Fanny Kemble

Fanny Kemble

Kemble, Fanny: see under Kemble, Roger.
This article refers an actress. For other uses of the proper noun Kemble see the disambiguation page entitled Kemble.

Frances Anne Kemble (27 November 1809 - 15 January 1893), was a famous British actress and author in the early and mid nineteenth century.

Youth and acting career

A member of the famous Kemble theatrical family, Fanny was the older daughter of actor Charles Kemble and the niece of noted tragedienne Sarah Siddons. Her younger sister was opera singer Adelaide Kemble. Fanny was born in London, and educated chiefly in France.

She first appeared on the stage on 26 October 1829 as Juliet at Covent Garden. Her attractive personality at once made her a great favorite, her popularity enabling her father to recoup his losses as a manager. She played all the principal women's parts, notably Portia, Beatrice and Lady Teazle, but perhaps her greatest role, not as a lead part, was especially written for her when she played Julia in James Sheridan Knowles's The Hunchback.

Marriage and divorce

In 1832, she accompanied her father on a theatrical tour of the U.S. While in Boston in 1833, she journeyed out to Quincy to witness the revolutionary technology of the first commercial railroad in the United States. She described her visit to the Granite Railway in her journal, as seen in the external link provided by the Friends of the Blue Hills. In 1834, she retired from the stage to marry Pierce Butler, the American heir of one of the largest slaveholders in Georgia and the grandson of the Founding Father Pierce Butler. When the couple married, he was not a slaveholder, but by the time their two daughters, Sarah and Frances were born, Pierce Butler had inherited his grandfather's property and took his wife with him to his sea island plantations during the winter of 1838-39. Fanny was shocked by the conditions of slaves and their treatment. She tried to better their conditions and complained to her husband about slavery. When she left his plantations in the spring of 1839, debates about slavery and marital tensions continued. The couple were divorced in 1849, with Pierce keeping custody of the two daughters until they came of age. Fanny was reunited with each of her girls when they turned 21. Butler died on his plantation shortly after the American Civil War. Neither he nor Fanny ever remarried.

In 1847, Fanny returned to the stage. This was due more to a need to find a way to support herself following her separation and eventual divorce from Butler than to any real interest in acting. Later, following her father's example, Fanny Kemble appeared with much success as a Shakespearean reader, touring from Massachusetts to Michigan, from Chicago to Washington, winning new audiences to the Bard.

Anti-slavery activism

She kept a diary about her life on the Georgia plantation, which was circulated among abolitionists prior to the American Civil War, and was published both in England and the United States once the war broke out. She continued to be outspoken on the subject of slavery, and often donated money from her readings to charitable causes.

In Journal of A Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839, published in 1863, Kemble wrote, "I have sometimes been haunted with the idea that it was an imperative duty. Knowing what I know, and having seen what I have seen, to do all that lies in my power to show the dangers and the evils of this frightful institution."

Later life

In 1877, Fanny returned to England, where she lived using her maiden name till her death. During this period, Fanny Kemble was a prominent and popular figure in the social life of London. She became a great friend of and inspiration for Henry James during her later years. His novel Washington Square (1880) was based upon a story Fanny had told him concerning one of her relatives.

Besides her plays, Francis the First (1832), The Star of Seville (1837), a volume of poems (1844), and an Italian travel book, A Year of Consolation (1847), she published the first volume of her memoirs, Journal in 1835, and in 1863, another, Journal of Residence on a Georgian Plantation (dealing with life on the Georgia plantation), as well as a volume of plays, including translations from Alexandre Dumas, père and Friedrich Schiller. These were followed by Records of a Girlhood (1878), Records of Later Life (1882), Notes on Some of Shakespeare's Plays (1882), Far Away and Long Ago (1889), and Further Records (1891). Her various volumes of reminiscences contain much valuable material illuminating the social and dramatic history of the period.

Her elder daughter Sarah married a doctor, Owen Wister. Sarah and Owen had one child, Owen Wister Jr., the popular American novelist and author of the 1902 western novel, The Virginian.

Her other daughter Frances Butler Leigh met and fell in love with British minister James Leigh. The couple had one daughter, Alice, who was with her grandmother Fanny when she died in England in 1893.


All available through the Harvard University Library Open Collections Program, a fully searchable online database.

  • Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839. New York: Harper & Bros., 1863, ISBN 0-8203-0707-6.
  • Record of a Girlhood. London: R. Bentley and Son, 1878.
  • Records of Later Life. New York: H. Holt and Co., 1882.
  • Further Records, 1848-1883: a series of letters. London: R. Bentley and Son, 1890.


Harvard University Library Open Collections Program. Women Working, 1870-1930; Fanny Kemble (1809-1893). A full-text searchable online database with complete access to publications written by Fanny Kemble.

  • Enslavement: The True Story of Fanny Kemble - 1999 - TV, based on: Fanny Kemble: Journal of a *Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839.
  • Works by Fanny Kemble at Project Gutenberg.
  • "People & Events: Fanny Kemble and Pierce Butler: 1806 - 1893" at
  • "The Writer's Almanac" with Garrison Keillor, commemoration of her birthday on Nov. 27.
  • Jenkins, Rebecca (2005). Fanny Kemble: A Reluctant Celebrity. Simon & Schuster.

External links

See also

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