Fanny Kemble - A Passionate Victorian
In the summer of 1832, Fanny Kemble stood on the deck of The Pacific after a month’s long voyage, looking through a telescope at her first glimpse of the Long Island shore. Fanny and her family which included her Aunt Adelaide de Camp had no idea what to expect on their 2 year tour of the barely sixty year old republic. The only thing that Fanny did know was that she wanted to make as much money as possible and then retire from the stage. Fanny’s life would be changed in ways that she couldn’t possibly have imagined when she set foot onboard in Liverpool. America would bring her great joy and great sorrow, unimaginable fame, a scandalous divorce, and a brutal custody battle and expose her to the horrors of slavery.
Frances Anne ‘Fanny’ Kemble (November 27, 1809 - January 15, 1893) was born in London to the most famous acting dynasty in England. Her aunt was the legendary grande dame of tragedy, Sarah Siddons and her father Charles Kemble was a renowned Shakespearean actor, whose career really took off after the retirement of his elder brother John Philip Kemble. Her father had high aspirations for his children that didn’t include the stage. Unfortunately he was a better actor than he was a businessman. The Covent Garden Theatre in which he was a shareholder began to suffer financial difficulties, falling £13,000 in debt. Instead of becoming a governess, which was her original plan, it was decied that Fanny would now go on the stage. She made her theatrical debut two months before her twentieth birthday as Juliet. Although she had no formal theatrical training, her attractive personality made her an instant success, enabling her father to begin to recoup his losses as a manager.
For two years, Fanny worked tirelessly on stage both at the Covent Garden Theatre and touring the provinces. She played all the principle female roles in Shakespeare, including Beatrice, Portia (a personal favorite), Lady Macbeth, Queen Catherine, and Lady Teazle in School for Scandal. She was often forced into parts were associated with her aunt Sarah Siddons, whether they suited Fanny or not. Fanny’s soon began to mingle with Sir Walter Scott, Alfred Tennyson, Thackeray, and various other luminaries of the literary and artistic world of Europe, along with Queen Victoria. You could say that she knew everybody who was anybody in England at that time.
Fanny wasn’t conventionally beautiful by the standards of the day. She was short (under five feet tall), inclined to stockiness in her later years, and she had suffered from a bad case of small pox as a child which had left scars. She also didn’t fit into the mold of the conventional woman of the time, the idealized view of women that had taken hold, that they were to be nurturers, passive, deferring to their husbands and have no opinions of their own. Though a brilliant and intuitive actress, Fanny’s first love was writing. Throughout her life she would publish plays, poetry, letters and memoirs. She also spoke French fluently (her mother was French), read voraciously, was an accomplished musician and a skilled horsewoman.
Fanny hoped the tour of America would be her way out of a life that she found increasingly unbearable. She worried that she would spend the rest of her life treading the boards, supporting her family, while her life passed her by. In America, Fanny and her father were received with great enthusiasm and acclaim. She was lionized and copied like some teen idol. Young women were seen sporting ‘Fanny Kemble’ curls, and her likeness appeared on plates, scarves, saucers and other tchotchkes. The theatres were packed night and night for her performances.
The couple was married in June of 1834. The honeymoon was barely over before the cracks began to show. Seemingly overnight her husband changed from the devoted suitor who indulged her every whim to one who tried to curb her independent nature. Pierce, like many men at the time, believed that women should be seen and not heard, and that the only opinions expressed should be those of their husbands. Her decision to publisher her first book, The Journal of Frances Anne Butler, about her experiences in America appalled him but it was too late to cancel the contract. Although the book was a bestseller, it shocked and scandalized Americans with its candid opinions. The birth of their two daughters Sarah and Frances (Fan) smoothed things over for a while but it was their differences of opinion on the issue of slavery that really divided them. Pierce thought that he could persuade Fanny of the benefits of slavery, and Fanny,k who had been an outspoken advocate for abolition even before they were married, hoped to convince her husband otherwise.
