A Woman’s Place


One June evening in 1834, Fanny Kemble, then the most popular actress in the English-speaking world, played her farewell performance in the Park Theatre in New York City. As the final curtain fell and the cast came out to take their bows, a young man who had been playing lime in the orchestra jumped to the stage and took Fanny’s hand in a gesture that said as plainly as speech, “I take this woman for my wife.”

That was the symbolic ceremony. The actual one had taken place a fortnight earlier, when Philadelphia society gathered in Christ Church to hear Miss Kcmblc and Pierce Mease Hut 1er exchange vows. It was like the classic fairy tale ending in which the prince—voting, handsome, and wealthy—tarries oil the princess to live happily ever alter. As at all stich events, there were a few voices of disse.nt and croaks of doom that went almost unheard at the time but that were to prove prophetic.

There was, for example, the editor of the Germantown Telegraph , who wrote: “He who weds her for an angel will discover, we opine, ere a fortnight that she is nothing more or less than a woman, and perhaps one of the most troublesome kind in the bargain.” And there was Catharine Maria Sedgwick, the novelist, who considered Fanny “one of those rare beings through whom the Creator reminds us of ihe infinite perfectibility of man.” Miss Sedgwick took a dim view of Pierce as a mate for a “most captivating creature, steeped to the lips with genius” because, although she had seen marriages between brilliant men and quite stupid women turn out well, she had not seen it work the other way around. And even among the young couple’s most fervent well-wishers there was a nagging question as to why the most brilliant, original actress of her day should turn her back on the calling that had raised her family from obscurity to be intimates of the aristocracy of blood and brains in Fngland, and seek fulfillment in the role of an American wife and mother, for which nothing had in any way prepared her.

The answer, in its simplest form, was that Fanny was leaving the stage because she hated it.

Although—or, perhaps, because—she was born into the royal family of the British theatre, the profession had never held any glamour for her. By the time she was old enough to know her aunt Sarah Siddons, the Tragic Muse was a pitiable old relic. Fanny’s uncle, the great John Philip Kcmble, was driven into bankruptcy and exile during her childhood by the burden of the royal license to produce plays in that great barn of a theatre, Covent Cardcn. Charles Kemble, Fanny’s father, look over the license and the debts, and soon he was in the same dismal predicament. The Covent Garden jinx—or, as Fanny imagined it, the Minotaur who dwelt in the great white marble maze—had played havoc with the health and happiness of the Kembles throughout Fanny’s twenty years of life, but at least she had been assured that she would never be sacrificed to it.

Then one day, when the fortunes of the Theatre Royal Company seemed about to flounder into final catastrophe, Charles asked Fanny if she would read the part of Juliet for him. alone on the empty stage. She did, and. satisfied that her voice would carry to ihe last of the gallelies, he proposed that she make her debut in that role in three weeks.

The announcement of a new Kemble debut would draw a crowd because the London world would be looking for a second coming of divine Sarah. Fanny was ihe only possible debutante. She was endowed with the Kemble voice, a dancer’s grace (inherited from her mother), and a lace that could project the entire range of human emotions. That Fanny’s nalural bent was for something as unthealrical as the study of moral philosophy was irrelevant in this crisis. She loved Shakespeare, spoke his verse intelligently, and had a remarkable facility for committing it to memory.

Was she willing to make the attempt?

She was not, but she was unwilling to refuse. She was certain that she could not succeed at so impossible a task, but it her father’s last hope depended on it, she would do as he asked. She began to rehearse with the company (which included her father as Mercutio and her mother as Lady Capulet), while bills announcing her (list performance were posted all over London.

The gala audience that assembled to witness the event, on October 5, 1829, included the aging Sarah herself. The spectators could look from the stage to Mrs. Siddons’ box and back. Fanny’s first entrance was halting, her first lines spoken in a nervous, hushed voice. But suddenly people saw—or believed that they saw—the divine spark flash across the dark space and rekindle itself in a new human form. A miracle had happened. Fanny was not a second Sarah Siddons, but she was something just as enthralling. The London theatre had a new divinity. Covent Garden, the Theatre Royal Company, and Charles Kumble’s finances were saved.

But Fanny was trapped. Like Ariel, she was bound to serve out her term at tasks that might have seemed light or pleasant to another lint were onerous to her. She was subjected to a glare of publicity and adulation that robbed her of most of the advantages of her success and added other strains to the physical and emotional ordeal of performing three or four times each week.