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Synopsis

Fanny Kemble was the superstar of her day, a celebrated actress, poet and musician from one of the best-known families in England. She hobnobbed with kings and queens and was afforded all the privilege of a 19th century lady. Yet the very hands that touch those of royalty, would soon be scrubbing the filthy living quarters of slaves.

The remarkable transformation of Fanny Kemble (JANE SEYMOUR) begins during her theatrical tour of America in the 1840s. Disdainful of the woeful actors and boorish audiences, she seeks solace in the company of her father, Charles (GERARD PARKES), and her best friend, Elizabeth Sedgwick (JANET-LAINE GREEN), a prominent writer and Philadelphia socialite. At a Sedgwick soiree, Kemble encounters Pierce Butler (KEITH CARRADINE), an ardent admirer and wealthy lawyer. Their ensuing romance results in her retirement from the stage, marriage and relocation to his home outside Philadelphia.

The first skirmish in what becomes the couple's fierce battle of wills is sparked by the publication of Fanny's journal, which creates controversy and gossip in their social and business circles. Seeking to strengthen the damaged relationship, the couple has two children, providing them a few years of peace and tranquillity before the storm.

Clouds begin to form when Fanny suggests a move to Pierce's Georgia plantation. It is a decision that will devastate their marriage -- and help affect the course of history.

Arriving on her husband's plantation, Fanny is shocked by her first real look at slavery. She becomes determined to improve the slaves' living conditions and get to know them as individuals. However, her compassion is distrusted by some, including Joe (ADEWALE AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE), an outspoken slave wary of potential repercussions such as the whipping inflicted on Harriet (ARLENE DUNCAN), whom Fanny tried to help.

While seeking medical attention for Harriet, Fanny meets and forms a bond with Dr. Huston (JAMES KEACH), a sympathetic man who is aware that she is treading on dangerous ground. Her outrage at the burning of an escaped slave prompts his warning, "If you don't learn to be a little more dispassionate, you will end up in the flames yourself."

But the fire of indignation is already raging in Fanny. She teaches the children to read and, with Huston's help, arranges for Joe and several others to escape through the Underground Railroad. Pierce is so incensed that he takes vengeance by whipping a token slave named Habersham (RICHARD YEARWOOD), and even lashes Fanny for intervening. Stunned by his uncontrolled reaction to her defiance, Pierce loses heart. He realizes that he is a man of his era married to a woman out of hers.

The family returns to Philadelphia, where Fanny relies on polished acting skills to convince Pierce of her renewed love. Meanwhile, she arranges for the Butler farmhouse to be used as a station for the Underground Railroad.

Pierce, however, discovers Fanny's ruse, and the hurtful anger and crushing disappointment of a man who has lost what is most precious in his life, erupts in violent desperation. But Fanny is not intimidated or afraid of anyone. She publishes excerpts of her journal against Pierce's wishes, starting a blood feud that prevents her from being with her children for a substantial amount of time.

Her memoir, A Journal of a Residence On a Georgia Plantation, which details the horrors of slavery, is published in its entirety in 1863 during the Civil War. It becomes a best-seller in England and the U.S., and helps persuade the British government to stop their financial aid to the Confederacy -- effectively shortening the Civil War and ensuring the South's defeat. Fanny has sacrificed all that she holds dear to defend her belief that human beings must be accorded respect and deserve to be free, but she has also changed history.