Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life 
by Deirdre David.
Pennsylvania, 347 pp., £26, June 2007, 978 0 8122 4023 8
Show More
Show More

Fanny Kemble was happiest on stage when she took all the parts. She had been a celebrity at 19, when she made her debut as Juliet at Covent Garden in 1829; but she was a middle-aged woman in flight from a terrible marriage when she began a second career reading Shakespeare’s plays before enthusiastic audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Dressed in a carefully chosen series of gowns – by Deirdre David’s report, the wardrobe consisted of black or red velvet for the tragedies, white or pastel satin for the comedies, and dark green or blue brocade for the history plays – and with no props other than a large reading desk, some piled-up books and a pair of candelabra, Kemble became as famous for her Falstaffs and Prosperos as for the heroines she played as a young woman.

Louisa May Alcott thought Kemble ‘a whole stock company in herself’. Henry James, who recalled hearing her read King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a boy in London, professed himself still waiting some forty years later ‘for any approach to the splendid volume of Mrs Kemble’s “Howl, howl, howl!” in the one, or to the animation and variety that she contributed to the other’. ‘I am confident,’ James wrote, ‘that the most exquisite of fairy tales never was such a “spectacle” as when she read, I was going to say mounted, it.’ As James surely knew, the very absence of spectacle in the ordinary sense was at the heart of the exercise.

The Kemble clan had dominated the respectable British stage since the mid-18th century; but despite a lineage that included her aunt, Sarah Siddons, her father, Charles, and her uncle, the great tragedian John Philip Kemble, Fanny herself was deeply ambivalent towards the theatre. She first aspired to be a writer rather than an actress; and it was only when the family faced bankruptcy that the latest Kemble was swiftly prepared for the stage. As the manager and part-owner of the Covent Garden Theatre, Charles Kemble had inherited a property heavily encumbered by the costs of reconstruction after a devastating fire in 1808; and between the resistance to higher ticket prices demonstrated in the Old Price Riots of 1809 and the competition from smaller, unlicensed playhouses, the Kembles were struggling to pay their bills before Fanny’s triumphant debut temporarily rescued the family fortunes.

Accompanied by her mother as Lady Capulet and her father as Mercutio, Fanny’s Juliet was an overwhelming, if not quite universal success. But most critics agreed that her performance was more than worthy of her name; and in her first season alone she managed to earn almost triple what her aunt Siddons had done at the peak of her career. The newspapers, by her own account, included almost daily notices of her activities; Thomas Lawrence’s sketch of her appeared in shop windows and was printed in miniature on men’s neckerchiefs; plates and saucers were decorated with images of her Juliet, as well as her Belvidera in Otway’s Venice Preserv’d. According to a memoir written a few years later, Kemble had been so successful in restoring the prominence of Covent Garden that ‘on the opening of the new season Drury Lane had to resort to the unprecedented novelty of bringing wild beasts upon the stage, to secure some share of the patronage so liberally awarded to its rival.’

Fanny Kemble as Juliet in an 1829 engraving

Fanny Kemble as Juliet in an 1829 engraving

Yet Kemble had scarcely begun to act before she was assuring a friend that she far preferred the silent reading of the plays to the artificial glamour of performing them:

The happiness of reading Shakespeare’s heavenly imaginations is so far beyond the excitement of acting them (white satin, gas lights, applause, and all) that I cannot conceive a time when having him in my hand will not compensate for the absence of any amount of public popularity. While I can sit obliviously curled up in an armchair, and read what he says till my eyes are full of delicious, quiet tears, and my heart of blessed, good, quiet thoughts and feelings, I shall not crave that which falls so far short of any real enjoyment, and hitherto certainly seems to me as remote as possible from any real happiness.

There is some routine piety in this letter, as well as considerable effort at self-discipline. Kemble is assuring herself, as much as her correspondent, that she does not unduly depend on the applause of the crowd. But the evidence suggests that the anti-theatricality of this celebrated actress was not merely a pose, and that even when she abandoned her armchair for a public platform she carried some of this inwardness with her.

The Shakespeare readings enabled Kemble to satisfy a number of conflicting impulses, not the least of which, as David make clear, was a fierce need for autonomy: as producer, director and the entire cast in one, she was no longer dependent on actors who mangled their lines or on those whose performance styles had painfully clashed with her own. Reading the plays also meant adopting both masculine and feminine roles – a freedom she had repeatedly sought elsewhere to less happy effect. But a 19th-century fondness for the stories in the plays had its force as well. Seated behind a desk piled with books, she was not performing Shakespeare but reading him, even if her ‘Howl’ might echo with a volume James would never hear equalled. James contended that Kemble was so ‘saturated’ with Shakespeare that his was ‘the language she spoke when she spoke most from herself’; and in this sense, too, the private woman and the public reader were inseparable.

