FANNY KEMBLE: Leading Lady of the Nineteenth-Century Stage, by J.C. Furnas, is a dynamic, gifted women of her century. But the subtitle of the book is inaccurate. She would have been the last person to rate herself above Rachel or Sarah Bernhardt, Ellen Terry or Duse. Although born into one of the great theater dynasties--daughter of Charles Kemble, niece of Mrs. Siddons--she hated acting.

"How I do loathe the stage," she wrote when she made her debut as Juliet. "Acting has always appeared to me to be the very lowest of the arts . . . it originates nothing . . . a fine piece of acting is at best, in my opinion, a translation." Furnas fully explores the puzzling question of how she reconciled her philosophy with her long career as a star from the age of 19 to a popular reader of Shakespeare after her retirement from the stage. However, her profession as an actress was only one aspect of her multi-faceted personality.

"The first woman in London," Henry James regarded her. "No convenient and handy formula for Mrs. Kemble's genius (existed)," he wrote. "One had to take her career, the juxtapostion of her interests, exactly as one took her disposition, for a remarkably fine cluster of inconsistencies." Trying to summarize her life--born in 1809, she died in 1893--one is confronted with a range of activities, places, and famous people; a panorama, in fact, of a large part of the Victorian era both in England and in the United States. Although at the queen's request and against her own inclination she was presented at court, she was far more nonconformist than typical of the age.

Without her born endowment of great physical energy, a remarkable intellect, and a gift for writing, she would have lacked the strength and courage to adhere to her principles through the prolonged turmoil of her marriage, subsequent divorce, and the furor that greeted the publication of her two most revealing books. Physical exercise was essential to her well-being. A passionate horsewoman, she regarded a day as lost in which she could not ride 20 or 30 miles, an activity to be followed by a rehearsal, a performance, and a party from which she "came home at one o'clock having danced myself fairly off my legs."

Her physical prowess was equaled both by her gifts as an actress and her talent as a writer. At 19 she wrote her first play, at 80 her first novel, and throughout her life, poetry. However it is the journals she kept, which Henry James said "form one of the most animated autobiographies in the language," that bring her most sharply alive today. Apart from the vivid details of her day-to-day life, they reveal the predictable reasons for her disastrous marriage, which only hindsight enabled her to admit.

Although she was courted by many young men, Pierce Butler, a wealthy Philadelphia aristocrat, pursued her successfully from one city to another. No couple could have been more ill-matched. "She held that marriage should be a partnership in which both partners agree . . . and that at no time has one partner the right to control the other." Thirteen years after their marriage this statement was part of the grounds for a divorce which gave her husband custody of their two daughters. But a test of their conflicting views came only two years after their marriage when, against her husband's wishes, Fanny published her personal journal, revealing her frank and often highly critical opinions of American customs and of the upper crust of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia society in the 1830s.

The journal has none of the passion or the documentary value of her Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation. Unaware when she married that her husband's family fortune was dependent on slave labor, she was appalled at the conditions she discovered on her only visit to his rice plantations, five years after their marriage. The journal, an account of the miseries of slavery which she was unable to mitigate, hard as she tried, is a cri de coeur filled with shocking details that no "lady" of the period would have mentioned. "She wrote," Henry James said, "exactly as she talked, observing, asserting, complaining, confiding, contradicting, crying out and bounding off, always effectually communicating." Even today the journal is compelling reading, with none of the sentimentality of Uncle Tom's Cabin. But not until 1863 when she was again living in England and there was danger of the government's recognizing the Confederacy did she publish her book. In the United States it gave her a new kind of status. Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, leaders of the Woman Suffrage Association, enlisted her cooperation. But her point of view differed from theirs.

"I am quite willing that women should be allowed to do whatever they can . . . be politicians . . . doctors, divines, soldiers if they can, and vote by all means. . . . (What I) desire for them is a better, more thorough education. . . . My own individual, super-abundant sense of independence and the unfortunate circumstances which have given full scope to its exercise prevent me from sympathizing as I ought."

Readers of this review must have guessed that I fell in love with Fanny Kemble, most of the details of whose life I have been forced to omit for lack of space. Not so the author of this fascinating, un-Stracheyan biography. Furnas' love for his heroine knows no bounds. Not only does he give a three-dimensional picture of every aspect of her life, but so fully does he place himself in the ever- changing historical background that the reader, too, lives in the vivid past. Indeed, the exhaustiveness of Furnas' scholarship may occasionally lead him to be over-generous in explicating the social forces behind Fanny's life. And some readers, like me, may be mildly irritated by the author's indulgence in whimsical phraseology: "Her tongue could flick off skin at fifty yards"; "even as nixie she was discriminating"; "things were so fuzzy and fumbly that even the principals could not keep intelligent count." But this minor idiosyncrasy barely detracts from the splendid sweep of this enriching biography.