Frances Anne Kemble.

Records of a Girlhood online

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[Transcriber's note: The spellings in this book are inconsistent in
the original, and have not been corrected except in the index as
explicitly noted below.]

[Illustration: Fanny Kemble]








JOHN A. GRAY, Agent,


Considerable portions of this work originally appeared in the _Atlantic
Monthly_, but there is added to these a large amount of new matter not
hitherto published, and the whole work has been thoroughly revised.



A few years ago I received from a friend to whom they had been addressed
a collection of my own letters, written during a period of forty years,
and amounting to thousands - a history of my life.

The passion for universal history (_i.e._ any and every body's story)
nowadays seems to render any thing in the shape of personal
recollections good enough to be printed and read; and as the public
appetite for gossip appears to be insatiable, and is not unlikely some
time or other to be gratified at my expense, I have thought that my own
gossip about myself may be as acceptable to it as gossip about me
written by another.

I have come to the garrulous time of life - to the remembering days,
which only by a little precede the forgetting ones. I have much leisure,
and feel sure that it will amuse me to write my own reminiscences;
perhaps reading them may amuse others who have no more to do than I
have. To the idle, then, I offer these lightest of leaves gathered in
the idle end of autumn days, which have succeeded years of labor often
severe and sad enough, though its ostensible purpose was only that of
affording recreation to the public.

* * * * *

There are two lives of my aunt Siddons: one by Boaden, and one by the
poet Campbell. In these biographies due mention is made of my paternal
grandfather and grandmother. To the latter, Mrs. Roger Kemble, I am
proud to see, by Lawrence's portrait of her, I bear a personal
resemblance; and I please myself with imagining that the likeness is
more than "skin deep." She was an energetic, brave woman, who, in the
humblest sphere of life and most difficult circumstances, together with
her husband fought manfully a hard battle with poverty, in maintaining
and, as well as they could, training a family of twelve children, of
whom four died in childhood. But I am persuaded that whatever qualities
of mind or character I inherit from my father's family, I am more
strongly stamped with those which I derive from my mother, a woman who,
possessing no specific gift in such perfection as the dramatic talent of
the Kembles, had in a higher degree than any of them the peculiar
organization of genius. To the fine senses of a savage rather than a
civilized nature, she joined an acute instinct of correct criticism in
all matters of art, and a general quickness and accuracy of perception,
and brilliant vividness of expression, that made her conversation
delightful. Had she possessed half the advantages of education which she
and my father labored to bestow upon us, she would, I think, have been
one of the most remarkable persons of her time.

My mother was the daughter of Captain Decamp, an officer in one of the
armies that revolutionary France sent to invade republican Switzerland.
He married the daughter of a farmer from the neighborhood of Berne. From
my grandmother's home you could see the great Jungfrau range of the
Alps, and I sometimes wonder whether it is her blood in my veins that so
loves and longs for those supremely beautiful mountains.

Not long after his marriage my grandfather went to Vienna, where, on the
anniversary of the birth of the great Empress-King, my mother was born,
and named, after her, Maria Theresa. In Vienna, Captain Decamp made the
acquaintance of a young English nobleman, Lord Monson (afterwards the
Earl of Essex), who, with an enthusiasm more friendly than wise, eagerly
urged the accomplished Frenchman to come and settle in London, where his
talents as a draughtsman and musician, which were much above those of a
mere amateur, combined with the protection of such friends as he could
not fail to find, would easily enable him to maintain himself and his
young wife and child.

