Frances Ann Kemble
by Beth Palmer

Frances, also known as Fanny, Kemble was perhaps best known in the nineteenth-century for her stage acting but she was also a novelist, playwright and abolitionist. Born in 1809, she came from an acting dynasty (her father was Charles Kemble the manager of Covent Garden theatre) and spent a portion of her childhood in Eastlands, their family house in Weybridge. Remembering her first journey to Eastlands in the 1820s, she recalled, ‘Weybridge was not then reached by train in half an hour from London; it was two or three hours' coach distance: a rural, rather deserted-looking, and most picturesque village.’ She remembered fondly the ‘powerful enchantment’ of the literature she read during her rambles in the common and woods that adjoined the family garden. The family were also keen anglers and her mother in particular enjoyed family fishing outings. During one of her free and happy summers at Weybridge she caught smallpox from her sister which marked her complexion although this did not affect her on-stage success.

Fanny Kemble by Peter Frederick Rothermel oil on canvas, 1849. NPG 5462. National Portrait Gallery, licensed under Creative Commons.

Kemble published several volumes of poetry, a novel, six volumes of memoirs, and plays including Francis the First (1832) and The Star of Seville: A Drama in Five Acts (1837). She was a talented and confident woman and, with help from her familial connections, she found early fame on stage. Some of her best-known roles included Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and Julia in The Hunchback.

1832 saw Kemble leave England for a tour of the United States with her father. The tour was a huge success and Kemble became a super-star whose image was reproduced on posters and souvenirs. It was during this tour that she met her husband, Pierce Butler. They married in 1834 but the marriage was not a happy one. Butler’s family wealth came from plantations worked by slaves. When Kemble visited the plantations in Georgia she was shocked and her letters describing the conditions endured by enslaved people were later published as Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation (1863). The couple divorced in 1849 after bitter disputes about both their personal lives (including their two daughters) and the oppositional perspectives on slavery.

Fanny Kemble continued to travel widely and gave performances of Shakespeare in one-woman shows to great popular acclaim. Her eventful life spanned the nineteenth century and she did a great deal to record her times in her autobiographical writing. She had ‘a tenacious and acute memory’ and on returning to Weybridge after her family had sold their house she wrote, ‘It seems to me that memory is the special organ of pain, for even when it recalls our pleasures, it recalls only the past, and half their sweetness becomes bitter in the process.’ She died in London in 1893.

In 2000 a feature film entitled Enslavement was released in America depicting Kemble’s life with Jane Seymour taking the lead role.

Quotations from Frances Ann Kemble, Records of a Girlhood (New York: 1880). Available on Project Gutenberg.

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