Verse > Anthologies > Alfred H. Miles, ed. > Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century
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Alfred H. Miles, ed.  Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century.  1907.
 
Critical and Biographical Essay by Alexander Hay Japp
Frances Anne Kemble (1809–1893)
 
FANNY KEMBLE, to call her by the name by which she was most familiarly known, was born on the 27th November, 1809, in Newman Street, Oxford Street, London. Her father was Charles Kemble, the famous actor, her mother was the offspring of a French officer, who had married the daughter of a farmer from the neighbourhood of Berne. Fanny Kemble was always proud to think that there was as much of her mother’s as of her father’s blood in her veins;—“I sometimes wonder,” she wrote, “whether it is her blood in my veins that so loves and longs for those supremely beautiful mountains.” Fanny Kemble confessed that she was a rebellious child, prone to defy all authority, and in her “Records of Girlhood,” she tells in a half-humorous tone, how her famous great-aunt, Mrs. Siddons, who lived next door, had often to be called in to admonish her.  1
  “Melpomene took me upon her lap, and, bending upon me her ‘controlling frown,’ discoursed to me of my evil ways, in those accents which curdled the blood of the poor shopman, of whom she demanded if the printed calico she purchased of him ‘would wash,’ The tragic tones pausing, in the midst of the impressed and impressive silence of the assembled family, I tinkled forth, ‘What beautiful eyes you have!’ all my small faculties having been absorbed in the steadfast upward gaze I fixed upon those magnificent orbs. Mrs. Siddons set me down with a smothered laugh, and I trotted off, apparently uninjured by my great-aunt’s solemn moral suasion.”  2
  Fanny Kemble early showed unmistakable proofs of genius, and was carefully educated with a view to the stage. She was sent to several schools, and finally to Paris; and of the school there she gives a very graphic account, describing the great difficulty the dancing teacher had in giving her a good deportment. She soon showed her superiority in acting, however, and, though she essayed somewhat ambitious parts, generally carried herself well through them. She returned home when sixteen; and had to confess that, though a pretty-looking girl with fine eyes, teeth and hair, a clear vivid complexion, and rather good features, she suffered from the results of small-pox. She says this rendered her complexion at times thick and muddy, the features heavy and coarse, leaving her so moderate a share of good looks then as quite to warrant her mother’s satisfaction in saying when she went on the stage, “Well, my dear, they can’t say we’ve brought you out to exhibit your beauty!” “Plain I certainly was,” she adds, “but I by no means looked so; and so great was the variation in my appearance at different times, that my comical old friend, Mrs. Fitzhugh, once exclaimed, ‘Fanny Kemble, you are the ugliest and the handsomest woman in London!’”  3
  While still very young, Fanny Kemble began to write for the stage, composing her drama of “Francis I.,” at the age of seventeen; a play in which she herself personated one of the leading characters. It was successful also as a book, reaching a seventh edition. At Covent Garden Theatre, then under the management of her father, she acted many leading characters while yet young: Portia, Isabella, Lady Townley, Calista, Bianca, Beatrice Constance, Lady Teazle, Lady Macbeth, and Julia in the Hunchback being amongst them.  4
  In 1832 with her father, she visited America, and performed with éclat at the principal theatres there. She has given an account of her experiences during this tour in her “Journal of a Residence in America” (1835). Whilst in America, she married a planter of South Carolina, Mr. Pierce Butler; but her marriage did not prove a happy one, and she obtained a divorce from him in 1839. She resumed her maiden name, and settled in Lenox, Massachusetts, where she resided for twenty years, with the exception of one year spent in Italy, of which she has given a vivacious account in her book entitled, “A Year of Consolation: Travels in Italy” (1847). She also wrote an account of her “Residence in America,” and published a volume of “Residence on a Georgia Plantation” (1863). She has been a constant writer, and has published much. She translated some of Schiller’s dramas, among them “Mary Stuart,” and wrote many novels and tales; “Notes on Shakespeare’s Plays” (1882); “Records of Girlhood,” 3 vols. (1878); “Records of Later Life,” 3 vols. (1882), besides two volumes of Poems. She also appeared at intervals as a public reader. From 1869 to 1873 she resided in Europe, and for a time returned to America, afterwards making her abode in London. She died January 15th, 1893.  5
  Her poems are marked by thought, by fancy, and great love of nature and art. She has written in many metres and almost always with a sense of distinction and of ease. Her sonnets are very finished—some of them, indeed, will compare with the most successful of those written by any, save the half-dozen or so who stand supreme in this department of poetry. Much of her work is autobiographical and bears the impress of her changeful life. The following sonnet could only have been written by one who united the poet’s feeling and the actor’s experience:—

        
To Shakespeare.
  
OFT, when my lips I open to rehearse
Thy wondrous spells of wisdom, and of power,
And that my voice, and thy immortal verse,
On listening ears, and hearts, I mingled pour,
I shrink dismayed—and awful doth appear
The vain presumption of my own weak deed;
Thy glorious spirit seems to mine so near,
That suddenly I tremble as I read—
Thee an invisible auditor I fear:
Oh, if it might be so, my master dear!
With what beseeching would I pray to thee,
To make me equal to my noble task,
Succor from thee, how humbly would I ask,
Thy worthiest works to utter worthily.

Our selection aims at representing something of her varied range and her fresh and often felicitous treatment of ordinary themes.
  6
 
 
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