Frances Ann Kemble - Fanny Kemble
(1809 – 1893)
Biographies: ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣ ♣
Biography of her father, Charles Kemble
Fanny Kemble's Journey from Philadelphia to Butler Island, Georgia
Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839
Africans in America - Relevant pages
A. People & Events
B. Historical Documents
Fanny Kemble, by Rebecca Jenkins
SIMON & SCHUSTER £18.99/£17.99 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897
A better actress than the elephant
By Marianne Brace
Published : 27 February 2005
Juliet, dressed in a white satin ball gown, staggers towards her portly dead Romeo. Plunging a dagger into her breast she smiles defiantly, leaps up with a convulsion and falls flat on her back. The year is 1829 and this is 19-year-old Fanny Kemble's acting debut, as recorded by an awed theatregoer. Niece of the magnificent Sarah Siddons (with whom she was unfavourably compared), Fanny belonged to an acting dynasty, 28 members of which had trodden the boards. Her parents were Charles Kemble, actor-manager of the Covent Garden Theatre, and the French comedienne, Marie-Thérèse Decamp.
Kemble put his novice daughter into the limelight in a bid to improve ticket sales. Traditionally the home of Shakespeare productions, the Covent Garden Theatre was suffering from the growing taste for melodrama and what Fanny described as "trashy sentimentalism". She complained that "audiences cry and sob... till we can hardly hear ourselves speak on the stage." Such was the appetite for sensation that Fanny's main rival in another company was Mademoiselle D'Gelk - an acting elephant.
That night the audience loved Fanny, Rebecca Jenkins tells us in her informative biography. Fanny herself had mixed feelings about her profession. She wanted to write poetry and plays and had never been stagestruck. Her paternal great-grandfather had been a Catholic barber whose grandsons reinvented themselves as "gentlemen" players with mates among the aristocracy. But while artifice had been admired in their generation, increasingly, acting was seen as deceitful and gadding about in costume vulgar. Actresses offered themselves for public consumption to be adored or hissed at, pelted with apples and mocked in print.
Jenkins divides her story into three sections. Devoting the first to Fanny's famous family, she sets the actress in the context of those relatives who dominated the stage. The second concentrates on Fanny's girlhood and the third traces her short acting career and her quest for "substance". In her research Jenkins felt that Fanny leapt from the pages of her published memoirs. Accordingly, she uses excerpts from Fanny's letters and journals to bring the actress gloriously alive. And how modern she seems. During a prison visit with Mrs Fry, Fanny feels "brokenhearted" for the inmates and ashamed for the gawping middle-class do-gooders. She craves independence. With her salary she pays off her father's debts and supports two brothers, who are remarkably unembarrassed by this role reversal. Fanny longs to be valued for something more than mimicry.
Jenkins reveals a life of contradictions. Fanny feared "mere notoriety'' yet her image was mass-produced on scarves and china. She identified with strong women and preferred men who talked to her as an equal. Why, then, did she wed Pierce Butler, an American who demanded her obedience? How could someone so passionately anti-slavery marry into a slave-owning family? Fanny also had to reconcile her Romantic leanings with the duties of a daughter and wife. Her own mother was no angel at the hearth. Depressive, volatile Marie-Thérèse resented not working and clashed with her daughter. It was she who knowingly let 16-year-old Fanny catch the smallpox which disfigured her for life.
Yet Marie-Thérèse's example - providing her family's income from the age of 12 - became a template for her daughter. Fanny began by enjoying her role as a major breadwinner but the obligation grew burdensome. She sobbed before performances and sometimes screamed so much on stage that she couldn't stop and ran into the street still shrieking. Her cash-strapped father continued to organise exhausting provincial engagements in which they acted together and finally forced an American tour on Fanny, separating her from those she loved.
The pockmarked performer knew she was plain. What Fanny possessed in abundance was spirit. As a child she was often punished for wilfulness. The adult Fanny continued to struggle with intemperate feelings. In America - that "big bragging baby" - Fanny found much to offend her, from the familiarity of shop assistants to the aristocracy of wealth, "nearly as contemptible as that of nobility of mere birth''. Fanny entertains us, even out of greasepaint. When the former president John Quincy Adams declares at dinner that Desdemona deserved her fate "for having married a nigger", Fanny shows delicious self-restraint. "I swallowed half a pint of water, and nearly my tumbler too, and remained silent: for what could I say?'' Fanny had plenty to say on such subjects, though, to her husband. The couple quarrelled when Fanny published her journal (the first of several) with its critical views on America, and again when she visited his plantations. Owning slaves forever degraded Pierce in her eyes. It was "intolerable,'' she wrote, "to find myself an involuntary accomplice to this wickedness.''
