A Woman Walks into a Book

Cincinnati NoondayLisa Hogeland10431 Comments

Lisa Hogeland – October 2018

1. The Book Crawl

Two years ago May, I set out on an adventure I called May is Reading Month.  School was over for the year, and I was behind hand in keeping up with the latest work in my field.  So I set to putting together lists and lists in my various fields of teaching and writing, expanding my critical biographies for graduate classes, reading a slew of fiction and poetry from my graduate students’ exam lists, and reading up the most recent work for a book review I needed to complete.  I wasn’t reading with a singular or particular plan; I had no system but my pages of lists, one for Langsam Library on campus, and another for the downtown Public Library, and yet another for the second-hand online bookstores I frequent.

Reading Month was a glorious book crawl.  I read about nineteenth century factory girls, the Attica prison uprising, the poetry of the Cold War (and then I read the poets, too), the feminist bookstore movement.  And then I was circling toward an actual project, an article I have wanted to write for a long time about an 1835 novel by Catharine Maria Sedgwick called The LinwoodsThe Linwoods is a historical romance set during the American Revolution, one of more than 100 historical novels about the Revolution published in the 1830s.  I love this book; I think it is my favorite novel by a 19th century American woman writer, and I teach it at every possible opportunity.  I want to make it THE 19th century novel taught in American high schools.  I won’t spoil the plot (I should say, plots, because there are lots of them), but I will say that the novel celebrates diversity as an American value; celebrates the contributions of women to the new nation; is full of drama and suspense; and reworks the plot of the seduction novel in ways that are strikingly feminist.  But there is very little critical writing about the novel, though I have hope for its future now that it’s been republished in a beautiful trade paper edition from Harper.

In any case, the lack of critical work on the novel itself led me to read Sedgwick’s autobiography and journal, where I was arrested by her account of meeting the English actress Fanny Kemble, whom Sedgewick mentions in her novel, comparing one of her characters to Kemble’s portrayal of Ophelia.  Sedgwick never married and spent most of her adult life shuttling between the households of her beloved brothers.  Catharine Sedgwick met Fanny Kemble in 1833 and introduced her to the rest of the Sedgwick family.  “The Sedgwicks were Boston gentry: cultured, socially powerful, politically connected, and dedicated abolitionists” (David 120).  Catharine was 40 to Fanny’s 24; she was so smitten by the actress that she confessed to her journal that “My conscience is not easy” — but Fanny was “an enchantress not to be resisted” (in David 120).

“Well,” said I, inappropriately aloud in the library, “perhaps I ought to know something about this Fanny Kemble person.”  In fact, I did know a little tiny something about this Fanny Kemble person: I knew Fanny from her poetry.  Kemble published four books of poetry over nearly 40 years.  The headnote to her poems included in Paula Bernat Bennett’s 1998 anthology, Nineteenth-Century American Women Poets, assesses her importance this way: “What Kemble contributes most to women’s poetry in the United States is in the love poems she wrote to women.  Perhaps because of her stage experience, her treatment of erotic desire is unusually frank in a period not noted for its openness about such matters, and these poems are among the boldest and richest lesbian poems to be found in the century” (In Bennett, 47).

Here’s a one of Kemble’s sonnets, published in her 1859 volume, Poems:

What is my lady like? thou fain would’st know –
A rosy chaplet of fresh apple bloom,
Bound with blue ribbon, lying on the snow:
What is my lady like? The violet gloom
Of evening, with the deep orange light below.
She’s like the noonday smell of a pine wood,
She’s like the sounding of a stormy flood,
She’s like a mountain-top high in the skies,
To which the day its earliest light doth lend;
She’s like a pleasant path without an end;
Like a strange secret and a sweet surprise;
Like a sharp axe of doom, wreathed with blush roses,
A casket full of gems whose keys one loses;
Like a hard saying, wonderful and wise.

(Bennett 51).

Catharine Sedgwick writes about her women characters in interesting ways; I am now fascinated by this woman who fascinated her in real life.  My next stop on the book crawl in my Reading Month was Deirdre David’s 2007 biography of Fanny Kemble, called Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life.

