April 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 3
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
One June evening in 1834, Fanny Kemble, then the most popular actress in the English-speaking world, played her farewell performance in the Park Theatre in New York City. As the final curtain fell and the cast came out to take their bows, a young man who had been playing lime in the orchestra jumped to the stage and took Fanny’s hand in a gesture that said as plainly as speech, “I take this woman for my wife.”
That was the symbolic ceremony. The actual one had taken place a fortnight earlier, when Philadelphia society gathered in Christ Church to hear Miss Kcmblc and Pierce Mease Hut 1er exchange vows. It was like the classic fairy tale ending in which the prince—voting, handsome, and wealthy—tarries oil the princess to live happily ever alter. As at all stich events, there were a few voices of disse.nt and croaks of doom that went almost unheard at the time but that were to prove prophetic.
There was, for example, the editor of the Germantown Telegraph , who wrote: “He who weds her for an angel will discover, we opine, ere a fortnight that she is nothing more or less than a woman, and perhaps one of the most troublesome kind in the bargain.” And there was Catharine Maria Sedgwick, the novelist, who considered Fanny “one of those rare beings through whom the Creator reminds us of ihe infinite perfectibility of man.” Miss Sedgwick took a dim view of Pierce as a mate for a “most captivating creature, steeped to the lips with genius” because, although she had seen marriages between brilliant men and quite stupid women turn out well, she had not seen it work the other way around. And even among the young couple’s most fervent well-wishers there was a nagging question as to why the most brilliant, original actress of her day should turn her back on the calling that had raised her family from obscurity to be intimates of the aristocracy of blood and brains in Fngland, and seek fulfillment in the role of an American wife and mother, for which nothing had in any way prepared her.
The answer, in its simplest form, was that Fanny was leaving the stage because she hated it.
Although—or, perhaps, because—she was born into the royal family of the British theatre, the profession had never held any glamour for her. By the time she was old enough to know her aunt Sarah Siddons, the Tragic Muse was a pitiable old relic. Fanny’s uncle, the great John Philip Kcmble, was driven into bankruptcy and exile during her childhood by the burden of the royal license to produce plays in that great barn of a theatre, Covent Cardcn. Charles Kemble, Fanny’s father, look over the license and the debts, and soon he was in the same dismal predicament. The Covent Garden jinx—or, as Fanny imagined it, the Minotaur who dwelt in the great white marble maze—had played havoc with the health and happiness of the Kembles throughout Fanny’s twenty years of life, but at least she had been assured that she would never be sacrificed to it.
Then one day, when the fortunes of the Theatre Royal Company seemed about to flounder into final catastrophe, Charles asked Fanny if she would read the part of Juliet for him. alone on the empty stage. She did, and. satisfied that her voice would carry to ihe last of the gallelies, he proposed that she make her debut in that role in three weeks.
The announcement of a new Kemble debut would draw a crowd because the London world would be looking for a second coming of divine Sarah. Fanny was ihe only possible debutante. She was endowed with the Kemble voice, a dancer’s grace (inherited from her mother), and a lace that could project the entire range of human emotions. That Fanny’s nalural bent was for something as unthealrical as the study of moral philosophy was irrelevant in this crisis. She loved Shakespeare, spoke his verse intelligently, and had a remarkable facility for committing it to memory.
Was she willing to make the attempt?
She was not, but she was unwilling to refuse. She was certain that she could not succeed at so impossible a task, but it her father’s last hope depended on it, she would do as he asked. She began to rehearse with the company (which included her father as Mercutio and her mother as Lady Capulet), while bills announcing her (list performance were posted all over London.
The gala audience that assembled to witness the event, on October 5, 1829, included the aging Sarah herself. The spectators could look from the stage to Mrs. Siddons’ box and back. Fanny’s first entrance was halting, her first lines spoken in a nervous, hushed voice. But suddenly people saw—or believed that they saw—the divine spark flash across the dark space and rekindle itself in a new human form. A miracle had happened. Fanny was not a second Sarah Siddons, but she was something just as enthralling. The London theatre had a new divinity. Covent Garden, the Theatre Royal Company, and Charles Kumble’s finances were saved.
But Fanny was trapped. Like Ariel, she was bound to serve out her term at tasks that might have seemed light or pleasant to another lint were onerous to her. She was subjected to a glare of publicity and adulation that robbed her of most of the advantages of her success and added other strains to the physical and emotional ordeal of performing three or four times each week.
