MRS. KEMBLE, whose death in London has been lately announced, had many friends of long standing in Boston, one of whom offers this memorial.
Ever since Fanny Kemble burst upon the world, at the age of twenty, she has been an object of interest to the English race in both hemispheres. After a childhood of varied freedom and discipline, tending rather to develop than to regulate her capacities, this young girl was suddenly summoned to the stage, to rescue her father from impending ruin. It was a hazardous venture. The success was immediate and marvelous. A succès d’estime naturally awaited the advent of another Kemble ; but the public, drawn to Covent Garden by mingled motives of curiosity to see a fresh débutante, of regard for the family, and of sympathy for their shipwrecked fortunes, were taken by storm, and continued to crowd the theatre for one hundred and twenty nights to weep over the woes of Juliet.
Mrs. Kemble lacked the stature and perfect symmetry of Mrs. Siddons, but she had the noble head, the effulgent eyes, the sensitive mouth and flexible nostrils, the musical voice, the dignified and graceful gestures, which distinguished her aunt; and, in addition, the sense of humor, the mobile temperament quick as flame, the poetic sensibility, which characterized her mother. Three weeks was the ostensible term of preparation, the interval between her summons and her appearance ; as to the rest, the poetry to feel and the dramatic faculty to represent she had imbibed or inherited. So endowed, she soared at once to heights reached by others only after years of toil, substituting feeling for simulation, spontaneous action for studied gesture and movements, the intuition of poetic and dramatic genius for the training of talent; and this abandonment of herself to inspiration, “ letting her heart go, while she kept her head,” gave a vividness and pathos to her personations never equaled on the English stage in our day.
Mrs. Kemble, in her Records, dwells ranch upon her ignorance of the details of her profession, and quotes with glee Mr. Macready’s remark that she did not know the elements of it; but the readers of the life of that irritable actor will remember that he praises no contemporary, and her own criticisms must be taken with allowance for her extreme frankness and her exalted standard. That she fully comprehended the requirements of her calling, and devoted herself to it industriously, her letters manifest. That she might have arrived at greater perfection and uniformity, that she would have become more independent of her passing moods, of her fondness or aversion for her part, had she liked and pursued her profession, no one familiar with the art of acting as perfected on the French stage can doubt. But, as a critic truly says, “ the greatest artist is she who is greatest in the highest reaches of her art, even although she may lack the qualities necessary for the adequate execution of some minor details;” and no one who witnessed Mrs. Kemble’s personations of Mrs. Beverley, Belvidera, Bianca, Julia, Portia, Katharine, Ophelia, Juliet, has ever had her image effaced from his mind’s eye, or has ever enjoyed a glimpse of her successor.
That she exercised this fascination, that she electrified audiences in the Old and New World by her acting, rests not upon the assertion of any one admirer; it is recorded in the annals of the time. That she numbered among her admirers not only the thoughtless many, but the judicious few,— Sir Walter Scott, Sir Thomas Lawrence, Rogers, Campbell, Sterling, Christopher North, Barry Cornwall, and their kindred on this side of the Atlantic ; that she achieved two fortunes, winning independence for herself and for those she loved, are historical facts. Sterling, who saw her when she first appeared, says, “ She was never taught to act at all; and though there are many faults in her performance of Juliet, there is more power than in any female playing I ever saw, except Pasta’s Medea.” Sir Walter Scott said that she had great energy mingled with and chastened by correct taste, and that, for his part, he had seen nothing so good since Mrs. Siddons. Charles Greville, skeptical at first, is converted. “ The Hunchback, very good and a great success. Miss Fanny Kemble acted really well; for the first time, in my opinion, great acting. I have never seen anything since Mrs. Siddons (and perhaps Miss O’Neill) so good.” Christopher North is most enthusiastic: “Her attitudes, her whole personal demeanor, are beautiful. They are uniformly appropriate to the character and the situation, and in exquisite appropriateness lies beauty. But not only are Miss Kemble’s attitudes, her appearance, her apparition, beautiful; they are also classical. Miss Kemble is a girl of genius.” Of her first night the New Monthly Magazine writes: “ The looks of every spectator conveyed that he was electrified by the influence of new-tried genius, and was collecting emotions in silence, as he watched its development, to swell its triumph with fresh acclamations. For our part, the illusion that she was Shakespeare’s own Juliet came so speedily upon us as to suspend the power of specific criticism.”
It is sixty years the 16th April, 1893, since Fanny Kemble made her début at the Tremont Theatre, in Boston, and the glamour of her apparition has not yet vanished. The ecstasy of that season comes back at the sound of her name. I scarcely ever go by the Tremont House without gazing once more at the windows of her room, in the superstitious hope that her radiant face may shine forth. It seems but yesterday that we were all, youths and maidens, hanging round Tremont Place to see her mount Niagara, — a horse I rode thenceforth, on holidays and in vacations, because she had been upon his back, — or scouring the country to catch a glimpse of her as she galloped past. Every young girl who could sported Fanny Kemble curls. To be thought to look like Fanny Kemble was their aspiration. I remember making a long pilgrimage on horseback to gaze upon a young lady whose attraction was a fancied resemblance to Fanny Kemble ; and only a few years ago I visited a matron, living near the Hudson River, who, in her youth, had been the more admired because she resembled Fanny Kemble; and she had not forgotten it. One young girl, more fortunate and more venturesome than her fellows, while hanging her daily offering of flowers upon the handle of the actress’s door, was heard, captured, and caressed, and accepted as a friend from that bright day.
