Kemble, Frances Anne

Life Span
    Full name
    Frances Anne Kemble
    Place of Birth
    Burial Place
    Birth Date Certainty
    Death Date Certainty
    No. of Spouses
    No. of Children
    Charles Kemble (father), Maria Theresa Kemble (mother), Pierce Butler (husband), Sarah Butler (daughter), Frances Butler (daughter)
    Writer or Artist
    Relation to Slavery
    White non-slaveholder
    Other Affiliations
    Abolitionists (Anti-Slavery Society)

    Frances Anne Kemble (American National Biography)

    By 1838, influenced by Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing's thoughts on slavery, Kemble had become a passionate abolitionist. She found her dependence on the profits of the family rice and cotton plantation intolerable. When [Pierce] Butler's father died and he was needed to take charge personally, she insisted on accompanying him and stayed for eighteen months. Inspired by the journal of Matthew Gregory Lewis, an Englishman who owned a West Indies sugar plantation, Kemble wrote Residence of a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839. The work horrified Butler and remained unpublished until 1863.

    Kemble returned to England in 1840; Butler followed, and for two-and-a-half years they appeared to have reconciled. They returned to the United States in 1843. Regarding their daughters as his possessions and threatening Kemble with their loss, Butler thwarted her attempts to return to the stage and to publish the plantation journal and articles on abolition. Once Butler sold Kemble's favorite horse, possibly because he knew that riding horseback gave her "a pleasurably unmarried feeling." Collecting and publishing ninety of her poems and securing the profits through her ingenuity, she bought the horse again. For a time Kemble and Butler lived apart within the same house, her access to the children limited to an hour daily.
    James Ross Moore, "Kemble, Fanny," American National Biography Online, February 2000,

    Frances Anne Kemble (Dictionary of American Biography)

    In May 1835 she published, in two volumes, Journal of a Residence in America, which was a record of her tour, and freely though goodnaturedly she criticized the various American customs. The young republic was touchy, however, and for a time she was roundly abused. The winter of 1838-39 she spent with her husband on his Georgia plantation where for the first time she saw the inside workings of slavery and realized the source of her husband’s income. She was deeply revolted and again kept a journal, but she refused to publish it until the Civil War, when she issued it to influence British opinion (Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, 1863). Her visit to Georgia deepened the gap which tastes and temperament had already made between her and her husband….In 1848 her husband sued for divorce, alleging abandonment. The case was long a famous one, especially as she was defended by Rufus Choate. The divorce was granted in 1849, after Fanny had returned to America and discovered a way to employ her talents successfully without appearing on stage. She gave public readings from Shakespeare, and so great was the demand to hear them, in England as well as America, that she was able to purchase a cottage in her beloved Lenox, in the Berkshire Hills, where she made her summer home for the next few years.
    Dumas Malone, ed., Dictionary of American Biography (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961), 5: 315-16.

    Frances Anne Kemble (American Cyclopaedia)

    Her mother, long known on the English stage as Mrs. Charles Kemble, was originally a danseuse at the opera house, London, as Miss De Camp. She manifested no special predilection for the stage, but was induced, in consequence of the embarrassed circumstances of her family, to make her début at Covent Garden, then under the management of her father, in Oct. 1829. On this occasion she played Juliet, her father taking the part of Romeo and her mother that of the nurse, with complete success, notwithstanding that 6 weeks previous she had no thought of embarking in a dramatic career. For the 3 succeeding years she performed leading parts in tragedy and comedy with great applause, distinguishing herself particularly in Juliet, Portia, Bianca in Milman's "Fazio," Juliet in the "Hunchback" (the latter being originally personated by her], Belvidera, Isabella, Lady Teazle, and Louise de Savoy, in her own play of "Francis the First," written when she was 17 years old, and received with great approbation. In 1832 she accompanied her father to the United States, and met with an enthusiastic reception in the chief cities. In 1834 she was married to Mr. Pierce Butler of Philadelphia, and at the same time retired definitively from the stage. Incompatibility of tastes and temperament having rendered the union an unhappy one, a separation took place at the end of a few years, and Mrs. Butler subsequently fixed her residence in Lenox, Berkshire co., Mass. Previous to this she had published her first work in prose, "A Journal of a Residence in America" (2 vols. 8vo., London, 1835 ; 2 vols. 12mo., Philadelphia), chiefly devoted to a description of her tour through the United States. It was followed in 1837 by a drama entitled " The Star of Seville," which was acted with success ; and in 1844 she published a collection of her poems, a portion of which only had previously appeared. In 1846 she visited Europe, extending her travels as far as Italy, where her sister, Mrs. Sartoris, resided, and in 1847 published an account of her tour under the title of " A Year of Consolation." Shortly afterward steps were taken to procure a divorce from her husband, which was granted by the legislature of Pennsylvania in 1849, since which time she has resumed the name of Kemble. In the winter of 1848-'9 she commenced in Boston a series of Shakespearian readings which drew crowded audiences ; and during the next two years she repeated the course in some of the principal American cities. In 1851 she returned to England, reappeared for a brief period on the stage, and after giving readings in London and other parts of the United Kingdom, made another long continental tour. In 1856 she returned to the United States, and continued at intervals to give readings in Boston and elsewhere, till Feb. 1860, when she gave her last reading in Boston, and took her farewell of the public. Her present residence is in Lenox, Mass.
    George Ripley and Charles A. Dana, eds.,The New American Cyclopaedia: A Popular Dictionary of General Knowledge (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1861), 10: 129.

