Fanny Kemble – Encyclopedia of New Georgia
British actress and writer Fanny Kemble’s infamous entanglement with Georgia began in the 1830s when she married Pierce Mease Butler, who in 1836 inherited her grandfather’s inheritance, including hundreds of enslaved Africans and several plantations on the islands of the sea.
Frances Anne Kemble was born in 1809 into the first British stage family. After her debut in 1829 at Covent Garden in London, England, where she triumphed as Juliet in Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, she became an icon of the British scene; she achieved international stardom on her tour along the east coast of the United States in the fall of 1832. She retired from her theatrical career after marrying Butler in June 1834 but hoped to pursue her literary interests. She became a bestselling author when she Diary of Frances Anne Butler appeared in 1835 and the book scandalized American readers with its candid assessments of his adopted country.
In December 1838 Kemble accompanied her husband and two young daughters to Butler’s extensive estates on St. Simons and Butler Islands. Butler took his wife south despite her moral opposition to slavery, hoping a visit would rid her of her abolitionist bent. It was a miscalculated attempt: during the winter of 1838-1839, Kemble’s diary became an impassioned eyewitness account of the evils of slavery. A dedicated journalist, Kemble also offered commentary on other planters, as well as the flora and fauna of the islands, but his most acute observations concerned his encounters with slaves.
Kemble’s fascinating account of the men, women and children her husband enslaved provides a startling insight into life in the pre-war South. As a planter’s wife, Kemble had unlimited access to plantation affairs and was particularly poignant and pointed when she allowed the voices of enslaved women, so rarely heard at that time, to shine through the pages of her newspaper. Kemble’s battles with Butler over the harsh treatment of people he enslaved contributed to the couple’s ongoing stalemate, which culminated in marital separation in 1845 and divorce in 1849.
Although abolitionists encouraged Kemble to publish the living diary of her days in Georgia, she resisted their pleas for more than two decades so as not to upset Butler, who retained custody of their two daughters until their death. majority. During the Civil War (1861–1865), Kemble became alarmed at foreign attitudes toward the Confederacy and published it Diary of a residence on a Georgian plantation in 1838-1839 in England in 1863. This book—an Englishwoman’s dramatic condemnation of the evils she had witnessed, of the plantation life she had lived—also caused a sensation. Although some have attempted to credit this book with deterring the British from official recognition of the Confederate States, it is clear that Kemble’s Georgian newspaper had a greater impact on general readership than on diplomatic decisions.
White Southerners vilified the book; some continued to discredit Kemble’s account for over a hundred years. Margaret Davis Cate, for example, published a scathing review in the Georgia Historical Quarterly in 1960. Despite this campaign, the diary has become a classic and trusted source for scholars studying plantation life. Kemble’s descriptions of Georgia revealed her ambivalent attraction to the state, as she confessed, “I would dearly love the wild, wild solitude of distant existence if it weren’t for the only little element of “slavery”. But it was this “one small item” that became a bone of contention between Kemble and Butler; and later Kemble and her younger daughter, Frances Butler Leigh, had bitter and protracted disagreements over this issue. (Indeed, Leigh wrote her own memoir of the area, published in 1883, Ten years on a Georgia plantation, which aimed to directly refute many of her mother’s claims about race relations.) Kemble’s eldest daughter, Sarah, married Owen Jones Wister, a physician from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Their son, Owen Wister, later wrote The Virginian .)
Kemble eventually moved to Philadelphia, where she supported herself by touring the United States and Europe with her Shakespeare readings. She continued to travel until her death on January 15, 1893 in London.
Today, the plantations Kemble wrote about reflect the region’s diversity: the former Butler’s Island estate has been turned into a state wildlife preserve; another heritage home on St. Simons has been wiped out by development, absorbed into the grounds of a marina; and Little St. Simons Island remains in the hands of the family who purchased the land from Fanny Kemble’s daughters and is now a luxury resort. These islands are dotted with memories of this remarkable 19th century woman and the mark she left on this remote corner of Georgia.