2. Fanny Kemble Reads a Novel

In February of 1838, the English actress Frances Anne Kemble Butler read the recently published novel by Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre.  According to a letter she wrote to her dear friend, Harriet St. Leger, with whom she corresponded for 50 years, Fanny Kemble Butler identified with Jane’s loneliness, and was “unsettled” when she compared Rochester’s love for Jane with her own soon-to-be ex-husband’s cruelty, the cruelty that had driven her back to England, back to her career on the stage, leaving her children behind in America (David 230).   Fanny Kemble Butler had many reasons to identify with Jane Eyre, in fact, and many ways to see herself reflected when she walked into that novel.

Like Jane Eyre, for instance, Fanny Kemble had been a rebellious child, and like Jane Eyre, Fanny was sent off to school because she was unmanageable at home. But where Jane Eyre weeps and faints at being locked in the red room as punishment, Fanny escaped the attic to which she was confined — and danced on the rooftops, terrifying the on-lookers below (David 25).

Before she became an actress — or, rather, before her actor-parents pushed her onto the stage to try to rescue the family theatre from bankruptcy — Fanny had imagined she might become a governess, like Jane Eyre.  Instead, at the age of 19, Fanny made her debut at the Covent Garden Theatre as Juliet, and was an immediate and astonishing success.  Unlike Jane Eyre, who calls herself “poor, obscure, plain, and little” (Bronte 284), Fanny Kemble was making excellent money; she was famous; and if not precisely beautiful (her complexion was marred by smallpox scars), certainly able to create the illusion of beauty, both on and off the stage.  She was, however, like Jane Eyre, on the short side.

Like Jane Eyre, Fanny Kemble married a man with a secret.  Pierce Butler, her American husband, did not have a secret first wife in the attic, and Fanny and Pierce’s wedding was not interrupted by a mysterious brother in law.  But according to Fanny, Pierce Butler had a secret from her, if not from the rest of the world.  That is, Fanny Kemble, an avowed abolitionist, married a man whose family fortune that he would soon inherit was in cotton and rice plantations stocked with enslaved people.  Pierce Butler was about to become one of the largest slave holders in the United States, and his new wife was a passionate abolitionist.  She did not know where his money came from, though she knew he had it from their first meeting, describing him in her journal as a man of means (“He has, it seems, a great fortune, consequently I suppose, in spite of his lack of inches, is a great man,” Fanny wrote  [Gough, 59]).  Fanny Kemble’s story was a particularly American Gothic, and her madwoman in the attic was slavery itself.

Fanny Kemble met her husband during her American theatrical tour, where she and her father went to raise yet more money to try to secure the theatre back in London.  (And where Fanny often played Juliet opposite her father’s Romeo.)  The Kembles were wildly popular in the United States, and accounts of seeing Fanny perform turn up in memoirs and novels, inspiring writers including the young poet Walt Whitman, and the older novelist Catharine Maria Sedgwick.  One of the ways that Pierce courted Fanny was by sharing her passion for riding, which would eventually lead to the two of them riding off alone together, unchaperoned.  After they married in 1834, Pierce attempted to limit Fanny’s riding, insisting that she not ride where it was inappropriate for his wife to be.  After they married, Pierce attempted to limit many aspects of Fanny’s life: he censored her writing, tried to estrange her from her friends, and refused to let her see her children or make decisions about them.

The marriage collapsed under the weight of world-historical systems of domination: racism and slavery, patriarchy, and class.  And, like Jane Eyre, when the situation became insupportable, Fanny Kemble Butler ran away.  She had tried, repeatedly, to leave the marriage, and finally succeeded in 1845, after a protracted struggle of wills, much like the struggle Jane Eyre undergoes with St. John Rivers, who insists that Jane must marry him and join him as a missionary in India.  “If you reject [my offer], it is not me you deny, but God,” St. John tells Jane (Bronte 455).  After the divorce, Pierce Butler circulated a private statement defending himself from rumors that he had treated Fanny badly; his justification was that had she only learned to submit to him, he would not have had to compel her to obey him.  Masculine authority meets feminine resistance – that old story, in literature as in life.

