Frances (Fanny) Kemble (1809 - 1893)   ~  Incidents and Events in a Professional Life

In the summer of 1830, following the custom for Covent Garden actors to tour the provinces after a successful metropolitan season, Fanny Kemble and her father set off for Bath, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dublin, Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham.

Fanny writes of her arrival in Bath and looks forward to her arrival in Edinburgh: Bath, May 31, 1830

I have owed you an answer, and a most grateful one, for some time past, for your kindness in writing me so long a letter as your last; but when I assure you that, what with leave-taking, trying on dresses, making purchases, etc., etc., and all the preparations for our summer tour, this is the first moment in which I have been able to draw a long breath for the last month, I am sure you will forgive me, and believe, notwithstanding my long silence, that I was made very happy indeed by your letter.

I bade Covent Garden and my dear London audience farewell on Friday last, when I acted Lady Townley for the first time. The house was crammed, and as the proprietors had fixed that night for a second benefit which they gave me, I was very glad that it was so.

I was very nicely dressed, and to my own fancy acted well, though I dare say my performance was a little flat occasionally. But considering my own physical powers, and the immense size of the theatre, I do not think I should have done better on the whole by acting more broadly; though I suppose it would have been more effective, I should have had to sacrifice something of repose and refinement to make it so.

I was very sorry to leave my London audience: they welcomed my first appearance; they knew the history of our shipwrecked fortunes, and though perhaps not one individual amongst them would go a mile out of his way to serve us, there exists in them, taken collectively, a kind feeling and respect for my father, and an indulgent good-will toward me, which I do not hope to find elsewhere.

I like Bath very much; I have not been here since I was six years old, when I spent a year here in hopes of being bettered by my aunt, Mrs. Twiss. A most forlorn hope it was. I suppose in human annals there never existed a more troublesome little brat than I was for the few years after my first appearance on this earthly stage.

This town reminds me a little of Edinburgh. How glad I shall be to see Edinburgh once more! I expect much pleasure, too, from the pleasure of my aunt Dall, who some years ago spent some very happy time in Edinburgh, and who loves it from association. And then, dear H——, I am looking forward to seeing you once more; I shall be with you somewhere in the beginning of June.

I have had my first rehearsal here this morning, Romeo and Juliet; the theatre is much smaller than Covent Garden, which rather inconveniences me, as a novelty, but the audience will certainly benefit by it. My fellow-labourers amuse me a good deal; their versions of Shakespeare are very droll. I wonder what your Irish ones will be. I am fortunate in my Romeo, inasmuch as he is one of my cousins; he has the family voice and manner very strongly, and at any rate does not murder the text of Shakespeare.

I have no more time to spare now, for I must get my tea and go to the theatre. I must tell you, though, of an instance of provincial prudery (delicacy, I suppose I ought to call it) which edified us not a little at rehearsal this morning: the Mercutio, on seeing the nurse and Peter, called out, "A sail, a sail!" and terminated the speech in a significant whisper, which, being literally inaudible, my mother, who was with me on the stage, very innocently asked, 'Oh, does the gentleman leave out the shirt and the smock?' upon which we were informed that 'body linen' was not so much as to be hinted at before a truly refined Bath audience. How particular we are growing—in word! I am much afraid my father will shock them with the speech of that scamp Mercutio in all its pristine purity and precision.

Good-by, dear H——.  Ever your affectionate

F. A. K.

('Hal' was Kemble's nickname for Harriet St. Leger. )

[Taken from Records of a Girlhood by Frances Anne Kemble, 2nd Edition Henry Holt and Company, New York 1880.]


Miss Fanny Kemble as Juliet (detail) 1829.   Engraving, printed ink on paper by unknown engravers after Thomas Stothard 1755 - 1834.  Published by
J Dickenson, London. Original in the Harry R. Beard Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London

MercutioCharles Kemble as Mercutio in 'Romeo and Juliet' lithograph by Richard James Lane after Alfred Edward Chalon. 511 x 363 mm.  Published by Colnaghi and Puckle, May 1840.  Original in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London.  Given by Austin Lane Poole, 1956.

