Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars: The Story of America's Most Unlikely Abolitionistby Catherine Clinton
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.
"[Clinton] compellingly recreates the trials and torments of one of the 19th century's most remarkable women."Parade
"Having brought Fanny Kemble to our attention is a worthy accomplishment, one all readers, theatre-goers, and champions of human rights ought to be thankful for."The Boston Sunday Globe
"Catherine Clinton tells this story very well, adeptly mixing the strands of Kemble's multidimensional and bicontinental life...the author traces both the exotic and the typical qualities of this saga."St. Louis Post-Dispatch
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Fanny Kembles Civil Wars
By Catherine Clinton
Thorndike PressCopyright © 2001 Catherine Clinton
All right reserved.
Chapter One: Enter Fanny Kemble
In 1809 Frances Anne Kemble was born into the most celebrated theatrical family in Europe. The decade of her birth, known among historians of the British theater as the Kemble era, marked the convergence of a powerful theatrical dynasty and the triumphant ascendancy of theater as an art form.
Led by patriarch Roger Kemble, the Kemble clan spearheaded the campaign waged by British actors throughout the eighteenth century to bring the theater into the rarefied circle of artistic esteem long accorded opera, ballet, and orchestral performances. Striving to reverse the prejudices his craft had faced for centuries, Kemble was steadfast in his efforts to help managers secure theater permits and establish permanent homes for acting companies. And he railed against the long-held stereotype that women who pursued careers on the stage were hardly a cut above the courtesans who filled the third tier of the gallery.
Roger Kemble defied that opinion in a most personal way, by taking an actress as his bride. He married Sarah Ward, the daughter of a popular actor acclaimed for his 1746 benefit performance at Stratford, Shakespeare's birthplace, to raise funds for the restoration of a monument to theplaywright. The Kemble affinity for Shakespeare -- so evident in the superb performances of Roger's granddaughter Fanny Kemble -- had its roots in the world of eighteenth-century traveling troupes.
At that time, a royal license was required to operate a theater, and London supported just two patents: Covent Garden and the Drury Lane. Further, the Act of 1737 forbade performing plays for profit outside London, forcing theatrical companies to find a way around the law by transforming their troupes into musical companies that charged admission to concerts, but offered plays "free." The authorities turned a blind eye; by the end of the century, a crude circuit had been established among Bath, Bristol, and other provincial towns. It was into this bustling milieu that the Kemble clan threw its fortunes.
Roger Kemble and Sarah Ward produced twelve children, eight of whom survived childhood. Seven of the eight turned to the stage, but it was John, Sarah, and Charles who shone. Their father, however, prized education above celebrity, and if Roger Kemble had had his way, his children would never have achieved such fame. Hoping to achieve the distinguished status of father of a priest, he sent three of his sons to the seminary.
The oldest of the Kemble sons, John Philip, was the first to defy his father, leaving seminary in 1778 to join a reputable theatrical company in York. By 1783, he was ready to make his London debut at the Drury Lane, playing Hamlet. Just weeks before, his younger brother George had debuted at Covent Garden, as Othello. A theatrical sibling rivalry seemed imminent. But George's performances were less than memorable; John Philip went on to become the leading interpreter of Shakespeare for his generation.
John Philip Kemble's work at the Drury Lane made such an impression on its owner, the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, that by 1788 he offered John Philip Kemble the opportunity to manage the playhouse. Just as Roger Kemble had done in his day, John Philip seized the opportunity to innovate. He insisted on historical accuracy in costuming and staging, perfectly re-creating Elizabethan dress and decor. When Kemble broke with his mentor in 1802, he used his earnings from the Drury Lane to buy a one-sixth share of its rival.
Kemble's arrival at Covent Garden in 1803 seemed to assure the peak of the Kemble era. Sister Sarah and brother Charles claimed spots in the repertory company, and their popularity grew alongside John Philip's reputation. But other Kemble siblings, craving successes of their own, did not meet with the same good fortune. George, after his disastrous debut in London, reestablished himself in Edinburgh. Using his middle name, Stephen, he was founder of a successful theater company. Elizabeth Kemble Whitlock journeyed to America, where she won better roles than she could have expected at home. Frances married and retired from the stage entirely.
But it was Ann Kemble who found the most notoriety. She first married a bigamist, then embarked on a shady career as a public lecturer on sex which culminated in her being shot in the face in an altercation in a London bawdyhouse. The more distinguished Kembles put a stop to these antics by granting their sister an annuity, intended to prevent her from exploiting the family name on handbills. The payoff came at a high price -- expulsion from London.
In contrast, Sarah Siddons, born in a tavern in Wales while her parents were on tour, was destined to be John Philip Kemble's true rival. In 1773, traveling with her father's troupe, she married fellow actor William Siddons. But after an inauspicious London debut as Portia at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1775, she was banished to the provinces, where she remained for six full seasons.
It was her 1782 return to London, leading the popular tragedy The Fatal Marriage, that made her the most respected and awe-inspiring actress of her generation. Madame de Stael described Siddons's spellbinding performance: "At last comes the moment when Isabella, having broken free from her women, who wish to prevent her from killing herself, laughs, as she stabs herself, at the uselessness of their efforts. The effect of this laugh of despair is the most extraordinary and difficult achievement of dramatic art; it is far more moving than tears; misery finds its most heart-rending expression in its bitter irony."
A commanding presence on stage, Siddons was equally comfortable in the presence of aristocratic admirers. During her second season in London, Sir Joshua Reynolds painted her portrait as "the Tragic Muse." Edward Gibbon, Edmund Burke, and William Pitt the Elder all fawned over her, and King George III brought members of the royal family to her performances until she retired in 1812. Lord Byron exulted, "Nothing ever was or can be like her."
Despite her impeccable paternal bloodline, Fanny Kemble always believed that "whatever qualities of mind or character I inherited from my father's family, I am more strongly stamped with those I derived from my mother." A popular starlet in her own right, Maria Therese de Camp began performing song, dance, and theatrical roles at age six, when her Swiss mother and French father emigrated to England. Named for the archduchess of Austria because she was born in Vienna, Maria Therese displayed courtly manners well suited to entertaining in society parlors, including the drawing room of the prince regent's mistress, Mrs. Fitzherbert, where she would delight the future king with her dancing. When her father died, leaving her mother indigent, Maria Therese -- the eldest of five, though not yet in her teens -- became the family breadwinner. Two of her younger siblings, Adelaide and Vincent, later followed her on stage.
After her critically acclaimed theatrical debut at the Drury Lane, scandal struck in 1795 when a drunken theatrical manager burst in on the twenty-one-year-old Maria Therese in her dressing room. She was able to fight him off, but, like all actresses, she feared her reputation might be tainted by sexual innuendo. She demanded a formal apology from the offending cad, who was none other than John Philip Kemble. His fondness for drink had no ill effects on his stage performances, but all too often clouded his judgment offstage. Kemble apologized in the newspaper for his transgression and absolved Miss de Camp of any blame, and that seemed to be the end of the story.
But the entire family was shocked anew when Charles Kemble, after appearing with the young Maria Therese de Camp in several dramas, professed his love for the former object of his brother's lust. In 1800 he announced his intention to marry Maria Therese, who returned his affections. The Kemble family voiced strong objections, and went to great lengths to prevent the union. An even greater obstacle, however, was the wrath of John Philip Kemble, whose power in London theatrical circles was so great that defying him meant professional doom.
Charles pleaded with his brother. John Philip finally consented -- on one condition: Charles must postpone the wedding until he reached the age of thirty, more than five years distant. Presumably John Philip hoped his baby brother would outgrow his infatuation. But Charles's feelings never faltered. And so it was that John Philip himself gave the bride away when his brother and Maria Therese were wed in 1805.
Maria Therese may have been a Kemble by marriage, but the family never regarded her as one of their own. That her mother was perpetually made to feel an outsider, perhaps even an outcast, was painfully clear to Fanny. Late in life she reflected: "The great actors of my family have received their due of recorded admiration; my mother has always seemed to me to have been overshadowed by their celebrity." Fanny longed for affirmation of her mother's worth.
Fanny's very birth occurred in the midst of a Kemble family crisis. In 1808 Covent Garden burned to the ground, destroying many valuable costumes and props owned by the Kembles, along with the grand old structure itself. John Philip Kemble received an outpouring of support from aristocratic patrons, which allowed him and his partners to undertake rebuilding. But the new plans called for a theater much grander and more elaborate than its predecessor, and the project was slowed by ballooning costs and dueling egos.
In the fall of 1809 Covent Garden once again opened its doors to the public. Theatergoers quickly discovered that this ornate replacement bore little resemblance to their old favorite. Especially offensive was the owners' decision to increase the number of expensive private boxes by limiting that of more reasonably priced gallery tickets. Seats in the pit, previously affordable by patrons of even the most modest means, had gone up in price. In effect, Roger Kemble's crusade to raise the profile of the theater as an art form had been reborn -- through economic means.
A chorus of complaint broke out on opening night, and protests continued unabated. Audiences incessantly booed, catcalled, and chanted "Old Prices" so loudly that performers were drowned out by the din. Favorite players, trotted onstage in attempts to appease the angry mob, did little to soothe them; they waved banners and tossed orange peels at the likes of Charles Kemble as Cromwell in Henry VIII, Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth, and even Maria Therese Kemble -- seven months pregnant -- as Lucy in The Beggar's Opera.
But it was John Philip Kemble who bore the brunt of the public's displeasure. He was hissed off the stage nightly and he was serenaded with rude songs at his home. Theater protests were not uncommon and the vitriol of boisterous crowds was an ordinary part of doing business -- but the intensity and duration of the "O.P. riots" were extraordinary. Finally, on December 15, after sixty-seven nights of protest, John Philip Kemble conceded defeat and rolled back the price of admission. Given the debt he had incurred rebuilding Covent Garden, this decision would prove financially ruinous. But after months of violence and mayhem, the show could go on only by the grace of the public.
Maria Therese's brush with the "Old Price" mob was enough to keep her off the Covent Garden stage indefinitely. She secluded herself at the family home on Newman Street in the Soho district, where, on November 27, 1809, as the riots raged on, she gave birth to Frances Anne Kemble. The Kembles' third child (after John Mitchell, two years her senior, and a boy who died in infancy) and their first girl, she was named Frances after her father's sister, the retired actress who became her godmother, and Anne after one of her mother's dear friends. She was always known as Fanny.
True to her dramatic roots, as a child Fanny took every opportunity to steal the show, even when she shared the scene with Aunt Sarah Siddons. One family story recalls a severe lecture delivered by the theatrical legend on the subject of rude behavior. Fanny listened solemnly to the scolding, then delivered a perfectly timed compliment of her imposing aunt's "beautiful eyes," which were indeed Sarah's most impressive feature. Siddons melted.
But while Kemble's childhood had its share of precious moments, disruption and upheaval were just as common. She learned from an early age that the wages of an artist yielded few comforts. As a mother of young children, Maria Therese found the clamor and squalor of London's most populous neighborhoods increasingly difficult to endure, and episodes of parental discord erupted frequently. Charles harbored thwarted ambitions of his own: "The fame of my brother John in tragedy caused me for long to avoid trespassing upon his ground."
