Sarah Barr

Writer, poet and teacher

Freedom to Fish

Freedom to Fish

I’ve always rebelled against the norms of polite society. I come from an acting family, that’s why. We are outsiders, observers.

But to begin with, I considered I had little talent for acting, or perhaps I had no desire to act, and no patience for learning that particular craft.

I was well-educated and knew the importance of displaying my accomplishments in order to gain myself the right sort of husband.

What is the right sort of husband?

Mother said, hold yourself back, physically and emotionally, create some mystery.

It’s like fishing. Create a glitter on the surface, flash of feathers, promise of a succulent morsel, and he’ll be hooked.

I used to love those very early mornings in the country, slipping from my attic bed, tiptoeing down the stairs, shuffling out of the kitchen door wearing Pa’s boots and wrapped in an old blanket against the May mist. Down to the lake with my cousins, to fish and listen to the thrushes and blackbirds. My name, Frances, means ‘free’. I’m Fanny to most people. Fanny Kemble.

They told me I needed a husband, then my life proper could begin.

By that time, my family was precariously placed, on the edge of bankruptcy, hoping that their daughter could turn herself from ragtag wild creature into society lady. I was introduced to my future husband, as I thought, at a dance. He had the kindest brown eyes and such a stumbling way of dancing that I felt immediately sorry for the poor dear. I confided in him that I preferred fishing by the lake and riding bareback across the sands to twirling around at society balls. I didn’t admit that I only went to society occasions to find a husband.

My love of freedom didn’t shock him. He was a naturalist but said he would never trap beetles and butterflies and pin them in cabinets, however much that was in fashion.

These are the sorts of questions a young lady can use to discover more about her gentleman partner. She may ask, What country pursuits do you prefer? Have you travelled? What do you read? That last question I longed to ask first, being an avid reader myself. But men who are considered good husband material rarely read for pleasure, and they are unlikely to want a wife who is bookish.

She may not ask: What is your income? Where does it come from? She should know that before she dances with him, and if not, that’s for others to discover, and as quickly as possible.

The man with brown eyes whom I met when I was seventeen did not have the right substance, that’s what they said. He was a younger son, destined for the Church and a modest living with nothing much to spare.

So I had shown myself to be a poor judge of husbands, and he was not the right one for me.

‘Dry your tears, you are worth more than that, Fanny,’ my mother said. As if a person was a shipload of coffee or a warehouse of cotton bales, to be bought and sold.

As a young girl I wanted to become accepted, to put down roots, discover who I really was. You can’t do that when you are always acting a part.

Besides which, I wanted to be properly accepted in good society, the place that as actors we were always hovering on the edge of, no matter how well liked or how praised for our talents.

I met several more young men, nice enough, but there wasn’t the spark. Maybe they disapproved of my background. This seems such an old-fashioned attitude now, I realise, but in those days, some people even considered it risque to put on a private play at home, never mind act on the public stage.

Time passed. I decided that I was destined to remain unwed, that the life that I had imagined for myself wasn’t going to happen. I doubted that I would fulfil my dreams. But I was determined that I wasn’t going to become one of those pitiable creatures that are called ‘spinster’ or ‘bluestocking’.

So I did go on the stage, as much to help my family as to provide myself with an occupation. For me it was always going to be second best. But sometimes what we fall into, can turn out to be our real talent.

But still money was a problem. Eventually, in 1832, we decided as a family to try our fortunes in America. The New World. A World, we hoped, without all the stifling customs and traditions of the Old.

It was a long and trying sea-voyage, but worth it for all the opportunities that came our way.

It was there that I again performed in the role of Juliet, a character as far from my own as you could imagine, but one I knew very well by then. Sometimes it’s easier to play a part than be yourself. I threw myself into the emotions, the words, and played the doomed heroine to the very best of my abilities.

‘Goodnight, goodnight! parting is such sweet sorrow.’ It was as if these words uttered passionately every night were for him alone. No, not for Romeo, but for a certain gentleman in the audience who developed an adoration for me. I started to understand his feelings when he threw roses onto the stage. Every night we performed in New York, white, perfumed roses. Expensive, hot-house roses.

