University of Nottingham
RE: Keats’s 11 September 1820 letter to Fanny Keats
A man reclines on a Sopha bed, with a woman seated by his side. She is holding a quill pen and paper, listening intently to every whisper the man makes as he slowly, painfully, dictates to her. The woman dips the quill in an inkpot on a table next to the bed, and begins: ‘My dear Fanny’, ending the ‘y’ with a flourish. She continues to listen and write, covering the page with her long looping handwriting as the man recounts his final goodbyes to a most beloved sister. The woman pauses as the man coughs, bringing a handkerchief to his lips. A spot of red lingers on the cloth as he brings his hand stiffly back down to rest by his side. Both ignore this and continue slowly. ‘I am as well as I can expect’, the man says, ‘…and feel very impatient to get on board as the sea air is expected to be of great benefit to me’ (Letters 2: 332). The man and woman both know this not to be true but carry on the charade anyway. For John Keats, and his fiancée Fanny Brawne, both knew that his upcoming voyage to Italy was one that he would probably never return from. The letter being written was to John’s sister, Fanny Keats. It was his last epistle to her, as well as one of his final letters.
Keats sent forty-two letters in total to his youngest sibling Fanny, the first dated 10 September 1817, when she was fourteen and he twenty-two, and the last almost exactly three years later, on 11 September 1820. In his first letter, Keats jocularly told Fanny to ‘preserve all my Letters’ so that in later times ‘when things may have strangely altered and god knows what happened, we may read over together and look with pleasure on times past’ (Letters 1: 156). Separated from her brothers and only being allowed to see them occasionally, Fanny did as Keats asked. She carefully read, re-read, and preserved her brother’s letters, thus providing us generations later with the most comprehensive set of epistles from Keats to any single correspondent.
Characteristically, Keats’ letters to Fanny contained news and gossip about their family and friends, particularly their wayward brothers Thomas and George, alongside giving brotherly advice. In later letters, Keats includes frequent references to his own health, and enquiries into Fanny’s state of well-being. This focus on health, from Keats worrying about his ‘throat [not] being well enough to warrant…walking’, to detailing his more serious complaints, was a common topic of conversation in Romantic-period correspondence (Letters 2: 121). The Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, frequently treated his correspondents to descriptions of his rectal prolapse, recounting tales of his ‘rectum which is right in Latin [but] certainly wrong with me’ (Southey: Letter 3269). His fellow poet, Thomas Campbell, generally opened his letters with descriptions of his various ailments, including rheumatism and painful venereal disease, which left him ‘pissing razor blades’ (MS. Eng. Misc. d.184, f.13, Bodleian Library). As George C. Grinnell has stated in his fascinating study of Romantic health, this was a culture with an ‘obsession with health and illness’ (5). Keats was no exception to this and was probably particularly acute to possible ailments due to his medical training. Of course, by the time this letter to his sister was written, Keats was suffering from tuberculosis, which he ultimately succumbed to only five months afterwards.
His final letter to Fanny tells much about the poor state of his health. Keats discusses leaving for Italy ‘in the hope of entirely re-establishing [his] health’, and his sorrow at not seeing his sister before he leaves. He recounts his plans of visiting Naples and then Rome, and his relief at leaving the ‘cold; wet, uncertain climate’ of England behind him. However, what I find particularly interesting is the contrast in tone between this letter and the epistles Keats was writing to other correspondents around this time. Keats is consoling and seeking to alleviate Fanny’s worries in both this 11 September letter, and in his previous one to her, written three weeks earlier on 23 August. On hearing she has been suffering from low spirits, Keats advises his sister to ‘not suffer Your Mind to dwell on unpleasant reflections—that sort of thing has been the destruction of my health’ (Letters 2: 329). He provides brotherly advice, knowing with the failure of his own health that Fanny’s ‘chief care’ should be her own (Letters 2: 330). In his 11 September letter, Keats continues in this comforting vein. He stresses twice that it is not ‘illness that prevents me from writing’, but because he has been ‘recommended to avoid every sort of fatigue’. A few lines later, he states that ‘if I feel too tired to write myself I shall have some friend to do it for me’. Again the insistence that he is not too ill, only tired, creates the impression of a caring older brother not wanting to make his sister’s health any worse, and so he shields from her the real state of his own. This sense of Keats protecting his sister’s feelings is emphasised by the switch in tone from reassuring when corresponding with her, to despairing when writing to his friends.
The 11 September letter to Fanny, and the next letter by Keats to his friend Charles Brown on 30 September were written nearly three weeks apart. However, when placed next to one another as they are in any letter edition, the difference is nothing short of striking. His letter to Brown begins: ‘The time has not yet come for a pleasant letter from me’, before Keats goes on to discuss the impossibility of ‘one heartening hope of my recovery’ (Letters 2: 344). After the soothing feel of his letters to Fanny, the letter to Brown and the three that follow jarringly demonstrate Keats’ negative reaction towards his new ‘posthumous existence’ (Letters 2: 359).