Although the time when the Kemble family would depend on Fanny for its livelihood was not far off, her rebellious early years proved difficult for her parents. Long anxious that Charles's indulgence toward Fanny was spoiling her, Maria Therese believed that the only cure was discipline and training outside the household. In 1814 -- following the birth of Adelaide, nicknamed Totty -- Fanny was sent away, the first of many exiles, to a girls' school in Bath run by her aunt Frances Twiss. But as Twiss discovered over Fanny's twelve-month stay, her niece had already developed a stubborn streak that made her indifferent to punishment.
She was sent back to London, where her family had found a larger home to accommodate two more additions -- Fanny's baby brother Henry, nicknamed Harry; and Maria Therese's sister, Adelaide de Camp, called Dall. Dall had been a member of Stephen Kemble's Edinburgh troupe, but retired to her sister's household after a bitter disappointment in love. She never married, and devoted the remainder of her life to her sister's family, especially her nieces.
By 1816 Fanny was sent away for a second time, to a boarding school in Boulogne, France. It was not unusual for a family of means to have a daughter spend her formative years away from home, but young Fanny found the arrangement unbearable. That Boulogne was actually closer to London than Bath was didn't make the renewed separation any easier.
Fanny earned stellar marks in her lessons, and her instructors in French and Italian discovered a facility for languages. While her intellect was beyond dispute, her willfulness remained unchecked. For punishment, she was shut into an attic room, but she soon learned to climb out onto the roof. When a passerby caught sight of her, alarm ensued, and from then on Fanny's errant behavior was corrected in the escape-proof cellar. The French schoolmistress, finding Fanny incorrigible, called her "cette diable de Kemble" -- dubious praise that the nine-year-old proudly repeated upon her return to England.
By this time, Maria Therese had relocated the household yet again, this time to the farthest edge of London: Craven Hill, in Bayswater. Although his wife's desire for fresh air and open spaces was assuaged to a degree, Charles Kemble, unable to afford a coach, was forced to walk five miles daily each way between home and work. Eventually he was able to lease a small flat in Soho, which eased his commute and allowed the family overnight city excursions.
John Philip Kemble finally retired in 1819; in early November 1820, he signed over to Charles his one-sixth share of Covent Garden and moved permanently to Switzerland.
Now Charles had a chance to truly make his mark. By the time he was able to wrest management of the theater from his partners two years later, he had waited so long in the wings that critics were intensely eager to judge his abilities.
He chose to open his first season with The School for Scandal, casting the popular William Macready in the lead and himself as a supporting player. The critics applauded, welcoming the "superior taste" of a "scholar, gentleman, and perfect master of his art." Charles Kemble's brilliant success ensured that even after John Philip's retirement and his death in 1823, the Kemble name would continue to thrive. The family finances were another matter.
Fanny Kemble recalled the elation the family had felt at this seeming windfall -- presumably worth more than £40,000 -- that her uncle had granted them. She was only eleven then; years passed before she understood that her father's stake in Covent Garden made him liable for the theater's enormous debts. She later characterized Covent Garden as "a hopelessly ruined concern" and blamed it for the collapse of the Kemble family fortunes.
Under extreme financial pressure, the Kembles could ill afford to be distracted by their daughter's more and more outrageous antics. When, following minor infractions, she resorted to such drastic measures as running away from home, hiding in a neighbor's cottage, or throwing herself in a pond, they became desperate for a solution. In Paris they found a school run by a Mrs. Rowden, a pious and austere Englishwoman who brooked no interference with her rigid routine. She required her pupils to attend mass at a French convent as well as Anglican services at the British embassy. Fanny remembered an increasing appreciation of the Bible and its lessons during these four years; Mrs. Rowden also fostered in her a love of literature -- French writers, Italian writers, and even Byron, in purloined copies. She was to embrace these incongruous passions -- for writings both sacred and profane -- throughout her lifetime.
Mrs. Rowden believed that another of her pupil's passions, the theater, was ill-suited to her. Fanny had learned to love the great dramas of Racine, even playing the lead in a school production of Andromaque, but Rowden pronounced her talent for the stage "nonexistent."
Throughout her lonely years in Paris, Fanny worried constantly that she might forget her mother's face. Their reunion -- at the family's new home in Weybridge, a village twenty miles southwest of London -- was touching. A renewed intimacy helped Fanny heal the wounds caused by their time apart. Kemble's troubled youth was filled with torments about her relationship with her distant and demanding mother.
Fanny had become aware at an early age that her mother suffered from some kind of nervous disorder. Her attacks grew increasingly debilitating over the years of Fanny's childhood. From the time of her retirement from the stage until her premature death, Maria Therese became more and more reclusive, and less capable of dealing with the demands of her family and household. Her family coped with her mental decline. She tried to soothe her fraying nerves with bracing fresh air, sedentary routines, and the slower pace of country life. She especially enjoyed fishing, and would invite Fanny along to while away the afternoons along a riverbank.
Yet their pastoral reunion was marred when Maria Therese allowed Fanny to be exposed to smallpox; a mild case of the disease would immunize her for life. However, there was no way to control the severity of the resulting infection, and Fanny suffered a serious bout. As a result, her lovely face was marked by a murky complexion ever after. Maria Therese protected Adelaide from exposure, and both Kemble boys were enrolled at boarding school in nearby Bury St. Edmunds, so they too escaped the virus. But the damage Fanny had already suffered was irreversible.
During her convalescence, her brothers' schoolmaster Dr. Arthur Malkin visited the Kemble home and was impressed by Fanny's lively intellect. Malkin became something of a mentor to the sixteen-year-old, providing her with reading lists, tutoring her in German, and suggesting ambitious translation projects to sharpen her already keen mind.
Maria Therese was well pleased with her daughter's progress, but the hours spent poring over lessons made no improvement on Fanny's adolescent slouch. This had to be corrected, for carriage was a mark of breeding. The Kembles had the novel idea of hiring a member of the Royal Foot Guards to teach their daughter proper posture. Fanny's mother also tried to train Fanny's singing voice, but eleven-year-old Totty chimed in with perfect pitch while Fanny struggled to keep in tune, and the lessons were soon abandoned. Fanny eventually developed a strong singing voice, but she chose to use it for her own pleasure, rather than for public entertainment.
