Fanny was the daughter of actor Charles Kemble and the niece of Sarah Siddons and John Philip Kemble. Her younger sister became an opera singer. Fanny, however, was a gifted thespian who first appeared on stage in October 1829, at Covent Garden. She quickly became a favorite and played all the major women’s roles.
In 1832 she accompanied her father on a theatrical tour of the U.S., where she met Pierce Butler, the grandson of a founding father and heir to a large fortune built on cotton, tobacco, and rice. The two were married in 1834 and Fanny retired from the stage. They had two daughters, Sarah and Frances. After Pierce inherited his grandfather’s plantations in Georgia, Fanny traveled south with him to see the properties. She was appalled at the conditions the slaves were forced to live in and worked to better their lives. Her objection to slavery became a bone of contention in their marriage and the two eventually separated and divorced in 1849. Pierce kept custody of their two daughters until they turned 21, and he managed to squander a $700,000 fortune, so Fanny may have made a good escape there. She was reunited with her children when they came of age.
Fanny returned to the stage in 1847 in order to support herself, and she later followed in her father’s footsteps and became a Shakespearian reader. Meanwhile, the journal she kept during her months on the Georgia plantation started to circulate amongst abolitionists and was published both in England and in the United States after the Civil War broke out. She was an outspoken opponent of slavery and donated money from her readings to charities. Nonetheless, she was not immune to the racist attitudes of her day, and there are some who say her journals may have been enhanced for dramatic effect.
Fanny returned to England in 1877, where she became a popular figure in London Society. She befriended the novelist Henry James, who reportedly based his novel, Washington Square, on a story she told him concerning one of her relatives. Fanny was a writer herself, having produced two plays, a volume of poems, an Italian travel book, and her memoirs, along with her plantation journal. In her later life, she published Notes on Some of Shakespeare’s plays and translations of plays by Alexandre Dumas, père and Friedrich Schiller. Fanny died in 1893 with her granddaughter Alice at her side.