Summer Rerun: Fanny Kemble














(This is a consolidation and editing of three posts from 2010. Also see new link at the end)

Frances Anne Kemble was a British actress who achieved considerable fame subsequent to her 1829 appearance in a production of Romeo and Juliet. In 2010, I ran across her description of her 1830 adventure, when she became one of the first people to ride on the newly-constructed London & Manchester railway line. Railway travel was then as exotic as space travel is now…arguably more so. Fannie’s escort for the trip was none other than George Stephenson, the self-taught engineer who had been the driving force behind the line’s construction.

She was impressed with the experience of railroad travel (“You can’t imagine how strange it seemed to be journeying on thus, without any visible cause of progress other than the magical machine, with its flying white breath and rhythmical, unvarying pace, between these rocky walls, which are already clothed with moss and ferns and grasses”) and with Stephenson (“the master of all these marvels, with whom I am most horribly in love”) She offers an interesting analysis of the roles of government vs the private sector in the creation of this railroad (“The Liverpool merchants, whose far-sighted self-interest prompted them to wise liberality, had accepted the risk of George Stephenson’s magnificent experiment, which the committee of inquiry of the House of Commons had rejected for the government. These men, of less intellectual culture than the Parliament members, had the adventurous imagination proper to great speculators, which is the poetry of the counting-house and wharf, and were better able to receive the enthusiastic infection of the great projector’s sanguine hope than the Westminster committee.”)

Here’s another interesting passage in which she contrasts Stephenson with an aristocrat called Lord Alvanley and the class of which he was an outstanding representative: “I would rather pass a day with Stephenson than with Lord Alvanley, though the one is a coal-digger by birth, who occasionally murders the king’s English, and the other is the keenest wit and one of the finest gentlemen about town…if you knew how, long after I have passed it, the color of a tuft of heather, or the smell of a branch of honeysuckle by the roadside, haunts my imagination, and how many suggestions of beauty and sensations of pleasure flow from this small spring of memory, even after the lapse of weeks and months, you would understand what I am going to say, which perhaps may appear rather absurd without such a knowledge of my impressions. I think I like fine places better than “fine people;” but then one accepts, as it were, the latter for the former, and the effect of the one, to a certain degree, affects one’s impressions of the other.”

The whole Project Gutenberg file of this memoir is here. There’s also a Wikipedia article on Kemble, of course.

Kemble had many interesting experiences, including marriage to an American who inherited a Georgia cotton plantation, resulting in her becoming a fervent anti-slavery advocate. She seemed like an interesting and thoughtful person, well worth knowing better, and one of the first things I did when I first got my Kindle was to download and read her extensive memoirs.

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 during 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 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 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, whom 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.

Here’s a selection of the passages I bookmarked in the Kemble Journals.

On American women

The dignified and graceful influence which married women, among us, exercise over the tone of manners, uniting the duties of home to the charms of social life, and bearing, at once, like the orange-tree, the fair fruits of maturity with the blossoms of their spring, is utterly unknown here. Married women are either house-drudges and nursery-maids, or, if they appear in society, comparative ciphers ; and the retiring, modest, youthful bearing, which among us distinguishes girls of fifteen or sixteen, is equally unknown. Society is entirely led by chits, who in England would be sitting behind a pinafore ; the consequence is, that it has neither the elegance, refinement, nor the propriety which belongs to ours ; but is a noisy, rackety, vulgar congregation of flirting boys and girls, alike without style or decorum. 

On the absence of desperate poverty in America

This country is in (one) respect blessed above all others, and above all others deserving of blessing. There are no poor I say there are none, there need be none ; none here need lift up the despairing voice of hopeless and help less want towards that Heaven which hears when men will not. No father here need work away his body s health, and his spirit s strength, in unavailing labour, from day to day, and from year to year, bowed down by the cruel curse his fellows lay upon him. ..Oh, it makes the heart sick to think of all the horrible anguish that has been suffered by thousands and thousands of those wretched creatures, whose want begets a host of moral evils fearful to contemplate; whose existence begins in poverty, struggles on through care and toil, and heart-grinding burdens, and ends in destitution, in sickness, alas! too often in crime and infamy. Thrice blessed is this country, for no such crying evil exists in its bosom; no such moral reproach, no such political rottenness. Not only is the eye never offended with those piteous sights of human suffering, which make one s heart bleed, and whose number appals one s imagination in the thronged thoroughfares of the European cities ; but the mind reposes with delight in the certainty that not one human creature is here doomed to suffer and to weep through life ;not one immortal soul is thrown into jeopardy by the combined temptations of its own misery, and the heartless self ishness of those who pass it by without holding out so much as a finger to save it. If we have any faith in the excellence of mercy and benevolence, we must believe that this alone will secure the blessing of Providence on this country, 

On American economic opportunity

(The woman mentioned in this passage was a fellow passenger on one of Fanny’s westbound transatlantic voyages)

Her husband was a Staffordshire potter, and had gone to the United States to establish a pottery there; to begin the building up of a large concern, and lay the foundation for probable future wealth and prosperity. He had been gone two years, and she was now going out to join him with their four children. In his summons to her after this long separation, he told her that all had prospered with him, that he had bought a large tract of land, found excellent soil, water, and means of every description for his manufacturing purposes, obtained a patent, and established his business, and was every way likely to thrive and be successful.

