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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
Fanny’s sister suggested that she give concert readings of Shakespeare’s plays, without scenery or costumes, taking all the parts, as their father was doing. Fanny was tempted. She knew it would not tax her to play all the roles, because she had always done it in her mind when she was preparing her own. Furthermore, she would be using only those of her talents that had not been affected by time. Her dancer’s grace was gone, but her voice was not.
But was the audience available for such performances large enough for two Kembles? Fanny decided it was not. Instead, she went back to England, forced herself to lose thirty pounds in twice that many days, and let it be known that she was again available to play any of her old roles—except the ingénues—at something close to her old salary. She was canny and courageous enough to act on the assumption that it was all or nothing, for “no one would hire a Kemble to play Nerissa or Juliet’s Nurse.” It was a brave gamble.
Offers were slow in coming. The first was from the management of the Princess Theatre in London. It was so meager that she knew it was meant to be refused. The next—after a dismaying interval—was from a theatre in Manchester. The terms were better, but the role was that of a twenty-year-old heroine in a melodrama, and Fanny was not at all pleased with the quality of the cast. Still, it was an opportunity, and there might not be another.
She was almost as certain of failure as she had been when she ventured out for the first time on the stage of Covent Garden. And she was just as mistaken. The audience, some of whom had journeyed all the way up from London, cheered her to the echo. Unbelievably, she was back where she had left off.
Before that season was over, she was the leading lady of the Princess Theatre Company, playing opposite the great William Macready, at a salary which was adequate if not flattering. She was delighted to be back in the city where she felt most nearly at home, but not delighted with the work that kept her there. Of Macready she complained that:
He growls and prowls, and roams and foams, about the stage, in every direction, like a tiger in his cage, so that 1 never know on what side of me he means to be; and keeps up a perpetual snarling and grumbling… so that I never feel quite sure that he has done , and that it is my turn to speak.
She also objected to the Macready repertory, which included comparatively little Shakespeare and a great many shoddy, bombastic melodramas.
Obviously, her distaste for the profession of acting had not lessened with the years. But it did enable her to support herself and to lay something by toward the cottage she hoped to buy in Massachusetts, to which she would bring Sally and Fan when the day of reunion came. Still another hope was beginning to grow in her: that somewhere—not in her present pursuit—she might still find the fulfillment for which her spirit yearned.
Then, in her second season, her father decided quite suddenly to retire. He turned over to her not only the field of concert reading of Shakespeare, but also his carefully pruned and tested versions of most of the plays. The “bright scattered fragments” formed into the new “curious, beautiful, and mystical pattern” for which she had been waiting, and she felt herself called in a truly religious sense.
Before her first public reading, she made a pilgrimage to the little church at Stratford on Avon. “I have told [the reader] how curiously affected I was while standing by his grave,” she later wrote in a memoir,”… how I was suddenly overcome with sleep (my invariable refuge under great emotion or excitement), and how I prayed to be allowed to sleep for a little while on the altar steps of the chancel, beside his bones: the power of association was certainly strong in me then, but his bones are there, and above them streamed a warm and brilliant sunbeam, fit emblem of his vivifying spirit.”
The reading was to be in a small hall at Highgate, and she had chosen The Tempest . A few of her London friends insisted on coming, but for the most part it was to be an audience of strangers, “all ages, all kinds, all conditions of people.” She supervised all the arrangements with meticulous care, so that nothing would distract from the words she would be speaking. There was a low platform at one end where she would be seated before a hanging of red damask; no furniture but a chair for her, a table for her book, and two clusters of candles on either side. She chose a dress of white satin, with a single flower at her breast.
From the moment she opened her book and began, Fanny was aware of a current flowing between her poet and those who received his message. The current swelled and swirled and carried all before it, until it seemed to erupt in a waterspout of applause. The audience was on its feet, clapping and stamping and cheering, knowing as surely as she did that she had found her place, her pattern, her true calling at last. The London critics were as enthusiastic and grateful as the audience.