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A Woman’s Place
Fanny Kemble should have known that a beautiful, brilliant, vivacious British actress never, never marries the Butler—especially an American slaveholding Butler with a narrow vision of a wife’s role
April 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 3
Fashionable portraitists like Sir Thomas Lawrence asked her to sit, and before long, cheap reproductions of her face were displayed on plates, scarves, and snulf boxes in the windows of London shops. Voung gallants lined up outside the stage door to cheer her as she emerged (always carefully chaperoned). Her brother’s Cambridge cronies—brilliant young men like Will Thackeray, Alfred Tennyson, Richard Milnes, and Arthur Hallam—who had yesterday enjoyed matching wits with “John’s little sister, Fan,” were now too awed to approach her. She was a favorite guest at the great country houses of England and was sought out and made much of by the wisest and wittiest folk of the realm. But there was no time for resting or reading or riding—or falling in love. Her Prospero could not allord to be without her services even for a summer.
The problem was as simple as arithmetic. Covent Garden was solvent when Fanny played, insolvent when she did not. It took a full house every night to make any substantial profit. A bad week could wipe out the gains of a good month. So Fanny had to play as often as possible—all the first season, then a provincial tour; all the second season, then another tour.
She had been promised her freedom at the end of her third season, but as the time approached, the Covent Garden jinx stirred and struck.
Cholera swept through the London slums and thinned the crowds in the galleries. The fight over the Reform Bill sent the upper classes into the galleries of Parliament for their evening entertainment. To make matters worse, a series of lawsuits was pending in the courts against Covent Garden. Charles Kemble’s health broke as the inevitable catastrophe became obvious, and for a while it looked as if the Minotaur were going to take away his life as well as his living.
When he recovered, he was forced to beg Fanny’s help again. The Covent Garden license was gone, but he had debts to pay and the future to secure for himself and his wife, and for Fanny’s younger siblings. There was only one way he could see to amass the ten thousand pounds he needed: a tour of the American “provinces.” If such a venture succeeded at all, the money could be earned in a relatively short time. With Fanny he could do better than he could alone. It was, of course, hers to decide.…
Fanny knew that he could not succeed at all without her. Charles had become, as one unkind wit put it, “a great actor of minor parts.” She could no more take responsibility for killing his last hope now than she could have three years ago. So she agreed, but only for two years. When she sailed for America, she felt that she was cutting herself off from everything and everyone she loved.
As Charles had foreseen, Fanny was the same sudden, stunning success that she had been in England. American audiences had seen some fine actors, but no actresses of Fanny’s caliber. They were overwhelmed. Kemble performances (even with Charles playing Romeo to his daughter’s Juliet) were consistently sold out. The Kembles were treated by officialdom with almost ceremonial respect, and by fashionable hostesses with boundless cordiality. Eligible bachelors from Boston to Washington, D.C., fell in love with Fanny at first sight, and envious debutantes paid her the ultimate compliment of copying her clothes.
Fanny was happy about the box-office receipts, but not about much else. She wrote home to a friend:
We are earning money very fast, and though I think we work too incessantly and too hard, yet, as every night we do not act is a certain loss of so much out of my father’s pocket, I do not like to make many objections to it.… We rush from place to place, at each place have to drill a new set of actors, and every night to act a different play; so that my days are passed in dawdling about cold stages, with blundering actors who have not even had the conscience to study the words of their parts.… All the afternoon 1 pin up ribbons and feathers and flowers, and sort out theatrical adornments, and all the evening I enchant audiences, prompt my fellow mimes, and wish it had pleased Heaven to make me a cabbage in … a Christian kitchen-garden.…
Even before the first season was over, she felt her “sense exhausted, with looking, hearing, feeling, going, doing, being, and suffering.” But she did her best to hide her discomfort and homesickness from her father until, halfway through her second season, the Sisyphus stone she had been pushing uphill all this time rolled back and crushed her.
Charles was in financial difficulties again, partly because of defaulting theatrical managers, partly because of the problems Mr. Biddle’s United States Bank, in which he had deposited all of his savings, was having with President Jackson, It now appeared as if it would take yet another American season to earn the ten thousand pounds.
For the first—and perhaps the last—time in her life, Fanny felt unequal to the task. She went on for a few weeks and then suddenly accepted the most persistent of her suitors, a man who was able and eager to support her in what passed for luxury in the United States at that time. She could give all her savings to her father and send him home solvent, if not permanently secure. With that in mind, she announced her imminent retirement from the stage.