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A British stage star turned Georgia plantation mistress, Fanny Kemble is perhaps best known as America's most unlikely abolitionist, whose passionate writings against human bondage made her a heroine of the Union cause.
Irrepressible in word and deed, Kemble captured the imaginations of many famous Americans of the antebellum era. Walt Whitman was held spellbound at one of her early New York City stage performances, rhapsodizing: "Fanny Kemble! Name to conjure up great mimic scenes withal -- perhaps the greatest! Nothing finer did ever stage exhibit." Henry James predicted that Fanny Kemble's literary gifts would "make her what I call historic," and abolitionist Catharine Sedgwick enthused: "She is a most captivating creature, steeped to the very lips in genius."
By the mid-1830s, American society was firmly in the grip of Kemble's celebrity. A tulip was named in her honor. Young ladies adopted "Fanny Kemble curls" and donned "Fanny Kemble caps." Harvard undergraduates smeared themselves with molasses to fend off rivals for scarce tickets to her performances, and lecture attendance fell off so sharply on the afternoons of Kemble's matinees that Harvard faculty threatened to cancel classes. In a fit of passion, one smitten suitor rented the horse Niagara so that he could be astride the mount Kemble had once ridden.
Her private life, however, was the stuff of tabloids for different reasons. She married, for love, Pierce Butler -- a Philadelphia native and heir to a Georgia plantation fortune -- but the union soon turned bitter. In her correspondence, Kemble derisively referred to her husband as "my lord and master," and tried to run away from the couple's Philadelphia home after just four months of marriage. This defiant behavior fueled public scandal, which reached an incendiary peak in 1835, when Kemble published her Journal of Residence in America. The book not only aired Kemble's controversial views on slavery but launched a satirical send-up of American society, which Butler maintained would bring shame on their friends and family. The book became an instant bestseller and left New York City "in an uproar."
Kemble's name became permanently linked to the issue of slavery when, in 1863, she published her most famous volume, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation. "I think I should die if I had to live here," Kemble confessed after a season on the Butler lands, and her journal of those days hauntingly records the "simple horror and misery" she saw as the plight of the slaves. The raw power of her words made for a powerful antislavery tract, which influenced European sentiment toward the Union cause. Passages were read aloud on the floor of the House of Commons and to cotton workers in Manchester, and the book was embraced by Northern critics as "a permanent and most valuable chapter in our history" (Atlantic Monthly).
In Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars, we learn how this fascinating figure lived up to her pledge: "[I]t was an imperative duty, knowing what I know, and having seen what I have seen, to do all that lies in my power to show the dangers and the evils of this frightful institution." Bringing to bear the tools of both history and biography, Catherine Clinton reveals how one woman's life reflected in microcosm the public battles -- over slavery, the role of women, sectionalism -- that fueled our nation's greatest conflict and have permanently marked our history.
Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Kemble, Fanny, 1809-1893, Actors Great Britain Biography, Plantation owners' spouses Georgia Biography