FANNY KEMBLE’S CIVIL WARS, by Catherine Clinton, Simon & Schuster, 290 pages, $26.00.
British actress Fanny Kemble–queen of the London stage–sailed to America in 1832 and performed for adoring audiences during a theatrical tour of the United States. Yet Kemble’s theatrical talents were not her only claim to fame. Her autobiographical writings, marriage to Pierce Butler–a Philadelphia native and the second-largest slave owner in Georgia–and social criticism of her adopted homeland’s practice of slavery made Kemble one of the most controversial individuals of the antebellum era and America’s most unlikely abolitionist.
In Fanny Kemble’s Civil Wars Catherine Clinton gives readers a richly detailed account of the woman who once debated the merits of Shakespeare with John Quincy Adams and Daniel Webster, but who did not think she was “fit to marry, to make an obedient wife or affectionate mother.”
Kemble’s self-judgment proved accurate. Her marriage to Butler in 1834 was marred from the beginning by “strife and misery.” Kemble’s sense of independence conflicted with Butler’s view that a husband ruled unchallenged. Financial constraints further undermined the Kemble-Butler union, as did Kemble’s contentious opinions on slavery and publication of her 1835 Journal of Residence in America, a best-selling but controversial critique of American society.
In 1838 the Butlers traveled south to inspect their plantation estates and holdings of nearly 1,000 slaves. During her one-year stay Kemble recorded the day-to-day “horror” of slavery, later publishing her observations in Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation. Abolitionists and Union supporters praised her “vivid and haunting diatribe against human bondage” for its “truth and power.”
By 1863, the Civil War raged on, and President Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Kemble had divorced Butler and was estranged from her two daughters–a rare and scandalous circumstance for a nineteenth-century woman. She continued to write into her later years, publishing several memoirs and, at age 80, a novel.
Catherine Clinton describes Kemble’s struggles and convictions with style and clarity and explores the drama of her private life, while using Kemble’s abolitionist work to provide a window into Civil War issues. “Her life reflected quixotic and absorbing dramas . . . between blacks and whites, Northerners and Southerners, husbands and wives, parents and children,” writes Clinton in this compelling and fascinating exploration of a life of principle.
AMY O’LOUGHLIN is a Boston-based freelance writer and book review columnist.