Author Appreciation: Fanny Kemble

I knew that Fanny Kemble was a 19th-century British actress, but that’s about all I knew about her prior to encountering her description of an 1830 train ride and thoughts about the contrasting attributes and social values of George Stephenson the engineer and Lord Alvanley the aristocrat. Fanny seemed like an astute observer and a good thinker, and one of the first things I did after getting my Kindle was to download her very extensive memoirs. She was born in 1809 to a noted theatrical family, achieved fame as an actress in both Britain and America, wrote two plays and a novel, married an American plantation owner and lived in coastal Georgia, and throughout her life recorded her thoughts and observations in her journal and in letters to friends. Publication of her impressions of America (in 1835) created quite a stir, as did the 1863 publication of her plantation journal, with its searing observations about the realities of slavery.

Fanny’s writing is a valuable source for anyone interested in the social history of Britain and America during her era; she also has many thoughts about the theater and especially about the plays of Shakespeare; her writing is vivid, intelligent, and often quirky. She can quickly segue from an aesthetic observation of a railway journey to thoughts about governance and religion:

The road from Birmingham here is quite pretty; the country in a most exquisite state of leaf and blossom; the crops look extremely well along this route; and the little cottage gardens, which delight my heart with their tidy cheerfulness, are so many nosegays of laburnum, honeysuckle, and lilac.

The stokers on all the engines that I saw or met this morning had adorned their huge iron dragons with great bunches of hawthorn and laburnum, which hung their poor blossoms close to the hissing hot breath of the boilers, and looked wretched enough. But this dressing up the engines, as formerly the stage-coach horses used to be decked with bunches of flowers at their ears on Mayday, was touching.

I suppose the railroad men get fond of their particular engine, though they can’t pat and stroke it, as sailors do of their ship. Speculate upon that form of human love. I take it there is nothing which, being the object of a man’s occupation, may not be made also that of his affection, pride, and solicitude, too. Were we—people in general, I mean—Christians, forms of government would be matters of quite secondary importance; in fact, of mere expediency. A republic, such as the American, being the slightest possible form of government, seems to me the best adapted to an enlightened, civilized Christian community, a community who deserve that name; and, you know, the theory of making people what they should be is to treat them better than they deserve—an axiom that holds good in all moral questions, of which political government should be one.

Fanny’s father Charles, himself a noted Shakespearean actor, unfortunately took an investment and management interest in the Covent Garden Theater–which position carried personal liability for the theater’s debts and kept the family in scary financial straits for many years. It was largely in the hope of creating a new star who would bring in ticket revenues and head off financial disaster that Fanny was first put on stage, in the role of Juliet, in 1829. She quickly achieved great popular acclaim, but the bottomless quicksand of Covent Garden’s finances led Charles to organize a theatrical tour in the United States for himself and his daughter.

The decision to publish Fanny’s journal describing her impressions of America was driven by the need to generate money for the care of a beloved aunt who had suffered a serious carriage accident. The publishing project was vehemently opposed by Fanny’s new American husband, Pierce Butler, whom she married in 1834, and the conflict set the tone for what was to be a disastrous marriage.

The “Journal of a Residence in America” got a lot of attention, much of it negative. Edgar Allan Poe objected to Fanny’s “dictatorial manner” and felt that the self-confident tone of the book was contrary to “American notions of the retiring delicacy of the female character”…yet he went on to speak of the “sound sense and unwelcome truth” of much of her comment and the book’s “vivacity of style” and “beautiful descriptions.” On the other side of the Atlantic, soon-to-be Queen Victoria told her diary that the book was “very pertly and oddly written…not well bred”…”full of trash and nonsense which could only do harm”….yet a few days later she was admitting that there were “some very fine feelings in it.”