During the period from 1825 to 1826, Fanny was a frequent guest at Heath Farm, an estate owned by the Earl of Essex and currently on loan to John Philip Kemble's widow. Fanny greatly enjoyed these expeditions to Hertfordshire, especially because it was there that she met Harriet St. Leger in 1826.
Harriet St. Leger was an Anglo-Irish aristocrat, the spinster mistress of Ardgillan Castle (near Dublin), fourteen years older than Fanny and known for her eccentric tastes. St. Leger's costume always consisted of a gray riding habit embellished with cashmere collar and cuffs, handmade leather boots, and a distinctive beaver hat. Her wardrobe and her outdoorsy manner made her the frequent subject of idle gossip.
But Fanny was plainly smitten with this handsome woman, so confident in her demeanor. Throughout the time when they were both at Heath Farm, Harriet and Fanny shared a bedroom, where they talked into the night about religion, politics, and whatever caught their fancy. When St. Leger returned to Ireland, the two promised to begin a correspondence.
They kept this pledge all their lives, and through their letters a deep and lasting friendship grew. Although they rarely met over the next fifty years, Harriet St. Leger became Fanny's sounding board, her confidante, and -- thanks to the shared passion for religion and theology revealed in their letters -- soul mate. Kemble's attachment was permanent and lasting, although it did not have the homoerotic component that imbued many female friendships during this era. St. Leger never married and spent most of her adult years with a female companion, Dorothy Wilson, but, as with many similar arrangements, this relationship never interfered with her devotion to Kemble.
In Harriet, Fanny found the best friend she so sorely needed. Her parents were so preoccupied with Covent Garden that they had little attention to spare her. Aunt Dall was a comforting presence, but even she could not provide the stimulation seventeen-year-old Fanny craved. Fanny began to cultivate intimacies outside the family: she befriended Caroline Norton, a granddaughter of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, visited Lord and Lady Egerton (later Earl and Countess Ellesmere) at Oatlands, their nearby estate, and made the acquaintance of such famous personages as the writer Anna Jameson. On rare occasions, she explored London in the company of her father, most memorably touring the Thames Tunnel with its engineer, Sir Marc Isambard Brunel. But these diversions were not enough to satisfy her restless curiosity.
In an effort to capture her thoughts and emotions, Fanny began to keep a diary, but was frustrated by the artifice of solitary conversation and longed for company. She preferred "the sifting, examining, scrutinizing, discussing intercourse that compels one to analysis of one's own ideas and sentiments." Fanny was fond of society, especially its capacity to foster intellectual discussions. As a young woman lacking the means to make a formal social debut, she was dismayed to find herself on the sidelines. Her parents had neither the means nor the inclination to allow their daughter to mix in high society.
Fanny's relative isolation compounded her inherent lack of confidence. Throughout her adolescence she constantly measured herself against the only society available to her: her brothers and sisters. While her older brother John had won academic distinction and her sister Adelaide had musical gifts, Fanny feared she possessed no talents of her own. Deep in the throes of schoolgirl melancholy, she especially envied her younger siblings' natural buoyancy; she was certain that her mother's critical supervision had robbed her of her natural good humor. Her "exacting taste," Fanny confessed, "made in her everything most keenly alive to our faults and deficiencies....The unsparing severity of the sole reply or comment...'I hate a fool' has remained almost like a cut with a lash across my memory."
Whatever her mother's lacerating criticisms, Fanny was vivacious and ambitious, with a natural verbal flair. She eventually cast aside her doubts and set her sights on an exalted goal: she wanted to become a writer.
The opening decades of the nineteenth century were a grand time for British women writers; among their ranks were the likes of the Bronte sisters, Maria Edgeworth, Hannah More, and Jane Austen, whom Fanny passionately admired. Also, a long line of distinguished Kemble authors preceded her. John Philip Kemble had produced verse and essays; Sarah Siddons had published Shakespearean criticism; and Fanny's parents had published original dramas (Charles) and "stage adaptations" (Maria Therese). These Kemble authors had gained entree into the publishing world through their stage reputations. But the Kemble name was well known among readers and playgoers alike, so Fanny believed that there might be a ready literary market for another Kemble scribbler.
When Fanny confessed her ambitions to Harriet St. Leger, she had her heart set on creating a novel and had gone so far as to choose a historical theme. This plan met with Harriet's approval. Halfway through her story Fanny decided to turn the project into a play, "Francis the First." When she gathered her family in the parlor for a dramatic reading from the script, her parents praised it extravagantly and her older brother John, home from school, pronounced it full of true literary merit.
Fanny accepted the compliments gracefully, but remained privately discouraged about her prospects. Her writing, she explained to Harriet St. Leger in February 1828, amounted to "a clever performance for so young a person, but nothing more." Yet she guarded her ambitions fiercely, vowing to "exercis[e] and develop the literary talent which I think I possess. This is meat, drink, and sleep to me; my world, in which I live, and have my happiness; and moreover, I hope by means of fame (the prize for which I pray)."
Like any young writer, Fanny indulged her fantasies freely, even imagining herself as a literary "lioness." But such whimsical moments were curtailed all too often by the daunting realities of money. Writing, Fanny realized, would be "to earn hard money after a very hard fashion." She identified acting as a fallback career, reasoning that "if my going on the stage would nearly double that [Charles Kemble's] income, lessen my dear father's anxieties for us all...would not this be 'consummation devoutly to be wished'?"
