Two books on Fanny Kemble? In one year?
I gallop around my office; I burst into song; I declaim Shakespeare—all clear signs of Fanny Kemble fandom. Maybe now, at last, Fanny Kemble gets the attention those of us long in her thrall believe she merits.
So, who is Fanny Kemble?
In her early twenties, she was celebrated as the most dazzling actress on both sides of the Atlantic.
Her appearences at London's Covent Garden saved that theater from one of its periodic bankruptcy emergencies.
In Doublin, what she described as a "bodyguard of about two hundred men, shouting and hurrahing like mad" escorted her from theater to hotel.
In this country, audiences thronged to witness "an intensity and a truth never exhibited by an actress in America."
She was wooed by a son of the King of England (an illegitimate son, unfortunately), entertained in Scotland by Sir Walter Scott and given tea at our White House by President Andrew Jackson
Fanny Kemble greatly appreciated the social and financial rewards of life upon the stage, but her ambition was to be a "lioness" of the literary sort.
When she was 21, her play Francis the First: An Historical Drama was published in London and New York. When she was 80, her first (and only) novel came out. In a lifetime that spanned a century (1809-1893), she produced books of poetry and dramatic criticism, travel essays, several plays and 11 volumes of memoirs.
It was those reminiscences that first caught my fancy.
Over 20 years ago, I was going through the biographies in the Seattle Public Library in search of material for a 10-minute solo piece. After Alcott, Bronte, and Fuller, I came to Kemble.
I was charmed by Fanny Kemble's droll self-deprecation: she describes her experience acting in her own Francis the First as "fatiguing to the chest, and impossible for me to do anything with," her early writing as "a clever performace for so young a person, but nothing more."
I enjoyed her observations of American manners: "Society is entirely led by chits... [it] is a noisy, racketty, vulgar congregation of flirting boys and girls..."
And I delighted in her reports on theater mores: "The man who acted [opposite me] tonight thought fit to be two hours dragging me off the stage, in consequence of which I had to scream... 'till I thought I should have broken a blood vessel; on my remonstrating with him upon this, he said, 'Well, you are rewarded, listen.' The people were clapping and shouting vehemently; this is the whole history of acting and actors."
Surely there was material here for a few amusing minutes on 19th-century life upon the wicked stage.
Then I came upon Kemble's Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, 1838-1839.
That discovery propelled me into years of research.
I studied collections of letters, papers, portraits and memorabilia at the Library of Congress, the Folger and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.; the universities of Florida, Virginia and Washington; the public libraries in Seattle, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Lenox, Massachusetts. I visited the awesome Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the endearing Museum of the City of New York. And I still bless the inter-library loan service which provided me with many of Kemble's out-of-print books. I was welcomed everywhere I inquired and assisted by not a few researchers who, it turned out, were Fanny Kemble fans themselves.
My most inspiring destination may have been the Coastal Georgia Historical Society on Saint Simon's Island. There I experienced first-hand the unrelenting summer heat, the mosquito-laden air, the fetid ponds and critter-infested underbrush as well as the breathtaking beauty of the Sea Islands, all of which Fanny Kemble describes in her journal.
But wait—how had Kemble, that darling of trans-Atlantic society and center of international artistic circles, come to write such a galvanizing book?
In 1834, Kemble retired from the stage and married a well-to-do Philadelphian, Pierce Butler. By 1838, they had two daughters and were settled into somewhat less than satisfactory domestic life. Butler resented Kemble's outspoken statements on the coarseness of American culture and her insistence on continuing to pursue a writing career. Kemble found the constraints of Philadelphia society stultifying and her own household responsibilities dispiriting. Then Butler inherited slave plantations in Georgia (properties which Kemble claimed not to have known about before the marriage) and plans were made for the whole family to visit the holdings at the mouth of the Altamaha River.
Fanny Kemble characterizes herself as traveling to Georgia as a typical Englishwoman: opposed to slavery "on principle," but expecting to see a crude but benign system of live and labor, with willing workers and compassionate masters.
What she actually found she recorded in her Georgian Journal: against the background of the brutal reality of slave live—inflexible work rules, dreary diet, filthy housing, inadequate medical care, dehumanizing punishments, traumatic separations—instances of fearless devotion to family, appreciation of craft and workmanship, deep religious faith and inspiring examples of musical creation and eloquence.
Kemble arrived in the Georgia Sea Islands as a naive chronicler of American racial folkways; she departed as a passionate advocate for the elimination of slavery.
She arrived as a somewhat disillusioned but determinedly loyal wife; she left as a woman devastated by the corroding effect of slavery on the morality of all involved, most particularly on her own husband and—potentially—on herself and her children.