As for us Harvard students, we all went mad. As long as funds held out, there was a procession of us hastening breathless over the road to Boston, as the evening shades came on; then a waiting in the narrow entrance alley, packed like sardines in a box, until at last we were borne along, with peril to flesh and raiment, into the pit, where we sat on the unbacked benches, absorbed, scarce knowing when and where we were, and regardless of our sometimes sans-culotte condition.
Charles Kemble opened with Hamlet, Ophelia being played by Mrs. Barrett, whom Mrs. Kemble pronounced “ perfectly beautiful, with eyes and brow of an angel, a mouth chiseled like a Grecian piece of sculpture, with an expression of infinite refinement; fair round arms and hands, a beautifully moulded foot, and a figure that seemed to me perfectly proportioned. Altogether, I never saw a fairer woman; it was delightful to look at her.” The next night Miss Kemble made her début in Bianca; and we went out, transfixed with horror and fascination, into uttermost darkness, as when one passes an arc light on the road. We were all stricken, and only counted the hours and the cash which would bring us back again.
I remember one night, when, as Belvidera, shrieking, stares at her husband’s ghost, I was sitting in front, in her line of vision, and I cowered and shrank from her terrible gaze. How we all wept with her as Mrs. Beverley over the frenzied despair of her gamester husband ! — with this difference, that her tears were staining her silk dress, while ours were mopped by our handkerchiefs. How we all enjoyed her shrewish outbursts and humble penitence as Katharine, and her father’s assumed violence and real good breeding as Petruchio! — a delightful performance, vainly essayed by actors since, in the fond belief of my friend John Gilbert and myself. Who has played Portia with such sweet dignity; who has so filled out the part of the whole-hearted Beatrice, with her pride of maidenhood, until surprised into love by the sincere warmth of Benedick’s confession ; and who ever personated that brave gallant as did Charles Kemble?
“ Oh for something of the fire, the undying youthfulness of spirit, now so rare, the fine courtesy of bearing, which made the acting with actors of this type so delightful! ” Helen Faucit thus eulogizes Charles Kemble. And his masterpiece, Mercutio, and Fanny Kemble’s Juliet, which held Covent Garden for one hundred and twenty nights, and made lovers of all the youth of London! " We were all of us in love with you, and had your portrait by Lawrence in our rooms.” So said Thackeray to Fanny Kemble twenty years afterwards.
Of all her parts, Julia, written for her by Sheridan Knowles, was the most perfect; and the scene with Clifford, when, love and fortune lost, he comes, as secretary to Lord Rochdale, bearing a message, was so affecting as to call forth from Rachel, “ C’est bien, fort bien ; ” and we certainly shed abundant tears over her desperate misery. In a conversation with Mrs. Kemble, one day, when each enumerated the great actors we had seen here and abroad, I said, “ There is one you have omitted.” “ Myself, I presume. I never was a good actress.” “ Were n’t you ? Did n’t you play Julia well ? ” “ I did.”
Upon the authority of her mother, who was her most solicitous and most competent critic, it seems that the lack of preparation for the stage caused Mrs. Kemble’s acting to be unequal, though, so far as my observation went, it was, as an Irishman might say, never worse, but sometimes better, actually inspired. As the painter who was asked with what he mixed his paints answered, “With brains,” so could Fanny Kemble have accounted for her unrivaled power by saying that she threw her whole soul into her work.
Fanny Kemble’s career as an actress came to a sudden close in June, 1834, by her marriage to Mr. Pierce Butler, of Philadelphia.
She has expressed her thankfulness that she was removed from the stage before its excitement became necessary to her. The vacuity of Mrs. Siddons’s last years, her apparent deadness and indifference to everything, she attributed to the withering and drying influence of the over-stimulating atmosphere of emotion, excitement, and admiration in which her aunt had passed her life; and she believed that her own power of endurance of the sorrow of her later life was lessened by the early excitement and the prolonged exercise of the capacity for superficial emotion upon the stage.
There can be no doubt that in Mrs. Kemble’s case, where the emotion excited was more than superficial, the nerves were weakened, the atmosphere was too stimulating ; but what alternative would have protected her from the rash nature which her mother gave her, and which the home education had developed? And as to the vacuity and indifference in the lives of Mrs. Siddons and of Mrs. Kemble’s father, they had neither her brains, her temperament, nor her education. Moreover, I feel quite sure that, had she turned governess, or had she remained in her father’s house, the dramatic and theatrical instinct derived from her progenitors, and which impelled her sister Adelaide upon the stage, would have drawn her thither, or, if suppressed, would have left her dissatisfied as not having fulfilled her mission. Mrs. Kemble’s objections to the profession would hardly apply to the actors of comedy, whose work is rather intellectual than emotional; nor would she extend them to French or Italian actors, whose demonstrations, on and off the stage, are not acted, dramatic as they are, but perfectly natural.