What did the Journal actually say? There were certainly some negative points, in Fanny’s view, about this country: Americans were too familiar and had no respect for one’s privacy, the habit of tobacco-chewing was disgusting, American women of the affluent classes were lazy and extravagent, and the horses–Fanny was a fanatical horsewoman–were generally lackluster. But these critiques were offset by many positives. For example:

I never was so forcibly struck with the prosperity and happiness of the lower orders of society in this country as yesterday returning from Hoboken. The walks along the river and through the woods, the steamers crossing from the city, were absolutely thronged with a cheerful well-dressed population abroad, merely for the purpose of pleasure and exercise. Journeymen, labourers, handicraftsmen, tradespeople, with their families, bearing all in their dress and looks evident signs of well-being and contentment, were all flocking from their confined avocations, into the pure air, the bright sunshine, and beautiful shade of this lovely place. I do not know any spectacle which could give a foreigner, especially an Englishman, a better illustration of that peculiar excellence of the American government the freedom and happiness of the lower classes. Neither is it to be said that this was a holiday, or an occasion of peculiar festivity it was a common week-day such as our miserable manufacturing population spends from sun-rise to sun-down, in confined, incessant, unhealthy toil to earn, at its conclusion, the inadequate reward of health and happiness so wasted. The contrast struck me forcibly it rejoiced my heart…

Fanny was also impressed with the general honesty of American working people, at the orderliness of crowds and the courteous behavior toward women, and the relatively kind treatment of draft animals. She was enthusiastic about the scenic beauty she encountered turing her American travels; Niagara Falls made a particularly strong impression.

She was appalled when a black man to whom she had given theater tickets told her that he would only be allowed (in New York City) to sit in the gallery. Yet she married a man whose income was drawn from slavery, and who was himself about to become (through inheritance) a slaveowner. Pierce Butler assured her that once she actually visited the plantation of which he was co-owner, she would see the essential benignity of the “peculiar institution.” Accompanied by their two young daughters, the couple journeyed southwards via an intermodal progress which combined intermittent stretches of rail travel with the use of boats and carriages. On the trains, she noted that vendors of cakes and fruits rushed through the cars at every stop, and was negatively impressed by “the ignorant and fatal practice of the women of stuffing their children from morning to night with every species of trash that comes to hand”….sounds a lot like today’s critiques of fast food!

Experience of plantation life did not reconcile Fanny to slavery; quite the contrary. She was particularly shocked that pregnant women were required to work in the fields almost up to their deliveries, and to return to work shortly thereafter, often with terrible consequences for their health, and that slaves were prohibited from learning to read and to write. When she was told that that two slaves who were skilled boat-builder had been allowed to keep $60 from the sale of a boat they had built, she remarked to a her correspondent:

Now, E——, I have no intention of telling you a one-sided story, or concealing from you what are cited as the advantages which these poor people possess; you, who know that no indulgence is worth simple justice, either to him who gives or him who receives, will not thence conclude that their situation thus mitigated is, therefore, what it should be. On this matter of the sixty dollars earned by Mr. ——’s two men much stress was laid by him and his overseer. I look at it thus: if these men were industrious enough out of their scanty leisure to earn sixty dollars, how much more of remuneration, of comfort, of improvement might they not have achieved were the price of their daily labour duly paid them, instead of being unjustly withheld to support an idle young man and his idle family—i.e. myself and my children.

And on a more fundamental level, she rejected the argument that slaves were better off than the impoverished Irish, because at least the slaves knew where their next meal was coming from:

Though the negroes are fed, clothed, and housed, and though the Irish peasant is starved, naked, and roofless, the bare name of freeman—the lordship over his own person, the power to choose and will—are blessings beyond food, raiment, or shelter; possessing which, the want of every comfort of life is yet more tolerable than their fullest enjoyment without them. Ask the thousands of ragged destitutes who yearly land upon these shores to seek the means of existence—ask the friendless, penniless foreign emigrant, if he will give up his present misery, his future uncertainty, his doubtful and difficult struggle for life, at once, for the secure, and as it is called, fortunate dependance of the slave: the indignation with which he would spurn the offer will prove that he possesses one good beyond all others, and that his birthright as a man is more precious to him yet than the mess of pottage for which he is told to exchange it because he is starving.

