Fanny Kemble Wins a Great War
After four months on St. Simons Island
The first Englishmen who came to Glynn County on the coast of General Oglethorpes new colony of Georgia were not impressed by what they saw, and came back with dismal tales of life in a hot hostile jungle. Oliver Goldsmith who often dined with the General in London must have listened avidly to these tales, and they provided him with a dozen lines in his most famous poem The Deserted Village, written in 1770:
Those blazing suns that dart a downward ray,
And fiercely shed intolerable day;
Those matted woods where birds forget to sing
But silent bats in drowsy clusters cling;
Those poisonous fields with rank luxuriance crownd,
Where the dark scorpion gathers death around:
Where at each step the stranger fears to wake
The rattling terrors of the vengeful snake;
Where crouching tigers wait their hapless prey,
And savage men, more murderous still than they:
While oft in whirls the mad tornado flies,
Mingling the savage landscape with the skies.
l Sixty years later another British writer was on the spot, and this land of darkness had turned bright. The landscape was now all glory: the saffron brightness of morning, the blue intense brilliancy of noon, the golden splendor and the rosy softness of sunset....the variety of the fresh, newborn foliage, the fragrance of the sweet, wild perfumes....Honeysuckles twine round every tree; the ground is covered with a low, white-blossomed shrub more fragrant than lilies of the valley,
Thus wrote Mrs. Pierce Butler, better known as Frances Anne (Fanny) Kemble, the most famous Shakespearean actress of her day, who had married the owner of two large plantations on the islands off the Georgia coast.
Her diary records her going out on her stallion Montreal, galloping past ancient oaks hung with moss (gigantic Druid ghosts with flowing robes and beards), drinking in the delicious wildwood smells along paths covered with a thick and close embroidery of creeping moss, or rather lichens of the most vivid green and red; the latter made my horses path look as if was edged with an exquisite pattern of coral; it was like a thing in a fairy tale...I sat there on my horse in a sort of dream of enchantment, looking, listening, and inhaling the delicious atmosphere....
Alas, there was a serpent in this paradise. All the pleasures of Fanny Kembles life here were built on the unpaid labor of some 700 blacks, involuntary servants, who were kept in an abject condition, bought and sold and treated like animals; all to support an idle young man and his family, i.e., myself and my children.
She had come to America for the first time in 1832, at the age of 23, with her actor father Charles, who had gone deep into debt in London but was now launching what turned out to be a fantastically successful tour of American theaters. A niece of Mrs. Siddons, one of the great English actresses of all time, Fanny was a stunning success from her debut as Juliet at the age of 19. Her fame preceded her to America, and grew with each performance. Everyone with an aspiration to culture fought to get tickets to see her as Portia or Lady Teazle, as Juliet, as Julia in The Hunchback, a play that had been written specially for her, or in Francis the First, a play she had written for herself. Young and old were enchanted. Senator Daniel Webster and Chief Justice John Marshall praised her. Walt Whitman was a boy when he saw her, and years afterward was to write: Fanny Kemble! Name to conjure up great mimic scenes withal perhaps the greatest! She came to give America that young maturity and roseate power in all their noon, or rather forenoon, flush. The crowds were record-breaking.
But she was unhappy about being in that dreadful America which kept her away from literary and artistic friends in London, and she was unhappy about being on the stage in the first place. She had always hated the makeshift insecurities of the actors life, the squalor of rented lodgings, the duns and bailiffs, the tawdry reality which made such an ironic contrast with the grandeur of the roles she played. She loved poetry, the spoken word, and she hated the ignoble forms in which they had to be presented to the lowbrow public: slapstick, acrobatics and vulgar farce to fill out every bill, happy endings tacked on to Shakespeares tragedies She longed for a more decorous life. But she had no independent income, so it was back every night to the paint and the crowd.
Into her life now stepped a handsome, rich, well-bred young stage-door Johnny named Pierce Meese Butler. He was born Butler Meese, the son of a Philadelphia merchant, but he had changed his name because that was the condition for inheriting a share of the estate of his maternal grandfather, Major Pierce Butler, once of the British army, who had married an heiress in South Carolina.
Like all the young bloods of Philadelphia, young Pierce was smitten with Fanny. He was more persistent than the rest, and he also had more money with which to follow her around.
She made a pilgrimage to Niagara Falls with her father, her dear Aunt Adelaide (Aunt Dall), Butler and the dashing Edward Trelawney, world traveler and adventurer, with the scar on his cheek, and his ring of elephant hair (the friend of Byron, the man who had burned Shelleys body on the beach at Viareggio). It was a wonderfully romantic excursion. The Falls were thrilling, young Butler was charming. On the way back their carriage overturned near Rochester, and Aunt Dall was hurt badly. She died some months later of complications from the injury, and Fanny found herself distraught and lonely in a strange land. Pierce Butler was on his knees, offering his hand and his heart, comfort, security. One day she said yes.