What hope, what energy, what enterprise, what industry, in but two years of one human existence! What a world of doubt, of distressful anxiety and misgiving in the heart of the woman, left to patient expectation, to prayerful, tearful hopes and fears! What trust in man and faith in God during those two years!…Moreover, this woman was carrying out with her the wives of several of her husband’s workmen, who had accompanied him out on his experimental voyage; and, being settled in his employment, had got their master’s wife to bring their partners out to them. Think what a meeting for all these poor people, dear Harriet, in this little hive of English industry and energy in the far west, the fertile wildernesses of Indiana!

Reservations about universal suffrage

Unfortunately this precaution (publicly-funded education–ed) does not fulfil its purpose; universal suffrage is a political fallacy : and will be one of the stumbling-blocks in the path of this country s greatness. I do not mean that it will lessen her wealth, or injure her commercial and financial resources; but it will be an insuperable bar to the pro gress of mental and intellectual cultivation tis a plain case of action and re action. If the mass, i. e. the inferior portion, (for when was the mass not inferior?) elect their own governors, they will of course elect an inferior class of governors, and the government of such men will be an inferior government; that it may be just, honest, and rational, I do not dispute; but that it ever will be enlarged, liberal, and highly enlightened, I do not, and cannot, believe.

On the failure of some socialist/communal experiments:

Fourierism was received with extreme enthusiasm in New England, where various societies have been formed upon the plan of Fourier’s suggestions, and this not by the poor or lower classes, but by the voluntary association of the rich with the poor in communities where all worldly goods were in common, and labor, too, so foolishly fairly in common that delicately bred and highly educated women took their turn to stand all day at the wash-tub, for the benefit of the society, though surely not of their shirts…In America these social experiments were perfectly disinterested and undertaken for the sake of moral good results; for where they were tried, there was neither excessive wealth nor poverty to suggest them, and the excellent and intelligent people thus brought together by pure zeal for social improvement disagreed and grumbled with each other, were so perfectly and uncomfortably unsuccessful in their experiments that their whole scheme collapsed, and dissolved into the older social disorders from which they had thought to raise themselves and others….

On the importance of rituals

There is a species of home religion, so to speak, which is kept alive by the gathering together of families at slated periods of joy and festivity, which has a far deeper moral than most people imagine. The merry-making at Christmas, the watching out the old year, and in the new, the royalty of Twelfth-night, the keeping of birth-days, and anniversaries of weddings, are things which, to the worldly-wise in these wise times, may savour of childishness or superstition ; but they tend to promote and keep alive some of the sweetest charities and kindliest sympathies of our poor nature. While we are yet children, these days are set in golden letters in the calendar, long looked forward to, enjoyed with unmixed delight, the peculiar seasons of new frocks, new books, new toys, drinking of healths, bestowing of blessings and wishes by kindred and parents, and being brought into the notice of our elders, and, as children used to think in the dark ages, therefore their betters. To the older portion of the community, such times were times of many mingled emotions, all, all of a softening if not of so exhilarat ing a nature. The cares, the toils, of the world had become their portion, some little of its coldness, its selfishness, and sad guardedness had crept upon them, distance and various interests, and the weary works of life had engrossed their thoughts, and turned their hearts and their feet from the dear household paths, and the early fellowship of home; but at these seasons the world was in its turn pushed aside for a moment, the old thresholds were crossed by those who had ceased to dwell in the house of their birth, kindred and friends met again, as in the early days of childhood and youth, under the same roof-tree, the nursery revel, and the school-day jubilee, was recalled to their thoughts by the joyful voices and faces of a new generation, the blessed and holy influences of home flowed back into their souls, at such a time, by a thousand channels, the heart was warmed with the kind old love and fellowship, face brightened to kindred face, and hand grasped the hand where the same blood was flowing, and all the evil deeds of time seemed for a while retrieved.

On improved communications:

(written circa 1882 in annotation of her earlier comments about the difficulties and emotional pain caused by slow communications between the continents)

To those who know the rate of intercourse between Europe and America now, these expressions of the painful sense of distance from my country and friends, under which I suffered, must seem almost incomprehensible,—now, when to go to Europe seems to most Americans the easiest of summer trips, involving hardly more than a week’s sea voyage; when letters arrive almost every other day by some of the innumerable steamers flying incessantly to and fro, and weaving, like living shuttles, the woof and warp of human communication between the continents; and the submarine telegraph shoots daily tidings from shore to shore of that terrible Atlantic, with swift security below its storms. But when I wrote this to my friend, no words were carried with miraculous celerity under the dividing waves; letters could only be received once a month, and from thirty to thirty-seven days was the average voyage of the sailing packets which traversed the Atlantic. Men of business went to and fro upon their necessary affairs, but very few Americans went to Europe, and still fewer Europeans went to America, to spend leisure, or to seek pleasure; and American and English women made the attempt still seldomer than the men. The distance between the two worlds, which are now so near to each other, was then immense.

