Fanny Kemble: A Reluctant Celebrity
By Rebecca Jenkins
Simon and Schuster £18.99
Dateline: 28th March, 2005
These days, the name of Fanny Kemble, if it is known at all, conjures
up some great actress from the dim and distant past. To place her time,
Miss Kemble was born in 1809 during the Napoleonic wars and lived a
long and very full life, dying in 1893 a mere eight years before Queen
As Rebecca Jenkins shows in her exceptionally readable biography (how
can you resist a biographer who boldly states "Byron was the James
Dean of his day"?), Miss Kemble was far more than just an actress.
She was a writer, a strong opponent of slavery and a feminist a century
before they became fashionable.
The first 75 pages of the book set the scene, covering the period before
its subject was even born. In most families, her father Charles Kemble
would have been regarded as something really special, a great actor
should be a rarity. However, when your siblings are John Philip Kemble
and Sarah Siddons, the greatest stage performers of their day, you are
left to pick up the scraps, whether as an actor or as manager of the
Covent Garden Theatre.
Fanny's mother, Marie-Thérèse, was the eldest of six
children of a French musician and also took to the stage, albeit in
parts several layers below the aristocracy represented by the Kembles.
The daughter inherited her mother's looks. She was short and solidly-enough
built to have a family nickname of "The Shetland Pony". Her
"caramel eyes" were perhaps her most beguiling feature.
With this kind of background, it is hard to believe that that their
"imaginative and wilful child" should have been, as the book
is subtitled, "A Reluctant Celebrity". In fact, the enormous
pressures that she felt both on the stage and off it meant that her
acting life could rarely have been enjoyable.
The young lady whose ambition was to become a writer was suddenly thrust
on to the stage by a financial crisis that almost threw the family into
destitution. Still a teenager, Miss Kemble who had never acted professionally,
was overnight transformed into an incredibly successful Juliet at Covent
Garden in front of 2,800 people each night.
Marriage, to the weak American Pierce Butler, and the renunciation
of her profession in her early twenties brought nothing but pain and
the bliss didn't last long. It did create a new role for the former
actress as a vocal opponent of the slave trade. She was able to see
the horrors at first hand on her husband's family estate in Georgia.
In no time she committed the cardinal sins of cleaning the hospital
and treating slaves as individual human beings.
Fanny Kemble had the good fortune to meet the great names of her day.
She mixed with English royalty and two presidents of the USA, as well
as the likes of William Makepeace Thackeray, Sir Walter Scott and Alfred
Lord Tennyson from the writing fraternity; actors Edmund Kean and William
Macready; and the inventor of the Rocket, on which she made an inaugural
trial run, George Stephenson.
Throughout, this book is about far more than just Fanny Kemble. It
also provides a good measure of social history covering the first part
of the 19th century.
In addition, there is a massive amount of background information regarding
the theatre of the period. This is inevitable when the Kemble dynasty
spread its wings so widely with family members successful on stages
throughout Britain and also in France and United States.
The book stops with its subject in her mid-20s thus missing the last
sixty years of her life, spent in America. Food for a further biography
or two, or possibly just far less interesting than the period covered
by this informative and never tedious history?
can buy Fanny
Kemble: A Reluctant Celebrity from our Bookshop for £11.39
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