by Fanny Kemble

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Henry James called Fanny Kemble's autobiography "one of the most animated autobiographies in the language." Born into the first family of the British stage, Fanny Kemble was one of the most famous woman writers of the English-speaking world, a best-selling author on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to her essays, poetry, plays, and a novel, Kemble published


Henry James called Fanny Kemble's autobiography "one of the most animated autobiographies in the language." Born into the first family of the British stage, Fanny Kemble was one of the most famous woman writers of the English-speaking world, a best-selling author on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to her essays, poetry, plays, and a novel, Kemble published six works of memoir, eleven volumes in all, covering her life, which began in the first decade of the nineteenth century and ended in the last. Her autobiographical writings are compelling evidence of Kemble's wit and talent, and they also offer a dazzling overview of her transatlantic world.

Kemble kept up a running commentary in letters and diaries on the great issues of her day. The selections here provide a narrative thread tracing her intellectual development—especially her views on women and slavery. She is famous for her identification with abolitionism, and many excerpts reveal her passionate views on the subject. The selections show a life full of personal tragedy as well as professional achievements. An elegant introduction provides a context for appreciating Kemble's remarkable life and achievements, and the excerpts from her journals allow her, once again, to speak for herself.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Upon the death of the celebrated British actress Fanny Kemble (1809-1893), her confidant and admirer Henry James said she had written some of the best autobiography of her day. But that autobiographical writing runs to thousands of pages, a bit much for the casual reader. So Kemble's biographer, historian Catherine Clinton (Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars, Forecasts, July 10), has edited a slender volume, selecting the juiciest, most revealing and most incisive sections of Kemble's oeuvre. Having married a Southern plantation owner, Pierce Butler, Kemble became an outspoken--and, because of her fame and her husband's station, controversial--critic of the South's peculiar institution. Clinton presents a range of writings on both personal and political subjects. We find Kemble's musings about her stage career (her exciting debut, an attack of nerves); about gender and ability (women, she believed, cannot possibly be "good dramatic writers"); about marriage; and about what she considered to be America's loathsome culture. Kemble spares nothing her withering eye and cutting tongue--she observes, for example, that women in America "ripen very early" but "decay... soon." Not surprisingly, the book also contains lots of intimate details about Kemble's stormy marriage, and offers the full range of her ideas about slavery. Clinton's short but effective introduction combines with Kemble's candid writings to deliver an intriguing tale and a remarkable view into the race and gender battles of 19th-century America. Splendidly edited and handsomely designed, this collection clears room for readers to hear the unforgettable voice of Kemble herself, with little interference. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
There are those who say Fanny Kemble was born to the stage; others would argue that she was born to write, especially about contemporary England and America. These excerpts from Kemble's diaries, letters, and memoirs attest to her singularity as an observer. Married to a slave owner (whom she later divorced), the English-born Kemble became fiercely opposed to slavery, and her writings on the subject are stirring, fearless, and crusading. In 1863, believing Britain that might side with the Confederacy, Kemble published her antislavery writings (written years earlier) in England, winning many to the abolitionist side. Her views on overseers, the whipping of slaves, their funerals, literacy, mixed-race children, and freedom are sure to make readers bow to Kemble and her pen. Her views on acting, marriage, childbirth, children, motherhood, America, secessionist politics, and the status of women demonstrate a rare intelligence, passion, and imagination. Editor Clinton should be commended for publishing this work along with her new biography of Kemble. Recommended for all public libraries.--Robert L. Kelly, Fort Wayne Community Schs., IN Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
David Walton
Clinton, a historian at Baruch College, is also the editor of Fanny Kemble's Journals, a one-volume selection from Kemble's 11 published volumes of memoirs. Read together, the biography and journals tell a remarkable story, the journals supplying color and atmosphere and Kemble's distinctive voice, the biography clarifying the domestic turmoil that shadowed each stage of their publication -- the ''civil wars'' of Clinton's title.
The New York Times Book Review
New Yorker
"Kemble's life wasn't entirely devoted to the rights of women and the wrongs of slavery: she acted and wrote, had triumphs, pleasures, and friends, and she often feels like our contemporary. Clinton doesn't insist that her subject was flawless, but she finds her irresistible."
Los Angeles Times
"Clinton's edition of Fanny Kemble's Journals offers fascinating selections from her heart-rending account of slavery and from earlier and later journals as well. Whether as a young girl weighing the pros and cons of marriage or as an older woman considering the question of women's suffrage, Kemble's keen mind and forthright style of expression are a constant delight."
— Merle Rubin
Philadelphia Inquirer
"One of the most moving and edifying personal accounts I have ever read of how oppression of slaves--and, incidentally, of women, both black and white--resulted in a war that tore apart not just one family, but a whole nation."
— Ann Morrissett Davidon
Wall Street Journal
"[From] six books of memoirs, Clinton has extracted an anthology...of consistent interest. Kemble is forthright throughout, and never boring...she writes candidly about acting, social and economic contracts between England and America, slavery, politics, religion, the status of women, her reading and herself."
— Stanley Weintraub
"Parting the curtains obscuring a nineteenth-century celebrity, historian Clinton offers...journal excerpts by a woman who was an actress, author, and abolitionst...Composed over her 80-plus years, Kemble's journals convey a variety of nineteenth-century experiences, from the discomforts of travel to the wonders of Rome...Clinton has admirably restored to interest a multifaceted figure pertinent to Civil War and women's studies."
— Gilbert Taylor
Boston Globe
"Kemble's journal entries on slavery are both poignant and horrifying. She writes passionately against the use of slave women for sex by plantation owners, as well as the demands of backbreaking physical labor they performed."
— Robin Dougherty
New York Times Book Review
"A remarkable story...supplying color and atmosphere and Kemble's distinctive voice...Her journal, begun when she was 18 and kept regularly into her 70's, records her sharp observations of roads and accommodations and social behavior in the young American democracy [and her] blunt indictment of racial hypocrisy and sexual exploitation...The voice that 'reanimated the old drawing rooms, relighted the old lamps, retuned the old pianos,' is captured again."
— David Walton
Seattle Times
Despite its welcome place in my library, when I finished [Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars], I still felt that something was missing. An element of frivolity, a touch of wit, a hint of acerbity--of course! I missed...Fanny Kemble's own voice. The antidote: Fanny Kemble's Journals...So when I want Kemble's exact words about a topic in the biography, I need only reach for this compact compilation...It's been well more than a century since Kemble was widely toasted on either side of the Atlantic; perhaps her moment has arrived again.
— Annie Ludlum
San Diego Union-Tribune
"Kemble's writing rings with passion, liveliness and wit. It is almost shocking in its clarity, precision and logic, its audacity and relevance. I marked dozens of passages in Fanny Kemble's Journals to read to friends."
— Julie Brickman
Post and Courier
"In Fanny Kemble's Journals, Clinton has edited down the journals and letters from a voluminous collection into a compendium of excerpts that gives the reader Kemble in her own voice."
— Stephanie Harvin
Washington Post Book World
"A work of withering detail and explosive passion."
— Jonathan Yardley
Columbia State
In Fanny Kemble's Journals, Clinton has judiciously selected excerpts from Kemble's six published journals...Kemble casts her keen eye on the many foibles and failings of those around her. Her journals blaze with the fire of her passionate desire for reform in social institutions and justice in inequitable relationships.
— Henry L. Carrigan, Jr.
Civil War Book Review
Clinton offers a second book, entitled Fanny Kemble's Journals, presenting a chronological narrative of Kemble's life in her own words… Fanny Kemble's Journals is a useful introduction to the story of Kemble's life in the United States, especially during the period 1832 to 1865.
— John Anthony Scott

