Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars

Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars

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by Catherine Clinton

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A British stage star turned Georgia plantation mistress, Fanny Kemble is perhaps best remembered as a critic of slavery--and an influential opponent of this institution during the years leading up to the Civil War. By the mid-1830s, American society was firmly in the grip of Kemble's celebrity as an actress--young ladies adopted "Fanny Kemble curls," a tulip was named…  See more details below


A British stage star turned Georgia plantation mistress, Fanny Kemble is perhaps best remembered as a critic of slavery--and an influential opponent of this institution during the years leading up to the Civil War. By the mid-1830s, American society was firmly in the grip of Kemble's celebrity as an actress--young ladies adopted "Fanny Kemble curls," a tulip was named in her honor, and lecture attendance at Harvard fell so sharply on afternoons of Kemble's matinees that professors threatened to cancel classes. Catherine Clinton's insightful biography chronicles these early portraits of Fanny's life and shows how her role in society changed drastically after her bitter and short-lived marriage to the heir of a Georgia plantation owner, whom she derisively called her "lord and master." We witness the publication of Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation, in which Kemble hauntingly records the "simple horror" and misery she saw among the slaves. The raw power of her words made for an influential anti-slavery tract, which swayed European sentiment toward the Union cause. The book was embraced by Northern critics as "a permanent and most valuable chapter in our history" (Atlantic Monthly).

In Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars, Catherine Clinton reveals how one woman's life reflected in microcosm the public battles--over slavery, the role of women, and sectionalism--that fueled our nation's greatest conflict and have permanently marked our history.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This smashing new biography by historian Clinton (author of the controversial study The Plantation Mistress: Woman's World in the Old South) should be as popular today as Fanny Kemble herself was in the 19th century. Scion of a famed theatrical family, Kemble was born in England in 1809 and debuted as an actress in 1829, playing Juliet in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. She earned not only the esteem of her family--and the cash they so badly needed--but also, when she came to these shores, the vibrant Kemble earned a cadre of American admirers who styled their hair in "Fanny Kemble curls," spent their savings on "Fanny Kemble caps" and planted "Miss Fanny Kemble" tulips in their gardens. Kemble also won the heart of Pierce Butler, the second largest landholder in Georgia. At 24, she married him, giving up the stage and settling into the role of plantation mistress. The Butlers' marriage was filled with tension from the beginning: Pierce's eye wandered, and Fanny, horrified by the realities of slavery, spoke privately against that practice and was friendly with the abolitionist Sedgwick family. In 1845, after several attempted reconciliations with her husband, a "morose and restless" Kemble sailed for England, where she became an abolitionist crusader (her Journal of a Residence of a Georgian Plantation was published in 1863, and many credited the book with England's refusal to recognize the Confederacy). Kemble's own writing is distinguished by a feisty verve, and she has long awaited a biographer who can match her. Clinton is Kemble's equal--this biography is every bit as sharp, evocative and eloquent as Kemble's Journal. 64 b&w illus. (Sept.) FYI: Also in September, Harvard University Press will publish a volume of Kemble's journals, edited by Catherine Clinton. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Fanny Kemble (1809-1893) was a leading member of a renowned British acting family that included her aunt, the famous Sarah Siddons. Kemble is not as well known today as she was in the 19th century, but Clinton introduces the modern reader to an actress who won over audiences not only in Europe but also in the United States. After a successful American tour, Fanny married a Southern planter in 1834. Pierce Butler was the owner of vast land holdings and numerous slaves. After spending many months in the Georgia Sea Islands, an unhappy Fanny was torn by the contrasting lives of the blacks and whites, especially the living conditions and harsh treatment of the slaves. Having been forced to give up her acting career by Butler and subject to his many demands, Fanny turned her energies to trying to ameliorate the slaves' lives, especially the women and children. Her journals from that period reveal a woman struggling with the issues of slavery and the abolitionist movement. When her marriage to Butler faltered and turned acrimonious, Fanny sought a divorce, which meant the loss of contact with their two daughters, Sarah and Frances, until they came of age. To provide income, Fanny published her journals about her Georgia experiences with slavery in 1863 and created her own "civil war," because Sarah, although of abolitionist sympathies, was angered by the exposure of the family's life and Frances defended her father and the concept of slavery. Neither daughter would read the published journals and many years passed before a true reconciliation took place. Fanny's journals became bestsellers, providing a means of support for her and her family. Though she returned to Europe and performedtheatrical readings to provide for herself and her destitute British relatives, she made long visits to her American family, attempting to heal the wounds of conflict, but she never revisited the Butler plantations. She continued writing and publishing her memoirs until the end of her life. The works reveal a strong-minded woman caught up in political conflict, marital disputes and a bitter divorce, as well as the terrible ordeals of a family ripped apart by the same issues surrounding slavery that rent the nation during the Civil War. Clinton's distillation of Kemble's writings presents an additional perspective on the turmoil that marked this era on both sides of the Atlantic. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Oxford Univ. Press, 304p. illus. notes. bibliog. index.,
— Mary Gerrity
Library Journal
Fanny Kemble--English-born actress, author, and abolitionist--commanded center stage in the American drama over slavery and in her much-publicized personal civil wars of marriage to one of America's wealthiest slaveholders, bitter divorce, and publication of her private letters and her antislavery journal describing life on a Georgia plantation. Clinton (history, Baruch Coll.), the author of numerous books on Southern women, casts Kemble in a sympathetic light as a woman trapped by family and fame, even as she cultivated both, and as a metaphor for the battle over reform, marital relations, and slavery argued on both sides of the Atlantic. Clinton's great contribution to the thick literature on slavery, Kemble, and gender is to give Kemble her own voice and to offer original readings of Kemble's many writings. That the proslavery secessionist Butler comes off as a cad is no surprise, but that Clinton discovers Kemble's own flaws of ego and emotion gives her work a unique credibility. So, too, does Clinton's deft handling of the tangled Butler family history. Clinton's eloquent history is not quite Tara recast, but it is better than any fiction on the subject and should give Kemble a new audience in a new century. Highly recommended. Randall M. Miller, Saint Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Amy Timberlake
Born in 1809, Fanny Kemble tore through nineteenth-century life like a tornado. A British stage star with abolitionist leanings, young Kemble married Pierce Butler, an iron-willed man who eventually owned the second-largest plantation in Georgia. When, after two children and four years of marriage, Butler brought Kemble to the plantation, the physical reality of slavery nearly broke her. She fought both her husband and the system by doing what she could for the slaves and consoled herself by recording the stories of slave women and circulating them secretly among Northern abolitionists. (Later, this was published as Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation.) Kemble's writing added to her fame. Throughout her lifetime, she published thirteen volumes of memoirs filled with political opinions and societal observations. Though hugely popular, they earned Kemble many enemies. Kemble divorced her husband, was forcibly separated from her daughters, began acting again and participated in the debates surrounding the Civil War. Clinton has produced a gripping biography that reads like a novel and is surprisingly brief. It accurately reflects Henry James' assessment of his friend Fanny Kemble: "still one of the freshest pictures of . . . a brilliant girl that our literature possesses."

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Product Details

Simon & Schuster
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Product dimensions:
6.59(w) x 9.58(h) x 1.07(d)

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Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
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