Wolverhampton BTW

Frances Anne [Fanny] Kemble

Kemble, Frances Anne [Fanny], later Butler, 1809—1893

Frances Anne (‘Fanny’) Kemble was born on 27 November 1809 near Covent Garden, the daughter of Charles Kemble (1775-1854; ODNB), actor and theatre manager, and the actor Maria Theresa Kemble, née De Camp (1777-1838; ODNB). Her paternal uncle was the great tragedian John Philip Kemble and her paternal aunt Sarah Siddons. Her piecemeal education combined formal schooling in England and France with reading and discussion within the context of a talented literary family.

Fanny Kemble herself became a stage success at the age of nineteen, touring the provinces and Ireland with her father during the off-season. When her father lost his position as theatre manager at Convent Garden in 1832, she travelled with him to the United States to recoup financial losses through an acting tour. They first performed at the Park Theatre, New York, and from there performed to acclaim along the east coast, as far south as New Orleans, and north to Montreal. In Philadelphia, she met her husband-to-be Pierce Butler (1807-1867), heir to plantations in North Carolina and Georgia. They married on 7 June 1834, and two weeks later, Fanny Kemble retired from the stage, to her no small relief, having always preferred the lure of literary composition to the public exposure of acting.

Her first foray into print has been a play, Francis the First (1832), but her account of the acting tour established her as a serious writer. Published as the Journal by Frances Anne Butler (1835) by John Murray in London, and as Journal of a Residence in America (1835) by Galignani in Paris, her critical assessment of American manners drew comparisons with Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832), and, similar to the effect of that book on its author’s American reputation, took the gloss off Fanny Kemble’s reception in her adopted country. Nevertheless, Kemble continued journal writing for print, recording her growing awareness of the evils of slavery studied first hand as she learned more about the sources of her husband’s wealth during her visits to his Georgia plantations. His injunctions against her publishing the journals meant that Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838–1839 did not appear in print until 1863.

Although Fanny Butler had two daughters, her marriage was rocky from the beginning; the issue of slavery divided them, and so did her husband’s many infidelities. She returned to England without him from 1840 to 1843, and from 1845 to 1847, spending a year in Italy from December 1845 to December 1846. The Italian sojourn was recorded in her A Year of Consolation (New York 1847), published under the name ‘Mrs. Butler (Late Miss Kemble)’. Ironically, as the book made its way in the world, Fanny Butler’s husband had filed for divorce; after a long drawn out legal contest eventually settled out of court, Fanny Kemble resumed her maiden name.

Kemble also resumed acting, earning a substantial income over the next fifteen years through her popular one-woman Shakespeare shows. In 1859, she published Poems, followed by the Journal of a Residence already mentioned, and further collections of poetry. In her later years she excelled in autobiography, detailing her eventful life in Record of a Girlhood (1878) and Records of Later Life (1882). She died of heart failure in 1893, aged 84.

Sources:

Clinton, Catherine, ed. Fanny Kemble’s Journals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

David, Deirdre. Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Kemble, Frances. Record of a Girlhood. 3 vols. London: R. Bentley, 1878. [2nd edn, 1880]

–––. Records of Later Life. 2 vols. London: R. Bentley, 1882.

Martin, Robert Bernard. ‘Kemble, Frances Anne (1809–1893)’. ODNB.

Texts

Title Published
Journal by Frances Anne Butler 1835

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