Breakfast with Sir Walter Scott

Among the delightful occurrences of last week, I must record our breakfasting with Walter Scott. I was wonderfully happy. To whom, since Shakespeare, does the reading world owe so many hours of perfect, peaceful pleasure, of blessed forgetfulness of all things miserable and mean in its daily life?

The party was a small but interesting one: Sir Walter and his daughter Anne, his old friend Sir Adam Ferguson and Lady Ferguson, and Miss Ferrier, the authoress of 'Marriage' and 'Inheritance,' with both which capital books I hope, for your own sake, you are acquainted.

Sir Walter was most delightful, and I even forgot all awful sense of his celebrity in his kind, cordial, and almost affectionate manner toward me. He is exceedingly like all the engravings, pictures, and busts of him with which one is familiar, and it seems strange that so varied and noble an intellect should be expressed in the features of a shrewd, kindly, but not otherwise striking countenance.

He told me several things that interested me very much; among others, his being present at the time when, after much searching, the regalia of Scotland was found locked up in a room in Edinburgh Castle, where, as he said, the dust of centuries had accumulated upon it, and where the ashes of fires lit more than two hundred years before were still lying in the grate.

He told me a story that made me cry, of a poor old lady upward of eighty years of age, who belonged to one of the great Jacobite families,—she was a Maxwell,—sending to him at the time the Scottish crown was found, to implore permission to see it but for one instant; which (although in every other case the same petition had been refused) was granted to her in consideration of her great age and the vital importance she seemed to attach to it. I never shall forget his describing her when first she saw it, appearing for a moment petrified at sight of it, and then tottering forward and falling down on her knees, and weeping and wailing over these poor remains of the royalty of her country as if it had been the dead body of her child.

[Taken from Records of a Girlhood by Frances Anne Kemble, 2nd Edition Henry Holt and Company, New York 1880.]


Scottish novelist Susan Ferrier; from an engraving after the 1836 portrait by R. Thorburn  [Image in the public domain.]

Adam Ferguson
Sir Adam Ferguson, 1771 - 1855. Soldier; friend of Sir Walter Scott Scottish by William Nicholson, 1781 - 1844.  Oil on canvas, 762 x 635 mm Purchased 1884 by National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.  [Image in the public domain.]

Fanny and her Scottish Audiences

I like my Glasgow audience better than my Edinburgh one; they are not so cold. I look for a pleasant audience in your country [Ireland], for which we set out to-morrow, I believe.

Edinburgh was a brilliant and peculiarly intellectual centre of society with a strongly marked national character, and the theatre held a distinguished place among its recreations; the many eminent literary and professional men who then made the Scotch capital illustrious being zealous patrons of the drama and frequenters of the play-house, and proud, with reason, of their excellent theatrical company, at the head of which was William Murray, one of the most perfect actors I have ever known on any stage, and among whom Terry and Mackay, admirable actors and cultivated, highly intelligent men, were conspicuous for their ability.

.   .   .   .   I have little news to return you but what concerns myself, but I shall make no coquettish excuses about that, for I really believe 'tis the subject that will interest you most of any I could find.

First, then, I am very well, rather tired, and sitting at an inn window, in a dull, dark, handsome square in Glasgow. My fortnight in Edinburgh is over, and a short fortnight it has been, what with rehearsals, riding, sitting for my bust, and acting.  The few hurried glimpses I have caught of my friends have been like dreams, and now that I have parted from them, no more to meet them there certainly, the whole seems to me like mere bewilderment, and I repeat to myself in my thoughts, hardly believing it, that the next time that I visit Edinburgh I shall not find the dear companionship of my cousins nor the fond affection of Mrs. Henry Siddons.

