Well, we took a short break from posting our Historical Desert Island Discs for a week or two either side of the bank holiday. But here we are, our historians are still mostly in lock down so we are back and kicking off with our Americanists. The one and only Professor Emily West kicks off with Fanny Kemble…
Today’s guest is the nineteenth-century British actor and writer Frances Anne (Fanny) Kemble (1809-1893). Born into a prominent theatrical family in London, Kemble is mostly remembered among historians for her unhappy marriage to the US slaveholder, Pierce Butler. Kemble famously gave up her life on the stage to live as a ‘plantation mistress’ in the lowcountry coastal area of Georgia in the late 1830s, with Butler and their two young daughters. When the marriage failed, Kemble and her daughters left the plantation and Butler filed for divorce in 1847. Kemble subsequently published her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 in 1863, during the US Civil War. She also returned to acting, first in the US, and then following her return to England.
Often celebrated as an abolitionist due to her antipathy towards slavery and her sympathetic views towards enslaved women, Kemble held a complex relationship with the slave regime. Although she empathised with women who bore a heavy workload while also enduring pregnancies and childbirth, she also held characteristically racist views that were common to the era. Kemble was a public critic of slavery but also a private beneficiary. She centred herself as a victim of the regime in a way that belittled the suffering of those held in bondage even as she struggled to cope with the patriarchal conventions of her era. As such, Kemble’s life reminds us that gendered and racial oppressions take multiple, varied, and intersecting forms.
Kemble has chosen the following Desert Island Discs:
1. Sergei Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet (1938)
Kemble’s first acting role was in 1829 at the Covent Garden Theatre, where she played Juliet to critical acclaim. This music would have reminded her of a happy, fulfilling time in her life. Version recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra in 2009.
2. Ray Charles, Georgia on my Mind (1960)
Recorded by the native of Georgia, Ray Charles, and a decade later by James Brown, this song would have evoked mixed emotions for Kemble, reminding her of the beauty of the Georgian landscape, but also of her marriage’s breakdown. This version was recorded in 1976.
3. Aretha Franklin, Respect (1967)
While Kemble wished her husband, Pierce Butler, would simply respect her, she failed to hear the voices of her enslaved people requesting the same thing. This version was recorded in 1991.
4. Dolly Parton, D.I.V.O.R.C.E. (1969)
Feeling isolated and alone in the slave South, Kemble may well have taken comfort from the music of Tennessee singer and fellow actor, Dolly Parton. Sadly no video, but Parton’s fans have helped us out on youtube.
5. Gloria Gaynor, I Will Survive (1978)
Divorce in the nineteenth century brought shame and stigma, especially in the conservative slave South. So turning to this divorcee dancefloor classic would have brought Kemble a brief moment of pleasure.
Incidentally, for Gaynor’s new, 20 second ‘handwashing’ version on TikTok, see: Hand-washing
6. Nina Simone, I wish I knew how it would feel to be free (1967)
Simone’s version of this classic song became an anthem for Civil Rights activists in the US, but the lyrics are also relevant to Kemble’s enslaved people, whom she often failed to understand. This version was recorded at the Montreux Jazz festival, 1976.
7. Rhiannon Giddens, Julie (2017)
Kemble would have benefitted from listening to this poignant song, where Giddens imagines a conversation between an enslaved and white woman during the US Civil War, as the Union troops approach their plantation.
8. Ranky Tanky, Good Time (2019)
Times certainly don’t feel good at the moment, but Gullah people from the Georgia and South Carolina sea islands (where Kemble lived during her marriage) have always used music and verse to provide hope, dignity and self-respect. Charleston band Ranky Tanky celebrate lowcountry culture and the musical traditions of their ancestors in this unique part of the US.
For more on the life of Fanny Kemble, see Catherine Clinton (ed.), Fanny Kemble’s Journals (2000). Perhaps Kemble would choose this book in addition to the Bible and works of Shakespeare (which of course, she loved)? Kemble would have enjoyed knowing that people are still interested in her.
Hating isolation, Kemble would not have enjoyed life on a desert island one bit. It would also probably remind her of how isolated and unhappy she felt on her Georgian plantation. For her luxury items, she would need a pen and paper to continue writing her journals and to jot down imaginary correspondence with her wide literary and theatrical social circle.
You can find our more about Professor Emily West and her research on US slavery in the US South, especially the lives of enslaved women, the relationships between enslaved spouses, family under slavery, and affective ties between enslaved people and free people of colour at the University of Reading here here
To hear more from Emily, see her video made at the National Slavery Museum in Liverpool Here
You can also follow her on Twitter @emilywestfahey