In connection with this subject, I must give an instance of her prompt rejection of undeserved praise, and hearty championship of her humbler professional associates. Hearing a sermon which condemned the profession of actors, and reflected upon their moral character as a body, with the notable exception of the Kemble family, she wrote a spirited reply, disclaiming any moral superiority of her own family over the average, and testifying to the respectability and worth of many humble members of her profession who never had been and never would be cheered by public notice, while her family were distinguished from those faithful unrewarded laborers only by the favor of the public; adding that her objections to the profession were based upon its unwholesomeness, not upon its looseness of morals.
After a few years of married life, passed partly in America, and partly, to her great relief, in England, Mrs. Kemble returned to her native land, and, after a refreshing year in Italy as guest of her sister, resumed her profession.
It would be impossible to exaggerate the forlornness of her situation at this time. Separated from her children by the ocean, wider then than now, her communication with them infrequent and indirect, heartsick with sorrow and anxiety, no longer young, her bloom gone, her prestige gone, incompetent to bargain with shrewd provincial managers, often sick from the exposure incident to this nomad life, she toiled on for a scant pittance, earned by the abhorred simulation of griefs akin to those gnawing at her heart.
“ The step I am about to take,” she writes, “ is so painful to me that all petty annoyances and minor vexations lose their poignancy in the contemplation of it. My strength is much impaired, my nerves terribly shattered. I am now so little able to resist the slightest appeal to my feelings that, at the play, the mere sound of human voices simulating distress has shaken and affected me to a strange degree. Judge how ill prepared I am to fulfill the task I am about to undertake. But it is an immense thing for me to be still able to work at all, and to keep myself from helpless dependence upon any one.” “ The whole value and meaning of life, to me, lies in the single sense of conscience, — duty.” True to her principles, rather than request or accept a share of the fortune bestowed, in her days of prosperity, upon her father, she struggled on in this dismal drudgery ; buoyed up by her faith, cultivating an interest in passing events in society, politics, and literature, communing with nature, and cheered by the loyalty of old friends.
This pilgrimage lasted for a year and a half, when at last, her father retiring from the field, she felt at liberty to give readings, which were less distasteful to her than acting; in fact, such was her enthusiasm for Shakespeare, they were sometimes enjoyed by her as well as by her audience. While the remnant who witnessed Fanny Kemble’s acting in Boston might be packed into a box, a pitful of those who enjoyed her readings here survive. Whatever criticisms have been made upon her acting, there has been but one verdict as to her readings. In these were made manifest not only her dramatic inheritance, the range and quality of her voice, the grace of her gestures, the mobility and eloquence of her face, but also the underlying foundation of her power as an actress and reader, her comprehensive intelligence and her deep feeling. She approached her work with humble reverence for and appreciation of her divinity, Shakespeare, whose priestess she was; and thus dedicated, she was transfigured in her imagination and to the eyes of the spectators.
As her friend, jealous of her welcome, I have often looked around as she entered and announced her reading, knowing that some present were gazing skeptically at the stout, middle-aged woman who was to present to them the lovelorn Juliet, the crazed Ophelia, the innocent Miranda. My fears were soon dissipated, for, as the play proceeded, not only were the voices clearly and finely distinguished, but the expression of each was miraculously infused, so that she really looked, successively, like Prospero, Miranda, or Ariel. I must make an exception of Caliban, Bottom, Falstaff. Sir Toby, and Dogberry ; her attempts to personate these were, naturally enough, disagreeable and unsuccessful.
While her readings, for which she made thorough preparation, were uniformly excellent, I remember one remarkable instance of inspiration. It was near the close of her last season in Boston — about 1867, perhaps — that I went with two companions to hear her read Richard III. From her entrance soliloquy to the shrieking of the ghosts over the sleeping Richard, her reading was so inspired that we were all electrified ; and the next morning I wrote : " What was the matter with you last night ? You never read so in your life. Compared with your usual readings, it was flying instead of walking. I don’t know what, but something extraordinary must have happened.” In reply, she said : " I waive your compliments, but you must have noticed that I tripped twice in my dialogue, — a rare occurrence ; but the fact was that I was beside myself, for just as I was going to my reading I received a note from the executor of my cousin, Mrs. George Combe (Cecilia Siddons), announcing that she had left me by her will five family pictures, — one of my grandmother, a venerable lady, whom I am said to resemble; and what was more, a pair of gloves that once were Shakespeare’ s. ” This unexpected revelation confirmed my belief in the justice of my observation. I had seen the flame ; now I had discovered the fuel.
The great success of the readings, especially in America, placed Mrs. Kemble in comfort, — save when, in behalf of herself, or more frequently of her children, she was guilty of extravagance, — and enabled her thenceforth to spend her time alternately in England and America, with a summer visit to Switzerland.
Emerson has said that poets put all their poetry into their verses, and leave none in their lives. Actors as well as authors are apt to disappoint one who is led by the art to interest himself in the artist. Nine times out of ten one finds a commonplace person who has this one talent, and there an end ; that his delineations are mere surface work, divined from the outside, with no penetration into or conception of the full scope of the character he is representing; sunflower costumes, artistic scenery, calcium lights, do the rest. Mrs. Kemble says, “Few things have ever puzzled me more than the fact of people liking me because I pretended to be a pack of Juliets and Belvideras, and creatures who were not me.” Still, she recognizes the fact that the popular theatrical heroine of the day always is the realization of their ideal to the youth, male and female, of her time. She certainly was, and in her case her admirers were not disappointed.