Fashionable portraitists like Sir Thomas Lawrence asked her to sit, and before long, cheap reproductions of her face were displayed on plates, scarves, and snulf boxes in the windows of London shops. Voung gallants lined up outside the stage door to cheer her as she emerged (always carefully chaperoned). Her brother’s Cambridge cronies—brilliant young men like Will Thackeray, Alfred Tennyson, Richard Milnes, and Arthur Hallam—who had yesterday enjoyed matching wits with “John’s little sister, Fan,” were now too awed to approach her. She was a favorite guest at the great country houses of England and was sought out and made much of by the wisest and wittiest folk of the realm. But there was no time for resting or reading or riding—or falling in love. Her Prospero could not allord to be without her services even for a summer.
The problem was as simple as arithmetic. Covent Garden was solvent when Fanny played, insolvent when she did not. It took a full house every night to make any substantial profit. A bad week could wipe out the gains of a good month. So Fanny had to play as often as possible—all the first season, then a provincial tour; all the second season, then another tour.
She had been promised her freedom at the end of her third season, but as the time approached, the Covent Garden jinx stirred and struck.
Cholera swept through the London slums and thinned the crowds in the galleries. The fight over the Reform Bill sent the upper classes into the galleries of Parliament for their evening entertainment. To make matters worse, a series of lawsuits was pending in the courts against Covent Garden. Charles Kemble’s health broke as the inevitable catastrophe became obvious, and for a while it looked as if the Minotaur were going to take away his life as well as his living.
When he recovered, he was forced to beg Fanny’s help again. The Covent Garden license was gone, but he had debts to pay and the future to secure for himself and his wife, and for Fanny’s younger siblings. There was only one way he could see to amass the ten thousand pounds he needed: a tour of the American “provinces.” If such a venture succeeded at all, the money could be earned in a relatively short time. With Fanny he could do better than he could alone. It was, of course, hers to decide.…
Fanny knew that he could not succeed at all without her. Charles had become, as one unkind wit put it, “a great actor of minor parts.” She could no more take responsibility for killing his last hope now than she could have three years ago. So she agreed, but only for two years. When she sailed for America, she felt that she was cutting herself off from everything and everyone she loved.
As Charles had foreseen, Fanny was the same sudden, stunning success that she had been in England. American audiences had seen some fine actors, but no actresses of Fanny’s caliber. They were overwhelmed. Kemble performances (even with Charles playing Romeo to his daughter’s Juliet) were consistently sold out. The Kembles were treated by officialdom with almost ceremonial respect, and by fashionable hostesses with boundless cordiality. Eligible bachelors from Boston to Washington, D.C., fell in love with Fanny at first sight, and envious debutantes paid her the ultimate compliment of copying her clothes.
Fanny was happy about the box-office receipts, but not about much else. She wrote home to a friend:
We are earning money very fast, and though I think we work too incessantly and too hard, yet, as every night we do not act is a certain loss of so much out of my father’s pocket, I do not like to make many objections to it.… We rush from place to place, at each place have to drill a new set of actors, and every night to act a different play; so that my days are passed in dawdling about cold stages, with blundering actors who have not even had the conscience to study the words of their parts.… All the afternoon 1 pin up ribbons and feathers and flowers, and sort out theatrical adornments, and all the evening I enchant audiences, prompt my fellow mimes, and wish it had pleased Heaven to make me a cabbage in … a Christian kitchen-garden.…
Even before the first season was over, she felt her “sense exhausted, with looking, hearing, feeling, going, doing, being, and suffering.” But she did her best to hide her discomfort and homesickness from her father until, halfway through her second season, the Sisyphus stone she had been pushing uphill all this time rolled back and crushed her.
Charles was in financial difficulties again, partly because of defaulting theatrical managers, partly because of the problems Mr. Biddle’s United States Bank, in which he had deposited all of his savings, was having with President Jackson, It now appeared as if it would take yet another American season to earn the ten thousand pounds.
For the first—and perhaps the last—time in her life, Fanny felt unequal to the task. She went on for a few weeks and then suddenly accepted the most persistent of her suitors, a man who was able and eager to support her in what passed for luxury in the United States at that time. She could give all her savings to her father and send him home solvent, if not permanently secure. With that in mind, she announced her imminent retirement from the stage.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As the terrible, wonderful year of 1848 began, with storms of liberty sweeping across Europe and the Chartists shaking the pillars of the British Establishment, Fanny was living at the epicenter, revelling in the excitement of history in the making. She had six weeks of solid bookings ahead of her, enough to pay for the trip to America and the cottage Catharine Sedgwick had found for her in Lenox. She was impatient to be there, to see—or at least to have fresh news of—her daughters. Friends who made inquiries about them could learn only that they were in boarding school. They advised Fanny to come and open a direct negotiation with Pierce for some sort of reasonable compromise.
