Frances Anne “Fanny” Kemble was born on this day in London in 1809. Her parents were both prominent stage actors, and Fanny’s early career on the stage met with acclaim, as well. She earned acclaim for her 1829 performance as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, performed at the Covent Garden Theatre (which was owned by her father Charles).
She embarked on a tour of the United States, and, in the course of her travels, Fanny met and married Pierce Mease Butler, one of the largest slaveholders in the country. Butler kept Fanny and their children in Philadelphia, making occasional visits to his Georgia plantation. In 1838, Fanny managed to convince him to bring her with him on his trip. Fanny kept a diary throughout her visit, and was not at all shy about writing and speaking about her abolitionist beliefs. Her husband forbid her to speak her opinions, or to publish her diaries as she wished. The relationship grew ever more abusive from here, and Fanny took her daughters and fled to England. In 1847, Butler filed for, and was granted, a divorce, after citing abandonment and “misdeed” by Kemble.
Because she was held at fault in the legal proceedings, Fanny was not allowed to maintain custody of their daughters. Out of fear for their safety, she waited to publish her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 until 1863 (she had published her earlier journals right after her marriage, as well as several plays). The work was no less powerful for the delay, and while it is marked by a number of contemporary prejudices, it still cited by historians today as a powerful and brutally honest account of slavery, and, especially remarkable for the focus Fanny had on enslaved Black women.
Fanny later returned to the stage, giving dramatic readings of Shakespeare, and lived for much of her later life in Lenox, Massachusetts, before returning to London in 1877. She died in 1893.
In honor of this remarkable woman, we hope you enjoy this poem, published in Fanny Kemble’s 1844 collection of poetry
Let me not die for ever, when I’m gone
To the cold earth! but let my memory
Live like the gorgeous western light that shone
Over the clouds where sank day’s majesty.
Let me not be forgotten! though the grave
Has clasped its hideous arms around my brow.
Let me not be forgotten! though the wave
Of time’s dark current rolls above me now.
Yet not in tears remembered be my name;
Weep over those ye loved; for me, for me,
Give me the wreath of glory, and let fame
Over my tomb spread immortality!