KEMBLE, FANNY (Frances Anne Kemble, Frances Anne Butler) (1809–1893) Actress
While bringing a new respectability to female entertainers, the life and career of Fanny Kemble had an even more far-reaching influence over American society. At the dawn of the first women’s rights movement, she showed 19th-century Americans that a woman could live a public life and earn her own keep, all the while retaining her dignity and virtue. On November 27, 1809, Frances Anne Kemble was born into England’s most famous theatrical family. Her father, Charles Kemble, was a wellknown actor and the manager of London’s Covent Garden Theater. Her aunt, Sarah Siddons, was the best-loved British actress of her day. Despite her distinguished lineage, young Fanny had little interest in a stage career and instead set her sights on becoming a writer.
Her wishes, however, were unimportant to Charles Kemble, when in 1829, mounting debts threatened to close his theater. To save the Covent Garden, he hatched a plan to stage a production of Romeo and Juliet starring members of the Kemble family. He enlisted 19-year-old Fanny to play the female lead, even though she had never acted professionally. Reluctantly, Fanny spent three weeks frantically studying the play and learning about stage acting. On October 5, the night the production premiered, she still felt woefully unprepared. Backstage, she began to cry out of fear and nearly had to be pushed onto the stage when it was time for Juliet’s first appearance. But despite Kemble’s terror, she made one of the most spectacular debuts in theater history. Her natural stage presence more than made up for her lack of experience. Literally overnight, she became the most acclaimed actress in England.
Three years later, she duplicated her triumph across the Atlantic with a spectacular tour of the United States. A new vogue in America for the works of Shakespeare helped contribute to her success. Yet more important was Fanny herself. Her audience was struck not only by her talent but also by her charm, honesty, and self-confidence. President Andrew Jackson, Daniel Boone, and Daniel Webster were all admirers. Poet Walt Whitman cited her as an early inspiration for his masterpiece Leaves of Grass. Perhaps most ardent were her many young female fans. Even those who never saw her perform rushed to buy small figurines of Kemble and lithographs, plates, and handkerchiefs stamped with her image. Many also fashioned their hair after hers and took up horseback riding, which the athletic Kemble recommended as exercise. Despite her unparalleled popularity, Kemble retired from the stage after appearing in the United States for only two seasons. In 1834, she abandoned acting to marry Pierce Butler, a young man from a wealthy Philadelphia family. Kemble never warmed to the stage. She possibly saw allying herself to Butler as her best chance to give up the theater life while still securing enough funds to keep her father’s theater in operation.
Whatever her motives, it was clear almost immediately that her marriage was to be a disaster. Butler was everything Kemble was not: small-minded, conventional, and mean-spirited. Soon he set about sabotaging her pet project—the publication of her journal kept during her initial trip to America. Butler first tried to censor the manuscript, and when that did not work, he offered to pay her publisher $2,500 to reject the work. Despite his efforts, Journal of Frances Anne Butler (1835) was published and caused a sensation. Some enjoyed her breezy narrative style, while others were insulted by some of her less-than-charitable offhand remarks about American habits and customs.
More damning than Butler’s schemes to destroy her writing career was the revelation that his family’s money came from a Georgia plantation operated using slave labor. In 1838, she accompanied Butler to the plantation and was appalled by what she saw. In response, she wrote a scathing account of how the Butlers’ slaves were treated titled Residence of a Georgian Plantation in 1838–1839. This time, however, Butler succeeded, at least initially, in suppressing the book’s publication. (The book finally appeared in 1863. It had a substantial infiuence on the British government’s decision not to back the Confederacy in the Civil War.)
As their marriage deteriorated, increasingly the couple’s two daughters were used as pawns in Butler’s attempt to control his wife. He drove Kemble from their home and allowed her to see her children for only an hour a day. Adding to her troubles, she was destitute, as her husband, not she, was the legal owner of all income from her writings. Desperate, Kemble returned to England in 1845 to stay with relatives. In 1847, she decided to revive her stage career, but her return to the theater was not well-received. During her 13-year hiatus, she had grown too plump to play ingenues convincingly, and most likely her lack of genuine interest in the venture dampened her audience’s enthusiasm as well. In the same year, Butler sued for divorce, citing Kemble’s trip to Europe as proof of desertion. In the widely reported trial, he was given custody of their daughters for 10 months of the year. Although the court awarded her an allowance from her husband, she refused to accept it.
Instead, to make her livelihood, she launched an American tour during which she gave two-hour readings from Shakespeare’s plays. With no theater managers to placate and no jealous actors to appease, she found these readings exciting and creatively satisfying. The public also responded favorably. Fans flocked to her recitals, which earned her a substantial income in an era when few women did paying work. Even more startling was that fact that perhaps her greatest professional success came on the heels of her well-publicized divorce at a time when the sanctity of marriage was valued above all else. Earning her living as a writer and a reader, Kemble shuttled between the United States and England until 1879, when she settled permanently in the land of her birth. There, she made her home a salon, entertaining many of the luminaries of her time, including George Sand and Henry James. There, too, on January 15, 1893, she died peacefully at the age of 83, having lived a long life full of the freedom and passion that, from seeing her example, many American women had come to crave for themselves.
Blainey, Ann. Fanny and Adelaide: The Lives of the Remarkable Kemble Sisters. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001.
Clinton, Catherine. Fanny Kemble’s Civil Wars. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
Furnas, J. C. Fanny Kemble: Leading Lady of the Nineteenth Century Stage. New York: Dial Press, 1982.