Frances Anne “Fanny” Kemble (27 November 1809 – 15 January 1893) was a notable British actress from a theatre family in the early and mid-19th century.
She was a well-known and popular writer, whose published works included plays, poetry, eleven volumes of memoirs, travel writing and works about the theatre.
In 1834, she married an American, Pierce Mease Butler, heir to cotton, tobacco and rice plantations on the Sea Islands of Georgia, and to the hundreds of slaves who worked them.
They spent the winter of 1838–39 at the plantations, and Kemble kept a diary of her observations. She returned to the theatre after their separation in 1847 and toured major US cities.
Although her memoir circulated in abolitionist circles, Kemble waited until 1863, during the American Civil War, to publish her anti-slavery Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839.
It has become her best-known work in the United States, although she published several other volumes of journals. In 1877, she returned to England with her second daughter and son-in-law. She lived in London and was active in society, befriending the writer Henry James. In 2000, Harvard University Press published an edited compilation of her journals.
A member of the famous Kemble theatrical family, Fanny was the eldest daughter of the actor Charles Kemble and his Viennese-born wife, the former Marie Therese De Camp.
She was a niece of the noted tragedienne Sarah Siddons and of the famous actor John Philip Kemble. Her younger sister was the opera singer Adelaide Kemble. Fanny was born in London and educated chiefly in France.
On 26 October 1829, at the age of 20, Kemble first appeared on the stage as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet at Covent Garden Theatre. Her attractive personality at once made her a great favourite, and her popularity enabled her father to recoup his losses as a manager.
She played all the principal women’s roles of the time, notably Shakespeare’s Portia and Beatrice (Much Ado about Nothing), and Lady Teazle in Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The School for Scandal.
In 1832, Kemble accompanied her father on a theatrical tour of the United States. While in Boston in 1833, she journeyed to Quincy to witness the revolutionary technology of the first commercial railroad in the United States.
She had previously accompanied George Stephenson on a test of the L&M prior to its opening in England and described the tests in a letter written in early 1830. The Granite Railway was among many sights which she recorded in her journal.
In 1834, Kemble retired from the stage to marry an American, Pierce Mease Butler. Although they met and lived in Philadelphia, Butler was the grandson of Pierce Butler, a Founding Father, and heir to a large fortune in cotton, tobacco and rice plantations.
By the time the couple’s daughters, Sarah and Frances, were born, Butler had inherited three of his grandfather’s Sea Island plantations and the hundreds of people who were enslaved on them.
The family visited Georgia during the winter of 1838–39, where they lived at the plantations at Butler and St. Simons islands, in conditions primitive compared to their house in Philadelphia.
Kemble was shocked by the living and working conditions of the slaves and their treatment at the hands of the overseers and managers. She tried to improve conditions and complained to her husband about slavery, and about the mixed-race slave children attributed to the overseer, Roswell King, Jr.
When the family returned to Philadelphia in the spring of 1839, Kemble and her husband were suffering marital tensions. In addition to their disagreements over treatment of the slave families at Butler’s plantations, Kemble was “embittered and embarrassed” by Butler’s marital infidelities.
Butler threatened to deny Kemble access to their daughters if she published any of her observations about the plantations. By 1845, the marriage had failed irretrievably, and Kemble returned to Europe.
In 1847, Kemble returned to the stage in the United States, as she needed to make a living following her separation. Following her father’s example, she appeared with much success as a Shakespearean reader rather than acting in plays. She toured the United States.
The couple endured a bitter and protracted divorce in 1849, with Butler retaining custody of their two daughters. At that time, with divorce rare, the father was customarily awarded custody in the patriarchal society. Other than brief visitations, Kemble was not reunited with her daughters until each came of age at 21.
Her ex-husband squandered a fortune estimated at $700,000. He was saved from bankruptcy by his sale on 2–3 March 1859 of the 436 people he held in slavery. The auction, at Ten Broeck racetrack outside Savannah, Georgia, was the largest single slave auction in United States history. As such, it was covered by national reporters.
Following the American Civil War, Butler tried to run his plantations with free labour, but he could not make a profit. He died of malaria in Georgia in 1867. Neither Butler nor Fanny ever remarried.
In 1877, Kemble returned to London to join her younger daughter Frances, who had moved there with her British husband and child. Kemble used her maiden name and lived there until her death.
During this period, she was a prominent and popular figure in London society. She became a great friend of the American writer Henry James during her later years. His novel, Washington Square (1880), was based upon a story Kemble had told him concerning one of her relatives.
Kemble wrote two plays, Francis the First (1832) and The Star of Seville (1837). She also published a volume of poems (1844). She published the first volume of her memoirs, entitled Journal, in 1835, shortly after her marriage to Butler.
In 1863, she published another volume in both the United States and Great Britain. Entitled Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, it included her observations of slavery and life on her husband’s Southern plantation in the winter of 1838–39.
Following her separation from Butler in the 1840s, Kemble traveled in Italy. She wrote a book based on this time, A Year of Consolation (1847), in two volumes.
In 1863 Kemble also published a volume of plays, including translations from Alexandre Dumas, père and Friedrich Schiller. These were followed by additional memoirs: Records of a Girlhood (1878); Records of Later Life (1882); Far Away and Long Ago (1889); and Further Records (1891). Her various volumes of reminiscences contain much valuable material illuminating the social and theatrical history of the period.
She also published Notes on Some of Shakespeare’s Plays (1882), based on her long experience in acting and reading his works.
Her older daughter, Sarah Butler, married Owen Jones Wister, an American doctor. They had one child, Owen Wister, who grew up to become a popular American novelist, writing the popular 1902 western novel The Virginian. Fanny’s other daughter Frances met James Leigh in Georgia. He was a minister born in England.
The couple married in 1871. Their one child, Alice Leigh, was born in 1874.
They tried to operate Frances’ father’s plantations with free labour, but could not make a profit.
Leaving Georgia in 1877, they moved permanently to England. Frances Butler Leigh defended her father in the continuing postwar dispute over slavery as an institution. Based on her experience, Leigh published Ten Years on a Georgian Plantation since the War (1883), a rebuttal to her mother’s account.
When Fanny Kemble died in London in 1893, her granddaughter, Alice Leigh, was with her.