Howl, Howl, Howl!

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life by Deirdre David
    Pennsylvania, 347 pp, £26.00, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 8122 4023 8

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.

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