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Fanny Kemble, Actress or Historian?

ISSUE:  Autumn 1933

Fanny Kemble. By Leota S. Driver. Chape! Hill: The University of North Carolina Press. $3.00.

The life of a woman who, with “prodigious talents, . . . fine feelings, noble sentiments, and lively imagination,” had “no tact, no judgment, no discretion,” passed amidst the ferments of the mid-nineteenth century, could hardly be of less than tragic interest; but Dr. Driver’s attempts to have the life of Fanny Kemble considered history make it appear an even better subject for psychology or fiction. And indeed, if there might have been rather more psychology, there is no want of romance in her very readable book, which, once past the decorum of a Ph. D. and University Press imprint, loses itself in that ruling quality of its heroine’s life. So far as that life bears on history it would have seemed a sufficient task to treat Fanny seriously without taking her so. An Englishwoman, despising America and hating slavery, who could drop a brilliant career to marry an absentee slave-holder, with nothing to recommend him save romance, might have been explained through her subsequent rationalizations of an irrational life; but her comments on her times should hardly be confused with the realities upon which history is supposedly based.

Not but that Fanny Kemble was able to achieve reality. Born to stardom, she had leapt fully armed into all the temperamental glories of the footlights, and never failed in a role until she stepped without their illusory glamor. If she made a mess of herself as a wife, a mother, and the mistress of a plantation, it was a pretty difficult thing, even for the last great member of such a royal family as the Kembles, to keep up a convincing performance in a “domestic tragedy without any tragic events.” On the stage she could be tolerably certain of what she was pretending to be, and could submit a morbidly violent temper to the discipline that even a star must bear. A hone and a husband would have taxed her volatile spirits in any case; but Pierce Mease Butler, a Philadelphian, mistakenly considered a Southerner, was the last man to have reconciled her to domesticity. He disapproved her sensational writings, he would not co-operate in the passionate scenes in which her acting and declamation were of such especially high order, and in fifteen years of marital difficulties he was never sufficiently heroic either to sympathize with her or to beat her. In her old age she wondered, somewhat regretfully, why he had not strangled her.

His plantations were the most rewarding things about him. They were well within the notice of her world when she went to play on them for four months a part she had rehearsed for four years. All that time she had been a slaveholder’s wife, but she appeared on the Georgia sea-islands in the announced character of an Englishwoman in whom an absence of prejudice against slavery would be disgraceful. Her motivations were to be simple. She was to quarrel, not with the servants, as usual, but about them. Slavery was to be held responsible for everything which she might find to disapprove. On this subject, nothing a Negro told was to be altogether incredible; nothing a white vouched for was to be taken without manifest distrust; and nothing, howsoever trivial, was to be neglected which might serve to excuse tactless meddlings with the plantation management, wretched scenes with her husband, or hysterical letters to an abolition-istic lady-confidante. There was plenty of good to be done on the plantations, if it is doubtful how much a woman of Fanny’s temperament could have accomplished. That temperament turned her so easily from any sustained effort to the picturing and paving of a Dantesque hell.

The letters, thus employed, were in the high romantic style of the day. Unfamiliar scenes in a semi-tropical country warming into spring gave complement or contrast to every human emotion or depravity which a lady might possibly discuss. The Negroes, once her capacity for gushing gifts and tears was known, gave ample support of action and invention to her leads. They could hardly fail to please their distant audience when prompted by a past mistress in the art of acting and recorded by a trained dramatist who had already spent long delicious years realizing “better perhaps than any African who ever toiled beneath the driver’s lash what it meant to be a slave.”

When human interest flagged, she fell back on nature in the raw. The unutterably horrible rattlesnake, infesting every thicket and nearly every letter, if it made a solitary and tardy appearance, was yet always handy to thrill the gallery with a sense of circumambient virulence whenever a passage threatened to fall to the equally dreadful levels of commonplace or common sense. All was grist that came;to her theatrical mill. All, at least, save the mysterious Mr.-. As

the villain of the piece, he proved, as in his other contacts with a wife, somewhat of a dud, until he found she considered publishing the letters and proceeded to over-act his part.

Mr. Butler’s ill-contrived obstructions robbed the proposed work of a chance to rank as a cause of carnage with Mrs. Stowe’s romance. But a delay of more than twenty years gave it in the end a most triumphant debut. A dozen years before, Fanny had rid herself of him by divorce. His bankruptcy had, shortly before that, taken with them her last financial interest in his Negroes. The Confederate war was in full progress of bloodshed. Fanny, safe in England, was listening everywhere “to ignorant and mischievous nonsense upon the subject of slavery.” Under every circumstance she felt this was the time to revamp and print her “Diary of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation.” With all the impetus of past frustration once more she leapt upon a stage, this time of History.

Under every present circumstance there seems no reason why she should be permitted to revive that particular act. Too much is known of the conditions which she glanced at and scribbled about, reasoning wrongly even when she reports correctly, as even ladies must who have but one cause for every effect. Too much, certainly, to excuse Dr. Driver’s ill-digested confusions of what Fanny thought, with what she saw or guessed at. There is sufficient refutation of her most telling conclusions in a book written by her daughter a generation after she had made her short stay among the Negroes. Under freedom, Frances Butler Leigh soberly records in “Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation since the War,” the same primitive vices her mother chose to dilate upon, the same primitive virtues she had chosen to neglect, under slavery. After the passage of two more generations they can yet be found wherever the Negro is in sufficient concentration or isolation, still thrilling writers with Fanny’s histrionic tastes.

Among minor points, Dr. Driver might note for future reference that Cassiobury was the seat of the Earl of Essex, that Maria Theresa was never Queen of Austria, and that even a “black being” would find difficulty in wallowing in the soil of a cotton field.

The illustrations leave something to be desired. It should have been indicated how long the dilapidated houses on Butler’s Island had been abandoned before they were photographed, and whether Fanny deliberately risked marrying a man with a mouth like that, or only induced its growth afterwards. Rothermel’s most interesting portrait of the heroine is revelation in itself; but if it was a harmless indulgence of the Kemble taste to show how Sully imagined she should look, there was no sufficient reason for reproducing besides an obvious rejuvenation of the same keepsake countenance. Three theatrical pictures, useless enough in their anonymous ugliness, take paper which might have shown the girl Sir Thomas. Lawrence admired and drew, as well as the old Fanny, mellowed and chastened into regrets for her fanaticism, of whom Henry James said that “a prouder nature never fronted the long humiliation of life.”

She could be proud of this last performance in her name, for the book holds an audience, and she has run away with a trained historian!


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