Reviewed by Donna Meredith
“I was a slave,” a renowned white actress confesses in Diane Michael Cantor’s captivating historical novel, The Poisoned Table (Mercer University Press, 2015).
Private lives are far from what others imagine them to be in this story based on the life of nineteenth-century British actress and writer Fanny Kemble. Events take place both in England and the east coast of the United States prior to the Civil War.
Fanny explains that the house she lived in was not her own, nor was anything in it hers. During her marriage, everything—even herself and her children—belonged to her husband. Her perspective can’t help but remind readers to cherish the many advancements in women’s rights since the nineteenth century.
Her tale is interwoven with that of the fictional rival actress Isabel Graves, whose jealousy and false assumptions about Fanny’s life add a compelling layer of intrigue to the plot. As the point of view shifts between the two women, readers are left wondering if Isabel will follow through with her pledge to exact revenge for losing a starring role to Fanny. Isabel believes Fanny to be the most fortunate of women—undeservedly so, because Isabel sees herself as more talented and beautiful.
After losing the role of Juliet to Fanny, Isabel makes one bad decision after another. You would feel a greater measure of sympathy—because she is wronged—if only she would accept her fair share of blame for her misfortunes. But when she escapes what could have been a disastrous blow to her reputation, she continues to make terrible choices. Indeed, fate presents one opportunity after another for redemption. One of the pleasures of reading this novel is waiting to see if Isabel will finally develop the strength of character to find true love and attain happiness.
Fanny, on the other hand, has a spotless reputation. Her biggest fault is wanting to speak her mind, a quality unappreciated in women during that era. The eldest daughter in a theatrical family, Fanny becomes a favorite performer on both the British and American stage, particularly known for portrayals of Juliet and Portia. After five years of stardom, Fanny gives up the stage to marry one of the wealthiest bachelors in America, Pierce Butler. His charm and devotion overcome her initial reluctance to marry. Pierce’s family and friends oppose the marriage, viewing an actress as beneath his social station.
Sadly, not long after their nuptials, Pierce becomes cold and disagreeable. He expects Fanny to refrain from expressing her opinions and from questioning his frequent absences in the evenings. He insists on the right to censor her first journal before its publication and to dictate what letters she may write or receive. Despite deteriorating relations, the couple is blessed with two daughters.
Abolitionist Elizabeth Sedgwick, Fanny’s best friend in the States, encourages her to record her impressions of the Sea Island plantations Pierce owns. Shocked by the primitive living conditions on the plantations, Fanny keeps a journal, bearing witness to the privations, beatings, and sexual misuse of female slaves by the overseer. Resisting Elizabeth’s pleas, Fanny refuses to betray Pierce by publishing this journal during their marriage. The real Fanny Kemble kept such a journal and the author used its contents to develop portions of the novel.
Eventually the Butlers divorce for many reasons, chiefly the strain caused by their differing views of slavery and Fanny’s bitterness over Pierce’s repeated and often public infidelities. Because divorce was rare in those times of patriarchal society, Pierce won custody of their daughters and refused Fanny reasonable access to them. Fanny’s grief over the enforced separation from her offspring will touch the hearts of every mother.
Isabel and her rival have far more in common than Isabel realizes. Besides a shared love of Shakespearean plays, they both despise slavery and are ill-used by the men in their lives. The author’s genius shines in the clever ways she weaves the journeys of the two women together.
Cantor creates several stylistic twists that add interest and an authentic feel to the novel. She includes the text of a brief anti-slavery play called “The Poisoned Table.” In it, a cook plots to murder her plantation owners. Also the texts of news articles, both actual and imagined, are interspersed throughout.
The Poisoned Table stands out as a compelling historical novel, thoroughly researched and skillfully crafted. That said, it was a tad irritating that editors didn’t catch—twice—the substitution of differentially when deferentially was clearly intended. Similarly, a character denies voracity instead of veracity. With the propensity of word processing software to add to human errors, editors must be extra-vigilant these days. It’s a shame to have any slip detract from a tale as beautifully written as this one.
A final note: the cover is simply exquisite, evoking the era and tempting readers to sit down beside their own tables and consume the pages of this delicious read.
Diane Michael Cantor was born and grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. At Sarah Lawrence College, she studied with writer Grace Paley and poet Jane Cooper. Her plays have been performed in Georgia, and for several years she wrote a weekly serial for the Savannah Morning-News.
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