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Frances Anne Kemble. Warner, Elizabeth Anne.
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Frances Anne Kemble

By Elizabeth Warner

Frances Anne "Fanny" Kemble (1809-1893) was born into an English theatrical dynasty. Her father, Charles Kemble, was an actor and the manager of the Covent Garden Theatre, and her mother, Maria Theresa De Camp Kemble, was a prominent actress in her own right. Dozens of her family members worked in theatre and she counted among her aunts and uncles John Philip Kemble, the best-known tragedian of his generation, and Sarah Siddons, one of the most famous English-speaking actresses of all time. Fanny's mother originally intended a different path for her daughter and had Fanny educated in France. The impending financial failure of her father's management, however, forced Fanny onto the stage and into the spotlight, as she won acclaim and renown for her portrayal of Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, despite a short, stubby figure and a countenance that could not be considered beautiful. She was nineteen. Fanny's good memory and ability to take on characters in a moment propelled her to great success; she often filled the Covent Garden Theatre on the nights when she performed.

Fanny toured with her father when the theatres closed during the summers and the family was able to stave off financial ruin for a few years. But in 1831, the tide turned against the Kembles—Charles lost his position as the manager of the Covent Garden Theatre and the reviews of Fanny's performances lost their former luster. Fanny reluctantly agreed to accompany her father on a barnstorming tour of the United States for the 1832-1833 season. The pair was received well, with minor criticisms on the pairing of Charles with his daughter in many Shakespearean roles, and they toured the Eastern seaboard for two years, with Fanny taking an increasingly central role in attracting spectators. Still young and somewhat inexperienced socially, she attracted negative attention to herself by often mocking the habits and manners of Americans, attention that was amplified when she published her journals recording these observations in 1835. But in Philadelphia, Fanny was noticed in a different way, when she caught the affection of Pierce Butler, the heir to a Georgia plantation. The couple was married in 1834 and Fanny retired thankfully from the stage, thinking her husband's wealth would be sufficient support in the future.

But the marriage was a rocky one. Despite the births of their daughters—Sarah in 1835 and Frances in 1838—Fanny and Pierce were never quite able to come to terms with each other. Fanny was a committed abolitionist and Pierce, though he was considered humane in his practices, was a slave-owner. Pierce moved the family to the Georgia plantation, and her new proximity to the slaves and their living and working conditions soon exacerbated Fanny's abolitionist sympathies. She kept a journal of this time, too, which was later published in 1863: Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839. It was well received by abolitionists, but the copies that found their way into the American South did little to increase her popularity there. Fanny spent less than four months on her husband's plantation. She soon set out on a trip through Europe with her sister, Adelaide, a prima donna. The passion of the couple's first meeting never rekindled and Fanny and Pierce finally separated in 1845, in part over her refusal to adopt her husband's way of life and in part because of his infidelities. Pierce sued for divorce in 1847 and was granted custody of their daughters, meaning that Fanny could only see them for short, arranged visits until they came of age.

Now without financial support due to the strict terms of her divorce, Fanny turned again to acting to support herself, first working in a tempestuous partnership with W.C. Macready, the leading actor-manager of the period, and later turning to Shakespearean solo reading when the arrangement with Macready fell apart, an enterprise in which she followed the precedent of both her father and aunt Sarah Siddons and for which she became enduringly famous. She toured through Europe and the United States giving the readings, a successful undertaking. The readings were also financially profitable for Fanny, allowing her to retire from all stages in 1863.

Fanny enjoyed a quiet retirement, moving between England, Philadelphia, and her Lenox, Massachussetts cottage before eventually settling in London in 1877 to live, alternately, with each of her daughters. She took a prominent place in London's social scene and developed friendships with other well-known figures, including Henry James. Fanny continued to write plays and poems, (publishing several volumes) as well as a novel, but she is best known today for her journal writing. She died quietly in her daughter Frances's home in 1893, at the age of 84 and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery.

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