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Fanny Kemble

Brief life of a literary actress: 1809-1893

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When Fanny Kemble landed in the United States in the fall of 1832, her formidable theatrical reputation had whipped up a frenzy of anticipation. Born into the first family of the English stage, the niece of the legendary Sarah Siddons lived up to the hype that surrounded her American debut. She and her father filled houses up and down the eastern seaboard, with the 22-year-old actress winning over audiences and critics alike and leaving a gaggle of adoring suitors in her wake.

The ingenue's youth and style attracted as much notoriety as her stagecraft. Shops were filled with "Fanny Kemble caps" and young women adopted "Fanny Kemble curls," creating a fashion craze that took the country by storm. Andrew Jackson invited her to the White House; Supreme Court justices wept at her performances. Tickets were in such demand that scalpers went to great lengths to secure them. Kemble described with amusement how these ingenious men took to smearing themselves with molasses and barging up to the box office to buy fistfuls of box seats, driving off the more respectable, and decently dressed, customers.

Kemble was especially impressed with Boston, where she played in the spring of 1833. The homesick actress was reminded of her beloved England and impressed that the people were so "intellectual" and had been so "abundantly good natured and kind to me." A friendship with the Sedgwick family of Lenox, Massachusetts, led to her long love affair with the Berkshires and introduced her to radical abolitionism. And behind the brick façades of Beacon Hill and the clapboard of Cambridge, elderly Brahmins and youthful swains alike hung on her every word at dinner parties. Professors at Harvard threatened to cancel classes that coincided with the matinées in which she performed--her young male fans deserted the classrooms to swoon over her every role.

Despite this immense popularity, Kemble saw herself not as actress, but author. She willingly quit the stage to marry Pierce Butler of Philadelphia in June 1834, hoping to concentrate on her writing. Although she despaired, tongue in cheek, after the birth of her first child in 1835--"Though a baby is not an 'occupation‚' it is an absolute hindrance to everything else that can be called so. I cannot read a book through quietly for mine; judge, therefore, how little likely I am to write one!"--she went on to publish plays, several collections of poetry, a total of 11 volumes of memoir, and even a novel (at the age of 80). Yet the drama of her own life matched or exceeded any fictional worlds she created.

From the earliest days of their marriage, the Butlers clashed violently over everything, including the interpretation of the word "obey" in their marital vows. Then, in 1836, Butler became the second largest slaveowner in Georgia when he inherited his grandfather's Sea Island estates. A crisis erupted when a visit to his plantation fueled Kemble's abolitionist leanings. Their irreconcilable differences--chronicled in her most famous work, the international bestseller Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-39--contributed to several lengthy separations and finally a messy divorce in 1849 that cost Kemble the custody of her two daughters. Financial need forced her back on stage more than 20 years after her stage debut, taking a heavy physical and emotional toll.

In time, however, Kemble settled into a lucrative career as a Shakespearean reader, which allowed her to broaden her audience during the 1850s. Her one-woman shows in lyceums were sell-outs on both sides of the Atlantic. A Bostonian who had been an ardent fan since his undergraduate days at Harvard described her presentation of Richard III in 1867: "From the entrance soliloquy to the shrieking of the ghosts over the sleeping Richard, her reading was so inspired that we were all electrified." The performances paid so handsomely that Kemble was able to purchase her own American home, the Perch, in Lenox, where her daughters, once they reached the age of 21, were eventually able to rejoin her. The citizens of her Berkshire hometown grew so fond of their famous resident that they renamed the lane to her house "Kemble Street" in her honor.

Despite her longstanding American ties, Kemble decided to return permanently to England in 1877, to settle with English family and friends. There she published a series of memoirs (Records of a Girlhood, Records of Later Life, and Further Records) that contributed to her continuing renown. The expatriate novelist Henry James became such a devoted confidant that they dined weekly when both were in London and sometimes rendezvoused on the Continent. "Her conversation swarmed with people and with criticism of people, with the ghosts of a dead society," he wrote of her. "She had, in two hemispheres, seen everyone and known everyone, had assisted at the social comedy of her age." Although she never acted in public again, the memory of her spellbinding performances sparked fond remembrances. As Walt Whitman, who had been just a lad in a Brooklyn balcony when he had first seen her, decades later exclaimed: "Nothing finer did ever stage exhibit!"