Eventually they divorced and it's here that Jenkins leaves Fanny. This feels premature. It would have been interesting to learn about, say, Fanny the mother - she abandoned her two daughters - and her friendship with Henry James. More than half Fanny's life is condensed into a single, disconcertingly short chapter. Jenkins explains that there are other biographies (mainly American), and she did not intend to write a "life" in the traditional sense. Instead she frames her portrait with introductory and concluding chapters that offer a muddled argument contrasting "the mission of the Romantic Artists" with modern celebrity culture.
Jenkins states that she wanted to retrieve what Henry James called "that intense presence", and she succeeds admirably in conveying Fanny's vigour. She strikes a good balance between the scholarly and readable, packing her text with footnotes and adding contemporary colour. She brings us the most engaging part of Fanny's life, and it's as an actress that Fanny is remembered, even though her stage career lasted just five years.
13 March 2005
A life in stages: the actress who became a writer
By Brian Morton
There have been biographies of the actress Fanny Kemble before, but since most of them are American they have tended to concentrate on her years in the young Republic and her passionate abolitionism rather than her reluctant career on the London stage. Rebecca Jenkins redresses the balance, with the best and most even-handed study since Catherine Clinton’s Fanny Kemble’s Civil Wars and JC Furnas’s Fanny Kemble: Leading Lady Of The 19th Century Stage. She makes no apology for devoting a substantial proportion of her text to the pre-history of the Kemble theatrical clan, who despite persistent ill-luck (and an old-fashioned acting style just about to be made obsolete by Edmund Kean’s psychological realism) dominated the Regency theatre.
At the turn of the 19th century actors were still regarded as vagabonds and rogues, subject to arrest on a whim. Even under royal patronage and in the patent theatres of London, their social standing was not high and it was against this background that John Philip Kemble and his sister Sarah Siddons attempted to give the mimic arts an artistic and social gloss. John Philip’s younger brother Charles was Fanny’s father. Her mother was Marie Thérèse DeCamp, a feisty French actress. The Kemble repertoire was to some degree dominated by Shakespeare (including the now unfashionable Henry VIII and King John) but the company staple was melodrama and the conditions of theatre-going were such – noisy, crowded, over-lit – that only broad-brush emotion and extravagant body language communicated over the footlights.
Fanny didn’t necessarily alter that – Kean’s arrival on the scene was the seismic change – but she did bring a subtlety and grace to her stagecraft that was compounded in equal measure by Marie Thérèse’s rigorous physical schooling, her own literary temperament and a lifetime spent watching actors of every sort from great to middling and plain bad. Born in 1809, Fanny didn’t actually walk on stage until October 1829, when she played Juliet at the family theatre in Covent Garden. She was spared the indignity of a balcony scene with her 54-year-old father; Charles played Mercutio instead. However, there probably wasn’t another man who commanded her heart so completely. Their closeness had been sealed on a trip to France which Jenkins suggests might have been more suitable for a man and his mistress than for a father and his daughter. Fanny’s awestruck love is reflected in her desperate desire for Charles’s attention, initially as the author of a historical drama Francis I (for which Kemble loyally went out and had a rich costume made) but then as an actress who rivalled his divine sister in public attention.
However reluctant her debut, Fanny’s fame was instant and enormous. She had only taken to the stage when the family faced ruin and Charles shrewdly recognised that a young, female Kemble could be their saviour. A severely pockmarked face notwithstanding – Marie Thérèse had sent the girl to catch smallpox, believing it would inoculate her against later, worse infection – Fanny was a striking woman; she caught the eye of portrait painter Sir Thomas Lawrence and was a popular subject for engravings, plates and tinsel prints.
Her reluctance to make the stage her life wasn’t entirely overcome by that initial success as Juliet. Fanny’s instincts were more serious. She wanted to be acknowledged as a writer, inspired by Byron, Scott and later Tennyson. Marriage to a charming Philadelphian met on an American tour offered her the chance to escape, though she bucked against the thought of becoming anyone’s “entity”. Fanny’s “politicisation”, if it can be called that, was partly instinctive and genetic; she was Marie Thérèse’s daughter, after all. It was, though, sharpened by her encounters with a Newhaven fisherwoman while on a visit to her kinswoman by marriage, Harriot Siddons in Edinburgh. When she realised that the fortune of her husband, Pierce Butler, came from slave-owning, she was appalled; the marriage sundered during the American civil war.
Hence one aspect of Catherine Clinton’s 2000 title. Fanny’s conflicts were not just the historical ones she witnessed. She was a conflicted personality, feminist but pragmatic, intensely loyal to family but fiercely independent, a reluctant celebrity who nonetheless went back to the only reliable profession she knew when divorce threw her back on her own resources again. She’s still best known for Journal Of A Residence On A Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839, an important pre-abolitionist text whose value as polemic and as social history is slightly compromised by Fanny’s addiction to the “attitudes” she learned as an actress.