Her friends were appalled. What was a brilliant young actress, an accomplished playwright and poet, who mingled with men like Trelawny, Walter Scott, Tom Moore, Lord Melbourne, Sir Thomas Lawrence, doing with a provincial booby? Charles Greville, the master gossip of the time, described him in his diary as weak, dawdling, ignorant, violent-tempered. He was perhaps unjust. Pierce Butler seems to have been a perfectly conventional upper-class Philadelphian, polite, reserved, mildly cultivated he played the flute and could read several languages quite stuffy, unaware of any world other than the comfortable one into which he had been born.
Butler was naturally proud of his catch. He assumed that things would go as they did in other respectable Philadelphia families. Giddy young girls, after the raptures of the honeymoon, settled down to become proper and submissive wives and mothers. He could not understand why Fanny seemed to be taking so long.
They quarreled and made up, quarreled and made up. She wrote him tear-stained notes. He told her all would be well if she would only control her temper and submit her will to his. She agreed that her temper was her greatest fault, but she also wrote: I cannot give my conscience into the keeping of another human being or submit the actions dictated by my conscience to their will.
In the interminable account of their marriage which Butler later had printed to justify his role in their divorce, he wrote, quite accurately: One reason, and perhaps the fundamental one, for the ill success which attended my marriage, will readily be found in the peculiar view which were entertained by Mrs. Butler on the subject of marriage....She held that marriage should be companionship on equal terms....and that at no time has one partner a right to control the other.
They remained together long enough to have two daughters, and in 1838 Fanny went down to Georgia with Butler to the plantations he had inherited there, and wrote her page of American history.
There were two plantations: Butler Island in the estuary of the Altamaha River near what was then the busy port of Darien, and Hampton Plantation on what is known as Butler Point, the northwest corner of St. Simons Island, about 15 miles (by boat) eastward. Butler Island was a swamp which had been turned into a vast rice paddy surrounded by dikes, so that at high tide it was at a lower level than the surrounding water. Despite the magnolias, and the orange trees that grew for miles along the levee, and the little canoe Dolphin under which she could spend hours under the unspeakable glories of these southern heavens, Fanny found this flat featureless spot quite depressing. Hampton was something else again, hacked out of tangled wilderness by old Major Butler and turned into thriving cotton fields. He had made a fortune for his family here, for he was one of the first to produce the long-staple Sea Island cotton which commanded premium prices through the early years of the century. Aaron Burr, who took refuge at Hampton after the duel in which he killed Alexander Hamilton, wrote of it delightedly as a land flowing with more than milk and honey: cream and butter; turkeys, fowls, kids, pigs, geese and mutton: fish, of course, in abundance. Of figs, peaches, and melons there are yet a few. Oranges and pomegranates just being to be eatable.
By Fannys time the textile mills of England were turning to short-staple cotton from the mainland, and hard times were on the horizon, though no one in 1838 knew how hard they were to be. The plantation, which had been run with military precision and kept spanking clean in the Majors day was badly run down after nearly 20 nears of absentee management. The old main house was ramshackle, the gardens overgrown.
While Pierce made a stab at running the place, Fanny was along most of the time with her small daughters and her maid (white a phenomenon the slaves could not comprehend, they seemed to think she must be some form of subsidiary wife), and a variegated population of house servants and field hands speaking a language she could barely understand. She kept a diary, which was published years later under the title, Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, a minor classic of American literature and prime source material for students of slavery. She was not a trained observer, she loved romantic hyperbole and had little understanding of economics or politics. She was unabashedly one-sided and prejudiced. She was an English liberal-intellectual lady stranded in backwoods America, appalled as much by the stupid sameness of [the Southern womens] most vapid existence as by their accent, that thick and inelegant pronunciation which distinguishes their utterances from the Northern snuffle. Nevertheless, she had a sharp eye and a quick pen, and her account is invaluable,
No one brought up on the tradition of Southern plantation houses full of elegant ladies and dashing gentlemen, surround by magnolias and crooning darkies, can help feeling shock on reading Fannys observations. Idleness and squalor were are the dominant impression. The house at Hampton, typical of the planters houses she saw, had all the appearance of an old, half-decayed, rattling farmhouse. The people who lived in such houses passed isolated listless days. The women were idle, sickly, with no occupation but gossip. The men, with a few exceptions like her nearest neighbor, Mr. Couper, were brutal, splendidly trained for a war or for the slave revolt they all lived in dread of, but in ordinary times they occupied themselves with furious feuds.....and despotic cruelty.
These people imported fine clothes at outrageous prices, dressed up their house slaves in rags and scraps of livery and pretended they were living lives of aristocratic ease. Her cold Londoners eye was not taken in: Young gentlemen in gay guard chains and fine attire played the gallants to me, while filthy, barefooted, half-naked Negro women brought in refreshments, and stood all the while fanning the cake, and sweetmeats, and their young masters, as if they been all the same sort of stuff.