Like Jane Eyre, Fanny Kemble Butler was summoned to return to her once-beloved — not by a mysterious voice calling to her, but by Pierce’s filing for divorce.  She returned to the U.S., finalized the divorce, arranged to see her daughters some portion of each year, and then went to Italy to spend a year with her sister recuperating.  Calling herself Mrs. Kemble after the divorce, Fanny returned to the stage as a reader of Shakespeare, at which she excelled. She read 24 plays in strict rotation (David 229); she read in Britain and America for 20 years; and she made a very nice living at it.  When Harriet St. Leger lost her sight, she returned 50 years of Fanny’s letters, and Fanny set about writing a series of memoirs based on them.  She published her first novel at the age of 80, and died in 1893.  She was eulogized by her dear friend, American novelist Henry James, whose novel Washington Square is based on a story Fanny told him.

Fanny Kemble’s Plantation Romance

My comparison of Fanny Kemble’s life story to Charlotte Bronte’s novel aims to show why her story has been irresistible to biographers, novelists, playwrights, and filmmakers.  Fanny Kemble is the subject of 16 full-length biographies, dozens of smaller ones, five novels (she is a minor character in several others), at least three plays, and a made-for-cable television film.  Her first biography was published in 1929; her most recent in 2007.  Four of the biographies were written for children or teens between 1962 and 1973; several of the adult biographies focus on Fanny as actor and on her place in British theatre history.  The novels, plays, and movie focus largely on the marriage, not surprisingly, given the drama inherent in that part of Fanny’s story.  This 19th century life becomes a screen onto which the writers project the changing ideas and ideologies of the 20th century.  Like a good novel, Fanny Kemble’s story speaks to a lot of different audiences over a long time.

In my recounting of Fanny’s life via the comparison to Jane Eyre above, I omitted a crucial chapter, one to which there is no direct analog in Bronte’s novel.  In the winter of 1838, Pierce Butler took his wife, their two children, and their Irish nursemaid to his plantations, where they spent four months. Fanny kept a journal, which circulated privately among abolitionists but was not published until 1863, long after the divorce. The Journal was composed as a series of letters to Elizabeth Sedgwick, Catharine Sedgwick’s sister-in-law.  Fanny published her Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation, 1838-1839 in Britain during the Civil War because she was alarmed by the support for the Confederacy she saw around her.  In Jane Eyre, slavery is a background — the source of Bertha Mason’s fortune, the place where Rochester found himself sold into marriage with a madwoman — but he never took Jane there to see it firsthand.  Pierce Butler did, and he took Fanny South because he believed that if she saw slavery for herself, she would understand, at last and finally, the rightness, the righteousness, of the peculiar institution.  Pierce Butler seemed to believe that slavery was self-evidently not only necessary but good, and that Fanny’s abolitionism was some kind of womanly sentiment comprised of ignorance and prejudice.

One of Fanny’s biographers, Leota S. Driver, calls Pierce a “Southern gentleman” in explaining his attitudes (Driver 116).  But Pierce never lived in the South, never spent time on the plantations until shortly before he and his brother inherited them (Wright 220-21).  Pierce was Philadelphia born and bred; the plantations were his grandfather’s, Old Major Butler’s, and Major Butler was a distinguished founding father, a Revolutionary War veteran, twice elected to the Senate.  Major Pierce Butler married a South Carolina heiress, who brought the plantations to the marriage.  It was a condition of the Major’s will that any heir to the plantations and the human chattel who worked them must take the surname Butler.  Pierce was the son of one of Major Butler’s daughters, who had married a man named Mease; anticipating his inheritance, Pierce changed his name and his expectations at the age of 16 (David 96). The novel about Pierce Butler has yet to be written, but I can imagine that the development of feminist studies of masculinity might yet produce one.

