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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 must have felt some sense of accomplishment, some small part in the legislative victory, but she had not spent those five years waiting for it. She was keeping herself too busy to feel her loneliness, travelling about the non-slave states reading Shakespeare. She did not make it easy for herself by reading only the better known and more popular plays. To the frequent dismay of her managers, she insisted on a fairly rigid sequence of twenty-four of the master’s works. Nevertheless, a generation of Americans preferred Fanny’s reading of Shakespeare to a full-cast performance, and she counted among her devotees such diverse spirits as Henry James, Walt Whitman, and Henry Longfellow, who even wrote her a sonnet of gratitude.
In 1856, Sally Butler turned twenty-one and went to England with her mother for several months before returning to Philadelphia to marry Dr. Owen Wister. In 1859, Fan came of age, and she too chose to join her mother abroad. Fanny’s long purgatory was over; she had both her girls again at last. Then the shadow of war fell across her newfound happiness.
The election of Abraham Lincoln brought the United States to the brink of disunion and armed conflict, and to Fanny’s dismay she discovered that her daughters differed as sharply as had she and Pierce on the same issues. Once again she was forced to make a choice between duty and love. For it was young Fan who sided with her father and the South. For Fanny to express her own passionate partisanship for the Union and the antislavery cause was to risk alienating, if not forfeiting, the daughter whose presence she had just rewon. Fanny was not as headstrong—or perhaps as heart-strong—as in the old days. She vacillated for nearly two years.
The British Tory circles in which Fanny was living at this time were for the most part sympathetic to the Confederacy. As the armies of the South won battle after battle in the opening months of 1862, what Fanny heard over dinner tables and in drawing rooms convinced her that England was moving toward recognition of the Confederacy. Gladstone was cheered in Parliament when he said that “Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the Confederacy have made an army … and what is more important … they have made a nation!” If the Confederate cotton loan caught on in Britain’s financial circles, the government might intervene to break the North’s blockade of the cotton-shipping ports.
Fanny was doing her best to conceal or control her feelings, but it was becoming more and more difficult. She began to speak out, trying to disabuse some of her influential friends of their sentimental notions about Southern slavery. But few listened or were convinced by her emotional harangues. At last, toward the end of 1862, she decided that she must take some decisive action, she must strike some sort of blow.
She went back to her unpublished Georgia journal, which the abolitionists had once begged her to let them make into a weapon. Was it too late? Mrs. Stowe’s fictionalized account of the same facts was changing public opinion in some circles. Might Fanny’s factual account perhaps have an equivalent effect in those influential circles where British policy was made?
Still she hesitated, trying to assess whether the effect to be achieved outweighed the sacrifice required. Undoubtedly she talked with Fan about it, and what the girl said may be guessed from the fact that she left England and joined her father a little while after Fanny’s final decision to submit the manuscript for publication. Perhaps Fanny’s choice was eased by the knowledge that Sally and her husband were staunch Unionists and antislavery moderates and that she would not be cutting herself off from both her children this time. But what counted, as before, was the power to pursue duty and right as she perceived them.
Her book was a best seller on both sides of the ocean. It shocked prudes by its frankness as much as it angered supporters of the South, but it was read and discussed and debated everywhere. It was bitterly attacked by some critics, highly praised by others. The Atlantic Monthly called it “the first ample, lucid, faithful, detailed account, from the actual headquarters of a slave plantation in this country, of the workings of the system.” Another critic concluded: “A sadder book the human hand never wrote.”
Today, a century after its publication, there is still some debate among Civil War scholars as to whether Fanny’s “pen of burning gold” drew blood or not. Her admirers claim it changed the balance of forces in Britain and therefore altered the course of the war; others insist that it had little effect, that it came too late (May, 1863, in London; two months later in New York), after the tide had already turned in favor of the North. Some maintain and others deny that portions of it were read aloud in the House of Commons, that a copy was presented to every member of Parliament, and that one was brought to the approving attention of Queen Victoria.
There is less argument about the facts of the Journal ’s success in America. It appeared the same month that Negroes were being lynched in the draft riots in New York. If the tide had already turned, those who had been breasting it for two and a half years did not know it yet. Some of them felt that Fanny’s testimony was so valuable that it needed the widest possible circulation. The Journal was excerpted and circulated in pamphlet form all over the North, and there was still such a demand for the original version that Harper and Brothers ordered a second printing early in 1864.