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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
For a conventional man, young Mr. Butler had been wooing Fanny in a most unconventional fashion, following the Kembles from city to city, playing flute in the orchestra every night Fanny performed, and outlasting or outmaneuvering all his rivals, including the redoubtable Edward Trelawny, Byron’s and Shelley’s friend. But he did not intend to continue the romantic charade now that he had won the prize. What he looked forward to, it is clear from what he wrote and said later, was a life of domestic peace and the enjoyment of what society was offered in the small, smug world of Philadelphia’s upper class. He was deeply in love with Fanny, and he seems really to have believed she would grace his world as she had graced the world she was giving up. He knew he was envied by thousands of men in England and America, and he felt himself fortunate beyond his deserts.
Fanny was not very much in love. One of her complaints against her profession was that “the constant simulation of emotion in time destroyed in itself the possibility of natural feeling.” Besides, she was too tired to feel much of anything but self-pity. But she was determined to make a good wife to Pierce, as she understood that role, and a good mother to the children she hoped to bear.
What she hoped for herself—besides the release from involuntary servitude—was a life of leisure in which to cultivate the neglected garden of her mind. She planned to take up her music again, to read, to think, and to write. Washington Irving had said to her, “You are acquiring materials and heaping together observations and experience and wisdom, and by and by, when … [you] retire from these labors, you will begin another and a brighter course with matured powers. I know of no one whose life has such bright promise in it as yours.”
Fanny hoped to fulfill that promise, as well as to keep those she had made before the altar to Pierce. It was to be nearly twenty-five years before she achieved the first hope. The other was doomed to tragic, total failure.
From the start of her married life, Fanny found herself “cabinn’d and confined.” Pierce’s family made it clear that they had strained their tolerance to its limit by admitting her to their circle. None of her “theatrical” friends were to be permitted to follow her in. The few Philadelphias to whom Fanny was attracted always turned out to be inadmissible on other grounds —political, for the most part. She was to be condemned to the company of people she found stupid, ignorant, and intolerably bigoted. (If the Butlers were social snobs, Fanny was an intellectual and moral snob of the same, or purer, water.) In no time at all she was suffering from a sort of spiritual starvation.
Fanny had suffered many things in her life, but never this particular sort of deprivation. She now had the solitude she had once craved, and yet she was appalled to find that she was unable to read or write or think—or even practice the piano. They had moved into the country by this time (at Fanny’s insistence), and Pierce had to be away for days at a time, which made the solitude even more intense. Even when he was there, he could not supply her intellectual needs.
He did his best to make her comfortable and content. When Fanny complained that she was “weary of her useless existence” and begged him to send her to England to await the birth of her child, he treated her as if she were herself a child, and assured her that her misery was “merely perverse fancies.” For a while Fanny half-believed him and looked forward to some mystical change at the instant she became a mother, a new sense of fulfillment that would quiet her troubled spirit and strengthen the ties that bound her to Pierce.
Before there was time to test that faith, however, a rift had opened between Fanny and Pierce deep enough to dispel all hope of rapprochement. It seems incredible that Fanny did not know, when she married into the Butler clan, that its fortune was based on rice and cotton holdings in the Deep South, which was to say, on the labor of slaves; or that Pierce did not know that Fanny held strong convictions on the essential evil of slavery. When it finally dawned on Fanny that she was living in idleness at the expense of black men, women, and children, and that her husband was deslined soon to be the master of some seven hundred such chattels, she was horrified and said so with dramatic eloquence.
Fanny’s views on the question of slavery were the prevailing views of upper-class Englishmen of that day, intensified in her case by contact with New England antislavery intellectuals and in particular with the Unitarian saint, William Ellery Channing. It Was his little book Slavery to which Fanny turned for guidance in the moral dilemma in which she found herself. Channing had called on Christian slaveholders to assume the responsibility of preparing their bondsmen for emancipation by conversion and education and the institution of a system of wages. Fanny proposed this to Pierce and his brother, reminding them that Channing was the acknowledged spiritual leader of the faith the Butler family professed.
Pierce, who still loved her, tried patiently to explain the fundamental financial facts of their life: that he had no choice but to continue in the way that had been laid out for him and to strive to be the best and most humane master possible. Fanny denied these imperatives. She would rather go back to earning her own bread on the stage than to continue a day longer “eating the bitter bread of slavery!” She was being anything but tactful, but she was suffering in ways that Pierce could not comprehend.