Fanny Kemble: Broadway’s 1830s Star


Image of Fanny KembleFanny Kemble was born Frances Ann Kemble in London, England on the 27th of November 1809 to Charles Kemble and Maria Theresa De Camp. She became one of New York City’s most famous actresses in the 1830’s, along with her father. Kemble’s career began as a necessary form of earning money in order to save her family from bankruptcy, but grew to become much more both on the stage and beyond it. She wrote plays, poems, and texts about the social system of both her time and the theater. Kemble’s first role was that of Juliet in October of 1829, followed shortly thereafter by her performance in The Hunchback. She took on both of these roles once again in during her time in New York, which she moved to in 1832. Kemble and her father experienced so much success in cultural center of the United States that they toured the country for two years.

Fanny Kemble and husband Pierce Butler

Fanny Kemble retired from the stage after her two-year tour, marrying Philadelphian and Georgia plantation owner Pierce Butler, unaware of the source of his wealth. The institution of slavery disgusted Kemble and was the beginning of the end for her time in the United States. She returned to London in 1846 after discovering Butler’s infidelity – the final straw for Kemble. She found herself on the stage once again in order to make ends meet, later switching to “public readings from Shakespeare,” which she found much more enjoyable (brittanica). After Pierce Butler was granted legal divorce from her due to her abandonment, Kemble returned to the States to live in Lennox, Massachusetts, continuing her career of public reading until her return to England in 1862, living in London until her death on January 15th, 1893.

New York City was essential to Fanny Kemble’s success and mobility. Without her fame in the city, Kemble would have been forced to marry into a lower-class in New York or move back to London with little to no success or financial stability for herself and her family. Because of the hub of NYC, Kemble was able to enjoy monetary success that allowed her social freedoms inaccessible to other women of her time. Her journals comment on her distaste for the city, but fail to recognize it’s enormous positive impact on the rest of her life.

Image of Broadway and Ann, c. 1830

An Analysis of Fanny Kemble’s Journal: Highlighting the Difference in Upper- and Lower-Class Experiences of New York

Fanny Kemble’s journal points out the disparity between the upper-class glamour experience of New York City and the destitute nature of the rest of the city, most specifically in relation to Broadway.

Kemble approaches high society from a very different standpoint, as she compares it to her experiences in England, specifically London. To her, the upper-class New York City life is more equal to middle- to lower-class London life. While the city is proud of its supposed “glamour,” she finds it dull, dirty, unsophisticated, and inferior to her home country. Where England was proper and elegant, New York proved gawdy and substandard. At first, she seems to be making more of an effort in putting aside any preconceived notions or expectations bases on her English experiences in order to understand the pleasure of the city, but she finds this beyond difficult in all aspects of the American life. In the beginning she notes “How we English folk do cling to our habits, our own views, our own things, our own people,” (Lopate 22). She tries to set this aside for a while and contributes any bad experiences to her upbringing and the expectations it gave her, but eventually this practice crumble and she finds it more and more difficult to accept the American city. She further comments on the unimpressive nature of America by comparing it to the grandness of England, which she consistently argues supercedes any magnificence in New York.

Her diary also notes the horrendousness of inequality amongst white people and people of color. Kemble marks, in response to the segregation and exclusion of people of color, “I believe I turned black myself, I was so indignant,” (Lopate 25). In this line alone, Kemble marks the vast difference in progression between England and America and shows one of the biggest problems she discovered while in New York City. Her anger at the exclusion of African Americans does not, however, necessarily mean she saw them as equal to herself. She notes at the end of the last passage her disappointment and frustration with cooks “who did not live in the house,” and were not expected to revolve their lives around her (Lopate 29). This suggests that she still expects lower-class citizens, who in London were most likely people of color, to serve her and other people of high society before themselves.

While Fanny Kemble’s journal focuses on the actresses personal thoughts and opinions, it sheds light on very real problems the people of New York City experienced on a daily basis. Her distaste for the city allows her to analyze the environment without wearing rose-tinted glasses that obscure the grittier, grimier, and less than acceptable aspects that many other gloss over due to their enthrallment with the city’s energy.



Figure 1:

Figure 2:

Figure 3: George Hayward. View of St. Paul’s Church and the Broadway Stages, N.Y., 1831. Lithograph. Museum of the City of New York, F2011.37.24.

Biographical Information: Encyclopedia Britannica, The Editors of. “Fanny Kemble.” Edited by Amy Tikkanen, Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 11 Jan. 2019,

Quotes, Fanny Kemble’s Diary: Lopate, Phillip, editor. Writing New York a Literary Anthology. Library of America, 2008.

Full text, Fanny Kemble’s Diary:

One comment

  1. Douglas Raith says:

    Interesting article. One comment: I’m surprised you think that ‘lower class citizens’ in London would be most likely people of colour. I would rather think that her disappointment with servants more reflected the more embedded roles of (overwhelmingly white) domestic staff that she might be used to in England.

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