Fanny Kemble was, of course, much more than a stage luminary: ""browbeaten divorcee,"" for instance, as well as ""auxiliary...


FANNY KEMBLE: Leading Lady of the Nineteenth-Century Stage

Fanny Kemble was, of course, much more than a stage luminary: ""browbeaten divorcee,"" for instance, as well as ""auxiliary feminist"" and ""powerful witness against black slavery."" And, though far from the first full Kemble bio (Dorothy Marshall's 1977 study is the most recent entry), this lively, chattily expansive chronicle--by a veteran popularizer of solid social history--makes the most of the varied, transatlantic scenes and subjects which Fanny's stormy life encompassed. First, of course, there's the vivid London theatrical-family background: Aunt Sarah Siddons, Uncle John Philip Kemble, father Charles, many others. Then there's far-from-beautiful Fanny's own reluctant stage debut (she preferred writing and horses) as a totally untutored Juliet--simply in order to keep the family from going broke. And then, riding her sudden, surprising stardom (in Shakespeare and the ""sleazy but heavily charged roles"" which Aunt Sarah made famous), there's the fateful decision to tour America. For it was in Philadelphia that she met wealthy young Pierce Butler, whose proposal allowed Fanny to quit the stage, to set up housekeeping. . .and to discover just how much of a ""protofeminist"" she really was. The publication of her US-tour diary (with some anti-American remarks) got her into big Philadelphia trouble; her ""high self-sufficiency"" made her a doomed marriage partner (especially since Butler, if ""not essentially stupid"" was ""smugly arbitrary""); and her reactions to slavery were perhaps the greatest marital strain--especially when the couple (now with two daughters) wintered at the Butler estate in Georgia. (Fanny's meddling got her banned from the place by Pierce's brother--and much later was immortalized in her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, ""the best available firsthand account of America's black slavery."") Furnas, with shrewd use of remarkable letters and diaries, recreates the years of uncannily contemporary domestic wrangling--with the inevitable separation: Fanny, penniless at 36, had to semi-abandon her children and return to her unloved profession--first in uneasy partnership with the great Macready, then (with much relief) as a one-voice reader of Shakespeare (""the best analogy is pretelevision radio drama""). No wonder, then, that--after a public, grueling Victorian divorce too--she became so ""formidable"" in retirement, though ""by no means the model women's-righter even in her day's terms.'"" True, Furnas' ironic, phrase-making style--with its happy digressions into the great array of personalities here--sometimes becomes a bit arch. And never does this dig deep or become the cohesive panorama that mary Nash's The Provoked Wife (on Susannah Cibber) was. But the swarms of period detail are evocatively stage-managed; the scholarship is on forthright, frank display; and the broad scope--theater lore, feminism, Americana, slavery --will offer leisurely pleasure to a relatively broad readership.

Pub Date: Jan. 8, 1981


Page Count: -

Publisher: Dial

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1981

Close Quickview