He waited for me, at the back of the theatre. Mother warned me to be careful, to hold myself back, because at first we knew nothing about him or his family.

But I was flattered, and I found his American way of talking rather seductive. It was the way he said, ‘Don’t worry about being an actress, Frances. I love a woman with imagination and spirit.’

He poured me a glass of champagne at the dressing-room door. I wrapped myself in my green velvet cape, deciding to leave getting changed until I got back to my rooms. There was a line I knew I mustn’t cross, or there’d be no going back.

‘I’m bringing my horse and carriage to your lodgings on Saturday morning. Would you care to drive out?’

He was charming, attentive, and made it clear that he loved me.

‘I believe we are destined for each other,’ he said, stroking my hands as we trotted in his smart carriage round Central Park. ‘God has given us a chance of happiness. Who are we to go against the Almighty?’

‘How do you know so much about what God wants?’ I asked, snatching my hands away and shaking my head so that my hair tumbled out of its pins and onto my shoulders. I didn’t mind too much since my hair, thick, shining and chestnut brown, has always been one of my better attributes.

I wondered why this man had chosen me rather than a woman from his own country. But I didn’t dwell on this question for long.

I was captivated by his certainties, his confidence. Where did it spring from? I’d grown up with the notion that God lets us muddle through our lives, making our own decisions and mistakes.

‘The first time I saw you on stage, a voice spoke straight to my heart, saying, this is your bride, Pierce.’ He smiled – beautiful white teeth, a reddish-gold moustache and blue eyes. He was a tall, well-built man.

I won’t say I was swept off my feet because it really wasn’t like that. I used my sense as well as my sensibilities – the best possible combination.

‘You won’t be confined in one little place,’ he assured me. ‘My family has land all over America. Plantations, remote islands, forests and lakes full of trout. I’ll find you a horse and you can ride round all of this with me.’ He said this so enthusiastically, stretching his arms out wide across the coach, then lightly curving them around my waist.

I was extremely excited. America is a vast country, much of it still unexplored. By comparison, England seemed narrow, stuffy. I imagined myself out there with him, in the open air, not another dwelling in sight. Away from all the usual constraints and customs.

‘Your family can stay with us whenever they wish.’

How could I resist him? He promised me the world and more.

Pa and Ma were wearing themselves out. Now they needn’t worry about money ever again. I accepted his offer of marriage.

Pierce was due to inherit these great estates from his grandfather, a frail old man who already needed help with his affairs.

Shortly before our wedding Pierce told me he had to travel away. ‘There’s trouble brewing on one of the plantations, in Georgia, and that’s bad for everybody.’

‘Will you be back in time for our marriage?’ I asked, fearful that my dream would somehow be snatched from me.

‘Of course I’ll return in time, I wouldn’t let you down, darling, not for anything. I’ve got my thoughts fixed on our honeymoon. ’ He kissed my fingertips. We were sitting in the window overlooking the neat gardens and the wooden fence that ran along the front of the property my family and I were staying in. ‘But we have a duty towards the slaves.’

‘Slaves?’ That was the first time he’d used that word.

‘Cotton-pickers, workers, then, if slaves offends you, darling,’ he said. ‘What’s in a name?’

‘I hope your grandfather is good to them.’

‘He treats them like his own family,’ Pierce replied. ‘And so shall I, when the time comes. By family, I mean like servants, who are trusted and provided for.’ He must have noticed my worried expression because he continued more sharply, ‘You’ve obviously no idea of the size of our land, Frances. We’ve hundreds of miles. We need every sort of cheap labour to work it.’

‘But slaves, Pierce, you know, back home …’

‘This is a very different world, a tough, out-door, man’s world. That slave ran away and now we’ve a potential riot on our hands.’

‘Because he ran away? Doesn’t that happen all the time?’ I was sure I would be desperate to escape.

