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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 Fanny was something very rare in the human species: a moral absolutist. She herself was only just beginning to be able to put into words the fact that “freedom of conscience … the power to pursue duty and right as she was able to conceive them was of more value to her than anything else beside.” Fanny’s sense of duty was to her literally “the vital part of life.”
How completely Pierce failed to understand this was demonstrated when, required for business reasons to spend the winter of 1838–39 at his Georgia plantations, he let his family persuade him to take Fanny and the children (there was a second daughter by now) with him. Exposure to the “true facts,” the Butlers assumed, would cure her of her wrong-headed notions about the Negro and show her the error of the abolitionist argument. It did, as might have been expected, just the reverse.
Fanny went to Georgia determined to carry out the Channing program—with or without Pierce’s collaboration. The effect of her ministry (or perhaps it was simply her presence) was to stir what Pierce took for warning signs of mutiny. He felt himself obliged to order her to desist. But to look upon the spectacle of human degradation and suffering and be helpless to alleviate it was to Fanny an almost unbearable torment. She had to act, if only to put down on paper a record of what she saw and heard and smelled and felt. For the first time since her marriage, she went back to her old habit of keeping a journal.
The result (combined with letters to antislavery friends in Massachusetts and in England) was The Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, 1838–39 , a unique observation of the South’s “peculiar institution” by a sensitive, intelligent woman who happened also to be a highly gifted writer. Even before her return to the North, Fanny was being urged by abolitionists who had seen some of her letters to let them be published, to “bear her witness” against the flood of proslavery propaganda then issuing from presses in both the North and the South.
Fanny and Pierce quarrelled bitterly and protractedly over the matter. Her Georgia journal became the place d’armes on which an even more fundamental struggle between them was carried on. Pierce absolutely forbade her to publish any part of the document, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. Fanny was driven to express her convictions in other ways that damaged him just as seriously. His love for her was the first casualty of the battle, and he now looked forward to nothing but being rid of her before she ruined him, not only socially and financially (for Pierce imagined that her influence might yet spark a slave revolt on his Georgia properties) but morally as well. Their estrangement and the sustained tension between them was driving him to seek consolation with other women. But Fanny, who had once asked him to “send her away before the bonds of affection should have time to knit” between her and her daughters, now refused stubbornly to be parted from the girls.
Pennsylvania’s marriage law, based on the old common law, held that “husband and wife were a legal unity and the rights of both parties to that unity were executed by the husband alone. Consequently … he was the sole legal guardian and in effect the sole legal parent of the minor children of the marriage.” Fanny knew as well as Pierce that they ought to separate, but she had discovered that she could not afford freedom at this price. Also, under this same law, any money or property that Fanny might inherit or earn was Pierce’s to administer as he saw fit. He could, if he were so disposed, withhold from her everything but shelter and food. And if she went back to the stage, he could take and keep every dollar she earned.
It took five nightmarish years to resolve this impasse. The details of the private war between them became public during the divorce proceedings. (They are available in the rare book collection of the Library of Congress in a small volume entitled Mrs. Butler’s Narrative and Pierce Butler’s Answer .) What is set down in these two biased accounts is essentially a series of moves by Pierce to provoke Fanny to leave him of her own volition, and countermoves by Fanny designed to retain contact with her children, who had by now become the object of her obsessive affection. The children, of course, suffered even more deeply than the combatants.
At one point, while the Butlers were in England on a prolonged and turbulent visit, Pierce hired a governess to supersede Fanny in the care and education of Sally and little Fan. His excuse was that Fanny had left his house, presumably for good. Less than a month later she forced her way back in, but the governess was not discharged, nor was Fanny’s authority re-established. Fanny and Pierce began living in embittered separation under the same roof, receiving and accepting social invitations—sometimes to the same affair —as if they were strangers. It was the talk of London and the source of terrible embarrassment to Fanny’s family and friends.
When the couple finally returned to Philadelphia, it was to live in separate rented quarters in the same house. After a time, Fanny demanded and Pierce agreed to a separate maintenance agreement that provided that she was to have “uninterrupted intercourse with her children.” But not long afterward, Pierce moved into a house of his own, and soon she was complaining through lawyers and mutual friends that the agreement had been violated, that she was in effect entirely cut off from her children.