Her great nature was manifested in her acting and reading as in her writing, and still more in her being. “ She has far more ability than she can display on the stage,” said Sterling. “ The Kembles are really a wonderful race. “Who that has ever seen Fanny on the stage, or heard her read, or perused her plays and poems and journals, or her philosophical analyses of Shakespeare’s characters, can deny her genius ? ” says Julian Young, a lifelong friend, only child of her old friend, the eminent actor Charles Young. “ Finished the reading of Mrs. Butler’s play, — full of power, poetry, and pathos. She is one of the most remarkable women of the present day.” So spoke the jealous, irritable, but really high-minded Macready, who tickled or stung Mrs. Kemble by affirming that she was ignorant of the rudiments of her profession.
Fanny Kemble had doubted whether she ought to marry, and perhaps she was correct. I cannot picture to myself a union mutually satisfactory. An experienced gardener experiments upon foreign plants with watchful distrust, for he has learned that their acclimation is not a simple question of heat or cold, of wet or dry, but an intricate problem ; nor is he beguiled by seeming success until time has been given to exhaust their imported vitality, any more than the experienced physician is encouraged by his patient’s seeming improvement until the fever has run its course. So an experienced social philosopher looks with misgivings upon the future of the young girl who has linked her fortunes to a foreigner, unaware how much married happiness is buttressed by the support of family and friends, and by the environment of familiar scenes and associations. Fanny Kemble was peculiarly unfitted for a transatlantic alliance. She was intensely attached to her own soil, with its history and its poetry, as also with its social structure and customs. She had been brought up from childhood among bright artistic and literary people. Besides her own family circle, her brother John’s classmates and cronies, who frequented her father’s house, included Arthur Hallam, Alfred Tennyson and his brother, Frederick Maurice, John Sterling, Richard Trench, William Donne, the Romillys, the Malkins, Edward Fitzgerald, William Thackeray, Richard Monckton Milnes ; and after her brilliant début she came into familiar intercourse with all that English society could offer for her entertainment.
While she rather eschewed general society, unless there was dancing, to which she was addicted, she was very dependent upon this social and literary refreshment. She had been from childhood a great reader and a great thinker. She had been in the habit of writing poetry and prose from early girlhood. One of her plays, written when she was seventeen, was brought out with success, even Macready declaring it “ full of power, poetry, and pathos.” “A very noble creature indeed. Somewhat inelastic, unpliant to the age, attached to the old modes of thought and conventions, but noble in qualities and defects.” So comments Mrs. Browning upon Mrs. Kemble ; and this inelasticity made it impossible for her to abandon old, and adopt new and, to her, strange conventions.
Just fancy the hunger and thirst of a human being so constituted and so habituated, in an American city, in the former half of this century, where the best substitutes for her lost companions, the clergymen and other professional men, were too busy and too tired to circulate ; the few men of leisure and business men were too uneducated to furnish any nourishment; and the women, unlike her regretted British sisters, were disabled by poor health, engrossed in home cares and local interests, and incapacitated by want of education. “ You can form no idea,” she writes, “ of the intellectual dearth and drought in which I am existing at present.” “ All the persons whom I should like to cultivate are professionally engaged without intermission, and they have no time, and, it seems, but little taste, for social enjoyment.”“No one that I belong to takes the slightest interest in literary pursuits.” This dearth or utter solitude in her country home were the possible alternatives. Then there was the climate, which debilitated her in summer and dismayed her in winter, and which throughout the year combined with the dust and mud to deprive her of that exercise on foot and in the saddle which she could not do without.
She gives a laughable account of her kindly but abortive attempts, as the lady of Butler Place, to school the children who were already schooled, to fête the laborers on the Fourth of July with wine and beer which they would not touch, to visit the poor who did not exist; and we can see her bustling about with her keys, measuring out supplies for the household, tormenting herself with details, disaffecting her servants with foreign customs, and crusading generally, with great fatigue and little or no avail.
When she learned that her husband’s inheritance consisted chiefly of slaves and plantations, her heart was deeply touched with pity and a sense of responsibility to the enslaved laborers, and she wrote a “ long and vehement treatise against negro slavery,” which she was deterred from publishing for fear of public indignation. Looking back upon her life at this time, Mrs. Kemble says: “ The ideas and expectations with which I then entered upon my Northern country life, near Philadelphia, were impossible of fulfillment, and simply ridiculous under the circumstances.” “ Those with which I contemplated an existence on our Southern estate were not only ridiculously impossible, but would speedily have found their only result in the ruin, danger, and very probably death of all concerned. I am now able to understand and appreciate what I had then not the remotest suspicion of, — the amazement and dismay, the terror and disgust, with which such theories must have filled every member of the American family with which my marriage had connected me ; I must have appeared to them nothing but a mischievous madwoman.” “ It is a strange country and a strange people ; and though I have dear and good friends among them, I still feel a stranger here, and fear I shall continue to do so until I die, which God grant I may do at home ! — that is, in England. ”
I have often heard Mrs. Kemble lament that Americans and English should continue to regard themselves as one people, despite the essential differences wrought by the influence of two hundred years’ separation. She thought that this mistaken notion of identity led to unreasonable expectations, and consequent misunderstandings and disappointments ; and her position was, I think, well taken,—that we should better our relations by respecting one another’s strangeness. In her case, the incompatibilities were both generic and individual; her marriage was entered upon rashly and unwisely. And, paradoxical as it may seem, this marriage to an American, while it did give her, as it were, two homes, and friends in both hemispheres, ended by rendering her homeless ; for, on whichever side of the ocean she sojourned, she was homesick for the other. If in England, she yearned for her children, and, next to them, for the Sedgwicks ; if in America, she was anxious about her family, longed for the sight of the friends of her youth, and felt herself an exile from her beloved native land.