This will be a severe loss to me; Edinburgh will, I fear, be without its greatest charm, and it will remain to be proved whether these lovely scenes that I have so admired and delighted in owed all their incomparable fascination to their intrinsic beauty, or to that most pleasurable frame of mind I enjoyed at the same time, the consciousness of the kind regard of the excellent human beings among whom I lived.

You will naturally expect me to say something of my theatrical experiences in the modern Athens. Our houses have been very fine, our audiences (as is their national nature) very cold; but upon the whole I believe they were well pleased with us, notwithstanding the damping influence of the newspapers, which have one and all been unfavourable to me.

The deathlike stillness of the audience, as it afforded me neither rest nor stimulus, distressed me a good deal; which, I think I need not tell you, the newspaper criticisms did not. I was surprised, in reading them, to find how very generally their strictures were confined to my external disadvantages,—my diminutive stature and defective features; and that these far-famed northern critics discussed these rather than what I should have expected them to bestow their consideration upon, the dramatic artist's conception of character, and his (or her) execution of that conception.

But had their verdicts been still more severe, I have a sufficient consolation in two notes of Sir Walter Scott's, written to the editor of one of the papers, Ballantyne, his own particular friend, which the latter sent me, and where he bears such testimony to my exertions as I do not care to transcribe, for fear my cheeks should reflect a lasting blush on my paper, but which I keep as a treasure and shall certainly show you with pride and pleasure when we meet.

(From a letter to Mrs Jamieson, written in Glasgow, 28th June 1830)

I never go anywhere without a book wherein I may scratch my valuable ideas, and therefore when we meet I will show you my present receptacle. I take great delight in writing, and write less incorrectly than I used to do.

[Taken from Records of a Girlhood by Frances Anne Kemble, 2nd Edition Henry Holt and Company, New York 1880.]


Miss Fanny Kemble as Belvidera in Otway's Venice Preserv'd ca 1829. Engraving published by Orlando Hodgson, London

Miss Fanny Kemble as Euphrasia in in Murphy's Grecian Daughter 1830.  Engraving, printed ink on paper by Woolnoth, 1765 - 1840 after Wageman, 1787 - 1863. Published by John Cumberland, London, Original in Harry R. Beard Collection at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In 1830 Fanny Kemble appeared in Venice Preserv'd, The Grecian Daughter, The Provoked Husband and Measure for Measure at the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh

A meeting with Sir Walter Scott.

Scott's opinion of my acting, which would, of course, have been very valuable to me, let it have been what it would, was written to his friend and editor (eheu!), Ballantyne, who was also the editor of one of the principal Edinburgh papers, in which unfavourable criticisms of my performances had appeared, and in opposition to which Sir Walter Scott told him he was too hard upon me, and that for his part he had seen nothing so good since Mrs. Siddons. This encouraging verdict was courteously forwarded to me by Mr. Ballantyne himself, who said he was sure I would like to possess it.

The first time I ever saw Walter Scott, my father and myself were riding slowly down Princes Street, up which Scott was walking; he stopped my father's horse, which was near the pavement, and desired to be introduced to me. Then followed a string of cordial invitations which previous engagements and our work at the theater forbade our accepting, all but the pressing one with which he wound up, that we would at least come and breakfast with him.

The first words he addressed to me as I entered the room were, 'You appear to be a very good horsewoman, which is a great merit in the eyes of an old Border-man.'  Every r in which sentence was rolled into a combination of double u and double r by his Border burr, which made it memorable to me by this peculiarity of his pleasant speech.  . .  . I could not bear to lose, while listening to any one else, a single word spoken by Walter Scott.

[Taken from Records of a Girlhood by Frances Anne Kemble, 2nd Edition Henry Holt and Company, New York 1880.]


Sir Walter Scott, 1st Bt, 1771 – 1832 by John Graham Gilbert (died 1856), Gifted to the National Portrait Gallery, London 1867.   [This image in the public domain.]

Fanny Kemble Anecdotes

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