Frances Ann Kemble

(1806-1893)

Born in England to a family of actors and actresses, Frances Ann "Fanny" Kemble followed her family’s theatrical tradition, though she disliked acting. When she came to the United States in 1832, she did not come to sightsee; she came to save the family fortune. For Kemble's father, manager of Covent Garden, had lost a great deal of money, and after her successful acting debut in London, he decided they could make more money touring in America. Fanny was reluctant to go on the trip but enjoyed drama and adventure, and she quickly earned fame.

A very spirited woman, she threw her heart into her craft, glorying in her triumphs in front of the American audiences or wallowing in defeat. This zest for action carried over into her life. Kemble always ran or hiked ahead of the group, rode the fastest horse and climbed to the highest point. Her enthusiasm won the heart of Pierce Butler, a wealthy Philadelphia bachelor she married impulsively in 1834.

Kemble had published her travel journals in 1835 over the objections of her husband, who deleted all the proper names before he would allow the book to go to press. Her account has the dry criticism of the English, but it is also very bold, told from the perspective of a working actress on tour and not an idle aristocratic lady. She does not receive many visitors nor attend many social events, as so much of her energy is occupied with rehearsal and performances. Most of the time Kemble holds herself superior to all she finds, but naively so. She states plainly, "It's a darling country for poor fellows." She often cites instances where she has been treated rudely, never stopping to contemplate if it was her own attitude or actions that merited the treatment.

Unknown to her at the time of her wedding, Pierce Butler stood to inherit two plantations in Georgia. The inheritance became a reality in 1838. By that time, their marriage had already become strained over a difference in taste and temperament, a rift that was to deepen after they ventured South.

Kemble was an intelligent, independent woman who abhorred slavery and was not shy about speaking out against it. These abolitionist views did not sit well with her husband; yet she still strived to make the marriage work. When Butler inherited the Georgia plantation upon his grandfather's death, she moved to Georgia with him. From December 30, 1838 to April 17, 1839, Kemble kept a journal of what she witnessed. Although she spent just over sixteen months of her life in Georgia, the result was a powerful piece of historical literature—Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839. At first, Fanny Kemble refrained from publishing her text, though the manuscript was repeatedly revised and circulated among her friends (Katharine Anne Sedgwick, for one, was an enthusiastic reader).

During the next eight years, Fanny often summered by herself in Massachusetts, and she spent one year abroad by herself. She finally left her husband in 1846. Unable to reconcile their differences, Butler and Kemble were divorced in 1849, with Butler retaining custody of their two daughters. During the Civil War she published the journal she had kept some twenty-five years before, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation. Her descriptions of the horrifying treatment of slaves is credited with doing much toward maintaining British neutrality during the war, when for economic reasons many favored the South—which produced cotton for British textile mills.

Kemble went on to publish other thoughtful and intelligent works—Records of a Girlhood in 1878, Records of a Later Life in 1882, Notes Upon Some of Shakespeare's Plays in 1882, Far Away and Long Ago in 1889, and Further Records in 1891. Kemble died in London on Jan. 15, 1893.

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Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation contains by and large a series of letters never sent to Elizabeth Sedgwick (Katharine Anne's sister), which came to be introduced by three separate epistles, the first entitled "," the second and third depicting the strenuous nine-day journey, travel conditions that became more and more hazardous as one penetrated the South's interior lands on the road from Portsmouth, Virginia, to Wilmington, North Carolina.

For an extended account of the nine days spent with husband, two infant daughters, and their maid, on the trip from Philadelphia to Butler Island, Georgia, click to see Fanny Kemble's Journey.

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