“ Oh, vainest quest of that torment, the love for the absent! ” she writes. “This being linked by invisible chains to the remote ends of the earth, and constantly feeling the strain of the distance upon one’s heart; this sort of death in life, for you are all so far away that you are almost as bad as dead to me. I
really feel sometimes as if I could make up my mind to turn my thoughts once and for all away from you, as from the very dead, and never more, by this disjointed communion, revive, in all its acuteness, the bitter sense of loss and separation.”
While she did not feel at horae in America, and while this lack of complete sympathy increased as she grew older and youthful associations dearer, yet she cherished a warm affection for her adopted country, especially for New England, which she believed would be “ the noblest country in the world in a little while ; ” and this opinion she has reiterated in her letters to me, especially since the war, which wrung her heart as if she had a brother or a son whose death she dreaded to see gazetted. An attempt she made to read Barbara Frietchie and her daughter’s touching Boat of Grass, the last time she read in Boston, came to an end through her uncontrollable emotion. I must quote her Sonnets on the American War as expressing in noble verse the hopes of our enemies, the despondency of our timid friends, and, finally, the assurance of our ultimate triumph and its solemnity.
SONNETS ON THE AMERICAN WAR.
Kings, nobles, priests, all men of every race
Whose lagging clogs time’s swift, relentless pace.
She has gone down, — our evil-boding star;
Rebellion smitten with rebellion’s sword,
Anarchy done to death by slavery,
Of ancient right, insolvent enemy ;
Beneath a hideous cloud of civil war,
Strife such as heathen slaughterers had abhorred,
The lawless land where no man was called lord,
Spurning all wholesome curb, and dreaming free,
Her rabble rules licentious tyranny.
In the fierce splendor of her arrogant morn
She has gone down, the world’s eternal scorn.
The weary workers, gazing from afar
At the clear rising of that hopeful star, —
Star of redemption to each weeping thrall
Of power decrepit, and of rule outworn ;
Beautiful shining of that blessed morn
Which was to bring leave for the poor to live,
To work and rest, to labor and to thrive,
And righteous room for all who nobly strive.
She has gone down ! Woe for the struggling world,
Back on its path of progress sternly hurled !
Land of sufficient harvests for all dearth,
Home of far-seeing hope, time’s latest birth;
Woe for the promised land of the whole earth !
Have ye believed that the supreme decree
Of Heaven had given this people o’er to perish ?
Have ye believed that God had ceased to cherish
This great, new world of Christian liberty ?
Nay, by the precious blood shed to redeem
The nation from its selfishness and sin ;
By each brave heart that bends in holy strife,
Leaving its kindred hearts to break through life ;
By all the bitter tears, whose source must stream
Forever every desolate home within,
We will return to our appointed place,
First in the vanguard of the human race.
When we review Fanny Kemble’s achievements, her acting, her reading, her writing, her personal influence, we must accord her genius. As to her writings, her Journal is sometimes saucy, as written by a young girl who had gone forth from home for the first time, but how graphic her pictures of places and people, how sparkling with wit and full of feeling, with a sad undertone, for an early disappointment had already shaded her young days ; her Poems, written for the most part after joy and hope had vanished, so charged with anguish ; her Year of Consolation, breathing the atmosphere of Italy, and imparting the refreshment and fitful happiness she enjoyed ; her Residence on a Georgian Plantation, as pathetic and cruel as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and fateful to her, haunted by the sin of such possession ; her Notes upon some of Shakespeare’s plays and upon the stage, so discriminating, especially her remarks upon the Dramatic and the Theatrical.
But the most valuable of all her writings are the Records of her Girlhood 1 and of her Later Life ; for these, beginning with a reminiscence of her earliest years, are soon succeeded by what is much more reliable, a record, not reverting to, but running along with, her life from day to day, incidentally revealed by letters to her dearest friend, communicating events and outpouring her inmost thoughts and feelings.2 And this life was like the course of a mountain brook.
Thou knowest, being stopp’d, impatiently doth rage ;
But, when his fair course is not hindered,
He makes sweet music with the enamel’d stones,
Giving a gentle kiss to every sedge
He overtaketh in his pilgrimage ;
And so by many winding nooks he strays,
With willing sport, to the wild ocean.”
Like the Banished Duke, she felt her life more sweet
“ Than that of painted pomp ; ”
and in her sad and solitary pilgrimage she lifted her eyes unto the hills, year after year, so long as she could travel. She there found restoration. Perhaps it was an inheritance from her mother’s mother, who was Swiss.