‘No, it doesn’t. And it mustn’t. A run-away shows ingratitude for everything my family provides. Let one get away with it, then there’ll be another, then hundreds will break their bonds. We would be left with no labour. And a violent lawless state. We must all keep to our appointed, God-given place in society.’

‘I think it may soon be against the law here as it is in England.’ I could feel my heart pounding against my ribs, more than if I was newly on stage. ‘Then what will you do?’

At the back of my mind grew the thought that I wasn’t keeping to my place in society – I was moving from the precarious world of theatre to the secure life of a married woman with a wealthy husband. Was that also wrong?

‘Different countries, different customs. How do you think I would give you the life you want, the spacious house, with staff, vacations, a life of leisure, without these niggers?’

‘Have they found him yet, this run-away … slave?’ I asked, the words sticking in my throat. But I still wanted to try to understand.

‘Not yet, but we know where he’s gone,’ he replied and that was the end of the subject until he returned to me two weeks before our wedding. We took a stroll together through the public gardens.

I was determined to be sunny-natured. I thought that when we were married I’d do what I could to help the black people. I would set up a little school and teach their children reading, writing and numbers. Surely that would give them comfort?

‘We found the run-away hiding in a boat on the other side of the island,’ Pierce said.

‘He was perhaps pleased to be brought back home?’

‘Not a bit of it. He ran off again but our men circled him, and tracked him down in the forest. He was full of excuses about needing to fish the creek to provide food for his mother and her baby. It was doubtless all lies. He’s a bad fellow, but he’s learned his lesson.’

‘I imagine he was very frightened to be chased like that.’ Like a fox or deer, I thought, shuddering.

‘He’s had his punishment – he’s lost his leg but he should be grateful we didn’t hang him.’

‘Lost his leg?’

‘They held him down and hacked it off. They had to do that, as a warning to the others. Fact is he may have done us a favour as the whole plantation has gone quiet since then. Every nigger minding his own business.’

‘Pierce, I can’t have you saying that word…’ my voice was hoarse and I had to take deep breaths to continue, ‘talking about these people and doing things like that. I can’t and won’t stand it. As your wife, I …’

‘Shush, Fanny, you don’t know. Please, sit here.’ He put his hand on my shoulder and steered me to a painted iron bench positioned by a bed of crimson roses. ‘This is no subject for the fairer sex. These things may seem terrible to you but this is the world men have to struggle to survive in. And it’s not as bad as you imagine. They, the slaves, don’t feel things like we do.’

‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you poison us, do we not die?’

‘Fine words, Fanny, but poetry won’t provide for a family. I thought you would be pleased with me. I’m rescuing you from a profession which, if you’d stayed in much longer, would prevent any chance of a respectable marriage.’

I realised I was at a crossroads – I could walk away from my husband-to-be and in doing so also lose the prosperity my family needed, or I could follow in his ways of understanding and behaving in the world. I could become the wife of a slave-owner. But he wasn’t yet a slave-owner, and perhaps something would intervene to stop it.

There was a third route. I could marry Pierce and use all my powers of reason, persuasion and feminine wiles to win him round to the better way. Once we had children together, once he knew me for the honest, faithful woman I was, he could not be so hard-hearted as to resist my entreaties to free the slaves. That is what I thought then, and so I said, ‘ I believe you’re a good man, Pierce, who will do what is right.’

But as soon as I said this, I felt doubts creep into my mind. I realised also that whatever happened, I would always be something of a rebel, an outsider.

And as it turned out, these qualities would become even more important to me in the future, in my struggle to free all slaves.

©
Sarah Barr
2009

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2 thoughts on “Freedom to Fish

  1. This is a lovely story, Sarah. You’ve got the style exactly right. Did the freedom of slaves feature in the life of the woman you saw in the portrait?

  2. Yes, the picture I saw at Chawton House was of Fanny Kemble, the actress who went to America and later in life campaigned against slavery. Thanks for your comment, Beryl, and glad you like the story!

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