As someone who spends a large amount of time reading and editing correspondence as part of my research, this letter fascinates me for another reason. As demonstrated in my attempt at creative writing at the beginning of this piece, the 11 September letter was not actually written by Keats himself. Instead, it was transcribed for him by his fiancée Fanny Brawne. This was one of the first instances of a message from Brawne’s pen to Fanny Keats but was certainly not the last.
Thinking no doubt of his fiancée’s well-being, as well as his sister’s, Keats asked Brawne to write to Fanny ‘when I am gone and to communicate any intelligence [you] may hear of me’. Only one day after Keats left for Italy on 17 September 1820, Brawne wrote a letter to his sister. This was the start of a close and confidential relationship. Almost immediately, in a letter dated 6 October 1820, Brawne sent Fanny ‘her most affectionate love’ (Brawne: 8). By 1 February 1821, she was referring to the younger girl as her own ‘dear Sister’ (Brawne: 15). It is also in these letters to Fanny that Brawne’s feelings for Keats are made plain, as she writes ‘If I am to lose him I lose every thing and then you, after my Mother will be the only person I shall feel interest or attachment for—I feel that I love his sister as my own’ (Brawne: 16). Keats’ letter of 11 September was therefore vital for initiating the correspondence and ensuing friendship between the two foremost women in his life. It also provided his fiancée and sister with a clear link to the only other person who would share their immense grief at his death. Did Keats instigate their relationship for this purpose – just in case? It is comforting to think so.
Indirectly, Keats also provided the means for the revival of his beloved Fanny Brawne’s reputation. The letters I have quoted from above, plus a further twenty-nine from Brawne to Fanny Keats, were edited by Fred Edgcumbe in 1936. In his introduction, Edgcumbe tells of the mysterious benefactor who gifted Keats House, Hampstead, in 1934 a large collection of letters and books relating to the poet. In the midst of this treasure trove were the letters from Brawne to Fanny, the discovery of which not only sent shockwaves through Romantic circles, but also made scholars reassess their opinions of Keats’ fiancée. Formerly considered unworthy of Keats’ love, Brawne’s letters demonstrate her real passion for Keats, her pain at his death, and her consideration and kindness towards Fanny. Potentially none of these aspects of Brawne’s character would have been recorded if Keats had not initially urged her to write to his sister.
Despite being a short letter, not humorous or full of detail like those to his brother George, or full of feeling like those to Brawne, Keats’ 11 September letter to Fanny is not just hugely informative but, I think, moving as well. This epistle reveals much about the poet’s character and, because it established the future correspondence between Keats’s sister and fiancée, it has had a huge impact on later perspectives of his life and loves. It also determines Keats’ fondness and concern for his sister. Edgcumbe states that ‘from Keats’ letters it is evident that there was little intimacy between the brothers and their sister’ (Brawne: xxiv). This letter proves Edgcumbe wrong. Although Keats never wrote to his sister personally again, through Brawne she was kept updated on the twists and turns of his journey to Italy, and the precarious state of his health. Brawne herself stated in a letter of 27 March 1821 that Keats was no longer reading either her or his sister’s letters, leaving them unopened and eventually taking them (literally) with him to the grave (Brawne: 20). In his last letter, to Charles Brown on 30 November 1820, Keats’ final thoughts were remarkably not of Brawne, but of his sister. Keats asked Brown to send Fanny a note updating her on his progress, before declaring she ‘walks about my imagination like a ghost’ (Letters 2: 360). To the last, Keats was always Fanny’s protective big brother, concerned about his sister’s well-being and mindful of her feelings. It is the bright, considerate, and very human side of Keats which comes to the fore in his concluding correspondence with Fanny, the final letter of this kind before feelings of pain and regret came to dominate his remaining four letters.
Amy Wilcockson is a PhD researcher at the University of Nottingham, and a Keats-Shelley Association of America Communications Fellow 2020/21. She is currently working on her thesis, an edition of the letters of the neglected Scottish Romantic poet, Thomas Campbell (1777-1844).
Brawne, Fanny. Letters of Fanny Brawne to Fanny Keats [1820-1824].Ed. Fred Edgcumbe. London: Oxford UP, 1936.
Campbell, Thomas to John Richardson. 16 December 1800. MS. Eng. Misc. d. 184, f. 13. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.
Grinnell, George C. The Age of Hypochondria: Interpreting Romantic Health and Illness. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Ed. Hyder E. Rollins. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1958.
Southey, Robert. Letter 3269, Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 21 March 1819. The Collected Letters of Robert Southey, Part Six. Ed. Ian Packer and Lynda Pratt (Romantic Circles Online) https://romantic-circles.org/editions/southey_letters/Part_Six/HTML/letterEEd.26.3269.html [Accessed: 28 August 2020].