    Frances Anne Kemble (New York Times)


        LONDON, Jan. 16. – Mrs. Pierce Butler (Fanny Kemble) died to-day at the house of her son-in-law, the Rev. James Wentworth Leigh, 86 Gloucester Place, in the eighty-fourth year of her age. She had been ill only a short time, and her recovery was expected, in spite of her advanced years. Her grave will be made in the old Kensal Greon Cemetery beside those of her father and mother, Charles and Maria Theresa Kemble, famous actors early in the century.

        Frances Anne Kemble was born Nov. 27, 1809 in Newman Street, London. Her father was Charles Kemble, the fourth and youngest son of Roger Kemble, the brother of John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons. Born in the year of the famous “O.P.” riots, when John Philip Kemble and his sister were suddenly made objects of public antipathy because of the new scale of prices established at the rebuilt Covent Garden Theatre, and the Kemble family had its first setback, it became Fanny Kemble’s duty before she had fairly finished her girlhood to take upon her young shoulders the new burdens of her family, of which her father was then the head.

        Charles Kemble undertook the management of Convent Garden Theatre in the Winter of 1822-3. At the beginning of the season of 1829-30 the theatre was in the possession of the bailiffs. Pecuniary disasters had pressed hard upon the manager. At this juncture his daughter, who had been delicately nurtured, and had until her twentieth year entertained no thought of adopting the calling of her parents, went upon the stage in the role of Juliet. The date of this performance of Shakespeare’s tragedy was Oct. 5, 1829. The debutante gave new luster to the name of Kemble, and her acting was soon the talk of London. Claims against the theatre of $65,000 were speedily paid off. After Juliet she appeared, generally supported by her father in the opposite parts, as Belvidera in Otway’s “Venice Preserved,” Mrs. Beverley in “The Gamester,” Portia in “The Merchant of Venice,” Isabella in “Measure for Measure,” Lady Townly in “The Provoked Husband,” Calisto in “The Fair Penitent,” Bianca in “Fazio,” Beatrice in “Much Ado,” Constance in “King John,” Lady Macbeth, and Julia in “The Hunchback,” a role of which she was the first actress.

        The period of her London triumph was three years. She never liked the stage, but there was little dispute about her skill as an actress. She inherited much of the extraordinary histrionic talent of the Kembles was well as the versatility and adaptiveness of her mother’s family, the De Camps. The children of Charles and Maria Kemble were uncommonly bright, and the elder son, John Mitchell, (1807-57) became a historian and philologist of note, while Adelaide (Mrs. Sartoris) (1814-79) was a singer of rare powers.

        In 1830 Charles Kemble objected to some remarks about his daughter published in the Age, a London journal, and felt it his duty to assault Mr. Westmacott, the editor. He and his wife acted with Fanny in many of the larger provincial cities. In August, 1832, Fanny and her father sailed across the Atlantic, and Sept. 17, they appeared at the Park Theatre in New York as Hamlet and Ophelia. They afterward acted in all the large American cities.

        In 1834 Miss Kemble was married to Pierce Butler, a planter of South Carolina, with whom she did not live happily, and retired finally from the stage. Her first published book, “A Journal of Residence in America,” appeared in 1835. Few American readers liked it perhaps, but there was a great deal of truth in her vivacious descriptions of and comments upon our “institutions.” She soon separated from Mr. Butler, but was not formally divorced until 1849. She made her home for many years at “The Perch,” near Lenox, Mass., where she was highly esteemed by all her neighbors. The years 1846 she passed in Italy with her sister, Mrs. Sartoris. In 1848 she came again into public notice as a platform reader from the plays of Shakespeare, and in this form of intellectual entertainment, of which she was practically the originator, she gained new fame. As an actress she had been a “slip of a girl.” As a reader she is remembered as a stately lady of commanding aspect.

        Mrs. Kemble went to England and gave public readings in 1851, and thereafter traveled in Europe. She returned here in 1856, and continued her public career until 1869. Then for four years more she was in Europe. She came back to America in 1873, but has lately dwelt in London.

        The sharpness of her tone in commenting on America in her first book was not noticed in a later work on American life, called “The Journal of a Residence in Georgia,” written in 1838-9, but not published until 1863, when the civil war was waging, and then after careful revision and with a new “appendix.” The theme of this volume is the evil of slavery. That she no longer believed at least one thing she said in her first “Journal” – “It is my conviction that America will be a monarchy before I am a skeleton” – was shown in a letter of hers published during the war, from which this passage was widely quoted:

        “Admonished by its terrible experiences, I believe the Nation will reunite itself under one Government, remodel its Constitution, and again address itself to fulfill its glorious destiny. I believe that the country sprung from ours – of all our just subjects of national pride the greatest – will resume its career of prosperity and power, and become the noblest as well as the mightiest that has existed among the nations of the earth.”

        Other published works of Mrs. Kemble are “The Star of Seville,” a drama, 1837; “Poems,” 1842; “A Year of Consolation,” 1847; “Records of Girlhood,” 1878; “Records of Later Life,” 1882, and “Notes upon Some of Shakespeare’s Plays,” 1882.

    "Death of Fanny Kemble," New York Times, January, 17, 1893.
    Chicago Style Entry Link
    Clinton, Catherine, ed. Fanny Kemble's Journals. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. view record
    Clinton, Catherine. Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. view record
    Furnas, J. C. Fanny Kemble: Leading Lady of the Nineteenth-Century Stage: A Biography. New York: Dial Press, 1982. view record
    Kemble, Fanny. Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839. New York: Harper & Bros., 1863. view record
    Turner, Mary M. Forgotten Leading Ladies of the American Theatre: Lives of Eight Female Players, Playwrights, Directors, Managers, and Activists of the Eighteenth, Nineteenth, and early Twentieth Centuries. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1990. view record
    How to Cite This Page: "Kemble, Frances Anne," House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College,