In my study of Southern History, a woman named Fanny Kemble keeps showing up. Who was she? There is some hush in her mention, in the older books, as though she is ‘an outsider’. Oh, my, goodness, what a fascinating story!
Her marriage to the wealthy Pierce Butler and their fiery relationship would enter Southern mythology and inspire Margaret Mitchell’s book, Gone With the Wind. Pierce Butler and Fanny Kemble’s own private civil war would also foreshadow the country’s.
Frances Anne (Fanny) Kemble was born on November 27, 1809 in London. Although she was from one of England’s most prominent family of actors, she took to the stage herself only to save her family from financial ruin; she loved literature and longed to write, which in her lifetime, she did. In 1832 when she set out on a two-year theater tour in America, audiences were enraptured, and she was soon introduced to political and cultural dignitaries. In addition to acting and writing, Kemble spoke French fluently, read widely, and was an accomplished musician. She loved the natural world and had a passion for vigorous exercise, especially riding. And, she was a outspoken abolitionist.
Pierce Butler became infatuated with Fanny Kemble after seeing her perform, following her devotedly while she toured. He was charming, solicitous. Fanny fell in love with him, and they were married in 1834 in Philadelphia. Born into a wealthy and prominent Philadelphia family in 1806, Pierce was the grandson of Revolutionary War veteran Major Pierce Butler. Major Butler was a U.S. Senator from South Carolina and the author of the Constitution’s fugitive slave clause. He owned two plantations in Georgia: one on St. Simon’s Island, where sea-island cotton was grown, and one on Butler Island, where rice was grown. He also owned a mansion in Philadelphia and a country home near the city. In 1812, Major Butler owned 638 slaves and was one of the wealthiest men in the United States. Pierce Bulter, the grandson, stood to inherit this fortune (and to become one of the largest slaveholders in the nation) when he met Fanny Kemble in 1832.
The marriage was troubled nearly from the start. Fanny believed that Pierce would continue in his devotion, and Pierce believed that Fanny would curb her independent nature and allow herself to be ruled by him. Differences in opinion on slavery also created friction. Pierce thought he could persuade Fanny of the benefits of slavery; Fanny thought she could persuade Pierce to emancipate his slaves. Early in their marriage Fanny even attempted to publish an antislavery treatise that she had written. Pierce forbid her to do so. In March of 1836, Pierce and his brother John inherited the Georgia plantations. Fanny wanted to see the plantation firsthand, and begged Butler to take her with him. He refused to do so on his first trip, but finally relented. In December of 1838, Pierce, Fanny, their two children Sarah and Frances, and their Irish nurse Margery O’Brien set out for Butler Island. After travelling for nine days by train, stage and steamboat, they arrived at their destination. She kept a journal. The following is an excerpt, written about her arrival in Charleston, that Christmas Day, in 1838.
“The captain’s wife and ourselves were the only passengers; and, after a most delightful walk on deck in the afternoon, and comfortable tea, we retired for the night, and did not wake till we bumped on the Charleston bar on the morning of Christmas Day [Tuesday, December 25, 1838].
The William Seabrook, the boat which is to convey us from hence to Savannah, only goes once a week. . . . This unfrequent communication between the principal cities of the great Southern states is rather a curious contrast to the almost unintermitting intercourse which goes on between the Northern towns. The boat itself, too, is a species of small monopoly being built and chiefly used for the convenience of certain wealthy planters residing on Edisto Island, a small insulated tract between Charleston and Savannah, where the finest cotton that is raised in this country grows. This city is the oldest I have yet seen in America—I should think it must be the oldest in it. I cannot say that the first impression produced by the wharf at which we landed, or the streets we drove through in reaching our hotel, was particularly lively. Rickety, dark, dirty, tumble-down streets and warehouses, with every now and then a mansion of loftier pretensions, but equally neglected and ruinous in its appearance, would probably not have been objects of special admiration to many people on this side the water; but I belong to that infirm, decrepit, bedridden old country, England, and must acknowledge, with a blush for the stupidity of the prejudice, that it is so very long since I have seen anything old, that the lower streets of Charleston, in all their dinginess and decay, were a refreshment and a rest to my spirit.
I have had a perfect red-brick and white-board fever ever since I came to this country; and once more to see a house which looks as if it had stood long enough to get warmed through, is a balm to my senses, oppressed with newness. Boston had two or three fine old dwelling houses, with antique gardens and old-fashioned courtyards; but they have come down to the dust before the improving spirit of the age. One would think, that after ten years a house gets weak in the knees. Perhaps these houses do; but I have lodged under rooftrees that have stood hundreds of years, and may stand hundreds more—marry, they have good foundations.”
There is so much more to write about this woman; I am completely smitten with her story. (She stopped at Edisto and would get off this boat to tour a cotton ginning house!) She would stay at the Butler’s Island plantation only months, all the while writing letters and keeping a journal. Pierce Butler would divorce her and she would then travel American doing monologues of Shakespeare. He would fight her for the children and win, and she would publish her memoir which included the abuses of slavery at his Butlers Island Plantation in Georgia. He died of Malaria in Georgia just after the Civil War, while she returned to England in 1877, to live a long life, to be reconciled with her children, and to write using her maiden name.
For now, just imagine this Mrs. Butler, there, on that Southern Plantation arguing with her husband for a fairer life for the men, women, children who were slaves, at a time when very few spoke up. Frankly, my dear, she did give a damn!