There was in her personality a sweetness and fullness of feeling in every direction, something akin to the nature of her great master, Shakespeare ; a worship of God and of nature in all its phases, love of and sympathy with all creatures, exuberant spirits, need of motion, need of love, resistance to all authority, a sweet-tempered, cheerful indifference to all punishment. From her childhood days, whether she was hoping that her little sister, of whom she was jealous, would poison herself with privet berries; or suffering anguish over her lost little brother; or running away in resentment for some punishment; or defiantly singing during her term of expiation ; or walking upon the roof of her Boulogne schoolhouse as a release from confinement, “ cette diable de Kemble ;" or writing abstracts of sermons for her less gifted school companions; or devouring the poetry of Scott and Byron; or acting Andromaque at her Paris boarding-school ; or fishing all day with her mother at their rural retreat; or strolling about Heath Farm with her new-found, lifelong friend, Miss St. Leger, making hawthorn wreaths; or wading into the river, accoutred as she was ; or listening to the music of Der Freischütz ; or scrutinizing the peculiarities of some of her relatives, aunt Whitelock in particular; or writing verses ; or grieving over her brother John’s course at the university and her parents’ disappointment, she was always the same bright, intense, exultant human creature. In her composition, humor, that safeguard, that salt of humanity, was an element, — a healthy, hearty humor, excited by her own as well as by her neighbors’ absurdities, and derived from her quick-witted mother, her father’s family being somewhat deficient in that endowment. Like President Lincoln, she might have died but for this occasional relief.
Before she was eighteen she had written the play of Francis I., and had been offered two hundred pounds for it. About this time she went to Edinburgh to stay with Mrs. Harry Siddons, a very self-restrained and lovely woman, under whose powerful influence this young girl’s mind became much affected by religious considerations, and a strong devotional element developed which characterized her ever afterwards. All through her life her thoughts were more on religion than on any other subject. On her first visit to Boston, when the general adulation was calculated to turn her head, her great pleasure was to make and cherish the acquaintance of Dr. Channing, — an acquaintance which ripened into a lifelong friendship. In Philadelphia, Dr. Furness was her most cherished friend. She it was who first made Robertson known to many of us ; indeed, it was through her advice that his sermons were republished in this country. She delighted in the society and the ministrations of Phillips Brooks, who once said to me, “I think she is the best woman I have ever known.” Her letters to her bosom friend and her journals were filled with religious reflections ; on the day of her London début she spent the morning reading Blunt’s Scripture Characters.
When, from being an insignificant schoolgirl, she had suddenly become " a little lion in society,” with approbation, admiration, and adulation showered upon her, and social courtesies poured in upon her from every side ; when she was petted and caressed by persons of real and conventional distinction, she writes to her friend : “ When I reflect that admiration and applause, and the excitement springing therefrom, may become necessary to me, I resolve not only to watch, but to pray, against such a result. I have no desire to sell my soul for anything, least of all for sham fame, mere notoriety.” Her prayers were answered, for while her nerves were affected on the stage, and while she lost her sleep for some time and suffered from headache and sideache from the same cause, she was able to discuss her merits and demerits coolly; her mind and heart were disengaged ; she longed to flee with her friend to Heath Farm, to renew their pleasant walks and talks; she was solicitous as ever about the health and happiness of all her friends. Steadiness under circumstances so calculated to elate, to intoxicate, seems to me phenomenal; it speaks for the nobility and depth of her nature, to turn from what her good aunt Dali called “ mere frivolous, fashionable popularity,” and to decide that this was mere vanity.
I believe that if Fanny Kemble had been a man she would have been a minister of religion, as her brother John intended to be; her letters and journals are full of aspiration and inspiration. The prayer which she breathed in behalf of a young débutante, “ that she might be able to see the truth of all things in the midst of all things false,” was for her fulfilled; in the days of her youth and her triumphs, as well as in her sad and solitary after life, she realized that “ things seen are temporal, things not seen are eternal.”
“ The purpose of life alone,” she writes, " time wherein to do God’s will, makes it sacred. I do not think it pleasant enough to wish to keep it for a single instant without the idea of the duty of living, since God has bid us live. After all, life is a heavy burden on a weary way, and I never saw the human being whose existence was what I should call happy. I have seen some whose lives were so good that they justified their own existence, and one could conceive both why they lived and that they found it good to live.”
She was one who felt it was more blessed to give than to receive. She was chary of taking, but her bounty was not strained; it fell, like the rain, on the just and on the unjust; she seemed never so happy as when she could confer some favor or perform some service, so keen was her fellow feeling. It is a received saying that it is more difficult to be just than to be generous. Fanny Kemble had both virtues ; throughout her Records her notices of persons and of their works are most kindly, and in the case of Charles Greville, whose declared friendship did not prevent him from inserting ill-natured remarks in his memoirs, — still more in the ease of Miss Martineau, who, professedly cordial, had made most absurd and injurious libels, and to whom Mrs. Kemble has many allusions, — most magnanimous. And there are other instances of her magnanimity scattered through these delightful books ; not mere omissions to notice or to resent injustice and ingratitude, for she was frankness itself, but greatness of mind not biased by personal relations, — a forgiveness and seeming forgetfulness of injuries.
