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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
Pierce was by now convinced that he was dealing with a malicious madwoman who was undermining the authority of the governess, emotionally scarring the two little girls in unforgivable ways, and playing the wronged wife and mother so as to damage his own character more cruelly than calumny could have done. He began to lose control of himself, to fall prey to paranoid suspicions, and to descend to actions that shamed him even as he committed them, such as selling her horse after she defied his injunction to stop riding by herself.
Fanny was suffering indescribably. She was reduced to something close to beggary, and every cent that was doled out to her was tainted with the agony of black men and women, many of whom she had known and, in many cases, loved. Yet she could not speak out on their behalf. To secure visiting privileges with her daughters, she had been forced to promise in writing that she would not declare her sentiments on slavery in any public manner. She had promised not to publish anything without her husband’s approval—not even a poetic tragedy—and not to return to the stage. But after all these concessions, she was still effectually deprived of her children, reduced to loitering about the streets of Philadelphia to catch a glimpse of them on their daily walks. Once when she accosted them and the governess ordered them to pass on without speaking, Fanny lost her head and ran after them, calling their names and sobbing aloud.
The situation had become a scandal, and at last a Unitarian minister, the Reverend William Furness (Fanny’s friend and fellow Channingite), interceded. He pleaded with Pierce to re-admit Fanny into his household for her sake and the girls’, and for the sake of his own public image. Pierce reluctantly agreed, but on conditions that Fanny could never in her right mind have accepted.
There were stipulations that she was not to keep up an acquaintance with any person of whom Pierce disapproved; that she cut off all intercourse—even by letter—with the Sedgwick family, which included both her best American woman friend and her legal adviser; that in correspondence with her family she cease to mention Pierce or any circumstance that occurred in his house. And, as an afterthought, Pierce amended the last condition to read that she was not even to speak to him! “Any communication that I may have to make to her, shall be made in writing.” This, while she was to be living in his house and eating at his table.
He insisted that he was simply taking steps to defend his reputation and that of those whom, like the governess and the children, it was his duty to protect. Perhaps he hoped that Fanny would reject the conditions and give up the fight. But for six incredible months she tried to abide by them, living in what amounted to solitary confinement.
Toward the end, she wondered if she was indeed as mad as Pierce thought her. She considered suicide and drew back from it, fearing that death might prove another trap. As she wrote in one of the poems into which she poured out her anguish: “The spirit may not lose its deeper curse./It finds no death in the whole universe.”
The struggle might have gone on until one or both of the principals was destroyed, if Fanny had not finally become aware of what was happening to Sally and Fan. She had watched their bewildered misery turn slowly into resentment of her, and now she saw their health, physical and mental, being undermined.
The breaking point came in 1845, in the middle of an August heat wave. Pierce had chosen this time to have his town house renovated. He sent the girls to a farm in the country and the governess to a watering place, made other housing arrangements for himself, and left Fanny to endure as best she might the dust, noise, and confusion of the dismantled house. When she defied his ban and followed the girls to the farm, he retaliated by bringing them back to the stifling city. The next time she saw them, they were hysterical and half sick. She had had all she could stand; when her family urged her to return to England, she agreed.
Fanny sailed for London in September, having borrowed the passage money from friends, who did not expect to see her again.
After a brief visit with her father, she took refuge with her sister and brother-in-law, the Edward Sartorises, who were living in Rome. Their affectionate generosity and her own enduring vitality worked together to perform a miracle of healing.
The first sign of returning life was a journal she began to keep, not as before for herself or friends, but for eventual sale to a publisher. Fanny was beginning to look ahead, to face the problem of how she was to earn her living and perhaps her children’s as well. For Pierce’s fortunes were entering a long decline into eventual bankruptcy, brought on in part by his own fecklessness, in part by the vagaries of the cotton market.
Whatever she wrote, she was able to sell. Her Year of Consolation , as the Italian journal was called, was contracted for even before it was finished. But one did not support oneself on the proceeds of volumes of collected letters and reminiscences. What else could she do? There was the theatre. But would it accept its prodigal daughter, now that she was neither young nor beautiful? The Kembles knew well how uncharitable the profession was to portly leading ladies and men, no matter how glamourous their youth had been.