Fanny worried constantly over her family's financial situation. From an early age, she complained of suffering from "blue devils," which may have been clinical depression. Her mother's illness manifested itself in frequent outbursts of manic behavior. Fanny and her siblings never knew when they might come home to find their mother collapsed in bed, or on the other hand rearranging the furniture with plans to remodel a home for which they could barely afford the upkeep. These disruptive family scenes contributed to Fanny's bleak moods and emotional instability. She confided to Harriet in January 1828 that she had once tossed a manuscript of eight hundred pages into the fire, destroying her only copy. She immediately regretted the impulsive action, admitting that her year's work "should not have been thrown away in a foolish fit of despondency."
News of her father's ongoing struggles at Convent Garden did nothing to raise Fanny's low spirits. Charles Kemble's long and contentious dispute with Henry Harris, a business partner, dragged through Chancery Court, sadly depleting the household coffers. Kemble's offstage appearance was so threadbare and bedraggled that he joked about wearing nothing but his "Chancery suit."
Lackluster theater receipts compounded his legal woes. This situation, Charles Kemble surmised, would be easily remedied by the arrival of a promising young actress on the London scene. But none emerged, and not for lack of searching. Managers scoured provincial theaters with no success, while Maria Therese scouted the talent among the acting students she taught at the Kembles' Soho flat. Theatergoers, it seemed, would continue mourning the retirement of her remarkable sister-in-law, Sarah Siddons, until a replacement was offered.
Many of the Siddons clan -- Fanny Kemble's distant cousins -- were living in Edinburgh. Sarah's son Henry Siddons, known as Harry, had been a popular actor in his day, and his widow, Harriet, was an actress so beloved by the Scots that fans called her "our Mrs. Siddons." In 1828, eighteen-year-old Fanny accepted Harriet Siddons's invitation to make a visit. She looked forward to the change of scene and to escape from her own increasingly volatile home life.
Fanny spent a blissful year with this favorite cousin, but perhaps it was the attentions of young men that persuaded her to linger. Maria Therese wrote Harriet frequently, imploring her to strictly monitor Fanny's circle of friends. These came to include the physician Andrew Combe and his brother George, a lawyer whose career took a well-publicized turn toward the "science" of phrenology, the practice of reading bumps on the skull to ascertain moral character.
Both men later professed to have been half in love with Fanny Kemble. But it was Cecilia Siddons, Sarah's daughter and Fanny's favorite first cousin, whom George eventually married; Andrew, a confirmed bachelor, remained a devoted friend to Fanny over the years. Harriet Siddons's own son, Harry, made romantic overtures toward Fanny, going so far as to have her name engraved on his sword blade before he shipped out for military service in India. But these were all innocent flirtations.
As much as she enjoyed the company of friends and relations, Fanny was becoming increasingly introspective. To truly know herself, she realized, she must experience life outside her own limited sphere. She was especially drawn to the villages along the Scottish coast, where she explored the seaside shanties. Here she developed her renowned affinity for "plain folk"; for the rest of her life she devoted time and energy to those "less fortunate" than herself.
Fanny would later pronounce this year of spiritual reflection the best of her life. She drew strength and comfort from the serenity of Harriet Siddons, an antidote to her mother's erratic ways. Harriet Siddons devoted a part of each day to religious reflection, an example that inspired Fanny to imbue her own daily Bible readings with deeper meaning, pausing often to ponder the verses and their lessons. Under Harriet's gentle influence, Fanny even gave up reading Byron. Although years apart in age and vastly different in temperament, Fanny and Harriet Siddons became extremely close. Fanny tried to emulate this woman she so came to admire.
She returned to London in 1829 with her spirits lifted, to find that the Kemble house on St. James's Street had become the site of frequent gatherings of intellectuals and clever conversationalists, among them the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. Others, like the poet Alfred Tennyson, the poet and translator Edward FitzGerald, and the future Baron Houghton, Richard Monckton Milnes, came at the invitation of Fanny's brother John. This circle of friends, classmates at Cambridge, numbered twelve; they began by calling themselves the Cambridge Conversazione Society, but abandoned this fanciful title in favor of the joking "Apostles."
Charles Kemble was displeased by his son's choice of friends, especially their religious leanings. Charles took the opposite view of his own father. Roger Kemble had wanted Charles to be a priest, a vocation Charles feared. He himself had sent his bookish son John to Cambridge intending that he should read law. But John disappointed him, taking up theology and wishing to study religion abroad. Two of the Apostles would go on to become Anglican archbishops, but according to Charles, John's Cambridge degree in theology was tantamount to "failing."
Nearly one-third of the family income went toward John's education, and Charles was determined to see a return on that investment. His urgent desire that his son find a lucrative career was doubtless propelled by the spiraling financial difficulties at Covent Garden. Late in the summer of 1829, Charles traveled to Ireland on tour, still desperate to locate that elusive starlet whom he was counting on to rejuvenate Covent Garden. But the accolades and income won abroad could not stave off disaster.
In his absence, creditors repossessed the theater, plastering it with posters proclaiming it for sale and suing Charles for the sum of its debts. Fanny Kemble came home one day to find her mother collapsed, debilitated by fits of hysterical weeping. It seemed that the situation was beyond repair. Fanny wrote to her father, proposing that she might take a position as a governess. But Maria Therese overcame her fears and decided that those dark days called for bolder plans. She instructed her husband to return home at once, as she plotted with Fanny to save the family from ruin.
Maria Therese planned to transform her dutiful daughter into a star of the stage. She began by carefully coaching Fanny in the role of Portia. When Fanny had delivered a fairly strong reading, she graduated to Juliet. This was the most coveted of Shakespeare's female roles, and a guaranteed box office draw. By the time Charles returned, Fanny was ready to give a private performance, offering up her lines while her mother spoke the other parts. In response, her parents neither praised nor scolded her, but disappeared behind closed doors to plan, while Fanny succumbed to her fears and wept. She soon dried her tears, however, when one of Charles's trusted colleagues witnessed yet another private audition, this time at Covent Garden, and confirmed that her beguiling Juliet was bound to be a success.
