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Fanny Kemble (1809–1893)

Portrait of Fanny Kemble. Daguerreotype, c1840-1860. Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library.

An actress and celebrity divorcée, Fanny Kemble is also well-known for her published journals and for her public stand against slavery.

The daughter of the actors Charles and Marie Kemble, Frances Anne Kemble was born in London in 1809. She made her first appearance on the stage as Juliet in her father's production of Romeo and Juliet in 1829. Fanny was a great success and this role was followed by several others at her father's Covent Garden Theatre. In 1832, Fanny Kemble left London on a theatrical tour of the United States from Boston to Washington, DC with her father and her aunt, Adelaide De Camp. Kemble was a sensation and packed theaters nightly. She was idolized by young girls sporting "Fanny Kemble curls," and her likeness appeared on plates, saucers, scarves, and other souvenirs. She met and married Pierce Butler, a southern planter, in New York in 1834. Kemble gave up acting until after their bitter divorce, returning to the stage in 1848.

In 1835 Kemble published the Journal of Frances Anne Butler, a record of her tour of the Atlantic states in 1832–1833. In 1838 she kept a journal while residing on the Georgia plantations owned by her husband. Although the Butler family pleaded with Kemble not to publish the accounts, she eventually did so in 1863. Her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation is an attempt to persuade her native England not to support the Confederacy. The journal makes a correlation between the gender-based oppression of slave women and her own subjugation in the legal and social systems of 19th-century United States.

She retired to Lenox, Massachusetts, where she wrote several autobiographical works, including Record of a Childhood (1878) and Records of Later Life (1882). Kemble died in London on January 15, 1893.

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