Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Famed actress and poet Fanny Kemble maintained her Butler Place mansion in northwest Philadelphia.
A star novelist and inspirational actress of her time, Fanny Kemble was born in London in 1809. Kemble balanced her professional and leisure years in both England and the Americas. Her marriage to the well-known Georgia plantation owner Pierce Butler inspired Kemble to write the Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839, which details the harsh treatment of the slaves her husband owned. Both this book and her Journal of Frances Anne Kemble are still primary sources of information on slavery in the south.
Frances Anne Kemble was born in London, England, in 1809, to her parents Charles and Marie Theresa De Camp Kemble. She would soon prove to be a perfect fit into her theatrical family, as the Kembles were once noted as “the most distinguished actor-family England has ever produced.” Kemble had an easy transition into professional life, since she was the niece of actor-manager John Philip Kemble and actress Mrs. Sarah Kemble. Her mother had her educated in the finest schools France had to offer, hopeful that her daughter would follow in her artistic path. Kemble began her writing career at sixteen and finished her first play, Francis the First, which was later produced in 1832. Actor William Charles Macready referred to Kemble’s play as being “full of power, poetry and pathos.” However, the reviews she received did not meet her expectations. Her first taste of on-stage performing was her role as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet. Because her father’s theater was in financial turmoil with £13,000 of debt, her mother pushed her into the role so that she could help her father collect the money to save his business. Fanny continuously studied acting for three weeks prior to her performance. The public adored her performance, and she became the talk of the industry. Accompanied by her father, Kemble began her two-year tour to the Americas. She had no desire to ever experience life in America, but to please her father, she agreed to the visit. Some of Kemble’s most dedicated fans were young girls, who mimicked her hairstyle of tight curls. She was also loved and adored because of her brilliance on stage. However, recognition for her talent did not come easily in America. In reference to her fans, Kemble writes, “The audiences here are without exception the most disagreeable I ever played to.” Though hard to please from the stage, the people in America greeted her with warmth, especially young men. Kemble notes a particular group of men who would arrive at all of her performances hours early to have the privilege of front row seats. When Kemble would take the stage, this group of men would welcome her with thunderous applause. While other audience members were annoyed at their outbursts, Kemble felt honored to have such dedicated fans. In her Journal of Frances Anne Butler, she refers to the American people as “the most extravagant people in the world.” In 1834, Kemble married Pierce Butler in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Pierce Butler was well-known for his Georgia plantation and for being the descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. It has been said that Kemble may have married Butler so that her father could take the money back to England. For Kemble, marriage was something she was unsure of, as she doubted herself to be a fit wife. In 1835, Kemble gave birth to Sarah, soon followed by her second daughter Frances in 1838. After Butler’s father, Major Pierce Butler, died in 1822, Butler and his brother John took a trip to Georgia to view their inheritance, which included over 1,000 slaves. Butler took Kemble to his Sea Island Plantation in an attempt to sway her views of slavery and bring them in line with his. Fanny’s thoughts of her first encounter with her husband’s slaves are captured in her journal: “The sight of them in no way tended to alter my previous opinions of them. They were poorly clothed, looked horribly dirty, and had a lazy recklessness in their air and manner as they sauntered along, which naturally belongs to creatures without one of the responsibilities which are the honorable burden of rational humanity.” On December 30, 1838, Kemble went to Butler Island, Georgia. She was swayed by the beauty surrounding the island and set off to explore on horseback. All of the beauty she saw was undermined by the presence of slavery, she concluded:“I should like the wild savage loneliness of the far away existence extremely if it were not for the one small item of ‘the slavery.’” The slaves were fascinated by Kemble and often came in groups to watch her write. With the compassion the slaves generated around Kemble, she set out to reform the Butler plantations. She set up a slave hospital and nursery to soften the complaints of those in need. Kemble paid the slaves who tended to her personally. For the slave children, she improved their hygiene by rewarding cleanliness with small prizes. Kemble’s optimistic attempts at slavery reform were seen by the public as foolish, as most of the community sided with Butler. The distress she faced caused her to flee the island on a rowboat only to realize she did not have the means to make it back to Philadelphia. Kemble returned to the island the next day. Unable to fight the battle of slavery independently, Kemble fell into a harsh depression. During this period, Kemble threatened to leave Butler if their livelihood continued to be based on slavery. In retaliation, Butler wrote to many of Kemble’s friends claiming that her mental illness was causing him fear. After Butler’s near-death illness, Kemble promised not to mention slavery again. Kemble and Butler lived in relative peace in the summer of 1840. In 1843, Kemble and Butler sailed back to the United States with Fanny’s high hopes of returning to her acting and writing careers. Butler interfered with her attempts and also tried to stop the publication of her journal and other letters about slavery. At first, Butler tried to personally edit her journal to make all of the necessary adjustments he thought were appropriate. He even went as far as to offer her publisher $2,500 not to put out the journal. In 1845, Kemble left her husband and children and spent the next two years attempting to reestablish herself on stage in England. Her efforts at acting failed miserably as they public stated she was “ignorant of the first rudiments of her art.” She traveled back to the United States in 1848 to settle her divorce with Butler. They reached a settlement that granted Kemble $1,500 a year and two months every summer with her two daughters. Kemble began a new career in dramatic readings that brought her great popularity. At this point in her life, Kemble was enjoying the freedom of being single. When she wasn’t working, she enjoyed leisure activities such as fishing and having tea with her friends. The Civil War ended the need for her readings, and she returned to England in 1863. In July of 1867, Kemble learned that Pierce Butler had suddenly taken ill and died from malaria. Butler had never thought to make a will, and after much legal controversy, his wealth was divided equally between his daughters. Her daughter Fan was determined to continue her father’s Georgia plantation, so she set off to Georgia to carry on with the business. During this time, Residence of a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 was published. In this book, Kemble wrote about the horrifying conditions of the slaves that her husband owned. Kemble and her daughter Fan continuously battled over the topic of slavery. Her daughter Sarah gave birth to Owen Wister on July 14, 1860. Kemble would later attempt to jump start her grandson’s career as she gave a letter of introduction to Franz Liszt, the famous composer. Wister would go on to write The Virginian, which has been called the most famous Western novel ever written. In 1874, Kemble’s dearest friend, Harriet St. Legers, opened up a new writing opportunity for Kemble. Because of bad eyesight, Legers was unable to read the letters that Kemble had sent her. She gave them back in hopes that Kemble would work with them to have them published. Her wish was granted the next year as the first series of letters called An Old Woman’s Gossip was published in The Atlantic Monthly. After 1879, Kemble spent the remainder of her time in Europe. As her health began to deteriorate, she moved in with her daughter, Fan. Kemble felt trapped in her daughter’s house and could no longer fulfill any of her social obligations. She continually spoke of approaching her death. Since childhood she saw herself dying from a tragic horseback riding accident. Instead, she died while being helped to her bed by her maid in 1893. Kemble gave her daughter Sarah the Butler mansion that she had inherited after the death of her former husband, Pierce Butler. Her journal continues to be a primary source of education on the reality of slavery.
A Window in Thrums. Hodder & Stoughton, 1938.
An English Tragedy: A Play in Five Acts. London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green, 1863