She intended to do that when the season was over. But just as it began, she was served with a subpoena to appear before the court of common pleas in Philadelphia to defend herself against Pierce’s suit for divorce on the grounds of “wilful and malicious desertion.”
Fanny cancelled her engagements (including a royal command performance) and sailed for Boston. There she consulted friends, among them Charles Sumner, the abolitionist senator. It may well have been on his advice that she decided to base her defense on the argument that Pierce’s”… prohibition of my remaining with my children … coupled with his other acts and his declarations, was as clear an expulsion of me from his house as there could be short of one accompanied by physical violence.” She also contended that, while she had left with “the assent and license” of her husband, she would have been justified in leaving without them by “personal indignities [that] rendered [my] condition intolerable and life burdensome.”
It would have been a stronger and more conventional case if she had alleged even a single act of physical mistreatment, for mental cruelty had no legal status at the time. But Fanny would not make the charge, probably because it would have been untrue.
To support her contentions, Fanny added to her plea for a jury trial her detailed Narrative , which, although the judges would not admit it as evidence, was widely published by the newspapers, many of which came to her defense. In addition, she retained as her lawyer the renowned Rufus Choate, a courtroom performer who could draw and move an audience as strongly in his way as Fanny could in hers. Since Choate’s fee was high, Fanny contracted for a series of readings to raise the money.
Pierce did not exercise his legal prerogative of impounding her earnings. He may have considered it; he was desperately afraid of Choate and tried to hire Daniel Webster to oppose him. But any such move against Fanny would have prejudiced his case, not only in the eyes of his peers, but also in the eyes of the three judges on whose good opinion his fate would depend.
When the hearing began in early December, everyone who could squeeze into the courtroom was there- except Fanny. The Boston and New York papers sent reporters to take down every point Choate made, for there was consensus that more was at stake here than Fanny Butler’s maternal rights.
Choate did not disappoint his audience. After he had emotionally charged the proceedings with the plight of a mother who found she had no right under the law of the land to perform those functions which moral law demanded of her, he moved on to suggest —very delicately but unmistakably—that the old common law was unjust and ought to be revised. He realized that such a change was beyond the power of the three judges, but he knew that the hundreds who heard him and thousands who would read him could and would initiate change in their own time.
It took a month for the court to reach its decision: that there was, in Mrs. Butler’s countercharge, an issue of fact (which Pierce’s counsel had denied)) and that the case must be tried before a jury. This made it possible that Fanny might “win”—that the divorce might be denied and the intolerable status quo ante be resumed.
What happened next was anticlimactic but hardly inexplicable in view of what each of the contestants now stood to lose—and to gain. A compromise was negotiated. Pierce permitted the two girls to spend part of the summer with their mother, visiting them himself only once and only for a few hours. For her part, when the case came up for trial the following September, Fanny did not contest the divorce.
If Fanny ever wrote down her reasons for this change of heart and strategy, she later destroyed the record. But it seems obvious that by giving up her daughters for a few years she could win the right to her own independence and secure their love. Nothing but a revision in the law could have restored them to her before their majority, and laws are not changed by a single pleading, even by a Rufus Choate.
As it turned out, five years after Choate’s inspired defense the Pennsylvania assembly did act to amend the statutes governing the position of married women. The change was small but significant, for it granted to a woman whose husband neglects her or refuses to provide for her the right to whatever money she could earn as a “sole trade.” She also secured rights over her children, should their father fail to care for them.
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.
Fanny had struck her blow at what looked to her like the blackest hour and had earned her right to the dawn that came after it. That glow was to warm the rest of her long life.
For there were no more agonizing decisions. She learned now to co-exist lovingly with those whose views and values were different from hers. Little by little she was reconciled with Fan, and the years of her grandmotherhood were as golden as those of her motherhood had been grim.
She was always a welcome guest in the Wisters’ Philadelphia home, and she was devoted to her grandson, also named Owen, in whom she correctly saw a writer of promise. But as she grew old, Fanny was happiest in England. And it was with Fan that she found the contentment she wanted for her last years. For Fan was married to James Leigh, an English clergyman who had “come into the living” at Stratford on Avon. In Shakespeare’s country Fanny found peace, close by her one unblemished love, “that greatest and best English mind and heart” in whose presence she had spent the best hours of her long life. On January 15, 1893, at the age of eighty-three, she died.