In an evil hour my grandfather adopted this advice, and came to England.
It was the time when the emigration of the French nobility had filled
London with objects of sympathy, and society with sympathizers with
their misfortunes. Among the means resorted to for assisting the many
interesting victims of the Revolution, were representations, given under
the direction of Le Texier, of Berquin's and Madame de Genlis's juvenile
dramas, by young French children. These performances, combined with his
own extraordinary readings, became one of the fashionable frenzies of
the day. I quote from Walter Scott's review of Boaden's life of my uncle
the following notice of Le Texier: "On one of these incidental topics we
must pause for a moment, with delighted recollection. We mean the
readings of the celebrated Le Texier, who, seated at a desk, and dressed
in plain clothes, read French plays with such modulation of voice, and
such exquisite point of dialogue, as to form a pleasure different from
that of the theatre, but almost as great as we experience in listening
to a first-rate actor. We have only to add to a very good account given
by Mr. Boaden of this extraordinary entertainment, that when it
commenced Mr. Le Texier read over the _dramatis personæ_, with the
little analysis of character usually attached to each name, using the
voice and manner with which he afterward read the part; and so accurate
was the key-note given that he had no need to name afterward the person
who spoke; the stupidest of the audience could not fail to recognize

Among the little actors of Le Texier's troupe, my mother attracted the
greatest share of public attention by her beauty and grace, and the
truth and spirit of her performances.

The little French fairy was eagerly seized upon by admiring fine ladies
and gentlemen, and snatched up into their society, where she was fondled
and petted and played with; passing whole days in Mrs. Fitzherbert's
drawing-room, and many a half hour on the knees of her royal and
disloyal husband, the Prince Regent, one of whose favorite jokes was to
place my mother under a huge glass bell, made to cover some large group
of precious Dresden china, where her tiny figure and flashing face
produced even a more beautiful effect than the costly work of art whose
crystal covering was made her momentary cage. I have often heard my
mother refer to this season of her childhood's favoritism with the fine
folk of that day, one of her most vivid impressions of which was the
extraordinary beauty of person and royal charm of manner and deportment
of the Prince of Wales, and his enormous appetite: enormous perhaps,
after all, only by comparison with her own, which he compassionately
used to pity, saying frequently, when she declined the delicacies that
he pressed upon her, "Why, you poor child! Heaven has not blessed you
with an appetite." Of the precocious feeling and imagination of the poor
little girl, thus taken out of her own sphere of life into one so
different and so dangerous, I remember a very curious instance, told me
by herself. One of the houses where she was a most frequent visitor, and
treated almost like a child of the family, was that of Lady Rivers,
whose brother, Mr. Rigby, while in the ministry, fought a duel with some
political opponent. Mr. Rigby had taken great notice of the little
French child treated with such affectionate familiarity by his sister,
and she had attached herself so strongly to him that, on hearing the
circumstance of his duel suddenly mentioned for the first time, she
fainted away: a story that always reminded me of the little Spanish girl
Florian mentions in his "Mémoires d'un jeune Espagnol," who, at six
years of age, having asked a young man of upward of five and twenty if
he loved her, so resented his repeating her question to her elder sister
that she never could be induced to speak to him again.

Meantime, while the homes of the great and gay were her constant resort,
the child's home was becoming sadder, and her existence and that of her
parents more precarious and penurious day by day. From my grandfather's
first arrival in London, his chest had suffered from the climate; the
instrument he taught was the flute, and it was not long before decided
disease of the lungs rendered that industry impossible. He endeavored to
supply its place by giving French and drawing lessons (I have several
small sketches of his, taken in the Netherlands, the firm, free delicacy
of which attest a good artist's handling); and so struggled on, under
the dark London sky, and in the damp, foggy, smoky atmosphere, while the
poor foreign wife bore and nursed four children.

It is impossible to imagine any thing sadder than the condition of such
a family, with its dark fortune closing round and over it, and its one
little human jewel, sent forth from its dingy case to sparkle and
glitter, and become of hard necessity the single source of light in the
growing gloom of its daily existence. And the contrast must have been
cruel enough between the scenes into which the child's genius
spasmodically lifted her, both in the assumed parts she performed and in
the great London world where her success in their performance carried
her, and the poor home, where sickness and sorrow were becoming abiding
inmates, and poverty and privation the customary conditions of
life - poverty and privation doubtless often increased by the very outlay
necessary to fit her for her public appearances, and not seldom by the
fear of offending, or the hope of conciliating, the fastidious taste of
the wealthy and refined patrons whose favor toward the poor little
child-actress might prove infinitely helpful to her and to those who
owned her.

The lives of artists of every description in England are not unapt to
have such opening chapters as this; but the calling of a player alone
has the grotesque element of fiction, with all the fantastic
accompaniments of sham splendor thrust into close companionship with the
sordid details of poverty; for the actor alone the livery of labor is a
harlequin's jerkin lined with tatters, and the jester's cap and bells
tied to the beggar's wallet. I have said artist life in England is apt
to have such chapters; artist life everywhere, probably. But it is only
in England, I think, that the full bitterness of such experience is
felt; for what knows the foreign artist of the inexorable element of
Respectability? In England alone is the pervading atmosphere of
respectability that which artists breathe in common with all other
men - respectability, that English moral climate, with its neutral tint
and temperate tone, so often sneered at in these days by its new German
title of Philistinism, so often deserving of the bitterest scorn in some
of its inexpressibly mean manifestations - respectability, the
pre-eminently unattractive characteristic of British existence, but
which, all deductions made for its vulgar alloys, is, in truth, only the
general result of the individual self-respect of individual Englishmen;
a wholesome, purifying, and preserving element in the homes and lives of
many, where, without it, the recklessness bred of insecure means and
obscure position would run miserable riot; a tremendous power of
omnipotent compression, repression, and oppression, no doubt, quite
consistent with the stern liberty whose severe beauty the people of
these islands love, but absolutely incompatible with license, or even
lightness of life, controlling a thousand disorders rampant in societies
where it does not exist; a power which, tyrannical as it is, and
ludicrously tragical as are the sacrifices sometimes exacted by it,
saves especially the artist class of England from those worst forms of
irregularity which characterize the Bohemianism of foreign literary,
artistic, and dramatic 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, and
to communicate through its influence peculiar mischief to the moral
nature. It is the price of peril, paid for all that brilliant order of
gifts that have for their scope the exercise of the imagination through
the senses, no less than for that crown of gifts, the poet's passionate
inspiration, speaking to the senses through the imagination.

How far my mother was hurt by the combination of circumstances that
influenced her childhood I know not. As I remember her, she was a frank,
fearless, generous, and unworldly woman, and had probably found in the
subsequent independent exercise of her abilities the shield for these
virtues. How much the passionate, vehement, susceptible, and most
suffering nature was banefully fostered at the same time, I can better
judge from the sad vantage-ground of my own experience.

After six years spent in a bitter struggle with disease and difficulties
of every kind, my grandfather, still a young man, died of consumption,
leaving a widow and five little children, of whom the eldest, my mother,
not yet in her teens, became from that time the bread-winner and sole

Nor was it many years before she established her claim to the
approbation of the general public, fulfilling the promise of her
childhood by performances of such singular originality as to deserve the
name of genuine artistic creations, and which have hardly ever been
successfully attempted since her time: such as "The Blind Boy" and "Deaf
and Dumb;" the latter, particularly, in its speechless power and pathos
of expression, resembling the celebrated exhibitions of Parisot and
Bigottini, in the great tragic ballets in which dancing was a
subordinate element to the highest dramatic effects of passion and
emotion expressed by pantomime. After her marriage, my mother remained
but a few years on the stage, to which she bequeathed, as specimens of
her ability as a dramatic writer, the charming English version of "La
jeune Femme colère," called "The Day after the Wedding;" the little
burlesque of "Personation," of which her own exquisitely humorous
performance, aided by her admirably pure French accent, has never been
equaled; and a play in five acts called "Smiles and Tears," taken from
Mrs. Opie's tale of "Father and Daughter."

She had a fine and powerful voice and a rarely accurate musical ear; she
moved so gracefully that I have known persons who went to certain
provincial promenades frequented by her, only to see her walk; she was a
capital horsewoman; her figure was beautiful, and her face very handsome
and strikingly expressive; and she talked better, with more originality
and vivacity, than any English woman I have ever known: to all which
good gifts she added that of being a first-rate _cook_. And oh, how
often and how bitterly, in my transatlantic household tribulations, have
I deplored that her apron had not fallen on my shoulders or round my
waist! Whether she derived this taste and talent from her French blood,
I know not, but it amounted to genius, and might have made her a
pre-eminent _cordon bleu_, if she had not been the wife, and _cheffe_,
of a poor professional gentleman, whose moderate means were so
skillfully turned to account, in her provision for his modest table,
that he was accused by ill-natured people of indulging in the expensive
luxury of a French cook. Well do I remember the endless supplies of
potted gravies, sauces, meat jellies, game jellies, fish jellies, the
white ranges of which filled the shelves of her store-room - which she
laughingly called her boudoir - almost to the exclusion of the usual
currant jellies and raspberry jams of such receptacles: for she had the
real _bon vivant's_ preference of the savory to the sweet, and left all
the latter branch of the art to her subordinates, confining the exercise
of her own talents, or immediate superintendence, to the production of
the above-named "elegant extracts." She never, I am sorry to say,
encouraged either my sister or myself in the same useful occupation,
alleging that we had what she called better ones; but I would joyfully,
many a time in America, have exchanged all my boarding-school
smatterings for her knowledge how to produce a wholesome and palatable
dinner. As it was, all I learned of her, to my sorrow, was a detestation
of bad cookery, and a firm conviction that that which was exquisite was
both wholesomer and more economical than any other. Dr. Kitchener, the
clever and amiable author of that amusing book, "The Cook's Oracle" (his
name was a _bonâ fide_ appellation, and not a drolly devised appropriate
_nom de plume_, and he was a doctor of physic), was a great friend and
admirer of hers; and she is the "accomplished lady" by whom several
pages of that entertaining kitchen companion were furnished to him.

The mode of opening one of her chapters, "I always bone my meat" (_bone_
being the slang word of the day for steal), occasioned much merriment
among her friends, and such a look of ludicrous surprise and reprobation
from Liston, when he read it, as I still remember.

My mother, moreover, devised a most admirable kind of _jujube_, made of
clarified gum-arabic, honey, and lemon, with which she kept my father
supplied during all the time of his remaining on the stage; he never
acted without having recourse to it, and found it more efficacious in
sustaining the voice and relieving the throat under constant exertion
than any other preparation that he ever tried; this she always made for
him herself.

The great actors of my family have received their due of recorded
admiration; my mother has always seemed to me to have been overshadowed
by their celebrity; my sister and myself, whose fate it has been to bear
in public the name they have made distinguished, owe in great measure to
her, I think, whatever ability has enabled us to do so not unworthily.

I was born on the 27th of November, 1809, in Newman Street, Oxford Road,
the third child of my parents, whose eldest, Philip, named after my
uncle, died in infancy. The second, John Mitchell, lived to distinguish
himself as a scholar, devoting his life to the study of his own language
and the history of his country in their earliest period, and to the
kindred subject of Northern Archæology.

Of Newman Street I have nothing to say, but regret to have heard that
before we left our residence there my father was convicted, during an
absence of my mother's from town, of having planted in my baby bosom the
seeds of personal vanity, while indulging his own, by having an
especially pretty and becoming lace cap at hand in the drawing-room, to
be immediately substituted for some more homely daily adornment, when I
was exhibited to his visitors. In consequence, perhaps, of which, I am a
disgracefully dress-loving old woman of near seventy, one of whose minor
miseries is that she can no longer find _any_ lace cap whatever that is
either pretty or becoming to her gray head. If my father had not been so
foolish then, I should not be so foolish now - perhaps.

