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Book Review

Boldly Decrying Slavery and Southern Discomfort

October 16, 2000|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FANNY KEMBLE'S CIVIL WARS

by Catherine Clinton

Simon & Schuster

$26, 320 pages

FANNY KEMBLE'S JOURNALS

Edited by Catherine Clinton

Harvard University Press

$16.95; 240 pages, paper

*

It's often said history is what the winning side gets to write. But in the case of the Civil War, it was the losing side that for a long time deluged the national imagination with highly romanticized, not to say delusional, tales of gallant rebels, childlike black folk and gracious belles: a veritable fairyland of courtesy and charm swept away by the cruel cold wind of Yankee might. Eventually, however, the tide turned, as revisionist historians began collecting and analyzing the evidence of what antebellum life was really like.

The author of several eye-opening studies of the South, particularly its women, Catherine Clinton became intrigued by one very atypical plantation owner's wife: the celebrated English actress, Fanny Kemble, whose "Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation" furnished ammunition to the abolitionist cause in America and helped keep Britain from supporting the Confederacy. In "Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars," Clinton tells the story of Kemble's life and how she came to write about slavery.

Born into one of Britain's most illustrious theatrical families, Kemble (1809-1893) attained overnight stardom when she debuted as Juliet in 1829. A highly intelligent woman who liked reading and writing more than acting, Kemble not only penned plays, poems and stories but also recorded her impressions and experiences in a steady stream of letters and diaries, 11 volumes of which were published over the course of her long and colorful life.

While touring in America in 1832, Kemble met Pierce Butler, heir to a Georgia plantation. Their marriage was a love match--and a mistake. Kemble had hoped for a partnership of equals. Butler believed wives should defer to husbands. Kemble had hated slavery even before seeing it for herself. Butler considered his plantation a paragon of the system at its best. But what Kemble saw when she finally spent a winter there was worse than what she had imagined. Her attempts to improve the conditions of the slaves angered her husband, who insisted his slaves had been perfectly happy until she started coddling them and giving them ideas. As for the much-vaunted refinement of the antebellum lifestyle, Kemble found her lot as a planter's wife utterly devoid of the cultural and intellectual stimuli she had enjoyed in Philadelphia and Boston.

Kemble's controversial and influential "Journal" was written in the winter of 1838-39, but not published until 1863. In the years between, Kemble defied her husband sufficiently to allow her account of the horrors of slavery to circulate privately in abolitionist circles. Finally, in 1863, she decided it was more important to do what she could to aid the Union cause in Britain and America than to abide by his wishes. Although the couple had divorced in 1849, Butler had custody of their two daughters, and Kemble was dependent on his goodwill to see them. The Civil War that divided North and South had its counterpart in this family: Fanny's older daughter supported the Union, the younger was a Confederate sympathizer.

Clinton's edition of "Fanny Kemble's Journals" offers fascinating selections from her heart-rending account of slavery and from earlier and later journals as well. Whether as a young girl weighing the pros and cons of marriage or as an older woman considering the question of women's suffrage, Kemble's keen mind and forthright style of expression are a constant delight. It is not surprising to learn she later became a great friend and favorite of Henry James. Clinton's absorbing, if hardly exhaustive, biography paints a lively portrait of Kemble, as well as her daughters.

In noting Kemble's "prudish" disapproval of George Sand's love life, Clinton slightly misses at least one point: A Victorian woman who disapproved of Sand's behavior would not have been prudish by Victorian standards, merely conventional. Kemble was a scion of the clan who had led the way in making acting a respectable profession. So, although she was an actress, she was also, in 19th century terms, a "virtuous" woman. As both these very readable books make clear, she was virtuous in a larger sense as well.

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