What Pierce expected to happen when he took his wife South for the winter might be best captured by a scene from a somewhat later plantation romance novel. The plantation romance novel emerges as a response to abolitionist rhetoric and abolitionist representations of slavery, especially after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852.  In this passage from Caroline Lee Hentz’s novel, The Planter’s Northern Bride (1854), the Northern Bride arrives at her new husband’s plantation for the first time:

She recollected all the horrible stories she had heard of negro insurrections, and thought what an awful thing it was to be at the mercy of so many slaves, on that lonely plantation. When she saw her husband going out among them, and they all closed round, shutting him in as with a thick cloud, she asked herself if he were really safe. Safe! Napoleon, in the noonday of his glory, surrounded by the national guard, was not more safe–more honoured or adored. They gathered round him, eager to get within reach of his hand, the sound of his voice, the glance of his kind, protecting, yet commanding, eye. More like a father welcomed by his children than a king greeted by his subjects, he stood, the centre of that sable ring. Eulalia thought she had never seen him look so handsome, so noble, so good. She had never felt so proud of being his wife. An impression of his power, gently used, but still manifest, produced in her that feeling of awe, softened by tenderness, so delicious to the loving, trusting heart of woman. He appeared to her in a new character. She had known him as the fond, devoted bridegroom; now he was invested with the authority and responsibility of a master. (Hentz 332-332)

If that’s what Pierce expected — that Fanny would feel “awe” at his power over and responsibility for the enslaved people of Butler Island — he clearly mistook his wife for someone entirely other than Fanny Kemble.  Fanny was an outsider to the system of slavery; things had to be explained to her, sometimes more than once, until the explanations unhanded themselves and laid bare the cruel logics by which people were made things.  She learned about the treatment of women in particular — their rapes by the overseer, their staggering infant mortality rates, the conditions of their giving birth in the filthy building called an infirmary, the ways they were bound when they were beaten — and detailed all of it in her journal.  Rather than noble, Pierce seemed to Fanny debased by his position of master.  She wrote:

Mr. was called out this evening to listen to a complaint of over work, from a gang of pregnant women.  I did not stay to listen to the details of their petition, for I am unable to command myself on such occasions, and Mr. seemed perfectly degraded, in my eyes, as he stood enforcing upon these women the necessity of their fulfilling their appointed tasks.  How honorable he would have appeared to me begrimed with the sweat and soil of the coarsest manual labour, to what he then seemed, setting forth to these wretched, ignorant women, as a duty, their unpaid exacted labour!  I turned away in bitter disgust.  I hope this sojourn among Mr.’s slaves may not lessen my respect for him, but I fear it; for the details of slave holding are so unmanly, letting alone every other consideration, that I know not how anyone, with the spirit of a man, can condescend to them (GJ loc. 1000-1006).

And, later: “Mr., of course, sees and feels none of this as I do, and I should think he must regret that he ever brought me here, to have my abhorrence of the theory of slavery deepened, and strengthened every hour of my life, by what I see of its practice” (GJ loc. 1484).  Regret it Pierce did indeed.  As Fanny became increasingly embittered, Pierce became increasingly impatient. Fanny plotted a sort of revenge: one of the slaves, a waiter, asked her to teach him to read.  “I certainly intend to teach Aleck to read.  I certainly won’t tell Mr. anything about it,” she wrote (GJ loc. 3026); “but then you see, I am a woman, and Mr. stands between me and the penalty” (GJ 3020).  As a feme couvert, a married woman, her husband would have to pay the fine for her crime.  The third offense carried a prison term and Fanny imagined that she might rather serve that herself if it would get her off the plantation.

Fanny Kemble Butler married slavery in what she claimed was complete ignorance.  She traveled South to see it for herself, and detailed what she saw.  While Fanny was a Planter’s Northern Bride — and, given the publicity surrounding her divorce in 1849, her story may well have influenced Hentz’s and other similar works — she was not persuaded by what she witnessed.  Many women who came from or married into the planter class kept journals and diaries, and most of them loathed the institution of slavery in the privacy of their unpublished writing.  But only three planter-class women ever opposed slavery publicly, and Fanny Kemble is the only one not named Grimke (Jordan-Lake 99).  Fanny, like the Grimke sisters, had to flee the planter class. We might even go so far as to suggest that Fanny Kemble’s story crosses Pierce’s plantation romance with Fanny’s own narrative of her flight from slavery to freedom.  Small wonder, then, that a century of biographers, novelists, and playwrights have found her story compelling.

