May Books 2) Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life, by Deirdre David

I became fascinated by Fanny Kemble (1809-1893) after reading her account of the death of William Huskisson, and even more so her memoir of life on a Georgian plantation in 1838-39, but rather bounced off the first biography of her that I read. This, however, was praised in the Economist, which was a good enough recommendation for me to put it on the wishlist. (And my wife got it for me for my birthday last week.)

David delivers on what she promises: assessing Kemble’s career as one of continual performance. Her time as an actress was actually very brief – the five years before her marriage in 1834, and her first year back in England, 1847-8, after her marriage finally disintegrated. She continued to perform in other ways, though: she had a long and successful stage career doing solo readings of Shakespeare’s plays, and David argues that her written words in her letters and journals (judiciously edited by herself for publication many years later, and the originals destroyed) are her most lasting performance before the audience of history (I paraphrase).

Kemble was a very intelligent and literate woman, who refused to be confined to her place as daughter or wife, and as a result became an object of fascination; as a young woman, she charmed Walter Scott; in her old age, she developed a deep friendship with the young Henry James and inspired him to write Washington Square. She was also an object of horror to her in-laws; her husband could not tolerate her desire to maintain her independence, and he and his family don’t seem to have realised just how serious she was in her opposition to slavery.

David has done a fantastic job of analysing how Fanny Kemble constructed her performances, and has amassed a tremendous range of secondary (and even primary) material to show how they were received by her audience at the time, including the (rare) hostile reviews along with the positive. I feel that Kemble’s charm is now explained for me without being disintegrated: David is clearly a little in love with her subject.

I was disappointed, therefore, that in her chapter on the 1838-39 plantation episode, David relies too uncritically on Kemble’s own account. I would have liked more depth. We know that her reminiscences were attacked for inaccuracy when they were published twenty-five years later; I am aware that there were a number of other slave narratives out there which Kemble might have drawn on, and to which she can certainly be compared. David makes an interesting point about Kemble seeing herself as a sort of inverted Miranda, but the political context is missing.

While I’m complaining, two more points of irritation: David makes a couple of very silly slips on political context, describing Paris in the 1820s as being under Louis-Napoleon (he ruled from 1848 to 1870), and speculating about the chances of the Republican Party in the 1840 US presidential election (it was not founded until 1856). And the notes are infuriatingly placed at the end of the book, mostly just citing her sources, but occasionally with some really juicy nuggets of information, printed hundreds of pages from their context; with today’s technology, there is no excuse for publishers screwing around their authors’ texts in this way.

One last point that struck me: David chronicles Kemble’s disastrous marriage and her more successful passionate friendships with women. But the most important man in her life, who provided the raw material for her successes on stage, inspired her to be a Portia or a Miranda, and to whom she wrote some of her more impassioned poetry, died almost two centuries before she was born (and like her was survived by two daughters). Shakespeare gets everywhere.

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1 Response to May Books 2) Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life, by Deirdre David

  1. gareth_rees says:

    The piece gives interesting insights into attitudes to women taking up cycling in the late 19th century, so I put the whole thing on my blog.

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