She dramatised herself and everything that surrounded her – Jenkins uses the anachronistic term “drama queens” to describe the Kemble girls and their mother – to such an extent that it can be hard to separate out the real feeling. Jenkins, though, has dug deep among the correspondence and journals of the Kemble circle, and particularly Fanny’s letters to her self-possessed Irish friend Harriet St Leger (the beautiful, mannish “Hal”), and has pieced together a likeness that gets underneath the greasepaint and beyond the sententious tone of later years to deliver up a fascinating character. Fanny Kemble was both of her times and instinctively, precociously modern; her own creation and utterly a Kemble.
Quite keen, really
A reluctant celebrity
498 pp. Simon and Schuster. £18.99.
0 7432 0918 4
As a resolute abolitionist, Fanny Kemble was unwise to marry a slave-owner. Since she came from a family of strong women — her aunt was the formidable tragedienne Sarah Siddons - and was herself headstrong and self-willed, she expected to convert her husband. She failed, but succeeded in the wider world when, at the height of the American Civil War, she published her most famous work, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, and helped turn the tide of English public opinion against the slave-owning South.
Fanny Kemble’s long life stretched from the reign of George III to the final years of Queen Victoria, taking in the Civil War and the maiden voyage of Stevenson’s Rocket in 1829, when, whirled along at 35 miles per hour, she felt her spirits fizz like champagne. Born in London in 1809 into the Kemble clan, which dominated the theatre with talent and numbers, she showed early signs of an independence and energy that despite her height — she was under five foot — would often label her “masculine”. The Kembles saw themselves as artists rather than actors, and Fanny was educated genteelly in Paris, her first aspirations being for literature rather than the theatre. After one of the financial crises that dogged her father’s management of the Covent Garden Theatre, she was abruptly put on the stage, where, to great acclaim, she played roles of daughter, lover and wife to her father. A sketch by Sir Thomas Lawrence added celebrity to success, for the potent combination of his seductive portrait and the ingénue actress enraptured the public for a season. Her image appeared on plates, scarves and neckerchiefs, and she was rivalled only by an acting elephant in the competing theatre.
When Covent Garden finally went bankrupt in 1832, Fanny and her father left for America, a suitable setting for her vigorous talents, though at first she labelled the country one “big, bragging baby”. Eager for an identity beyond that of actress, she soon moved in the circles of famous writers, politicians and the simply rich - she loved “splendour and sumptuousness Now entered the infatuated suitor: the diminutive Pierce Butler of Philadelphia, grandson and heir of one of America’s richest men, owner of Southern plantations and 638 slaves.
They married in 1834 - under several misapprehensions. Pierce expected the spirited and tempestuous Fanny to dwindle into a wife and Fanny expected Pierce to continue to he a faithful and devoted lover. They were both quickly disabused. Curiously Fanny claimed she had no idea of the source of her new husband’s wealth before marriage; when she learnt it, she was appalled. Immediately the couple were at loggerheads over emancipation and Fanny’s expectations: she intended to write and live as she wished, while Butler assumed that his new wife would conform to his will.
In 1838 the Butlers, now parents of two little girls, travelled to the swampy slave lands Pierce had inherited. Fanny stayed for four months in a ramshackle farmhouse, keeping a detailed record of the horrors she witnessed. Undermined by years of bickering, the marriage was soon beyond repair; divorce came in 1848, with Butler citing Fanny’s unwifely demeanour as its cause. At this point financial fortunes reversed. Fanny settled in Massachusetts, pursuing a successful genteel career of readings from Shakespeare, while Pierce gambled and speculated away his huge fortune. By 1859 he had lost his houses and had to sell his staves. It was the largest sale of slaves in American history. The Civil War found Fanny in London confronting aristocratic English sympathy for the Southern cause. She was persuaded to publish her twenty-two-year-old records of life on the stave plantation: “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 wrote.
When war ended, Pierce returned south, where he took on many of his former slaves as share-croppers. His difficulties were vast and he soon fell ill with malaria. He died in 1867. Meanwhile Fanny revisited her theatrical youth through old letters and diaries, the basis of several volumes of published memoirs. In these she fashioned a picture of herself and her extraordinary theatrical clan, which caught their mingled sincerity and exhibitionism, and their loyalty to each other. She died in London in 1893, a quarter of a century after her husband.
Rebecca Jenkins’s biography is based on these memoirs. A lively account, aimed at the general reader, it has few notes and avoids academic agonizing over what to call Frances Kemble. Tending to reduce history to large generalizations — “the forces of the industrial revolution crashed through Georgian society to produce the Victorian age” — it succeeds in creating a vivid picture of a clever, vital, snobbish and self-obsessed woman. Jenkins emphasizes Fanny’s family and early theatrical career, describing in energetic detail the roller-coaster of youth and young adulthood. As a result it short-changes the eventful last forty years of her life — Pierce Butler is introduced only on page 382. And perhaps the subtitle “reluctant” takes Fanny too much at her own valuation: celebrity is usually collusive and she certainly thirsted for fame. But Fanny Kemble: A reluctant celebrity poignantly catches its subject’s complex desire, typical of many strong Victorian women, to conform and rebel, and to he cosseted and free.