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Rebecca Jenkins
Interview Date: Fri 6 May 2011
Published in 2006, Rebecca Jenkins’ engaging biography about the fascinating character of Fanny Kemble has been extremely successful with both readers and critics, written in a style that papers have described as ‘with poise and a dose of wit.’ Fanny Kemble: A Reluctant Celebrity explores the early life of a young girl forced into the spotlight in the dramatic era of Romanticism, highlighting just how far back the craze and term of ‘celebrity’ really goes, before the word was actually coined. The hint of drama and turmoil in her own personal adds further interest to this character, and only served to bolster her status as a celebrity in Georgian England. Amy Ryan interviewed Jenkins on this truly compelling biography, and what actually influenced her to write it.

Your Questions Answered:

Your works clearly display an interest in Georgian England. What led you to have this interest?
Question By: Amy Ryan
I fell in love with the Scarlet Pimpernel when I was 11 years old. He was a daring English aristocrat who rescued romantic French nobles from the guillotine during the French Revolution. The trouble is, Baroness D’Orczy, the author, only wrote a few tales so I started making up my own and researching around the period grew into a hobby.
It is clear that vast amounts of research have went in to writing Fanny Kemble. How long were you researching for?
Question By: Amy Ryan
Five years!
Living in a time that is largely dominated by celebrities, little of us realise how far this can actually be traced back and Fanny Kemble is evidence of this. Was it this that prompted you to write the biography, or was it for reasons other than that?
Question By: Amy Ryan
I became intrigued by the power of celebrity culture and the way people become icons to masses of strangers who never even meet them, so that was part of the reason for my interest in Fanny Kemble. But I have also always been interested in the relationship between America and the UK. Fanny Kemble spent her life crossing the Atlantic and living in the US, Great Britain and Europe. She was an acute and prolific commentator who was born in 1809 and died only a few years short of the century. Her hundreds of pages of recollections and letters, and all the amazing people she knew in her time, make her a vivid witness to the history of the 19th century and the decline of the British Empire and its replacement by America as leader of the Western World.
Many readers have described your writing style in Fanny Kemble as dryly humorous. Did you intend for it to be written this way and if so, why?
Question By: Amy Ryan
I suppose your writing style is a reflection of yourself. I don’t like laughing at people, but I find a lot of humour in human beings and the way they behave.
Fanny Kemble is a strong, complicated and fascinating character. What are your views and feelings towards her both in writing and in the aftermath of your work?
Question By: Amy Ryan
I was partly fascinated by Fanny Kemble as an example of someone who tried to live life as a Romantic, in the true sense. If you read her letters, I don’t think you can help but be attracted to her. I think she would have been a nightmare to live with, but the kind of person who was greatly entertaining to know. And I admire her courage. She was an amazingly courageous woman.
Have your views altered in any way?
Question By: Amy Ryan
I don’t think they have – not altered; deepened, perhaps.
Various readers have stated that your biography of Fanny Kemble focuses more so on the first phase of her life, and hope that in time you will write about part two. Is this possible, or have you only intended to focus on ‘part one’?
Question By: Amy Ryan
It was always my intention to write two books – the first concentrating on the formation of Fanny Kemble’s personality as a young star, then married woman and mother, against the story of the first half of the 19th century. I always had the second book sketched out - its working title is Mrs Kemble and her daughters. The second book was to be about the mature woman: how Mrs Kemble survived as a divorced, professional woman in the Victorian era and the way the American Civil War divided her two daughters (Fanny Kemble and her eldest daughter, Sarah, were committed Unionists and anti-slavery, while her younger daughter sided with her father as a defender of the Old South). I also wanted to write about the maturing of the Anglo-American relationship as the century progressed reflected in Mrs Kemble’s somewhat nostalgic relationship with Henry James (they used to spend summers in Switzerland together). I still hope one day to be in a position to write the rest of the story but
biography is very expensive; it is so heavy on research. I have to earn rather more money before I can to afford to write such a book.
Is writing historically and biographically something you would encourage in other potential writers?
Question By: Amy Ryan
Again, it is a very expensive form of writing. It is best embarked on with a patron who is prepared to keep you while you do it. It is a fascinating occupation, though.
Which other historical author do you enjoy reading, and who you would recommend to others?
Question By: Amy Ryan
One of my favourites is the Regency essayist and journalist William Hazlitt. He had very beautifully crafted style and he is witty too. His theatre reviews are a good place to start. If you like the end of the 18th century or the 1800s he can bring you right into the theatre, as if you too could watch a performance of Mrs Siddons or Charles Matthews.
Did you have any set plans to become a writer, or was it more spontaneous than that?
Question By: Amy Ryan
I always liked making up stories. It took me a long time to force myself to put words down on paper. I am still a terrible procrastinator.
Do you have any writing advice for young writers in the stages of producing their own material?
Question By: Amy Ryan
Find a story you want to tell and get down to it. It is diversion to think about “being a writer”. Writing is about communicating your thoughts, your inner world, to others. If you are passionate about the story you will find a way to tell it – and as you learn to pin it down in words, you become a writer. So give it a try!

For more about Rebecca Jenkins and her work