Saturday, September 10, 2011

Civil War Quilt Block Eleven—London Square

Brackman uses this block, London Square, to talk about Great Britain's role in the American Civil War. And to do this she writes of Fanny Kemble, an English actress of the time who married an American slaveowner and moved to Georgia with him to his rice plantation. Kemble had been opposed to slavery already going into her marriage; but seeing it with her own eyes made her even more bitterly opposed to it. She wrote a journal in the form of letters to a friend in which she talks about her experience on the plantation, as well as her git of a husband.

Brackman links to a Google Books version of Kemble's diary, which I sat down and devoured a good deal of one night last week. When Brackman says that Kemble does not pull any punches she is not kidding. She had a Clue, that Fanny Kemble.

It was very interesting for me to see, couched in nineteenth century prose, some very modern ideas, the sort of things I have heard talked about in the activist and feminist communities. She is acquainted, for example, with white privilege, though of course she does not call it such, as the term hadn't been invented then; she also quite cannily understands that the 'inferior' demeanor of the black slaves wasn't anything to do with natural ability (or lack thereof), like pretty much everyone of the time argued, as she'd seen the same sort of hopelessness and lack of education among poor, oppressed, white groups like the Irish of the time. She is a really good argument against excusing evil in history as just the times and what the people thought then. Because here was a woman who saw through all that, and recognized the pro-slavery arguments of the time as rank bullshit.

I really like her, Fannie Kemble. I haven't finished her account yet, and I have to say I don't really like reading things on the computer, not only because of the eye strain, but because I found it disorienting to not know how far from the end I was! Especially given that it's a journal from a real person's life, and so doesn't have a plot, or beginning middle and end. I read something like 250 pages and don't know if it goes to 800 or 251. Weird. I should get back to it. It was strange, also, reading it (though she is careful not to say bad things about her husband, at least as far as I've read), knowing that she would in fact divorce the guy later, as Brackman says in her post.

I thought it interesting also that at one point Kemble mentions that before she got married, when she had her career as an actress, she had no problem making money. The implication being that she knew she had a safety net to fall back on, and was not ultimately dependent on her husband's wealth. Not many women of the time could have said that (some can't even say that now given the way things are still set up for women), and I think it gives her a clarity and independence of thought. Though she also quite clearly understands how powerless she is in a lot of ways to improve the lot of the slaves on her plantation. She does try, but is thwarted by her husband, who of course had the ultimate say-so.

She does not shy away from telling of the living conditions of the slaves, especially the women slaves, who were required to go back to hard manual labor only three weeks after giving birth; she also does not hide that many of the children born to the slave-women were the product of rape by white men.

Though she felt pretty powerless at the time, and could only act as Witness, she did ultimately have a great deal of influence. For when her journal was published in England (she returned there after the divorce) it did a lot to turn sentiments in England against slavery, such that Great Britain stayed neutral for the Civil War.

So after all that, here's my version of London Square:

No comments:

Post a Comment