A few weeks shy of her twentieth birthday, Fanny became the talk of London. How dramatic that the fate of London's leading theatrical family rested on the shoulders of its teenage daughter. Fanny, beset by worries over costumes and rehearsals, wrote to Harriet St. Leger in late September 1829 that even the date of her opening had not been set: "The nearest period talked of for my debut is the first of October, at the opening of the theater; the furthest November; but I almost think I should prefer the nearest for it is a very serious trial to look forward to, and I wish it were over."
Maria Therese, who had sacrificed her own childhood for her family's sake, worried that she was forcing her daughter into the same unenviable position. She alternated between shame and despair. To show her support -- and perhaps to assuage her guilt -- Maria Therese decided to come out of retirement for one night only. Appropriately, she would play Juliet's mother. Charles Kemble, who usually cast himself as Romeo, would play Mercutio in this Kemble-studded production.
When Fanny's first performance in Romeo and Juliet was announced for October 5, 1829, the box office was deluged. And on the appointed night, the throng of demanding theatergoers and critics were joined by the cream of London society, who arrived at the theater in brightly painted landaus, dressed in silken finery to witness this historic occasion.
At the first sight of Fanny onstage, the crowd -- from the boxes to the pits -- gave a thunderous roar of approval. But as she began to perform, losing herself in the role of Juliet, the audience responded not just to her fame, but to her talent. At the end of the play, they cheered in recognition that a new queen of the stage had been crowned that night.
To Fanny, this overwhelming response felt like a dream. She was flooded with childhood memories, recalling especially the night when, five years old, she had hidden in a theater box, peeking out as her famous aunt Sarah gave a rare benefit performance. Tonight the tables were turned, as Sarah Siddons witnessed Fanny's premiere from behind the curtain of a private box. They both knew, perhaps, that on this night the torch had been passed. At the family's victory supper that night, her father gave her a gold watch. Delighted, Fanny dubbed it "Romeo" and tucked it under her pillow.
The spell continued uninterrupted for days. The London Times reported: "Upon the whole, we do not remember to have ever seen a more triumphant debut. That Miss Kemble has been well and carefully instructed, as, of course, she would be is clear; but it is no less clear that she possesses qualifications which instructions could not create, although it can bring them to perfection." The critic for New Monthly Magazine volunteered: "For our part, the illusion that she was Shakespeare's own Juliet came so speedily upon us as to suspend the power of specific criticism."
Several longtime critics volunteered that although Fanny's performance did not surpass her famous aunt's theatrical powers, perhaps Fanny was well on her way toward rivaling the Tragic Muse. Some even suggested Fanny was better than Sarah Siddons had been at the same age.
Fanny's triumph propelled her toward the goals which had lured her onstage: pleasing her parents and helping them financially. She was elated by the benefits her earnings promised her family -- further studies for John in Germany, where he wanted to pursue theology, and music lessons for Totty. At the end of the first week of performances, Fanny went to the theater to collect her salary in person. Ticket sales ensured a record-breaking season. It seemed that Fanny had indeed earned that gold watch.
There being a great demand for likenesses of the actress, the portraitist John Hayter prepared a series of sketches. Another important artist, Sir Thomas Lawrence -- he participated in the founding of England's National Gallery -- begged to make her acquaintance. While he was unknown to Fanny, he required no introduction to her family.
Lawrence had a long and significant connection to the Kembles, especially Sarah Siddons, whose portrait he had first painted when just a youth. Rumor had it that the painter was bewitched by the much older woman, perhaps even romantically involved with her. In 1797, while still in his twenties, Lawrence completed a portrait of Siddons that later hung in the National Gallery. That same year, he courted Sarah's older daughter, Sally. But when the twenty-two-year-old Sally suddenly fell seriously ill, Lawrence transferred his affections to her eighteen-year-old sister Maria, and the two became engaged.
Belatedly realizing he still loved Sally, Lawrence broke off the engagement. By this time, his behavior had appalled the Siddonses and the Kembles alike. When Maria lay bedridden with consumption in 1798, she exacted a promise from Sally that she would never marry Lawrence, then promptly died. Sally spurned Lawrence's advances and died shortly thereafter.
It was Fanny Kemble who smoothed over the quarrel. Lawrence paid courteous attention to her, promoting her career with tender and tenacious devotion. Working closely with Maria Therese, he took a directorial interest in Fanny's craft, attending many performances and commenting on everything from costume to staging and delivery. Fanny valued his advice, reading his detailed critiques backstage in preparation for upcoming scenes. Doubtless, Fanny's physical resemblance to her departed cousins endeared her to Lawrence all the more.
Lawrence planned to immortalize Fanny on canvas, just as he had done for Sarah Siddons. His pencil sketch of Fanny, Maria Therese remarked, bore a striking resemblance to his portrait of Maria Siddons. Lawrence was planning a full-length portrait of Fanny as Juliet, but his sudden death -- under mysterious circumstances that suggested suicide -- left the work unfinished.
Just three days before his death Lawrence had written of his strong feelings for Fanny: "I have almost a Father's interest in her." He asserted that she was just as good as Sarah Siddons had been at her age; he knew, he wrote, that Fanny would one day play Lady Macbeth -- Siddons's signature role -- beautifully. Deeply affected by Lawrence's praise, the young actress confessed that despite the difference in their ages, she feared that if he had lived she would have fallen in love with him -- and perhaps let him bring even more heartache to the women of her family.
Lawrence was just one of dozens of distinguished Londoners vying for Fanny's attentions. She felt the crush of fame. "From an insignificant school-girl, I became an object of general public interest....Approbation, admiration, adulation were showered upon me." This seemed to come about "by the wand of a fairy." Perhaps it was this fairy-tale quality that allowed her to float through these heady days more or less unscathed.
