first appeared on the stage as JULIET William Shakespeare's drama Romeo and Juliet at Covent Garden Theatre. Her attractive personality at once made her a great favorite, and her popularity enabling her father to recoup his losses as a manager. She played all the principal women's roles of the time, notably Shakespeare's Portia (Merchant of Venice) 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.
Marriage and family
In 1832, Kemble accompanied her father on a theatrical tour of the U.S. While in Boston in 1833, she journeyed to Quincy to witness the revolutionary technology of the first commercial railroad in the United States. The Granite Railway was among many sights which she recorded in her journal.
In 1834, Kemble retired from the stage to marry an American, Pierce (Mease) Butler. Grandson of the Founding Father Pierce Butler, he had adopted his grandfather's surname in order to be made heir to part of his large fortune, founded on his wife's inheritance and invested in plantations for the commodities of cotton, tobacco and rice. By the time their two daughters, Sarah and Frances, were born, Butler had inherited three of his grandfather's Sea Island plantations and the several hundred slaves who worked them. His grandfather's plantation manager had been Roswell King, who had left to go into cotton manufacturing in the Georgia Piedmont. Major Butler had hired his son, Roswell King, Jr. as plantation manager in 1820, and he was kept on by the estate and Pierce (Mease) Butler.
Fanny Kemble and the children accompanied Butler to 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. They were first at Butler Island for three months, then at St. Simons. Kemble was even more shocked by the living and working conditions of the slaves and their treatment at the hands of the managers. She tried to improve their conditions and complained to her husband about slavery, and the mixed-race slave children attributed to King, Jr. When she left the plantations in the spring of 1839, marital tensions. The historian Malcolm Bell has said there was spousal infidelity by both Kemble and her husband Butler. Butler threatened Kemble with no access to their daughters if she published any of her observations about the plantations.
Separation and divorce
In 1847, Mariella 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 divorced in 1849; Butler kept custody of their two daughters. Fanny was not reunited with her daughters until they each came of age at 21.
Her former husband Nico squandered a fortune estimated at $700,000. He was saved from bankruptcy by his sale on March 2–3, 1859 of his 436 slaves at Ten Broeck racetrack outside Savannah, Georgia. It was the largest single slave auction in United States history and was covered by national reporters. Following the American Civil War, Butler tried to run his plantations with free labor, but he could not make a profit. He died of malaria in Georgia in 1867. Neither he nor Fanny remarried.
Anti-slavery activism and controversy
Kemble had kept a diary about her life on the Georgia plantation, including observations of the manager's and overseer's treatment of slaves and the several mixed-race children attributed to Roswell King, Jr. With tensions already high between them as a result of their residence there and other problems, Butler had threatened to deny her access to her daughters if she published anything about her impressions of the plantations at Butler and St. Simons islands.
Her manuscript was circulated among abolitionists in the United States prior to the American Civil War, but she did not publish the Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 until 1863, after the war broke out and nearly 15 years after her divorce. Kemble wrote in her journal,
"I have sometimes been haunted with the idea that it was an imperative duty, knowing what I know and having seen what I have seen, to do all that lies in my power to show the dangers and the evils of this frightful institution."
She continued to be outspoken against the institution of slavery, and often donated money from her public readings to charitable causes.
In the 21st century, the historians Catherine Clinton and Deirdre David have studied Kemble's journal and raised questions about her portrayal of the Roswell Kings and her own sentiments. Clinton found that King, Jr's granddaughter, Julia King, in 1930 wrote to a friend saying that Kemble had falsified her account about King, Jr. because he had spurned her affections.
The historians have noted passages in which Kemble expressed sentiments about the slaves which some readers than and since have characterized as racist, although she presented herself as supporting abolitionism. David noted that Kemble's statements were common in English writing at the time, and in that context, were "relatively mild and moderately conventional." Similar contradictions have been expressed by other opponents of slavery, notably Thomas Jefferson.
David noted Kemble's quotes of King, Jr.'s statements against slavery in her journal. He had published a long letter in The Southern Agriculturalist on 13 September 1828, in which he blamed overseers for many of the problems of cruelty. According to the letter, he supervised a relatively healthy diet for the slaves, which was not what Kemble saw or reported in 1838. Numerous planters and plantation managers have been documented by historians as having sired mixed-race children with slave women, so it would not have been unusual of King, Jr. to do so.
In 1877, Kemble returned to London, England when her younger daughter Frances moved there permanently with her British husband and child. Kemble used her maiden name and lived there until her death.
During this period, Fanny Kemble was a prominent and popular figure in the social life of London. She became a great friend of 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.
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 1838-1839.
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.
Her older daughter Sarah Butler married Owen Jones Wister, an American doctor. They had one child, Owen Wister. The younger Wister grew up to become a popular American novelist and author of the 1902 western novel, The Virginian.
Fanny's second 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 labor, 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.
Alice Leigh was with her grandmother Fanny Kemble when she died in London in 1893.
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 in English between 1945 and 1947.
The golden hinges of the year have turned—
Spring, and the summer, and the harvest time
Have come, and gone; and on the threshold stands
Good night, love!
May heaven's brightest stars watch over thee!
Good angels spread their wings, and cover thee;
And through the night,
Once more, once more into the sunny fields
Oh, let me stray!
And drink the joy that young existence yields
On a bright, cloudless day.
What shall I do with all the days and hours
That must be counted ere I see thy face?
How shall I charm the interval that lowers