Emerson says the alternatives offered to each of us are " peace or truth.” Fanny Kemble certainly did not hesitate to choose the latter ; or perhaps she derived it unconsciously from her mother. Her statements regarding herself, her family, her friends, her views of life, and her opinions on matters light and grave, extorted from her by her exacting friend Miss St. Leger, or given spontaneously, are what a clergyman of my acquaintance would have called “central truths,” undeflected by silliness or selfishness, and uninfluenced by mere authority. She aspired to independence of mind and body, and she realized her aspirations. While she had her prejudices, was indeed somewhat insular, she shows few biased judgments, no morbid sentiments. Her eye was single, and her whole body full of light.
Notwithstanding her plot to poison her little sister with privet berries, her attempted running away, her contemplated suicide, her defiant joyousness under reproof, there is no trait in her character more lovable than her absolute filial and family devotion. It was her mother’s tears and her father’s thickening anxieties that thrust her upon the stage, absolutely unprepared save by her birth and breeding. “ My life was rather sad at this time,” she writes ; “ my brother’s failure at college was a source of disappointment and distress to my parents, while the darkening prospects of the theatre threw a gloom over us all. My mother, coming in from walking one day, threw herself into a chair and burst into tears. ‘ Oh, it has come at last! ‘ she said; ‘ our property is to be sold.’ Seized with a sort of terror, like the Lady of Shalott, that ‘the curse had come upon me,’ I wrote a most urgent entreaty to my father that he would allow me to act for myself, so as to relieve him at once from the burden of my maintenance.” Her frequent alarms over her father’s infatuation for Covent Garden Theatre, in which he sank successively eighty thousand pounds of his brother’s investment, his own and his two daughters’ earnings, her anxiety over his consequent illnesses, and her sympathy with her mother’s deep distress evince the strength of the filial tie ; and her grief over her brother John’s failures and meanderings, a bitter disappointment to his father and mother; her affection for him, and for her handsome young brother Henry; her tender solicitude for her sister Adelaide; and her delight in being able from her earnings to aid them all,— giving a horse to her father, buying a commission in the army for her brother Henry, assuring comfort, even luxury, to her father by giving him for life her earnings in England and America, upon her marriage, granting assistance to the otherwise unprovided-for children of her two brothers, and other despoiling of herself for those she loved, even while she was toiling for her own support, — these things attest her affection for all her kin.
Her loyalty to her friends was as enduring, her affection as unreserved, as to her family. The interesting Records were made possible by the return of forty years’ constant correspondence with the friend of her girlhood, Miss St. Leger; her relations with Miss Sedgwick and family were as continuous; the young schoolgirl whom she captured hanging flowers upon the knob of her door in the Tremont House, upon her first visit to Boston, became her lifelong intimate, and compels this inadequate sketch ; and, as the book reveals, other friends whose adoption she had tried she grappled to her soul with hooks of steel which never rusted. “ God knows how devoutly I thank him for the treasure of love that has been bestowed on me out of so many hearts, in a measure so far above my deserts that my gratitude is mingled with surprise and a sense of my own unworthiness which enhances my appreciation of my great good fortune in this respect.” To her sorrow, her life was so prolonged that she outlived not only her brothers and sister, but most of her friends likewise ; the survivors reciprocated her love, and feel that the world is more sad and dreary by loss of the light and warmth of her great presence.
Consistency is said to be a jewel. Fanny Kemble neither inherited nor acquired it: she had curiously inconsistent moods and traits ; she had a collection rather than a combination of qualities. And no wonder, when we refer to her birth and her bringing-up. The twisting of foreign strands, the weaving of different materials, the forging of different metals, by combining compensating qualities, add to the strength and value of the compound ; so the crossing of races sometimes results in a harmonious completeness possessed by neither race singly, but at other times it results in the coexistence of discordant extremes. Such was the case in the Kemble household; the mother inheriting from her French father and Swiss mother “ the peculiar organization of genius. To the fine senses of a savage rather than a civilized nature she joined an acute instinct of criticism in all matters of art, and a general quickness and accuracy of perception, and brilliant vividness of expression.” As her poor father, like other French émigrés, was sickening from starvation and the influence of the climate, this bright, graceful, and beautiful child, enrolled in a troupe of little actors, and admired and petted by the great, from the “ first gentleman of Europe ” down, thereby developing precocious feeling and imagination, was saddened by the ghastly contrast between the comforts and luxuries of the rich, with which she was made familiar, and her own poor home, where sickness and sorrow were becoming abiding inmates, and poverty and privation the customary conditions of life. “ Of course, the pleasure and beauty loving, artistic temperament, which is the one most likely to be exposed to such an ordeal as that of my mother’s childhood, is also the one liable to be most injured by it. How much the passionate, vehement, susceptible, and most suffering nature was thus banefully fostered I can better judge from the sad vantage-ground of my own experience.” Linked to this fiery, loving, suffering, acute - minded woman was an affectionate, dignified, heavy-moulded husband, with his share of the theatrical traits of his family, to whom she and their children were warmly attached, but who neither shared nor comprehended the finer senses or higher standard of his wife, and for that reason probably wounded all the more her sensibilities.
