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Formidable Fanny, ferocious feminist


"Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars," by Catherine Clinton. Simon & Shuster. 302 pages. $26.

Fanny Kemble (1809-1893) is one of those fantastic personages upon whom historians can hang grand theses like plumed chapeaux. Kemble was a celebrated actress, born into England's reigning theatrical family of the day, and a whole book might be devoted to the lady as a paragon of a certain British dramatic style. On a star tour through the United States, she met and married Pierce Butler, becoming an English mistress of a huge Southern plantation -- her husband was the second largest slaveholder in Georgia -- while holding firm to her abolitionist views. That's a volume right there. Eventually divorcing Butler, she lived her life as a strong-willed, independent woman (another book); in the last two decades of a life lived among famous and literary friends, Henry James was her closest (ditto).

Historian Catherine Clinton argues solidly that the Civil War was not only the most critical hour of disharmony in this country's history, but that it's also an apt metaphor for all the conflicts in Kemble's long, century-spanning life. "Fanny Kemble's Civil Wars" refers not only to the battles that directly affected her adopted home -- the Georgia plantation was pillaged -- but also to the strife between husband and wife, as well as to her difficult relationship with her daughters after her divorce from their father.

The older daughter, Sarah (whose son, Owen Wister Jr., would find fame as the author of "The Virginian"), shared her mother's anti-slavery views, and thus had a slightly better time of it than the younger, Fan, who identified strongly with her father and the Confederacy. But both suffered as children from their parents' bitter split. And as adults they hated their mother's outspokenness, cringing with every volume she published (and she published 11 in all, which Clinton has likewise edited and introduces in a new release from Harvard University Press).

"In Butler's view," the historian writes, "his wife's 'peculiar' views were to blame for the breakup of their marriage. 'She held that marriage should be companionship on equal terms -- partnership, in which, if both partners agree, it is well; but if they do not, neither is bound to yield.' "

Such feminist thinking is forward indeed, but Clinton's scholarly tone, while clear and informative, does little to bring such a formidable woman to life. The facts are plentiful, but the bounty and tumult of Kemble's personality are corseted by stiff declarative prose. "Kemble came to believe that she was little different from Butler's other property, subject to her husband's will."

And, indeed, everyone around her is presented at an intellectual remove. "When they arrived in Savannah, Butler bade Fan stay behind while he surveyed conditions on St. Simon's"; "Henry James was Fanny's favorite companion through the spring of 1877, and when she left in June for her annual trek to Switzerland, James told friends that he missed her company."

That the people Fanny Kemble loved, and with whom she fought, appear so distant may be a result of the biographer's intense devotion to her subject, the admiration of a 20th-century woman of accomplishment toward her 19th-century sister. Still, Kemble the actress would probably have urged Clinton: Project! Project!

Lisa Schwarzbaum is a regular contributor to national magazines and critic for Entertainment Weekly. She was previously feature writer at the New York Daily News Sunday Magazine and has worked for the Boston Globe and the Real Paper.

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