During the winter of 1838-1839, Fanny accompanied Pierce along with their two children to Georgia. Nothing in Fanny’s life prepared her for what she saw on the plantation. If Butler had hoped that Fanny would change her opinion once she saw slavery first hand, boy did he call that one wrong! She was appalled by the conditions and treatment of the slaves and fought to better their treatment. During the four months she spent on the plantation, she and Pierce clashed frequently over the issue. Fanny recorded her experiences in letters to friends and family which were privately circulated amongst abolitionists. While Uncle Tom’s Cabin was fictional, Fanny had an eyewitness view of the horrors and degradations of slavery. As Butler’s wife, she had a bird's eye view, her riveting account provided a gripping insight into life on a plantation.
By the time the Butlers returned to Philadelphia in the spring of 1839, the marital discord continued. Life for Fanny went from bad to worse, when she threatened to leave Pierce if their livelihood continued to depend on slavery; he accused her of being mentally ill. It had long been rumored that Butler kept a slave mistress during his visits to the plantation but now Fanny began to suspect that Pierce was also cheating on her with their daughters’ governess. The marriage dragged on for a few more years until finally Fanny reached the end of her tether. She gave up all hopes for reconciliation and returned to England. Out of financial necessity, she returned to the stage, performing theatrical readings of Shakespeare, which suited her more. To her dismay, Butler decided to sue her for divorce, contending that she had ‘willfully, maliciously, and without due cause, deserted him on September 11th 1845.” The divorce was finally granted 4 years later. Pierce was ordered to pay Fanny $1,500 a year in alimony (she never saw any of the money), and he kept custody of their daughters until they came of age, although Fanny was supposed to be able to see them for 2 months every summer.
While Fanny continued to enjoy theatrical success, Butler fell into financial ruin, squandering away his vast fortune on speculations and gambling, to the tune of $700,000. In 1856, his situation became so dire that he was forced to not only sell his Philadelphia mansion but also half of his slaves. In February 1859, the trustees of the estate traveled to Georgia to assess the value of the 436 African American men, women and children, for their value. It would be the single largest sale of human beings in United States history, aptly called ‘the weeping time.’ The two day sale netted his creditors over $300,000. Pierce Butler was wealthy once more, to celebrate he decided to travel to Europe before returning home to Philadelphia.
During the war, once again her family was divided. While Fanny and her elder daughter Sarah sympathized with the North, Pierce and their younger daughter Fan were vehemently pro-South. Although Fanny had been asked by abolitionists to publish her journal of her time in Georgia, she had been reluctant to do so for fear of antagonizing her ex-husband, who had custody of their two children. It wasn’t until she became alarmed at European sympathies for the Confederacy that she was persuaded to publish her diary of her life on the Georgia Plantation. The book entitled, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839, sparked almost as big of a controversy as her earlier work. It was praised in England and in the North, and denigrated in the South. Even in the 20th century, Fanny’s journal still stirred up controversy. In the 1960’s, historian Margaret Davis Cate tried to discredit the book, claiming that Kemble had exaggerated to heighten the book’s appeal to her readers.
During the war, Butler had been arrested several times for treason. After the war, he traveled south to Georgia with his daughter Fan to try and salvage what was left of his properties. But management was difficult, and Butler eventually contracted malaria. He died in August 1867. His daughter Fan tried to manage the plantations herself for several years until eventually she too finally gave up. Later Fan, wrote a rebuttal to her mother’s journal entitled: Ten Years on a Georgian Plantation since the War (1883) but it wasn’t nearly as successful as her mother’s book.
Fanny moved back to the States after the war to spend more time with her daughters who were now of age. She continued to give dramatic readings both in England and the States, eventually buying a house in Lenox, Massachusetts. Sarah married a wealthy physician Owen Wister, and her son Owen Wister Jr. (known as Dan) later became famous as the author of the novel The Virginian (which has been filmed several times). Fan eventually married the Reverend James Wentworth Leigh, an Englishman who had sympathized with the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Eventually Fanny returned to back to England in 1877. She continued to perform, wrote several memoirs, and enjoyed the friendships of Robert Browning and the young Henry James. She died peacefully at the age of 83 in January of 1893.
Catherine Clinton, Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000).
Rebecca Jenkins, Fanny Kemble: The Reluctant Celebrity (London: Simon and Schuster, 2005)