3. Fanny Kemble’s Other Genres

Interestingly, three of Fanny’s biographers are mystery writers.  Book designer turned novelist Margaret Armstrong, whose biography was published in 1938, also wrote three mystery novels in the sub-genre most often described as “Had I But Known” – a sort of Gothic-light.  Henry Gibbs’s 1947 biography focused on Fanny’s theatrical career; under the non de plume Simon Harvester, Gibbs published 45 pulp spy-mystery novels between 1942 and 1976.  Rebecca Jenkins, whose 2005 biography focused on Fanny’s celebrity, also writes historical mystery-romances. A fourth Kemble biographer was married to a mystery writer.  Winnifred Esther Wise was the fourth wife of mystery writer Stuart Palmer — and she seems to have been in the process of divorcing him while she wrote her Kemble biography, which may explain why this biography is the most indignant about Pierce Butler’s misogyny in a biography written for children in 1966.  Here’s an exemplary passage:

Piece was typical of many American gentlemen of this period; he had no conception of a wife who expected to be more than her husband’s chattel.  Willi-nilly, she must be forced into the stereotype of a docile little woman with no mind of her own, a sweet and pretty parcel with foibles her husband might patronize and find amusing but never tiresome and difficult. (Wise 127)

I was struck early on in my research by this cluster of mystery writers, because it seems to me that one of the central problems for biographers to explain, novelists and playwrights to stage, is the mystery’s big reveal: How did Fanny find out about Pierce’s half-share in nearly a thousand human beings?  How did someone as professionally savvy as Fanny Kemble marry a man without knowing where his money came from?  He knew where hers came from, and by all accounts, there was a good deal of talk and negotiation about money when Pierce and Fanny married.  But apparently not about its source.

This is an apt moment to remember that at the heart of the Gothic novel is money, whether it’s the Rochester family fortune or the thirty thousand pounds that Rochester married when he married Bertha Mason, or the twenty thousand pounds Jane Eyre inherits from an uncle she never meets.  Or Old Major Butler’s plantations and their human chattel, or the thirty thousand dollars Fanny gave to her father to buy herself out of another year on the stage so that she could marry Pierce.

But if we are following the money, let’s follow it to some of the other genres that shape the many tellings and retellings of Fanny’s story.  Janet Stevenson’s 1960 novelized biography, The Ardent Years, situates Fanny’s story firmly in the genre of the kunstlerroman, the artist’s novel, so much so that she has Fanny exclaiming, whenever she is thwarted by Pierce, “I am an artist!”  The artist novel was a particularly important genre for women novelists in the 1960s and the 1970s – think of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, or Mary McCarthy’s The Group or Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying.  It was also popular in the 19th century, including Fanny Fern’s Ruth Hall, Augusta Evans’s Vashti, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s The Story of Avis, and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening.  The novel of the woman artist — writer, painter, actress, musician — generally proceeds from the assumption that the woman artist is not like other women: she is special, and it is especially unfair for her to be constrained by the confines of conventional femininity.   The novel of the woman artist usually depicts the struggle between work, artistic work, and love, romance, or marriage — and often stages that conflict in ways that generate surprisingly feminist critiques of marriage.  Thus Margaret Armstrong’s 1938 biography sounds an awful lot like Virginia Woolf when she writes: “How was a man supposed to keep his wife in her place if she persisted in earning money?” (Armstrong 278).  Armstrong picks up the point of view of the artist novel in shaping her version of Fanny’s story, repeatedly decrying the impossibility and the injustice of Pierce’s attempt to domesticate a woman of genius.

At mid-20th century, one of the most popular genres for girl and teen girl readers was a variation on the artist novel, the so-called “career/romance novel,” which told stories of young working women who had to figure out how long to continue their glamorous careers as flight attendants (for example) before getting married. The career romance novel is a sort of debased version of the artist novel.  Three of the four biographies for younger readers published between 1962 and 1973 are captive to this genre; two of their authors also wrote fiction in that genre.  These biographies are, I confess, particularly interesting to me, as I was their audience. Between about 1967 and 1971, when I was 8-12, I read voraciously in juvenile biography, and especially in biographies of famous women.  This was before the explosion of fiction for Young Adult readers (that term would not come into use until 1971), and it was hard to find fiction with girls and women protagonists. I did not, so far as I can remember, actually read any of the four Kemble biographies — but I am certain I read other volumes in some of the series in which they were published.