‘If we have a definite afterlife in the amount of illustration that may gather about us,’ James wrote soon after her death, ‘few vivid names ought to fade more slowly.’ His obituary essay for his good friend remains the most vital as well as the most subtle evocation of her character, and Kemble has hardly lacked for biographers since. In this century alone she has been the subject of three previous studies. Catherine Clinton’s Fanny Kemble’s Civil Wars (2000) focused on the critique of slavery that Kemble produced after her marriage to Pierce Butler, a wealthy Philadelphian who inherited an extensive plantation in Georgia, and on the intra-familial struggles that played out between Kemble and her two daughters. Fanny and Adelaide: The Lives of the Remarkable Kemble Sisters (2001) is a dual biography by Ann Blainey of the actress and her younger sister, who had a brief but dazzling career as an opera singer. Rebecca Jenkins’s lively history of the actress’s early career, Fanny Kemble: A Reluctant Celebrity (2005), more or less concludes with her marriage to Butler in 1834 and her original retirement from the stage. In 2000 Clinton also produced a highly selected edition of Kemble’s journals.

But few subjects can have had more incarnations than Kemble – ‘did any one else,’ James inquired, ‘ever produce a first fiction at eighty?’ – and Deirdre David’s new biography is particularly alert to this long exercise in self-fashioning, while she divides her attention more evenly over the full range of Kemble’s achievements than her recent predecessors. Though she subtitles her book ‘A Performed Life’, the performances she addresses are as apt to occur offstage as on; and even her subject’s voluminous writings are primarily read as performative gestures. In addition to the novel, Kemble’s published works alone include two travel diaries, one recording her first visit to the US and the other a later sojourn in Italy; the controversial Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, written in 1838-39 but not published until 1863, when Kemble sought to keep Britain from coming to the aid of the South in the Civil War; two collections of poetry; a commentary on some Shakespeare plays; and several plays of her own, the earliest printed even before she had ventured on stage.

Kemble also composed three multi-volume instalments of her memoirs by selecting and editing the extensive correspondence she had maintained for half a century with an Anglo-Irish aristocrat named Harriet St Leger. Though the two women spent relatively little time in one another’s company, they had been instantly attracted to one another when they first met in 1827: intelligent, handsome, and 13 years her senior, the cross-dressing St Leger became, in David’s words, ‘the perfect, androgynous parent’ of the 17-year-old actress and remained her confidante until the older woman’s death in 1878. Presumably, Kemble had no intention of publishing the ‘Answer of Frances Anne Butler to the Libel of Pierce Butler Praying for Divorce’, but this narrative, too, became public when the newspapers got hold of copies in the midst of the couple’s protracted divorce negotiations in 1848.

The Butler marriage was one of those unions that outsiders can only find baffling. Though it lasted 14 years, it seems to have been pretty much a fiasco from the start. The pair first met while Kemble was touring the US with her father in 1832, and Butler, who already had a reputation as a womaniser, began to pursue the young star almost at once. But apart from sexual attraction – which by all accounts appears to have been mutual – the couple would seem to have had virtually nothing in common. He was obviously Kemble’s intellectual inferior; and there is no evidence that he shared her bookishness or sympathised with her aspirations as a writer. Even before she journeyed to Georgia and confronted his slaves in the flesh, Kemble was an abolitionist; and her incipient feminism could scarcely have bumped up against a ‘lord and master’ – the irony is hers – more inclined to insist on his conventional prerogatives. Though she had married partly under the illusion that she could thereby exchange her theatrical career for a literary one, the couple had scarcely returned from their honeymoon before Butler was forbidding her to publish her first American journal. In the end he settled for rigorously censoring any passages offensive to his position as a future slaveholder; but apart from one play and a single volume of poems, she would not venture into print again until she had decisively broken with her husband. Her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation stayed in a drawer for more than 20 years, lest Butler carry out his threat to deny her access to their daughters should she publish it.

As the Journal makes clear, the memory of earning her own living before her marriage only intensified Kemble’s revulsion at the practice of slavery. Acutely conscious that the ‘heavy toil’ of the Butler slaves maintained her ‘in luxurious idleness’, she simultaneously chafed at her own helplessness to alleviate their suffering and recoiled from her husband’s complacent acceptance of their unpaid labour. A key passage in the Journal records her ‘bitter disgust’ as Pierce refuses to listen to a complaint of overwork from a group of pregnant women who are petitioning him:

Mr [Butler] seemed positively degraded in my eyes as he stood enforcing upon these women the necessity of their fulfilling their appointed tasks. How honourable he would have appeared to me begrimed with the sweat and soil of the coarsest manual labour, to what he then seemed, setting forth to these wretched, ignorant women, as a duty, their unpaid exacted labour! I turned away in bitter disgust. I hope this sojourn among Mr [Butler]’s slaves may not lessen my respect for him, but I fear it; for the details of slaveholding are so unmanly letting alone every other consideration, that I know not how anyone with a spirit of a man can condescend to them.

