Actors, Musicians and Theatre Personalities with Scottish Links ~ Frances (Fanny) Kemble
(1809 - 93)

1.   FannyTop

Frances (Fanny) Kemble  1809 - 1893

1     Frances Anne Kemble (1834), by Thomas Sully (1783-1872), Oil on canvas 91.8 × 71 cm, original in the White House Washington, D.C.   [Image in the public domain.]

Notes from The White House Historical Association:

'Thomas Sully was to paint the portraits of many actors and actresses during his career, but Fanny Kemble ranked the first in his affections. . . . . She first posed for Sully on March 10, 1833; that portrait was given to Sully's wife. More than a year later, Sully began two portraits of Kemble. According to Sully's notations, one was 'to accompany Fanny Kemble to England' (finished June 17), this is probably the White House painting.  The other was painted for Pierce Butler [her husband, finished June 18].

The actress's softly brushed, loosely contoured, impossibly long shoulder and her right arm are put into virtually the same plane, close to the picture's surface. This unusual, contrived pose--the upper body is a tall narrow lozenge, the right elbow its insubstantial base--injects a wistful, ephemeral note, complemented by the exquisite transparency of the organdy sleeve.'

Born in England to a family of actors and actresses, Frances Ann 'Fanny' Kemble followed her family’s theatrical tradition, though she disliked acting.

When she came to the United States in 1832, she did not come as a tourist; she came to save the family fortune.   Kemble's father, former manager of Covent Garden, had lost a great deal of money, and after her successful acting debut in London, he decided they could make more money touring in America.  Fanny was reluctant to go on the trip but enjoyed drama and adventure, and she quickly earned fame.

A very spirited woman, she threw her heart into her craft, glorying in her triumphs in front of the American audiences or wallowing in defeat.  This zest for action carried over into her life.  It is said that Kemble always ran or hiked ahead of the group, rode the fastest horse and climbed to the highest point. Her enthusiasm won the heart of Pierce Butler, a wealthy Philadelphia bachelor whom she married in 1834.

Kemble had published her travel journals in 1835, despite the objections of her husband, who deleted all the proper names before he would allow the book to go to press.   Her account is told from the perspective of a working actress on a foreign tour.  She is not an idle aristocratic lady. She receives few visitors nor does she attend many social events; most of her energy is occupied with rehearsal and performances.  In her writing, Kemble holds herself superior to all she finds, stating plainly, 'It's a darling country for poor fellows.' She often cites instances where she has been treated rudely, never stopping to consider whether her own attitude or actions merited the treatment.

Unknown to her at the time of her wedding, Pierce Butler stood to inherit two plantations in Georgia. The inheritance became a reality in 1838. By that time, their marriage had already become strained over a difference in taste and temperament, a rift that was to deepen after they ventured South.

[Text based, in part, on 'On the Road in American Culture' An Internet Anthology, maintained at Dept. of English and American Studies, Vienna University, Austria and other contemporary sources.]


2.   JulietTop

Frances (Fanny) Kemble  1809 - 1893

2.   Miss Fanny Kemble as Juliet, 1837?.  Fairburn's Portraits. No. 21 Hand coloured etching,  23.5 x 19 cm.  Published by John Fairburn, 110 Minories, London.    This item is in The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts/Billy Rose Theatre Division.    [Image in the public domain.]

Fanny Kemble's first season at Covent Garden, in the role of Juliet was so successful that, to quote Genest,  'she enabled the proprietors to pay off a debt of £l3,000.'   Her first appearance was on 5th October 1829 as Juliet to her father's Mercutio and the Lady Capulet of her mother, who returned to the stage after a long absence.  Her last stage appearances in London were in February and March 1848 when, billed as Mrs. Butler, she played three roles with Macready; Lady Macbeth, Queen Katherine and Desdemona.

During the Civil War Fanny published her journal that she had written while residing on her husband's plantation in Georgia.  It is the closest, most-detailed look at plantation slavery ever recorded by a white northern abolitionist.  Her descriptions of the horrifying treatment of slaves may have been a factor in assuring British neutrality during the war, when many favoured the South as the supplier of cotton for British textile mills.

Fanny Kemble had a sparkling, saucy, and rather boisterous individual, and seems to have had a string of elderly admirers of distinction. Rogers, Macaulay, Sidney Smith, and other literary men of the epoch gave her incessant homage, and memoirs of the early part of the century are full of her.