Another aspect of this particular set of biographies is that they have to wrestle with the shifting consensus about the legacy and meaning of American slavery — in books for children.  The Lost Cause / Dunning School of histories of slavery [which I like to summarize this way: Name three major causes of the Civil War, none of which can be slavery, an essay I am certain I wrote in school] was under attack from the Civil Rights Era historians of slavery.  At stake, among other things, is how explicitly books for children can depict the violence of slavery — and especially the sexual violence against enslaved women that was so horrifying to Fanny Kemble, and which she details in her Georgia Journal.  By 1973, legal historian John Anthony Scott is quite explicit in his juvenile biography, and actually uses the word rape, where earlier juvenile biographers refer to the overseer’s borrowing the wives of enslaved men.  Scott notes in his Foreword, “Only too often [Kemble’s] antislavery writing has been dismissed as the fiction of a hysterical woman who sought revenge against her slaveholding husband for the unhappiness of her marriage and for the humiliation of the divorce to which he subjected her” (Scott ix).

In the end, though, Fanny Kemble’s life escaped and exceeded the conventions of any of the novel genres any of her biographers or novelists or playwrights try to fit her into.  We have no narrative, no genre, for a woman who is deeply disappointed in love or marriage and then — gets over it and goes onto have a rich and full life, outliving her critics and her exes, being successful in her career, and having a delightful retirement with money and leisure and Henry James to tell her stories to.  Fanny Kemble won the 19th century: this is what the retellings of her story can almost but not quite capture.  The biographers, playwrights, and novelists can find their genres and fill them with their own moments’ changing ideas about slavery, race, marriage, money, class, and patriarchy – but some lives, and some life stories, are not so nearly contained.

Works Cited

Alsop, Robert with Paula Bennett, “Frances Anne Butler Kemble (1809-1893)” in Paula Bernat Bennett, ed., Nineteenth Century American Women Poets: An Anthology.  Maldon, MA: Blackwell, 1998. P. 47.

Armstrong, Margaret.  Fanny Kemble: A Passionate Victorian. New York: Macmillan, 1938.

Butler, Pierce.  Mr. Pierce Butler’s Statement, originally prepared in aid of his professional council. 1850.  Making of America, electronic.

Davis, Deirdre.  Fanny Kemble: A Performed Life.  Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania, 2007.

Driver, Leota S.  Fanny Kemble.  Chapel Hill: U North Carolina, 1933.

Gibbs, Henry.  Affectionately Yours, Fanny: Fanny Kemble and the Theatre. London: Jarrolds, 1947.

Gough, Monica, ed.  Fanny Kemble: Journal of a Young Actress.  New York: Columbia UP, 1990.

Hentz, Caroline Lee.  The Planter’s Northern Bride.  1854. Electronic resource: Academic Affairs Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1997.

Hogeland, Lisa Maria.  “’Love, Our Subject’: Interrogations of Love in Judy Grahn’s Work.”

National Women’s Studies Association, Atlanta, November 2009.

Jenkins, Rebecca.  Fanny Kemble: A Reluctant Celebrity. London: Simon & Schuster, 2005.

Jordan-Lake, Joy.  Whitewashing Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Nineteenth-century novelists respond to Stowe.  Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt UP, 2005.

Kemble, Frances Anne. Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1838-1839.  1863.

—–.  “Sonnet” 1859; rpt. In Paula Bernat Bennett, ed., Nineteenth Century American Women Poets: An Anthology.  Maldon, MA: Blackwell, 1998. P. 51.

Kerr, Laura Nowak.  Footlights to Fame: Fanny Kemble. New York: Funk & Wagnall’s, 1962.

Scott, John Anthony.  Fanny Kemble’s America.  New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973.   Women of America series. Stevenson, Janet.  The Ardent Years.  New York: Viking, 1960.

Wise, Winifred Esther.  Fanny Kemble: Actress, Author, Abolitionist. New York: G. R. Putnam’s Sons, 1966.

Wright, Constance.  Fanny Kemble and the Lovely Land.  New York: Dodd, Meade, 1972.

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