Fanny Kemble and the lovely land, by Constance Wright

Second paragraph of third chapter:

It was a good thing, Fanny told a correspondent in England, that she had avoided reading Mrs. Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans. The subject was always cropping up in conversation, and when asked for an opinion, she could truthfully say she knew nothing of the lady or her obnoxious book. Some of Fanny’s first impressions, however, coincided with those of America’s most strident critic to date. It had been a traumatic experience for Mrs. Trollope to enter an American milliner’s shop and have someone introduce her to the milliner. Fanny, being, as she later said, an “English republican”, also noted the lack of class distinction in the New World, but without a sense of outrage. Intrusions upon privacy, mosquitoes, heat, and public dining-rooms where one was forced to masticate, cheek by jowl, with total strangers, were much more trying. Friendliness amounted almost to a vice. The Kembles had brought many letters of introduction with them, and shortly after their arrival on September 4, 1832, they were invited to dine with Mr. Philip Hone, former mayor of New York, a retired commission merchant, whose house, facing City Hall Park, was a meeting place for artists and writers of the conservative stripe.

For some years now, I have been fascinated by the nineteenth-century actress and writer Fanny Kemble, and I’m still waiting for someone to write a good comprehensive biography of her. (Maybe me, in fifteen years when I retire.) This book, published in 1972, fills one of the gaps in the more recent biography by Deirdre David in that it concentrates on her relationship with America (the “lovely land” of the title), and with one particular American, Pierce Butler, and with the issue of slavery – in particular, going into how the letters that became the Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation 1838-1839 were written, and how they came to be published twenty-five years later. There is lots of good circumstantial detail about antebellum Philadelphia, New York, Washington, and of course the Georgia islands of the Butler plantation. (Incidentally, Pierce Butler’s grandfather, also Pierce Butler, had provided refuge on his island plantation to Aaron Burr in 1804 immediately after the duel in which Alexander Hamilton was killed; in 1736, the same islands were also the American base for Charles Wesley, with his brother John just down the road.) There’s a lot of good comparative stuff about how Kemble’s perceptions of America differed from other contemporary English visitors, contrasting her more touchy-feely approach with the intellectualisation of the likes of Harriet Martineau (they did not get on).

At the same time, there’s a huge elephant in the room which simply isn’t mentioned, and which on reflection I haven’t seen mentioned much in any of the writings on Kemble that I have seen. Quite simply, she was a feminist. Her marriage broke down because she insisted on behaving as her husband’s equal, and Pierce Butler, scion of a Georgian plantation family, simply could not cope with this. Her favourite Shakespeare character was Portia, whose crowning moment is when she assumes a male role and wins (she hated being Juliet, which was the role people always wanted to push her into). The Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation is full of material which could only be written by a feminist abolitionist, and the rest of her career is equally full of commentary on gender politics. Wright is not the only biographer to miss this, but she’s the most political of Kemble’s biographers who I’ve read and it seems therefore particularly lacking here.

My other complaint, and it’s one I’ve made before about Kemble’s biographers, is that she was in general a better writer than those who write about her, so it’s a shame not to hear a bit more of her own voice here – there’s almost an assumption that the reader is already familiar with her writings. She was a complex and fascinating character, and people who knew her either loved her or hated her; and subsequent history has not done her justice.

This came to the top of my pile as the shortest book acquired in 2009 which I had not yet read. Next in order is Oracle, by Ian Watson.

One thought on “Fanny Kemble and the lovely land, by Constance Wright

  1. Hello Nicholas,


    Having encountered your book review for this author I am most interested in the fact you say you are a descendant of Sir Nicholas White son of James Walsh/Welsh a 16th century Lord Mayor of Waterford.
    My family were closely associated and are believed to be a cadet of Welsh (Walsh) of Piltown who were considered the direct descendants of Sir Nicholas. I have carried out many years of world wide research on this topic, tracing proven descendants in Ireland, United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Island of Niue and have met most of them at a reunion in Wellington in 2012.

    I would very much like to discuss our possible mutual connection in more detail should you be interested.

    Thomas Spencer Eveleigh Welsh

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