Product Details

Harvard University Press
Publication date:
John Harvard Library Series
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
File size:
912 KB

What People are saying about this

"Fanny Kemble has finally found a historian worthy of her remarkable career."
Jean H. Baker
I enthusiastically recommend Fanny Kemble's Journals. Fanny Kemble has always been one of those mysterious fugitive characters about whom we would like to know more. With this new edition by Kemble's modern biographer, these writings will take their place in college classrooms and on the shelves of readers interested in the theater, the South, the Civil War, and women's studies. To shrink eleven volumes to one manageable one and to include the critical outlines of Kemble's life as well as her observations on aspects of American life such as politics and slavery is quite a triumph. Kemble writings afford readers a fascinating retelling of the outlines of an unusual life. It is not exaggerating to say that the Clinton selections created a new autobiography that in the past was obscured by the sheer mass of Kemble's memoirs. She is a terrific writer. Clinton has placed her emphasis on areas such as race, class, and women's issues, including the story of the marriage. Clinton's introduction locates the Journals within the context of Kemble's life, and as every editor must do, she makes a strong case for their relevance and historical significance.
Jean H. Baker, author of Mary Todd Lincoln
Eric Foner
"Fanny Kemble has finally found a historian worthy of her remarkable career."

— author of Reconstruction and the Story of American Freedom

James L. Roark
The fascination of a modern reader, I think, is partially rooted in the way Kemble braids a modernist sensibility (freedom, women's rights) with conventional prejudices (class, ethnicity). Like Henry James, I find Kemble's journals absorbing, and also like him, I presume, I find her beguiling.
James L. Roark, Emory University

Meet the Author

Catherine Clinton is Weissman Visiting Chair of History, Baruch College, and the author of a new biography of Fanny Kemble.

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