Fanny Kemble inherited her full share of her mother’s susceptibilities, vehemence, and suffering nature: her pulse thrilled, her heart beat, her tears gushed forth upon every occasion, painful or pleasurable; her impetuosity burst the bounds of self-control, making her deaf to assurances or remonstrances ; as she herself said, “My suddenness is the curse of my nature.” Speaking of her home, she says: “The defect of our home education is that, from the mental tendencies of all of us, no less than from our whole mode of life, the more imaginative and refined intellectual qualities are fostered in us in preference to our reasoning power. We have all excitable natures ; and whether in head or heart, that is a disadvantage. The unrestrained indulgence of feeling is as injurious to moral strength as the undue excess of fancy is to mental vigor.”
To brace herself against her temperament, Fanny Kemble cultivated unusually systematic pursuits and monotonous habits, from an instinct of self-preservation, persuaded, as she says, “ that religion and reason alike justify such a strong instinctive action in natures which derive a constant mental support from the soothing and restraining influence of systematic habits of monotonous regularity.” An observant friend of Mrs. Kemble said to me, as much as forty years ago, “ If Fanny Kemble did not read her Bible at such an hour, visit at such an hour, exercise at such an hour, and gird herself with set habits, she would go mad.” But this is not the whole explanation ; for while she did undoubtedly thus seek support, she had inherited from her very English father a worship of law and order, of church and state, of ancient customs, which contrasted violently with her usual impulsiveness and assertion of individuality. The upholder of form and etiquette, the assertor of dignity today, would to-morrow defy conventionality, mortify friends, and scandalize strangers by walking in full dress into a river, up to her arms, and then go dripping home through a crowd of beholders. And this metamorphosis was as swift as the flow in a spirit thermometer, as sudden as the transformation scene in a pantomime, and as absolute ; the passing was instantaneous and unconscious.
During the life of Gouverneur Kemble, — a delightful gentleman, crony of Washington Irving, remote kinsman of Fanny Kemble, to whom he played the host at his pleasant place on the Hudson River, opposite West Point, — Saturday was called at the Military Academy “ Kemble day,” because the professors and officers went in turn to dine with their neighbor. When Fanny Kemble took on her magisterial style, it might well have been called “ Kemble day,” for it was an inheritance from her theatrical ancestors, and recalled anecdotes of John Philip Kemble and Mrs. Siddons.
I was impelled one day to say to Mrs. Kemble that I had found out what was the matter with her: there were too many of her, — she must have been intended for twins; and I cannot better define the superabundant, tumultuous, dual nature, partaking of the extreme antipodal characteristics of her parents.
Her feelings rose and fell like the tide in the British Channel, and every few hours, when the tide was turning, she was in a state of agitation, tossed like a cockle boat on a cross sea. I doubt if any friend of Fanny Kemble thinks of her in a composed state, but rather as moved by joy or sorrow ; and this agitation led her to shrink from general society as too exciting and too embarrassing to one so easily discomposed, and to long for a communion with nature and familiar friends, — a feeling fully reciprocated by those friends who enjoyed her most under such conditions. One cannot read her books without laughing and grieving over the series of scrapes and collisions caused by her suddenness, rashness, and subsequent fears, her assertion of independence, her acute sympathies, her mission as a crusader. Some of Mrs. Kemble’s collisions, which are reported with exaggeration, reduced to bare facts, can be referred to these peculiarities, some to her theatrical inheritance, some to her self-imposed duty as a crusader, some to a sudden freak, some to her embarrassment and consequent clutching at safety, or passing along the mortification at her own discomposure. She says somewhere, “ I am always remarkably cross when I am frightened,” — a natural concatenation. From whatever cause she occasionally wounded the feelings of others, her repentance was swift and sincere ; her sense of justice, her warmth of heart, brought remorse and repentance.
Such as she was, brimming over with reverence and gratitude to God, with love to man, with sensibility to all the problems of life, to nature, with interest in art, in literature, in politics ; generous, magnanimous, truthful, full of hope ; crowned and worshiped, then struck down, doomed to bear thenceforth her heavy cross alone, — she has been to her family a guardian angel, to her friends a mighty fortress and shelter, to the world a delight and refreshment.
Mrs. Kemble’s wish to die at home was fulfilled. Old age crept upon her in her own country, in the home of her younger daughter, wife of an English clergyman, and there she passed instantaneously from life to death.
Will fringe the lettered stone, and herbs spring forth,
Whose fragrance, by soft dews and rain unbound,
Shall penetrate the heart without a wound;
While truth and love their purposes fulfill,
Commemorating genius, talent, skill,
That could not lie concealed where thou wast known;
Thy virtues he must judge, and he alone,
The God upon whose mercy they are thrown. ”
- First published in The Atlantic, 1875-77, under the title Old Woman’s Gossip.↩
- The third series, Further Records, cannot be spoken of in the same breath with the previous volumes. It was published in 1890, when Mrs. Kemble was too old to scrutinize the proofs, and abounds in details fit for the ear of a friend, but not of the public, and ill-considered opinions which she did not permanently hold ; and I know that, when too late, she was much troubled about it.↩