Fanny went from having a twenty-pound-a-year allowance to having a carriage at her disposal and purchasing fine new gowns. She needed the wardrobe and carriage for her many social engagements. She confided to Harriet the details of one busy week: "a dinner party on Monday; Tuesday, the opera; Wednesday, I act Isabella; Thursday, a dinner at Mr. Harness's; Friday I act Bianca; Saturday we have a dinner party at home; the Monday following I act Constance; Tuesday there is a dance at the Fitzhughs'; and sundry dissipations looming in the horizon."
After her success in the capital, her father booked her into lucrative engagements on the provincial circuit. From Bath to Edinburgh, from Brighton to Glasgow, Fanny became the toast of Great Britain. In Dublin, Fanny recalled, a "bodyguard of about two hundred men, shouting and hurrahing like mad," escorted her back to her hotel, where aristocratic admirers crowded into the drawing rooms to meet her.
Much was made of Kemble's onstage allure, but men and women alike commented on the fact that her offstage appearance was surprisingly plain. One male gallant who spotted her backstage demanded to know how she contrived to be so beautiful while performing. A female admirer jovially asserted: "Fanny Kemble, you are the ugliest and handsomest woman in London!" A few years later the young Robert E. Lee, a cadet at West Point, attended a performance and became completely enthralled by the actress. But when he spotted her at a ball, Lee confessed, he found her "next door to homely."
The sole dissenter was Washington Irving, then secretary at the American Embassy in London, who used his influence to make Kemble's acquaintance shortly after her debut. Irving, who became a great friend, argued that she was lovelier in person: "The nearer one gets to her face and to her mind, the more beautiful they both are."
Fanny Kemble's beauty might have been debatable, but her impact was not. Some attributed her bewitching hold over an audience to her superior stage presence; she used her remarkable voice and skilled gestures to project majesty and beauty. Admirers recalled her as having a tall, lithe form and a face without blemish. But up close, her figure appeared short, even stocky, and her skin mottled.
Kemble herself seemed indifferent to the public's bald assessment of her charms. She quipped about the burden her Romeos bore when forced to lift a weighty Juliet, and made playful reference to her "gipsy complexion." Although she took pride in her appearance, Kemble was remarkably free of the vanity common not just among actresses but among all young women of her era.
Kemble confessed that the overabundance of attention turned her head; it would have to be a "strong head not to be so," she said. Her parents, mindful of the dangers of sudden fame, kept her on a strict schedule, never allowing her to idle in the greenroom. When they were unable to accompany her to social functions, they required a chaperone. Adelaide de Camp was her niece's constant companion, especially on tours of the provinces.
As a member of theatrical royalty, Kemble had no romantic notions about a career in the theater, and so was shielded against the bedazzlement of the spotlight. Although "dramatic personation" held some appeal, she found everything else about acting "repugnant." She commented nearly a decade after her retirement that she had never gone in front of an audience "without a shrinking feeling of reluctance." She also felt that her performing talents were fueled more by nervous energy than skill, and she felt the effort of physical exertion required for performance was "unhealthy," the resultant exhibitionism "odious."
In 1830, less than a year after her debut, these strains had already begun to ravage her health and sap her creativity. She confided to Harriet St. Leger, "My life in London leaves me neither time nor opportunity for any self-culture, and it seems to me as if my best faculties [are] lying fallow."
Upon Harriet's cross-examination, Fanny admitted that celebrity afforded her "many social pleasures and privileges." She was one of fewer than twenty invited on the maiden excursion of England's first steam railway by the entrepreneur George Stephenson, for instance. (She loved the sense of "flight" her first train ride evoked.)
The upper crust found Fanny's company most engaging and she received invitations to more parties and dinners than she could possibly attend. In London, she dined at the home of the poet Samuel Rogers, where Thomas Macaulay, the great wit Sydney Smith, and the poet Thomas Campbell were known to grace the table at his famous Sunday luncheons. Lady Dacre, a talented poet and translator, took Fanny under her wing, making her a frequent guest at the Hoo, her country estate in Hertfordshire. Even the great Sir Walter Scott, Fanny's childhood hero, flattered the actress by arranging for an audience in Edinburgh.
Years later, Kemble had mixed memories of these extravagant episodes, worrying that she had developed, to her great detriment, a taste for the "luxurious refinement and elegant magnificence of a mode of life never likely to be mine." She recalled in particular her stay in Manchester at Heaton, the country estate of Lady Wilton. Her hostess was "extremely kind to me, petting me almost like a spoiled child, dressing me in her own exquisite riding habit and mounting me on her own favorite horse." While such "kindly indulgence" was "very delightful" to Fanny, these attentions and adventures among the titled nobility brought her far from her "proper sphere." And she felt responsibility weighing heavily upon her. She was ever mindful of her obligations to her family: "It is incumbent upon me to banish all selfish regrets about the surrender of my personal tastes and feelings, which must be sacrificed to real and useful results for myself and others."
Questions of propriety became pressing, too, for Fanny's celebrity dramatically improved her prospects for marriage. Her parents had wed purely for love. But the example of more well-to-do relatives, like Fanny's godmother, Frances Twiss, taught them that the combination of wealth and love made for far less strain. By the late eighteenth century onward, prejudices against marriage between penniless actresses and well-born men of wealth were crumbling. From time to time a respectable actress, snaring a baron or duke, rose to the top of London society without a hitch. Perhaps the Kembles aspired, through Fanny, to take their place among London's elite.