Eighty-five letters addressed to her by Edward FitzGerald between 1871 and 1883 were printed in ‘Temple Bar,’ and with the addition of nineteen letters were issued separately in 1895. Wilson, in the ‘Noctes,’ credited her with genius, and assigned her, as did others, a place near her aunt, Mrs. Siddons.  Scott and Moore placed her on a lower plane. Longfellow was completely under her spell. Judge Haliburton spoke of her ‘cleverness and audacity, refinement and coarseness, modesty and bounce, pretty humility and prettier arrogance.’  Leigh Hunt could not be won to faith in her. Macready said, with some justice, that she was ignorant of the very rudiments of her art, but made amends, declaring that ‘she is one of the most remarkable women of the present day.’ Lewes called her readings ‘an intellectual delight.’

Kemble went on to publish other thoughtful and intelligent works -  Records of a Girlhood in 1878, Records of a Later Life in 1882, Notes Upon Some of Shakespeare's Plays in 1882, Far Away and Long Ago in 1889, and Further Records in 1891.  

Her chief literary productions were: ‘Francis the First,’ 1832; ‘The Star of Seville,’ a drama, 1837; ‘Poems,’ Philadelphia, 1844; ‘A Year of Consolation’ (travels in Italy), 1847; ‘Plays,’ 1863, including ‘An English Tragedy,’ ‘Mary Stuart,’ translated from Schiller, and ‘Mademoiselle de Belle-Isle,’ translated from Dumas; ‘Christmas Tree and other Tales,’ from the German, 1856.

Kemble died in London on Jan. 15, 1893.

[Text based, in part, on  the Dictionary of National Biography. Sup. Vol III (1901), now out of copyright and other contemporary sources.]

Note. Some of Kemble's publications are available on line through Project Gutenberg.   For further information, please follow this LINK


3.   FannyTop

Frances Anne Kemble, 1809-1893

3.    Frances Anne Kemble (1809-1893), 3/4 length portrait, seated, facing slightly left. Steel engraving after painting by Alonzo Chappel (c1873) after painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 18½x13 cm. Pencil notation: engraved by E. Edwards of London. Proof before going to Press. The original proof copy is in The Robert Cushman Butler Collection of Theatrical Illustrations, Washington State University Libraries.    [Image in the public domain.]

In 1834, Kemble met, Pierce Butler, one of her most ardent admirers, American heir of one of the largest slaveholders in Georgia.  His grandfather was Major Pierce Butler, a Revolutionary War veteran, a United States senator from South Carolina, and a founding father who wrote the Constitution's fugitive slave clause. Major Butler owned 638 slaves and was one of the wealthiest men in the United States. He also owned a mansion in Philadelphia and a country home near the city. His grandson, Pierce, was the heir to all this wealth.

Kemble was happy to retire from the stage in 1834 to become the wife of Butler.  In spite of her success, she hated what she thought of as the artificiality of acting.

When Butler inherited the Georgia plantation upon his grandfather's death, she moved to Georgia. From December 30, 1838 to April 17, 1839, Kemble kept a journal of what she witnessed. Although she spent only sixteen months of her life in Georgia, the result was a powerful piece of historical literature - Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839.  At first, Fanny Kemble refrained from publishing her text, though the manuscript was repeatedly revised and circulated among her friends.  The journal makes a correlation between the gender-based oppression of slave women and her own subjugation in the legal and social systems of 19th-century United States.

Kemble was an intelligent, independent woman who abhorred slavery and was ready to speak out against it.  These abolitionist views did not sit well with her husband; yet she still strived to make the marriage work.

During the next eight years, Fanny often spent the summer alone in Massachusetts. In 1841 she spent about a year in England. She finally left her husband in 1846. Unable to reconcile their differences, Butler and Kemble were divorced in 1849, with Butler retaining custody of their two daughters, Sarah and Frances, until they came of age.

Following the separation in 1846, Kemble returned to the British stage.  In 1847, moved to Italy, where she wrote A Year of Consolation (1848).  In 1849 Kemble returned to the United States, making a career of giving public readings from Shakespeare. This innovation brought her enthusiastic applause and a more than decent income.

Fanny was reunited with each of her girls when they turned 21. Kemble recorded her experiences in letters, which she later compiled and published.   Kemble and her daughter Sarah were pro-North in the Civil War; Butler and daughter Frances were pro-South. In early 1861, Butler and daughter Frances went to Georgia. Upon their return to Philadelphia in August, he was arrested for treason and released in September.

[Based on material published in Encyclopedia Britannica, now out of copyright.]

Top  ~  Breakfast with Sir Walter Scott  ~ Fanny writes of her arrival in Bath and looks forward to her arrival in Edinburgh  ~  Fanny and her Scottish Audiences  ~ A meeting with Sir Walter ScottCorrespondence during a Scottish Tour


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