She couldnt identify the cuts of meat that appeared on the dining table till she discovered that the animals were carved up by the plantation carpenter, who hacked or sawed them into so many thick square pieces....the consequence of this is that four lumps or chunks are all that a whole sheep ever furnishes....
What tore her heart was the condition of the slaves. Probably she really had not known of these dreadful possessions, or, if she had, she might have felt only a distant intellectual disapproval. She was not sentimental about the slaves who waited on her hand and foot and smothered her with their boisterous affection. She found them provokingly stupid, dirty and inefficient. But, unlike her husband, she did not accept all this as a law of nature. She blamed it on a deliberate policy of degradation which succeeded all too well. The slaves at Hampton would not even cook a meal without specific orders.
Everything about the system revolted her: the sight of pregnant women being herded off to work in the fields, the casual way the white overseer took black women to father his bastards (she noticed several young mulattoes who unmistakably had his features), the filthy neglect of the building called a hospital where half-naked creatures lay groaning on the ground while they died or gave birth, the way families could be casually broken up, a husband or wire of child sold off to an upcountry plantation. And she was horrified by the way the system made use of its own victims to run itself. On all this vast plantation there had been for years no white people permanently resident except the overseer and his son. All the task-masters who drove the field hands out every morning, and who hung them by their wrists from branches to flog them if they were troublesome, were black.
She was a woman, and all she was expected to do was let a swarm of chattering, devoted, ineffectual servants take care of her. The servants were her husbands property, with which she had no right to tamper.
Being Fanny Kemble, she did what she could cleaned up the hospital, gave lessons in personal hygiene, made mothers bathe their babies. She listened when the women came to her with their troubles. A local historian of the traditional school would later write, She caused quite a disturbance among the slaves by listening to their small complaints. They complained to her of being driven out to work in the field three weeks after childbirth, they complained of twisted backs and fallen wombs; they complained of being whipped after they complained to her.
She kept coming to her husband with requests and remonstrances until he finally blew up: Why do you listen to such stuff?....Dont you know the niggers are all d-d liars? He forbade her to speak to him any further on the subject. When they were safely back in Philadelphia after nearly four months on the plantations, he made sure that she would never go back.
Fanny kept her journal locked way for 24 years. She felt that she might be interfering with her husbands property if she published it. But by the winter of 1862 she was in England, and England was in danger of getting involved in the Civil War which had broken out in the United States. There was strong sympathy in many circles, including the government and The Times, for the plucky little South standing up to great bullying Yankees, and great resentment against Mr Lincolns blockade, which had cut off the supply of cotton on which Englands greatest industry depended and had put tens of thousands out of work. There was a real danger that the Royal Navy might be sent to break the blockade, and Fanny felt it was essential to awaken public opinion to just what it was they were expected to fight for. She had what she needed locked up in a drawer, her diary with its unvarnished account of what life in a slave society was like, and it was published in May 1863. No one knows exactly how much effect it had, in fact no one knows how many copies were sold because all the records of her publisher were destroyed in a World War II blitz. But every one agrees that public opinion turned decisively against any intervention in the American war, and that Fanny Kembles Journal was a major element in turning it. If Mr. Lincoln could call Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author Uncle Toms Cabin, a little lady who started a great war, may we not call Fanny Kemble one who won a great war by preventing it from getting greater? There are some people in Georgia who seem to think so to this day, and you can still hear muttering among unreconstructed elders that Fanny Kemble lost the war for us.
By 1862, Fanny had left Georgia and Pierce Butler far behind. Their total incompatibility, cruelly revealed in Georgia, got only worse in Philadelphia. They had drifted into a long, messy and sensational divorce. Pierce got custody of the daughters, and was evidently a good father to them, for they remained devoted to him for the rest of his life. He never forgave Fanny for her peculiar and impractical opinions.
Fanny herself went back to the stage, the consummation of a long career of error,: said Pierce. Her latter career was even more glorious that her beginning. She found a more congenial way of playing Shakespeare: she gave public readings in which she was not long bound by the conventions of the theater. Every one went to see her, to admire her fire, her sensitivity, her range.
The girl who had sat at Walter Scotts feet when the 19th century was young had Henry James sitting at her feet when it grew old. Her favorite grandchild was Owen Wister, author of The Virginian, which may reappear on television for centuries to come.
She became quite a character in her latter days. Once she was seated at dinner next to a famous and eloquent clergyman. A very fine day, Mrs. Kemble, he said by way of starting a conversation. I should have expected a less commonplace remark from the Dean of Christchurch, she replied. They dined in silence.
