When Juliette Gordon Low married an Englishman, she opened the door for her younger sister to do the same.*
Mabel Gordon spent a fair bit of time in Great Britain with her sister Daisy and her new brother-in-law Willy Low. The three of them attended parties, picnics, balls, and other fun outings stacked with eligible bachelors who cast interested eyes on the young American. Mabel chose Rowland Leigh (1858-1943). Rowley, as he was called, was one of the seven children of Lady Caroline Amelia Grosvenor Leigh and her husband William Henry Leigh, the 2nd Baron of Stoneleigh.
|William Henry Leigh, 2nd Baron of Stoneleigh (Rowley’s father)|
Rowley and his siblings grew up at Stoneleigh Abbey, in Warwickshire, in the English Midlands, not far from the Lows’ home in Wellesbourne:
The home had been in the Leigh family since the 1570s, but because he was the fourth son, Rowley did not inherit it, nor did he and Mabel live there.
Rowley Leigh and Mabel Gordon were very much in love. After the Spanish-Amerian War ended and the Gordons had returned from their military service, the family gathered in Savannah to witness the wedding. It was held at Christ Episcopal Church and Rowley’s uncle, the Very Rev. Hon. James Wentworth Leigh came from England to marry them.
|The Very Rev. Hon. James Wentworth Leigh (Rowley’s uncle)|
Rowley’s Uncle James was almost certainly accompanied by his wife, Frances Butler Leigh. She was an American and had spent part of her young life in Georgia. She still knew many Savannahians.
Why had Rowley’s Aunt Frances spent time in Georgia? Because she was the daughter of a notorious couple–Fanny Kemble and Pierce Butler.
Fanny Kemble (1809-1893) was a famous British actress. She married American Pierce [Mease] Butler (1806-1867) in Philadelphia in 1834 after he had seen her on stage during her tour of the United States. Fanny was cultured, witty, charming, and willing to speak her mind. Pierce came from a wealthy family with relatives who had fought in the Revolutionary War and served in the U. S. Congress.
|Pierce Butler and Fanny Kemble Butler**|
Not long after their marriage, Pierce (and his brother) inherited the family’s land in Georgia: Butler Island and St. Simon’s Island, located not too far from Savannah. When the Butlers went to inspect their property, Fanny discovered first-hand how her husband’s wealth was based upon slave labor. It filled her with revulsion. She begged him to free the slaves. He would not. She wrote an anti-slavery booklet. He stopped its publication. Their marriage was doomed, despite the two daughters they were raising. There was an ugly, messy, hurtful, and lengthy divorce in 1848.
Fanny Butler took back her name and returned to the stage for many more triumphs as Fanny Kemble. She and Pierce shared custody of their daughters. Pierce gambled and drank away his fortune, and once in 1859, in an effort to stave off economic ruin, he held the largest sale of slaves in Georgia history.
Two years later, the United States divided North and South as the Civil War began. The Kemble-Butler family divided further, also. When Fanny had stayed at Butler Island in 1838, she had written down some of her impressions of slavery. She published her Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1863. It was a strong, first-person abolitionist tract. She hoped it would stir the British public and convince Parliament (which had earlier abolished slavery) to assist the Northern cause. Pierce Butler was humiliated and incensed.
Their daughter Sarah sided with Fanny and hoped for a swift Union victory with British aid. But their other daughter Frances saw only her father’s point of view. The deepened division was painful for all four of them.
Frances and Pierce spent a few months in 1861 at Butler Island, but the rest of the Civil War in Philadelphia. When it ended in 1865, Frances and Pierce returned to Georgia. The place they knew and loved was was gone–a casualty of war. They tried to keep the plantations running, and they oversaw the transition from slavery to a free workforce. Yet Frances had no belief that freedmen and women could ever become productive citizens. Her ire toward her mother was complete when her father died only two years later. To her fell the task of turning a profit. She had to oversee the sharecroppers alone. Her bitterness hardened into a racism that is clear on every page of the book she published partially as revenge against her mother. Her memoir of that time in the post-bellum South is called Ten Years on a Georgia Plantation Since the War. In it, she insists over and over that freedmen and women are utterly unfit for self-governance and independent living.
Frances Butler met James Wentworth Leigh while he was touring the South. He came to her plantation and preached to the freedmen and women there and elsewhere. Their courtship, she suggests in her memoir, was brief. A period of trying to live on both continents followed, but ultimately she “abdicated” and relocated permanently to England with her husband. By the time her nephew Rowley married Mabel Gordon, James and Frances had lived in Great Britain for two decades and the American Civil War was well behind them. James had made a success of his clerical career and served then as Dean of the magnificent Hereford Cathedral and guardian of its manifold treasures.
How frequently Mabel and Rowley saw Uncle James and Aunt Frances is not clear. Rowley had other illustrious aunts and uncles. I shall save them for another blog post.
But I must conclude with another piece of historical serendipity. Frances’s anti-slavery sister Sarah Butler married American author Owen Wister. The couple had six children. Wister was a prolific writer with over twenty books to his credit and twice as many short stories. He is best remembered for The Virginian, a novel he dedicated to his friend Theodore Roosevelt. And it was to that friend, standing in the White House one day, that Wister suggested something ought to be done to control the wild First Daughter Alice. Theodore gazed evenly at Wister and said, one father to another: “I can be president of the United States, or I can attend to Alice. I cannot possibly do both.”
* Juliette’s husband, William Mackay Low, was born in America, but was a British citizen.
** Photo from Kwesi DeGraft-Hanson, “Unearthing the Weeping Time,” Southern Spaces, 18 February 2010 (http://www.southernspaces.org/2010/unearthing-weeping-time-savannahs-ten-broeck-race-course-and-1859-slave-sale )