Later, she contemplated breaking the law in Georgia by teaching a slave called Aleck to read, only to register angrily that her status as a married woman meant she could not even take on herself the honourable risk of punishment: ‘Teaching slaves to read is a finable offence, and I am femme couverte, and my fines must be paid by my legal owner, and the first offence of the sort is heavily fined, and the second more heavily fined, and for the third, one is sent to prison. What a pity it is I can’t begin with Aleck’s third lesson, because going to prison can’t be done by proxy, and that penalty would light upon the right shoulders!’

Judging previous centuries by the standards of our own is generally a temptation to be avoided, but it is hard to read of this marriage without concluding that Butler had a gift for being on the wrong side of history. Though David speaks of his ‘good looks’ and ‘languorous sexuality’, even his sex appeal is hard to credit: the receding chin and narrow shoulders in the one photograph reproduced here hardly seem inclined to make women swoon – especially by contrast to the features visible in the sketch of Byron and Shelley’s friend Edward Trelawny, with whom Kemble was also flirting in the months leading up to her marriage. The letters she eventually placed in evidence during the divorce negotiations may have testified to her passionate love for her husband, but those letters, as David makes clear, were carefully selected (and perhaps edited) for the purpose. Whatever the truth of Kemble’s erotic feelings, she had been married only six months when she made her first attempt to run away. Though she merely spent several hours wandering the Philadelphia streets before she gave up and went home, the incident set a pattern that would be repeated on a number of occasions over the course of the marriage – some entailing flights of considerable distance, with Pierce in pursuit. But not until 1845 did she make her final break for Europe; and not until 1847 did she take the yet more decisive step of returning to the theatre. After a spell in the provinces and a rocky collaboration with Macready – he declared her a ‘monstrous pretender to theatrical art’, and she found him a coarse bully who flung her about the stage – she began her two decades of readings from Shakespeare. The playwright was one authority to whom she had no hesitation of surrendering: her sonnet ‘To Shakespeare’ gratefully addresses him as ‘my master dear!’

No doubt Kemble was not easy to live with. ‘I do not think I am fit … to make an obedient wife or affectionate mother,’ she had written to a close friend at 18:

My imagination is paramount with me, and would disqualify me, I think, for the everyday, matter-of-fact cares and duties of the mistress of a household and the head of a family. I think I should be unhappy and the cause of unhappiness to others if I were to marry. I cannot swear I shall never fall in love, but if I do I will fall out of it again, for I do not think I shall ever so far lose sight of my best interest and happiness as to enter into a relation for which I feel so unfit.

At 24 she was evidently less clear-eyed, but by then she had spent nearly five years on the stage; and her strong ambivalence towards the profession she had inherited partly blinded her to the implications of the alternative she was embracing. Kemble had been a difficult child, who responded to punishment with theatrical defiance; and all her life, as David shows, she suffered from mood swings like those that had often afflicted her mother. As an adult, Kemble repeatedly contemplated suicide; and while there is no evidence that she ever made an attempt, she was intensely conscious of her liability to depression.

In a deliberate effort to counter her mercurial temperament, Kemble turned herself into a creature of habits whose rigidity bordered on the obsessive. What began as professional discipline soon took on a life of its own: as a young actress, she kept to a strict schedule of sermon-reading, exercise and rest before each performance; living in Rome after her separation from her husband, ‘she sat with her watch open before her as she read, wrote and did needlework, and every evening she played an appointed number of games of Patience.’ Around this time, too, she adopted the practice of rotating the colour of her dresses by the day of the week, refusing to alter her appointed costume regardless of the occasion. Even when she weighed 14 stone and had to be carried over the high passes, Kemble set off punctually for her annual walking tour to the Swiss Alps on 1 June and returned, just as punctually, on 1 September. ‘She had more “habits” than most people have room in life for,’ as James affectionately put it, ‘and a theory that to a person of her disposition they were as necessary as the close meshes of a strait-waistcoat. If she had not lived by rule (on her showing), she would have lived infallibly by riot.’

Though David is alert to this side of Kemble’s character, she is more inclined to speak of performance than of habit and to see her subject as a role-player who took charge of her life by adopting a series of masks. Taking a cue from a distinction Kemble herself drew between her ‘dramatic’ mother and her ‘theatrical’ father, David argues that the grown woman sought to control her maternal inheritance by imitating her father’s professional discipline: while the ‘dramatic’ in Kemble’s terms was impulsive, instinctive and passionate, the ‘theatrical’ required analytical reasoning and always remained conscious of an audience. This is the perspective from which David interprets many of her subject’s more defiant gestures as a married woman, including her penchant for cross-dressing and her practice of openly engaging in behaviour of which she knew her husband would disapprove.