She lived on into her eighties, when the girl had written half a century before that the death I should prefer would be to break my neck off the back of my horse at full gallop of a fine day, had to content herself with sitting on hotel balconies in Switzerland, gazing at the mountains she had loved to climb.
While Fanny was thus walking the heights of fame all through the last half of the century, the Georgia plantations she had loved and hated went into a long decline. The market for long-staple cotton got worse and the panic of 1857 finished it off. But Butler had to sell his slaves, some 400 men, women and children.
Then came war and emancipation. The islands were occupied and looted by Union, and the planters who came back were ruined. Pierce Butler came down with daughter Frances, or Fan, from Philadelphia and tried to get the weed-choked fields into operation. Many of the old slaves were there to greet them, including some who had been sold in 1859, but who came back to what they still thought of as home. Perhaps, as Fan wrote in her memoirs, they remembered the Butler plantation as a happy place compared to what they had seen since.
Fan had none of her mothers feeling about the blacks. She was fond of them, but like her father, regarded them as improvident, childish, chuckle headed things. They couldnt make sense of a wage economy, they complained and protested for the fun of it, they took time off for voting and other frivolities, and the long and short of it was that the Butler plantations were doomed, even without the plagues of insects and hurricanes. Pierce Butler died, but Fan had her mothers fire and ran things for a while. She married an English clergyman J. W. Leigh, the son of a lord, who loyally chipped in and tried to help her. Despite years of hard work, there was little success, and the Leighs eventually went back to England. Like most of the Sea Islands, the Butler plantation reverted to jungle.
Butler Island eventually came into the hands one Colonel Tillinghast Lhommedieu Huston, part owner of the New York Yankees in the 1920s, who turned t into a model iceberg-lettuce farm, using some of old Major Butlers irrigation system. It was later bought up by a tobacco-rich Reynolds; in 1954 the state of Georgia made into a wild-bird preserve.
Butlers Point remained untouched by human hands for many years after the Leighs moved out. It reverted to the tangled wilderness it was in Oglethorpes day. It remains largely tangled wilderness to this day, but modern life is creeping around at the edges.
The sea islands of Georgia shut down their cotton gins and their sawmills long ago. They have kept going, they have thrived and boomed by offering what drew Fanny Kemble there in the first place, the saffron brightness of morning and all the rest of the scenery, the beaches, the trees, the golf courses and marinas and gambling boats and all the other appurtenances of modern leisure
The new era began in 1888 when a group of rich men from the North, noticing that the climate in these parts, once you can control the mosquitoes, is one of the most pleasant on earth, purchased Jekyll Island and formed a Club consisting of Vanderbilts, Fields, Goulds, Rockefellers, Pulitzers and such, rumored to represent one seventh of the wealth of the United States. They formed a kind of millionaires ghetto until World War II.
Another millionaire, Howard Coffin, an automobile magnate who had coordinated war production under President Woodrow Wilson, bought most of another island, Sapelo, and feeling a little isolated there, asked AT&T to provide him with telephone connection. They replied that it would cost a small fortune to string wires across all the miles of uninhabited salt marsh lying between Sapelo and terra firms, and they were not going to do it for a single subscriber. He promptly called his old friend Calvin Coolidge in the White House and asked him to forget the cares of office and come down and spend a few glorious days of hunting and fishing on Sapelo. The President was delighted, and came down, accompanied by his Secret Service which, since an international crisis might come up at any time, requiring instant communication with Washington, had to string those miles of wire, which would later serve the Governor of Georgia, who keeps a summer residence there, an institute of marine biology and many other users.
Mr. Coffin later became interested in a patch of impenetrable jungle called Long Island, just off the eastern shore of St. Simons Island. He renamed it Sea Island and turned it into a luxury resort offering favored vacationers all the elegance and comfort which Fanny Kemble so missed in her day, plus what Eugene ONeill called one of the two finest beaches on the Atlantic coast. St. Simons Island itself has regained the population level it reached in 1850's, but. this is a population that largely owns its own homes, receives dividend checks, and the click of the golfball has replaced the crack of the overseers whip.
Developers wait poised on the boundaries of Butler Point and it will surely fill up one of these days with expensive homes offering glorious views of marsh and ocean and the rosy softness of sunset. But for the moment there is a dark quest infrequently broken by groups of awed sightseers. The birds that Fanny Kemble loved to hear still flash their bright wings and sing in the branches. Vast tangled tracts of live oak, palmetto and pine cover the land, although the Spanish moss which gave the druidical impression noted by Fanny has been largely killed off by fumes from the pulp mills in Brunswick across the river. Poking through the dense underbrush you can make out some tabby walls belong to various outhouses of the old plantation. The main house has disappeared without trace. Deer scud through the trackless woods. The vengeful snake still rattles in the underbrush.
©1974 Robert Wernick
reprinted from Smithsonian Magazine, November 1974