Ardgillan Castle, Ardgillan Demesne, Skerries, Co. Dublin, K34 C984 Ireland
Kensal Green Cemetery, Harrow Rd, London NW10 5JU, UK
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. She was part of a group of expatriate, largely English-speaking women which included poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, actors Charlotte Cushman and Harriet Hosmer, mathematician and astronomer Mary Somerville, inventor Natalie Micas, painter Rosa Bonheur, journalist Matilda Hays, sculptor Mary Lloyd, journalist and social reformer Frances Power Cobbe, and others. They were part of an informal organisation of like-minded women who shared ideas and lives that would later in the century be called feminist.
Fanny Kemble's address, O Lesbian, to the long dead Sappho, became an address to lesbians today - O Lesbian, a apostrophic call to a people no longer absent, dead, or mythic. O Lesbian, the call to share in dialogue. O Lesbian, still a contested formation; O Lesbian, the apostrophic motion to animate a people. While Victorian predecessors wrote verse about Sappho and the tragedy of her love which plunged her into the depths of the sea that was death, lesbian poets today actually are fulfilling the final intimation of Fanny Kemble, " 'Tis more than death - 'tis all of life - And parcel of Eternity."
One of Kemble's special friends was Harriet St. Leger (1795-1878). Harriet St. Leger was unlike any other woman Fanny Kemble had ever met. A member of a reclusive Anglo-Irish country family, she lived at Ardgillan Castle, a fine eighteenth-century manor house set close to the cliffs about fifteen miles north of Dublin. The daughter of the Hon. Richard St. Leger and a granddaughter of Viscount Doneraile of County Cork, she had lived at the castle for some fifteen years with her sister Marianne and Marianne's husband, a Church of Ireland cleric, at the time of meeting Kemble. Harriet was tall, angular, and athletic, with cropped chestnut hair and fine gray eyes, and eccentric in many things, none more so than in her clothes. Dressed in men's hats and boots especially made for her in London, beautifully cut black and gray cashmere dresses, trim-fitting short waistcoats, and immaculate collars and cuffs, she looked like an androgynous and beautiful young man. To Kemble, she was a modern Atalanta or Diana, the Greek mythology wood goddesses known for hunting and aversion to marriage. To Frances Power Cobbe, the prominent Victorian antivivisectionist and intellectual, who grew up not far from Ardgillan Castle, she was "a deep and singularly critical thinker and reader [who] had one of the warmest hearts which ever beat under a cold and shy exterior." Cobbe adds that Harriet's fondness for male clothing (especially black beaver hats) made her as peculiar in the eyes of her neighbors as the notorious Ladies of Llangollen were in theirs—Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, learned and literary Regency women who were renowned for living openly as a lesbian couple' According to Cobb; "All the empty-headed men and women in the county prated incessantly" about Harriet's "offensive garments."'
In 1834, Kemble married an American, Pierce Mease Butler, grandson of Pierce Butler, whom she had met on an American acting tour with her father in 1832. After living in Philadelphia for a time, Butler became heir to the cotton, tobacco and rice plantations of his grandfather on Butler Island, just south of Darien, Georgia, and to the hundreds of slaves who worked them. He made trips to the plantations during the early years of their marriage, but never took Kemble or their children with him. At Kemble's insistence, they finally spent the winter of 1838–39 there and Kemble kept a diary of her observations, flavored strongly by the abolitionist sentiment.
Butler disapproved of Kemble's outspokenness, forbidding her to publish. The relationship grew abusive, and Kemble eventually went back to England with her two daughters. Butler filed for a divorce in 1847, after they had been separated for some time, citing abandonment and misdeed by Kemble. She returned to the theatre and toured major US cities, giving successful readings of Shakespeare plays. Her memoir circulated in American abolitionist circles, but she 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: 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 from 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. In 1821, Fanny Kemble departed to boarding school in Paris to study art and music as befitted the child of, at the time, the most celebrated artistic family in England. In addition to literature and society, it was at Mrs. Lamb’s Academy in the Rue d’Angoulême, Champs Elysées, that Fanny received her first real personal exposure to the stage performing staged readings for students’ parents during her time at school. As an adolescent, Kemble spent time studying literature and poetry, in particular the work of Lord Byron.
One of her teachers was Frances Arabella Rowden (1774-1840?), who had been associated with the Reading Abbey Girls' School since she was 16. Rowden was an engaging teacher, with a particular enthusiasm for the theatre. She was not only a poet, but, according to Mary Russell Mitford, "she had a knack of making poetesses of her pupils"
In 1827, Kemble wrote her first five-act play, Francis the First. It was met with critical acclaim from multiple quarters. Nineteenth century critics wrote of the script: “…it displays so much spirit and originality, so much of the true qualities which are required in dramatic composition, that it may fairly stand upon its own intrinsic worth, and that the author may fearlessly challenge a comparison with any other modern dramatist.” 
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 after only three weeks of rehearsal time. 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.. Kemble disliked the artificiality of stardom in general, but appreciated the salary which she accepted to help her family which was often in financial trouble.
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.
Kemble returned to her acting career as a solo platform performer beginning her first American tour in 1849. During her readings she rose to focus her work on the presentation of edited works of Shakespeare, although unlike others she insisted on providing a representation of his entire canon, ultimately building her repertoire to twenty-five of his plays. She performed in both Britain and the United States, concluding her career as a platform performer in 1868.
In 1834, Kemble retired from the stage to marry an American on 7 June, 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 plantations on Butler Island, just south of Darien, Georgia, 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 1845-7, 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 Great Slave 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 Kemble ever remarried.
Kemble's success as a Shakespearean reader enabled her to buy a home in Lenox, Massachusetts. 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 in 1838-1839, 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.
BACK TO HOME PAGE