Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, November 27, 2015

Fanny Kemble: Actress, Abolitionist, Author

Frances Anne Kemble Butler (born 27 November 1809)


I am embarrassed to admit that, before embarking on this daybook project, I knew only that Fanny Kemble was a successful actress, born into a family of actors, and what little I knew about her as a nineteenth-century professional woman (and friend of the American novelist Henry James) was what led me to posting about her.

Fanny Kemble, 1830
But what I found out, once I began to investigate Kemble's life, was eye-opening--not that it wasn't there all along, but I was completely unaware of the totality of Kemble's career.

So, first Fanny Kemble as an actress: she was the daughter of two actors, Charles Kemble and his wife, Marie Thérèse de Camp, who was herself born into an acting family (she was born in Vienna but began performing in English theatres in the late eighteenth century). The great Sarah Siddons (born Sarah Kemble) was Fanny's aunt, her father's younger sister; the actress Adelaide de Camp was also Fanny's aunt, her mother's sister. Fanny's younger sister, Adelaide Kemble, was an accomplished and well-known opera singer. 

Fanny Kemble made her stage debut at Covent Garden in 1829, and she gained success almost immediately, credited with having saved her family from economic ruin. She was particularly known for playing Shakespearean roles--Juliet (her debut role), Portia, and Beatrice among them. She made a successful tour of the United States with her father in 1832 and, later in her career, focused on a series of highly regarded (and financially successful) Shakespearean readings.

This much I knew. What I didn't know, however, proved revealing. At first I learned that Kemble was a writer--she wrote and published plays, poetry, memoirs, translations, and, in Notes on Some of Shakespeare's Plays, what we might regard as literary criticism, based on her years of experience with and reflections on the Shakespeare canon (the volume was published in 1882, when Kemble was in her seventies).

More significantly, however, Kemble married Pierce Mease Butler, an American, in 1834--at the time that they met, Butler was the heir to one of the greatest of U.S. fortunes, including two plantations (a rice plantation on Butler Island, and a sea-island cotton plantation on St. Simon's Island). When he finally inherited his family properties in 1836, he also became one of the largest slaveholders in the United States. 

Kemble was later to write that she did not know the source of Butler's wealth when she married him--she was already a supporter of abolition. But in 1838, although he knew of his wife's views, Butler took her and their two daughters, Sarah and Frances, to live on the plantations in Georgia.

The couple clashed frequently over the morality of slavery and the conditions of the enslaved people on the Butler plantations. Kemble recorded her experiences in a diary--her views on the institution of slavery, her experiences on the plantations, her descriptions of the conditions of the slaves and of her encounters with them, her views of the other planters with whom the Butlers socialized. All of this she collected in a volume that she would later entitle Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation.

A year after leaving the plantations--ironically, the Butlers lived in Philadelphia, where the Pennsylvania Abolition Society had been founded in 1775, where William Lloyd Garrison had begun publication of The Liberator in 1831, where the American Anti-Slavery Society had been established in 1833, and where Lucretia Mott, Angelina Grimké, and Sarah Grimké were all organizing against slavery--Fanny Kemble would write to a friend, "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."

Kemble might well have published her Journal as a number of abolitionists were encouraging her to do--except that her marriage to Pierce Butler had become irretrievably broken. Certainly their conflict over slavery was critical--but Butler was also unfaithful, he isolated her, he separated her from her children, and he threatened to sever all ties between her and her daughters if she published her memoirs about life at the Georgia plantations. 

By 1846, the two separated and, increasingly unhappy in the United States, Kemble returned to England where she resumed her role on the stage. In 1848, she learned that Butler had sued her for divorce, claiming that Kemble had "willfully, maliciously, and without due cause, deserted him on September 11, 1845."

After a protracted--and expensive--legal battle, Butler was granted his divorce. By the terms of the decision, Butler retained legal custody of the children, though Kemble would have the right to see them for two months in the summers. The daughters were not allowed any other contact with their mother until after they reached the age of twenty-one.

Kemble remained in the United States, giving successful performances of her readings from Shakespeare. She still could not publish the Journal, fearful of the effects that any publication would have on Butler and on her contact with her children. But after the outbreak of the Civil War and concerned about public opinion in England, she finally published Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 in 1863.

Publication notice in Harper's Weekly
Its publication was explosive and divisive. As Catherine Clinton notes, 
Kemble's riveting account of her husband's slaves provides gripping insight on life in the antebellum South. As the wife of a planter, Kemble had unimpeded access to plantation affairs and was especially poignant and pointed when she allowed the voices of slave women, so seldom heard during this era, to shine through in the pages of her journal. 
Fanny and her daughter Sarah were reconciled once Sarah reached the age of twenty-one. Fanny's younger daughter Frances remained with her father and, bitter over her mother's Journal, later published her own memoir in 1883, Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation, intended to refute her mother's work. 

As for Butler--he lost his vast fortune in gambling and stock speculation. He was forced to liquidate his assets, including the sale all his slaves, by auction, on 3 March 1859. It was the largest single sale of human beings in U.S., known forever as "the weeping time."

Kemble continued performing in the United States, in Europe and in England--she died in London on 15 January 1893.

There are several noteworthy biographies, but instead of linking to them (they are easily found), I thought I'd link to two online essays that focus on Kemble's abolitionist views and her Journal: Catherine Clinton's essays is in the New Georgia Encyclopedia, which you can access online by clicking here; and the entry on Kemble at the African-American Registry, which you can access by clicking here.

You can buy various print-on-demand reprint editions of Kemble's Journal, but the book is also available through Project Gutenberg (click here) and at the Internet Archive you can read an online facsimile of the 1863 American edition, advertised above (read read, click here).