Certainly there was something stagy about the ‘riding-habit, cap and whip’ in which Kemble burst in on the Carlyles on a trip to England in 1837, since despite the costume, as Jane’s sharp eyes noted, there was no sign of a horse: ‘the whip, I suppose being to whip the cushions with, for the purpose of keeping her hand in practice’. Whether or not the Carlyles’ ‘inexperienced Scotch domestic’ remained ‘entirely in a nonplus whether she had let in “a leddy or a gentleman”’, as her mistress claimed, this was not the only occasion on which Kemble appeared to violate what one Philadelphian called ‘the accustomed laws of female decorum’. The repartee with which she demonstrated her intellectual superiority at social gatherings was also a form of feminist theatre, as David sees it; and there was theatrical defiance, too, when this wife of a prominent slaveholder regularly attended Philadelphia’s First Unitarian Church in order to hear the preacher deliver his abolitionist sermons.

Kemble’s theatricality is similarly on display in her most powerful piece of writing, the Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation. Based on a series of letters she sent to Elizabeth Sedgwick, a prominent New England abolitionist and sister-in-law of Kemble’s close friend the novelist Catharine Sedgwick, and modelled on the work of another novelist, the gothic ‘Monk’ Lewis’s account of a visit to his Jamaican estate, the Georgia Journal is a self-conscious performance – and one evidently composed with a sympathetic audience in mind. Whether Kemble describes ‘the Calibanish wonderment’ of the Butler slaves as they silently witness her writing, or recalls bitterly how John Quincy Adams once pronounced all Desdemona’s misfortunes ‘a very just judgment upon her for having married a “nigger”’, the former actress returns to her mental repertoire both to make sense of her experience and to dramatise it for her reader. Not everything is performance, of course, though David’s desire to shape a coherent account of her subject sometimes suggests this; and there are moments when the biographer’s talk of role-playing threatens to obscure the passionate immediacy with which Kemble responded to the abjection of the slaves themselves. But the staginess of the Georgia Journal is inseparable from its moral force; and like that greater melodrama, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, her ‘theatre of slavery’ still has the power to outrage.

By the time she published the Journal in 1863, Kemble’s own theatrical career was nearing an end. Though she continued her Shakespearean readings for several years after the close of the Civil War, the remaining decades of her life were primarily devoted to the writing of her memoirs, rounds of social engagements in London and elsewhere, visits with her married daughters, and above all, perhaps, her friendship with Henry James. The young novelist was first drawn into Kemble’s orbit in Rome in 1872 by a mild flirtation with her daughter Sarah, but the vital and witty mother quickly overshadowed her handsome daughter. By 1879 James was declaring his ‘sublime’ Fanny ‘the first woman in London, and … one of the consolations of my life’. Kemble’s professional history was not the least of her attractions for that would-be dramatist, who fondly recalled the pleasure of theatregoing in her company, a ritual that seems often to have included an after-piece in which she made up for the deficiencies of the evening’s entertainment by offering her own version of a part: ‘There was a Beatrice in particular, one evening, who seemed to have stepped with us into the carriage in pursuance of her demonstration that this charming creature, all rapidity and resonance of wit, should ring like a silver bell.’ Performance, as Kemble was acutely aware, is evanescent; but in her presence James could feel himself ‘touch’ Sarah Siddons, and in her voice he could hear echoes of Mademoiselle Mars and ‘the great Rachel’, whose speeches the younger actress had committed to memory.

Yet still more than Kemble’s connection to the stage, James valued her ability to conjure up, through her talk, a whole vanished history. ‘She reanimated the old drawing-rooms, relighted the old lamps, retuned the old pianos’; and for the novelist, 34 years her junior, she afforded access to a London otherwise lost to him. The Kemble who provided him with the ‘germs’ for several of his narratives – including, most notably, Washington Square, whose caddish fortune-hunter had his origins in her brother Henry – was above all for James a great conversationalist; and much as he adored her, he approached her less as a fellow artist than as a source of that ‘life’ he was forever mining for his fiction. Whereas David’s biography tends to turn Kemble’s every act into self-conscious performance, James’s obituary is more inclined to emphasise her spontaneity than her role-playing. Even on stage, he implies, she had little thought for her audience; and as for her books, ‘the last reason she would have given for writing [them] was the desire to see if people would read them.’ David’s performer acts, in every sense, more deliberately; and the feminist in me wants to believe in her. Perhaps it is only the power of James’s own art that makes his portrait seem more plausible.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences