I got interested in Fanny Kemble after reading The Last Journey of William Huskisson last summer. In that rather clunky historical book, her uncluttered prose was a breath of fresh air. Amazon revealed that this biography had recently been written about her, and I spotted it and bought it in Vienna airport this morning.
I've given up. I was perturbed to realise that I had got half-way through the book and she was still only 20 years old; only when I looked at the author's website just now did I realise that this is in fact just the first of two volumes. There is almost no hint anywhere on the dustjacket that the book takes us only through the first thirty years of her life (her theatrical career and the early years of her disastrous marriage), leaving the other fifty yet to come. I feel cheated and angry.
I wouldn't mind if it was a good book; but it isn't. It is a simple summary of Fanny Kemble's own memoirs, with a vague attempt to throw in some historical context here and there, and the author's own rambling speculations as to the motives of Kemble and her relatives. The editing is uneven; the text repetitive; and the footnotes absolutely absurd on occasion - example:
In the summer, when the Covent Garden season was finished, it was Charles Kemble's habit to travel to Paris to scout the French theatres for suitable plays to transfer to his stage.*Truly horrible. A competent editor (indeed, a competent sixteen-year-old student) would have rewritten it pretty easily as a single sentence with no footnote necessary. There are many more like that.
* The first decades of the nineteenth century suffered from a total lack of decent British playwrights. So English managers would hop over the Channel to Paris to seek out the best French material to translate and adapt for the London stage.
On the few occasions that Jenkins (who it turns out is the daughter of the former Bishop of Durham) allows us to hear Kemble's voice, the vastly better quality of her subject's writing style (and her welcome self-deprecation and humour, a startling contrast to Jenkins' treatment of her) really shines through:
When I went to bed last night I sat by my open window, looking at the moon and thinking of my social duties, and then scribbled endless doggerel in a highly Byronic mood to deliver my mind upon the subject, after which, feeling amazingly better, I went to bed and slept profoundly, satisfied that I had given "society" a death-blow.It reads like the kind of person whose livejournal entries I would find entertaining.
I think to get to know Fanny Kemble properly I'll have to actually just buy her own books (or download them from Project Gutenberg), and cut out the middle-woman. Or else look out for a shorter, better, biography by someone else.