Such transformations are, of course, the stuff of drama. I had found inspiration, not for a short skit, but for a full-length play.
When, surrounded by file boxes and notebooks, I sat down to write my script, I obviously knew I had my "arc"—but what about the language?
As Max Bush recently pointed out in these pages in his article about adapting The Three Musketeers, changing centuries-old prose into dialogue appropriate for contemporary audiences can be tricky work.
Here's an example of how I went about it.
Fanny Kemble writes:
I have ingeniously contrived to introduce bribery, corruption and pauperism, all in a breath, upon this island, which, until my advent, was as innocent of these pollutions, I suppose, as Prospero's isle of refuge. Wishing, however, to appeal to some perception, perhaps a little less dim in their minds than the abstract loveliness of cleanliness, I have proclaimed to all the little baby nurses that I will give a cent to every little boy or girl whose baby face shall be clean, and one to every individual with clean face and hands of their own. My appeal was fully comprehended by the majority, it seems, for this morning I was surrounded as soon as I came out, by a swarm of children carrying their little charges on their backs and in their arms, the shining, and, in many instances, wet faces and hands of the latter bearing ample testimony to the ablutions which had been inflicted upon them.
I broke the long sentences into short ones, eliminated parenthetical phrases, cut adjectives. But I tried to keep some of the special words and unique syntax that convey to me Fanny Kemble's idiosyncratic vitality and humor.
From Shame the Devil! An Audience with Fanny Kemble, page 47:
I proclaimed to all the "little nursies" that I would give one cent to every child whose baby's face should be clean and one cent more to every individual with clean face—and hands—of his or her own. My appeal was fully comprehended by the majority. Subsequently, whenever I emerged from my front door, I was surrounded by swarms of children—their little charges on their backs—all with shining, and in many cases still wet, faces and hands. Thus did I ingeniously introduce hygiene onto the island.
(FANNY starts to cross to bookcase; stops.)
As well as bribery and corruption.
An early version of my play was directed by Clayton Corzatte, a Southern-born artist of infinite style, for The Group, Seattle's Ethnic Theatre. There was an Alaskan run, an East Coast tour of regional theaters, colleges, schools, libraries, elegant parlors, mildewing motel rooms—but that's a whole other story.
I've been infinitely pleased to see productions at the Folger Shakespeare Library and most recently at the Denver Theatre Center with Jeanne Averill in the Seem-to-be-Players production.
After each of these outings of the script, I wrote and rewrote, cut, added, changed and—lo! almost exactly 20 years after I first picked up Fanny Kemble's writings, Gayle Sergel called me to say Dramatic Publishing would like to publish my play in two versions, full length and 50 minutes.
And now, with the arrival of Catherine Clinton's books, perhaps Fanny's time has come to star in the 21st century.
Clinton has centered her biography, Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars, on Kemble's metamorphosing visit to Georgia.
The phrase "Civil Wars" in Clinton's title refers to our fratricidal American conflict, its particular effects on Kemble and her family and the war's continuing repercussions.
Clinton nudges us to recognize the current relevance of historical events. Some of our most intractable social and economic problems, for example, are foreshadowed by Kemble's difficulties comprehending the plantation patterns of pregnancy, the significance of literacy and the distrust of authority.
Catherine Clinton also connects the "civil wars" of Kemble's professional life, marriage and parenthood, and divorce to contemporary American concerns. Is there a working mother today who can't empathize with Clinton's quote from Kemble, "...though a baby is not an 'occupation' it is an absolute hindrance to everything else that can be called so. I cannot read a book through... therefore how little likely am I to write one."
Catherine Clinton's Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars is an all together welcome addition to my library.
Yet, when I finished it, I felt that something was missing. An element of frivolity, a touch of wit, a hint of acerbity—ah, of course! What had first drawn me to my work with Kemble, Fanny Kemble's own voice.
Then I realized I have the antidote next to me: Fanny Kemble's Journals.
Catherine Clinton has edited a one-volume edition of Fanny Kemble's numerous memoirs. So when I want Kemble's exact words about a topic in the biography, I need only reach for this compact compilation. Both books are thoughtfully designed and nicely printed, with informative illustrations, maps and bibliographies.
Do the books overlap? Well, the Journals introduction is a beautifully written sketch of Kemble's life, but Civil Wars places Kemble in a vivid historical context. And having both books is such a treat! Together they could contribute to a resurgence of Fanny Kemble fandom.
May the curtains rise again on Fanny Kemble!
Article originally appeared in The Seattle Times, with additional playwright commentary by Anne Ludlum.