Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Rebecca and the "Little Butlers"

(This narrative thread begins here.)

When Fanny Kemble realized that her estranged husband never intended to let her see her daughters, she left the United States. During her absence, Rebecca continued to be a good friend. The two women began a correspondence which survives only in part (so far as I have been able to discover): some of Fanny's letters are among the Gratz papers at the American Philosophical Society, but Rebecca's have been lost. However, it is easy to discern the letters' most important purpose -- to provide Fanny with news of her children. In an undated letter to Rebecca, Fanny wrote, "A thousand thanks for the accounts of my girls. How right, how wise, how good, how kind you are to tell me everything that you can about them, from Fanny's French studies to Sarah's brisk bonnet."

Given the rancor between the parents, it is surprising that Pierce Butler would permit his daughters to visit a woman who was very much their mother's friend. Butler could not accuse Rebecca, as he did other of Fanny's friends, of helping to destroy his marriage; she didn't meet his wife until their relationship was all but over. And here was an instance where Rebecca's reputation as a "good woman" and the inspiration for Rebecca in Scott's Ivanhoe probably stood her in good stead.

Rebecca invited Fanny's daughters to her house, and also seems to have taken them on excursions. In 1847, she wrote her niece Miriam Cohen after a trip to a charity bazaar, "The little Butlers seem entirely delighted and I go again to see them enjoy themselves." Rebecca's pleasure in the companionship of children as well as her keen observations must have made her ideal for communicating the girls' behavior and interests to their mother. To her own relatives, Rebecca wrote of her concern for the development of the children without a mother's influence.

After Fanny's return to America in 1848, her husband permitted her to see her daughters. She wrote to Rebecca about her older girl: "Sarah's mode of speaking of you pleased me extremely, not because it was affectionate, but because it was respectful and enthusiastic and bespoke in her some appreciation of that moral dignity & beauty which I would have her respect and admire and love above all things."

The affection between Rebecca and the little Butlers may have grown out of their peculiar situation but it endured. In 1856, when the girls had reached womanhood, Rebecca reported: "I have just had a visit from my young friends the Butlers -- Sarah came to tell me of her engagement to Mr. Sandford of New York...." (The engagement was not as enduring as their friendship. In 1859 Sarah married Dr. Owen Jones Wister of Philadelphia; her son was the novelist Owen Wister.)

Even at the beginning of the Civil War, in which Pierce Butler was a vocal southern sympathizer, Rebecca continued her concern. The younger daughter, Fanny Butler, who took her
father's side, had gone with him to Georgia in February of 1861. In March Rebecca was already asking her niece in Savannah for any news of the young woman. (She and her father were fine. They returned North for the war, during which Pierce Butler was in and out of trouble for his views, and went back to Georgia after to try to renew the prosperity of the family holdings.)

(As mentioned above, Fanny's letters are in the Gratz Family Collection, Manuscript Collection No. 72, at the American Philosophical Society. Rebecca's are in the Miriam Gratz Moses Cohen Collection, No. 02639, the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I also used Malcolm Bell, Jr.'s Major Butler's Legacy: Five Generations of a Slaveholding Family, for more information about the Butler's.)

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