On character, rules, principles:

The abiding spirit of a man’s life, more than his special actions and peculiar theories, is that by which other men are moved and admonished. I have extreme faith in the potency of this species of influence, and comparatively less in the effect of example, in special cases and particular details of conduct. Christ’s teaching was always aimed at the spirit which should govern us, not at its mere application to isolated instances; and to those who sought advice from Him for application to some special circumstance He invariably answered with a deep and broad rule of conduct, leaving the conscience of the individual to apply it to the individual case; and it seems to me the only way in which we can exhort each other is by the love of truth, the desire of right, the endeavor after holiness, which may still be ours, and to which we may still effectually point our fellow-pilgrims, even when we ourselves have fallen by the wayside under the weight of our own infirmities, failures, and sins.

On critics writing for newspapers:

The few critiques that I have seen upon our acting have been, upon the whole, laudatory. One was sent to me from a paper called The Mirror, which pleased me very much ; not because the praise in it was excessive, and far beyond my deserts, but that it was written with great taste and feeling, and was evidently not the produce of a common press-hack. There appeared to me in all the others the true provincial dread of praising too much, and being led into approbation by previous opinions; a sort of jealousy of critical freedom, which, together with the established nil admirariot the press, seems to keep them in a constant dread of being thought enthusiastic. They need not be afraid : enthusiasm may belong to such analyses as Schlegels or Channing s, but has nothing in common with the paragraphs of a newspaper; the inditers of which, in my poor judgment, seldom go beyond the very threshold of criticism, ie. the discovery of faults.

On her love of Shakespeare:

…the happiness of reading Shakespeare’s heavenly imaginations is so far beyond all the excitement of acting them (white satin, gas lights, applause, and all), that I cannot conceive a time when having him in my hand will not compensate for the absence of any amount of public popularity. While I can sit obliviously curled up in an armchair, and read what he says till my eyes are full of delicious, quiet tears, and my heart of blessed, good, quiet thoughts and feelings, I shall not crave that which falls so far short of any real enjoyment, and hitherto certainly seems to me as remote as possible from any real happiness…Portia is my favoritest of all Shakespeare’s women. She is so generous, affectionate, wise, so arch and full of fun, and such a true lady, that I think if I could but convey her to my audience as her creator has conveyed her to me, I could not fail to please them much.

Also, I recently discovered this summary of her journey from Philadelphia to Georgia, including maps as well as journal excerpts. Railroad, steamboat, and coach were all involved in this trip.

9 thoughts on “Summer Rerun: Fanny Kemble”

  1. Also, here’s a recent piece on how advanced in transportation affect human consciousness, featuring an extended and illustrated excerpt from Fanny’s description of her first railroad trip.


    “A common sheet of paper is enough for love, but a foolscap extra can alone contain a railroad and my ecstasies…”

    Quite the enthusiast, she was.

  2. One more on the “been on my bookshelf for years and need to read” category. Fanny Kemble’s diary is also one of many good descriptions of that era. In the “been on my bookshelf for years and need to read” category from that era, is John Olmsted’s Cotton Kingdom. I recently read the first volume of Cotton Kingdom and am working through the second. Once finished with Cotton Kingdom, I am now heartened to go on to Fanny Kemble. Maybe I will even tackle Mary Chesnut’s Civil War diary. I have Fanny Kenble’s diary in both print and e-book. I will go with e-book.

  3. Philip Hone’s diary is another great document of life in the 19th century. It covers 1838 to 1851 if memory serves. Hone lived in New York, and was a very well-connected Whig politician. He was personally acquainted with several Presidents, and many other important politicians of the day. He hosted a party for Fanny Kemble in his house, and provides an interesting description of her. He was later taken aback by Kemble’s less than charitable description of him, his house, etc., in her journal, after he had been so kind to her. I guess she was a person who never minced words.

  4. Unfortunately my son has my copy of Hone’s diary at the moment, so I can’t check. It was certainly in some published account of her experiences in the U.S., perhaps a British newspaper that Hone happened to see. I recall that, among other things, she complained that he had chosen an absurd location for his piano. Hone admitted she was right in his diary, but was still stung by her criticism. Her description of the life of slaves on a southern plantation is certainly a good tonic for anyone who thinks they were all happy and carefree.

  5. “Her description of the life of slaves on a southern plantation is certainly a good tonic for anyone who thinks they were all happy and carefree.”

    While searching for the Hone reference, I ran across the Atlantic Monthly review of her ‘Journal of Residence on a Georgia Plantation’ in the August 1863 issue, ie, right in the middle of the Civil War:

    It’s almost the last article on the page.

  6. This:

    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.”

    is pretty parallel to our current situation, wherein many corporations feel impelled to have political opinions about things that are really none of their business.

Comments are closed.