Fanny Kemble’s Civil Wars, by Catherine Clinton

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Accustomed to depending on the largesse of his family, Pierce [Butler, Fanny’s husband] lacked independent wealth, vocation, or even direction for his life. His brother, John, was also “a mere idler … totally without education or intellect,” but he had married an heiress, Gabriella Morris, and was comfortably fixed “in dress, house & equipment.”

As my regular reader knows, I am fascinated by the nineteenth century actress and writer Fanny Kemble. I first encountered her witnessing the first ever fatal train accident, and then read her controversial memoir of living as the wife of a Georgian plantation owner in the 1830s. She seems a really attractive character, and my problem has been that none of the books I had previously read about her grasps the whole of her personality and career; Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life, by Deirdre David, concentrates on her theatrical activity and aspirations; Fanny Kemble and the lovely land, by Constance Wright, emphasises the American part of her life; and Fanny Kemble: The Reluctant Celebrity, by Rebecca Jenkins, is just poorly written.

To refresh your memory, when Fanny Kemble was born in 1809, her father’s family completely dominated the British theatre world; her aunt was the famous actress Sarah Siddons, the oldest of a dozen Kemble siblings who all went into show business. The family fell on hard times in the 1820s and ruthlessly marketed her as Juliet, both in London and in North America. She married a charming American in 1834, but discovered that the foundation of his wealth was slavery; they separated and eventually divorced. Her ex-husband also fell on hard times and auctioned off 436 slaves, the largest slave auction in American history, in 1859. Her book about life on the plantation, based on letters written in 1838-39, was published in 1862 and effectively deterred British sympathy for the Confederacy. She returned to London in 1877 and lived there for the rest of her life, performing on stage occasionally, but usually doing solo readings (she was clearly very good at it). She died in 1893.

I’m glad to say that I’ve finally found a book about her that I can recommend to the curious. Like Constance Wright, Catherine Clinton in Fanny Kemble’s Civil Wars concentrates on her American experience, but gives a lot more context and depth, and gives due regard to the English parts of her life. (We think of her as English, but her mother was born in Vienna to a Swiss mother and French father.) She does not shy away from the political side of Kemble’s life, and it’s made clear that a large part of what drove her was determination to improve the situation of women (though she rejects “organised feminism” on page 235). As I mentioned in one of my previous reviews, while audiences (and her husband) loved to see her as Juliet, her favourite Shakespeare character was Portia. (Merchant of Venice Portia, not Brutus’ wife in Julius Caesar.)

Clinton also adds much more about Kemble’s family than I think I had seen before. The fact that her favourite aunt died as the result of a coach accident soon after they had arrived together in America must have resonated profoundly for her. Clinton also traces her and her siblings’ descendants in America – her two daughters were estranged to different degrees by their parents’ bitter separation, and ended up basically on opposite sides in the Civil War; in 1874, her English nephew married the daughter of the President of the United States in a ceremony at the White House.

Due to my interest in Doctor Who, I’ve read a fair number of showbiz memoirs, and I have come to the conclusion that most actors are interested in themselves and in acting, usually in that order, and in not much else. I think it’s appropriate that Clinton treats Kemble’s theatrical career as of secondary importance to her writing and her activism. Although Kemble is always remembered as an actress, in fact she spent only five years out of her eighty-four as a regular performer in plays; but she leveraged the reputation that she had earned for the rest of her career. (And the revenue from her later solo readings cannot have done her any harm.) She enlivened a rich life experience by writing well, and I should start reading some more of her original work. Meanwhile, you can get Clinton’s biography here.

This was the non-fiction book that had lingered longest unread on my shelves. Next on that pile is Politics: Between the Extremes, by Nick Clegg.