Kemble was already an object of adoration by lovesick men of all ages. She was pursued by a bevy of "Stage Door Johnnies," among them the Reverend Augustus FitzClarence, an illegitimate son of the King of England. The son of actress Dorothy Jordan and the Duke of Clarence (later crowned William IV), FitzClarence used his influence to obtain admission to Fanny's dressing room, where his visit was closely supervised by Charles Kemble. But when this young man made impertinent remarks to Fanny on the dance floor at a society ball, she threatened to return to her seat before the waltz was ended. He tried to demonstrate his contrition, asking Fanny to write sermons for him -- as Caroline Norton had. Kemble was not tempted by this invitation; she terminated their acquaintance.
But in the late spring of 1831, during Fanny's second season on the stage, the Kembles were unable to prevent one of their daughter's friendships from blossoming into love. Fanny Kemble was invited by a group of aristocrats to join in their amateur theatricals. Her professional schedule generally precluded her from granting such a favor, but the invitation came from Lord and Lady Egerton, Fanny's former neighbors at Weybridge. Remembering her many happy days at their Oatlands estate, she felt beholden.
Lord Egerton had translated Victor Hugo's Hernani and begged Fanny to play the lead, Dona Sol. She had no special relish for the role, but any reservations she felt evaporated the instant she laid eyes on Augustus Craven, the handsome young nobleman who had been chosen to play opposite her. At each successive rehearsal and performance -- culminating in a command performance for the royals -- their affection grew, so that by the end of the run, the lines they spoke onstage were genuine words of love.
In the 1870s, Fanny published her diaries, which recorded in detail the hours she spent with her first love. Long afternoons of horseback riding, boating, and walking through the countryside were followed by evenings of music and repartee (in French), and midnight storytelling sessions. In town, the couple appeared together often. On one especially festive evening, Charles Kemble, upon arriving to escort his daughter home, was kept waiting in his carriage until past four in the morning, while Fanny remained at the ball dancing with her beloved "Mr. C."
Fanny indulged herself with bridal fantasies. Her older confidantes, however, rushed to temper her eagerness with some plain talk on the realities of marriage. Adelaide de Camp soberly explained to her niece, "While you remain single,...and choose to work, your fortune is an independent and ample one; as soon as you marry, there's no such thing." And Anna Jameson, whose own unhappy marriage led her to crusade for divorce reform, held out so little hope for a woman's chance of married happiness that her words haunted Fanny ever after.
Overwrought, Fanny sought the advice of a Gypsy. But the magic arts proved powerless to keep the happy courtship from souring. "Somehow I don't think a man would have the heart to break one's heart, but to be sure, I don't know." The passages following this lament were excised from her published journal; in place of what must have been heartfelt romantic confessions stood a series of telling ellipses. Fanny's infatuation was an "ephemeral love of serious consequence," a heartbreak from which she would not soon recover.
In the second week of June 1831, Sarah Siddons died, and all of England joined the Kemble family in grief. What was intended to be a sacred mourning period, however, was unceremoniously interrupted by professional concerns. With the passing of the Tragic Muse, it was expected that Fanny would master her aunt's more memorable roles, which she had hitherto avoided. The prospect was daunting: "And so I am to act Lady Macbeth! I feel as if I were standing up by the great pyramid of Egypt to see how tall I am."
It was difficult for a young actress to offer convincing portrayals of characters twice her age, and Fanny berated herself constantly when her efforts fell short. "The house was good, but I played like a wretch -- ranted, roared and acted altogether infamously." It was no comfort when, after she had an especially difficult struggle with the part of Constance in Shakespeare's King John, her mother said soothingly, "You have done it better than any other girl of your age."
Despite her growing self-doubt, Fanny's talents continued to be much in demand, and she vastly expanded her repertory during her third season. To her Shakespearean catalogue of Juliet, Portia, and Beatrice she added Bianca in Henry Hart Milman's now forgotten Fazio and Julia in James S. Knowles's The Hunchback. The latter became one of her most popular roles. She even tasted her first success as a playwright, selling the publication rights for Francis the First to John Murray for £450, then performing the female lead in its first stage production.
But as Fanny continued to win critical and popular success, her family fell into an alarming state of disarray. The lucrative bookings Fanny brought to Covent Garden proved insufficient to stave off the theater's creditors, and Charles Kemble teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Fanny sold her horse (no longer able to afford its upkeep) and the family practiced austerity, but prospects continued bleak. Kemble's mother seemed less and less able to cope with her active household.
Meanwhile, older brother John had rushed off to Spain with his fellow Apostles, who had joined General Torrijos's ill-fated rebellion against the royal government there. His activities had to be concealed from his high-strung mother, and the family breathed a sigh of relief when he returned, barely escaping execution -- the fate of several of his comrades. Meanwhile, Harry Kemble was adrift in London, "lounging about the streets...a mere squanderer of time." Fanny used her income from Francis the First to buy her younger brother a commission in the army, and in 1832 he joined his regiment in Ireland for duty in the West Indies.
By the fall of 1831 it was clear the burden of keeping the Kemble finances afloat was too great for Fanny alone to bear. She recognized that Charles lacked "any hope of support for himself and my mother but toil, and that of the severest kind." She feared her father might resort to desperate measures -- and he did, proposing a solo theatrical tour of the United States. Fanny, who hated "the very thought of America," once again intervened, insisting that she accompany him. When, at Christmastime, Charles contracted a serious inflammation of the lungs, it became clear that responsibility for success would, once again, rest on Fanny's shoulders.
Excerpted from Fanny Kembles Civil Wars by Catherine Clinton Copyright © 2001 by Catherine Clinton. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Catherine Clinton is a writer and historian who has published widely in the fields of southern studies, African American studies, women's studies and the American Civil War. She is the Mark Clark Visiting Chair of History at the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina for 2001-2002 and an affiliate of the Gelder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University. She is currently completing a biography of Harriet Tubman. She lives in Riverside, Connecticut.
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