The famous French actress, Mlle. Clairon, recalled, for the pleasure of
some foreign royal personage passing through Paris, for one night to the
stage, which she had left many years before, was extremely anxious to
recover the pattern of a certain cap which she had worn in her young
days in "La Coquette corrigée," the part she was about to repeat. The
cap, as she wore it, had been a Parisian rage; she declared that half
her success in the part had been the cap. The milliner who had made it,
and whose fortune it had made, had retired from business, grown old;
luckily, however, she was not dead: she was hunted up and adjured to
reproduce, if possible, this marvel of her art, and came to her former
patroness, bringing with her the identical head-gear. Clairon seized
upon it: "Ah oui, c'est bien cela! c'est bien là le bonnet!" It was on
her head in an instant, and she before the glass, in vain trying to
reproduce with it the well-remembered effect. She pished and pshawed,
frowned and shrugged, pulled the pretty _chiffon_ this way and that on
her forehead; and while so doing, coming nearer and nearer to the
terrible looking-glass, suddenly stopped, looked at herself for a moment
in silence, and then, covering her aged and faded face with her hands,
exclaimed, "Ah, c'est bien le bonnet! mais ce n'est plus la figure!"

Our next home, after Newman Street, was at a place called Westbourne
Green, now absorbed into endless avenues of "palatial" residences, which
scoff with regular-featured, lofty scorn at the rural simplicity implied
by such a name. The site of our dwelling was not far from the Paddington
Canal, and was then so far out of town that our nearest neighbors,
people of the name of Cockrell, were the owners of a charming residence,
in the middle of park-like grounds, of which I still have a faint,
pleasurable remembrance. The young ladies, daughters of Mr. Cockrell,
really made the first distinct mark I can detect on the _tabula rasa_ of
my memory, by giving me a charming pasteboard figure of a little girl,
to whose serene and sweetly smiling countenance, and pretty person, a
whole bookful of painted pasteboard petticoats, cloaks, and bonnets
could be adapted; it was a lovely being, and stood artlessly by a stile,
an image of rustic beauty and simplicity. I still bless the Miss
Cockrells, if they are alive, but if not, their memory for it!

Of the curious effect of dressing in producing the _sentiment_ of a
countenance, no better illustration can be had than a series of caps,
curls, wreaths, ribbons, etc., painted so as to be adaptable to one
face; the totally different _character_ imparted by a helmet, or a
garland of roses, to the same set of features, is a "caution" to
irregular beauties who console themselves with the fascinating variety
of their _expression_.

At this period of my life, I have been informed, I began, after the
manner of most clever children, to be exceedingly troublesome and
unmanageable, my principal crime being a general audacious contempt for
all authority, which, coupled with a sweet-tempered, cheerful
indifference to all punishment, made it extremely difficult to know how
to obtain of me the minimum quantity of obedience indispensable in the
relations of a tailless monkey of four years and its elders. I never
cried, I never sulked, I never resented, lamented, or repented either my
ill-doings or their consequences, but accepted them alike with a
philosophical buoyancy of spirit which was the despair of my poor
bewildered trainers.

Being hideously decorated once with a fool's cap of vast dimensions, and
advised to hide, not my "diminished head," but my horrible disgrace,
from all beholders, I took the earliest opportunity of dancing down the
carriage-drive to meet the postman, a great friend of mine, and attract
his observation and admiration to my "helmet," which I called aloud upon
all wayfarers also to contemplate, until removed from an elevated bank I
had selected for this public exhibition of myself and my penal costume,
which was beginning to attract a small group of passers-by.

My next malefactions were met with an infliction of bread and water,
which I joyfully accepted, observing, "Now I am like those poor dear
French prisoners that everybody pities so." Mrs. Siddons at that time
lived next door to us; she came in one day when I had committed some of
my daily offenses against manners or morals, and I was led, nothing
daunted, into her awful presence, to be admonished by her.

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

Online LibraryFrances Anne KembleRecords of a Girlhood → online text (page 1 of 68)