Fanny did what she could to ameliorate the lot of the plantation’s slaves–she wrote that she regretted having studied acting and literature rather than medicine–and these efforts were a cause of increasing conflict with Pierce. The marriage collapsed, Pierce got custody of their daughters, and Fanny returned to the stage in order to support herself. (It is interesting that she much preferred giving readings of plays–especially those of Shakespeare, who she practically worshipped–to regular theatrical acting.)

When the American Civil War began, Fanny was disturbed by the level of pro-Confederate sentiment which she saw among her well-connected friends and among the governing classes in general, and decided to do something about it by publishing her journal of plantation life. While this book was not a publishing sensation on the scale of the “Journal of a Residence in America,” it did get a fair amount of attention in Britain, and has been credited by some with helping to shift British policy away from entanglement with the Confederates.

Fanny knew just about everyone in the theatrical and literary worlds. Most of them seem to have held her in high regard–with one prominent exception being Herman Melville, whose comments about her were astonishingly nasty. The much-younger Henry James, on the other hand, became a devoted friend in her old age, and called her writing “one of the most animated autobiographies in the language.”

There’s a lot of almost-forgotten history in these journals, such as the near-war between Britain and the United States over the Oregon territory, which had Fanny quite concerned. There are also many passages which have interesting relevance to the present day, like Fanny’s amused observation of a hat shop sign (this was during the heated debate about the Bank of the United States) which proudly proclaimed the store to be an “anti-Bank Hat-Store.” She was a voracious reader and the books are full of literary allusions: a friendly dog made her think of the poodle (the devil in canine form!) in Goethe’s Faust.

I highly recommend these books. Herman Melville to the contrary, Fanny seems to have been not only an interesting and perceptive individual but a very decent human being, well worth getting to know.

The publishing of the journals was out of sequence with the writing and with the events they describe.

–“Records of a Girlhood” is about Fanny’s early life, but wasn’t assembled and published until the 1870s. Not as easy to read as the other volumes.

–“Journal of a Residence in America” was published in 1835, not very long after being written.

–“Records of Later Life,” picks up the story after her marriage and describes the journey to Georgia; it continues through 1848. It wasn’t published until 1882.

–“Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation,” published in 1862, contains much more detail about the world of the plantation than does “Later Life.”

There is a made-for-tv movie, “Enslavement,” focused on Fanny’s experiences on the plantation and her relationship with Pierce. Jane Seymour plays the role of Fanny, and Keith Carradine is Pierce. Worth seeing, but differs significantly, especially in the latter half of the film, from the actual history.

Update: Three of these books, plus another (“Further Records”) are available on-line here.

11 thoughts on “Author Appreciation: Fanny Kemble”

  1. One of her journals or letters describes her experience of having a mastectomy performed with no anesthesia. She wrote that she screamed throughout the procedure. She was 59 and that would make it 1850, after the discovery of anesthesia. It’s not clear why no anesthesia was used as the surgery was done by Baron Larrey, Napoleon’s chief surgeon in Paris. Possible it was a quirk of Larrey’s. At any rate she was cured and lived to age 82.

  2. In high school, some fifty odd years ago, we read excerpts from her diary. What slop do they read now?
    Americans from the flyover are still far better mannered in public places than are continental Europeans. Some things haven’t changed. My personal experience, anyway.

    I really appreciate the history covered in this blog.

  3. Renminbi…”In high school, some fifty odd years ago, we read excerpts from her diary”

    That’s interesting…do you remember the context? Was it general English class stuff, or a focus on European visitors or some other special project?

  4. Several months ago I bought her Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation at a used bookstore for a dollar. Another book I am intending to read.

  5. The high school textbooks were rich in excerpts and often entire works of American and British literature,so that all were exposed to it. Those who could appreciate it got a chance to develop that. The excerpts were from the Diary of Fanny Kemble Knight.

  6. The link to the Harvard collection, while valid, doesn’t supply the book to me: most of the images of the book are broken links. Fortunately for those of us who may wish to read the book on our e-readers, the Gutenberg Project has “Journal of Residence” as epub, html, etc.

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