Friday, November 27, 2009

Remembering Fanny Kemble

‘The record contained in the following pages is a picture of conditions of human existence which I hope and believe have passed away.’ So wrote the remarkable English actress and playwrite, Fanny Kemble, in a preface to her 1838 diary about the slaves she had tried to help on her American husband’s plantation some 25 years earlier. The diary, which is freely available on the internet, is considered to be an important early document describing the conditions of plantation slaves. Today is a good day to remember Fanny since she was born exactly two hundred years ago.

Fanny was born in England on 27 November 1809 into a theatrical family - both her parents were actors. She made her first appearance, when about 20, as the heroine in her father’s production of Romeo and Juliet at a theatre in Covent Garden. She proved to be an immediate success, and helped revive the theatre’s fortunes. In 1833, while on tour in the US with her father, she met Pierce Butler, a southern planter. She married him, stayed in the US, and gave up acting.

In 1836, Butler and his brother inherited their father’s Georgia plantation which owned hundreds of slaves. In 1838, Fanny (with her two children) spent four months at the plantations on Butler and St Simon’s islands. Thereafter, the family returned to Philadelphia, but the marriage broke down, and Butler denied Kemble access to her children. She returned to England and the theatre world, but then went back to the US to deal with a divorce suit. The divorce was granted in 1849. Kemble retired to Lennox, Massachusetts, and wrote several autobiographical works some of them based on the journals she had kept. For more information on Kemble, see Wikipedia, the PBS resource bank, or The New Georgia Encyclopaedia.

Kemble was an excellent diarist - a good writer and very observant - and her diaries have been published in many editions. Most recently, in 2000, Harvard University Press brought out a compilation of her writing - Fanny Kemble’s Journals - with extracts from throughout her life, starting when she was an actress and continuing to the last years of her life (she died in 1893). A few pages can be seen on the Amazon website.

Her most famous diary, though, is the one she kept for the months while living on her husband’s plantation, in which she recorded much about the slaves she saw and came in contact with. This was later circulated among abolitionists prior to the American Civil War, but was published once the war broke out - as Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 by Harper & Brothers in 1863. Although a diary in form, it was written as a series of letters, and dedicated to, her friend Elizabeth Dwight Sedgwick, a teacher in Lennox and an author. The full text is freely available at Internet Archive. Here is Kemble’s own preface, written some 25 years after the diary itself, and one extract.

‘The following diary was kept in the winter and spring of 1838-9, on an estate consisting of rice and cotton plantations in the islands at the entrance of the Altamaha on the coast of Georgia. The slaves in whom I then had an unfortunate interest were sold some years ago. The islands themselves are at present in the power of the Northern troops. The record contained in the following pages is a picture of conditions of human existence which I hope and believe have passed away. London, January 16, 1863.’

26 February 1839
‘My dearest E, I write to you to-day in great depression and distress. I have had a most painful conversation with Mr –, who has declined receiving any of the people’s petitions through me. Whether he is wearied with the number of these prayers and supplications, which he would escape but for me, as they probably would not venture to come so incessantly to him, and I, of course, feel bound to bring every one confided to me to him, or whether he has been annoyed at the number of pitiful and horrible stories of misery and oppression under the former rule of Mr K –, which have come to my knowledge since I have been here, and the grief and indignation caused, but which can not, by any means, always be done away with, though their expression may be silenced by his angry exclamations of ‘Why do you listen to such stuff?’ or ‘Why do you believe such trash? don’t you know the niggers are all d–d liars?’ etc, I do not know; but he desired me this morning to bring him no more complaints or requests of any sort, as the people had hitherto had no such advocate, and had done very well without, and I was only kept in an incessant state of excitement with all the falsehoods they ‘found they could make me believe.’ How well they have done without my advocacy, the conditions which I see with my own eyes, even more than their pitiful petitions, demonstrate; it is indeed true that the sufferings of those who come to me for redress, and, still more, the injustice done to the great majority who can not, have filled my heart with bitterness and indignation that have overflowed my lips, till, I suppose, is weary of hearing what he has never heard before, the voice of passionate expostulation and importunate pleading against wrongs that he will not even acknowledge, and for creatures whose common humanity with his own I half think he does not believe; but I must return to the North, for my condition would be almost worse than theirs condemned to hear and see so much wretchedness, not only without the means of alleviating it, but without permission even to represent it for alleviation: this is no place for me, since I was not born among slaves, and can not bear to live among them.’

No comments: