Letter #28: To John Hamilton Reynolds, 21 September 1817

Lots of things of interest in this letter to Reynolds, all of which has been preserved in a transcript by Richard Woodhouse (unlike the earlier September letter to Reynolds from which we have only his comical verses on Oxford). Keats jokes about one of his favorite topics for comedy: debt. Faithful KLP readers will recall two earlier letters from 1817 which feature a primary focus on money issues: the 16 May letter to Taylor and Hessey, which we had illuminated for us by Alex Dick, and the 10 June letter to Taylor and Hessey, plumbed to its depths by David Sigler. Well, Keats keeps on honing his burgeoning stand-up routine on 19th-century money problems, starting off his letter to Reynolds with gems like “as I say to my Taylor send me Bills and I’ll never employ you more.” And there’s this amazing passage preceding that one-liner, which we feel compelled to quote in full:

So you are determined to be my mortal foe–draw a Sword at me, and I will forgive–Put a Bullet in my Brain, and I will shake it out as a dewdrop from the Lion’s Mane;–put me on a Gridiron and I will fry with great complancency–but, oh horror! to come upon me in the shape of a Dun!

Ah, good times. The KLP generally takes the position that if there is a chance Keats might be making a pun, then he’s definitely making a pun. So although the misspelling of “complacency” as “complancency” might be an error on the part of the transcriber and not Keats’s own, we choose to accept that Keats was indeed making a purposeful misspelling in order to lodge the sound of “complain” in “complacency,” thereby creating a new word, which really ought to exist in English, in order to name the phenomenon when someone claims to feel complacent about a situation while constantly (and perhaps passive aggressively) complaining about the very same situation. Even if you’re not convinced that Keats is punning, the image of frying with great complacency is quite lovely.

All that silly stuff aside, what this letter is perhaps best known for is one of Keats’s most forceful negative comments about women (describing the Bluestockings as “a set of Devils”), followed by his appreciation of the poetry of Katherine Philips. For a response to today’s letter, Rachel Schulkins offers a nuanced reading of Keats’s denouncing of the Bluestockings and the seemingly contradictory move of then expressing appreciation for Philips’s accomplishments. In Schulkins’s treatment, the two moments are less contradictory than they may at first seem.

For a public domain edition in which to read today’s letter, we direct you again to Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 one-volume collection of the letters. Also below are the images of Woodhouse’s transcript, courtesy once again of Harvard’s Houghton Library. Ah, but one other thing before we go! At the end of Keats’s letter, he writes “I have left the doublings for Bailey.” The “doublings” refer to the spaces on the top and bottom of the back side of the letter’s second leaf, where the paper was folded (creating a doubling) to conceal the text written on it and turn the paper into its own little envelope with blank space (in between the doublings) for writing an address (if that all sounds confusing, just go back and look at the letter to Jane Reynolds from last time). Anyway, the final image below shows what Bailey wrote on the doublings. Thanks to Woodhouse for transcribing that bit too!

Page 1 of Keats’s 21 September 1817 letter to Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 21 September 1817 letter to Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 21 September 1817 letter to Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 21 September 1817 letter to Reynolds (featuring Bailey’s message written on the doublings). Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

A Poet at the Bottom of the Sea

Rosie Whitcombe
Birmingham City University

Re: Keats’s 14 September 1817 letter to Jane and Mariane Reynolds

In his letters, Keats inscribes, and experiments with, multiple selves. His epistolary personae reflect both his masterful manipulation of the letter form, and his heavy dependence upon it. Keats’s letters of 1817 are some of his most playful and varied, written during a period of relative calm and creative prosperity. As a result, they exhibit a smooth succession of selves, and a careful, commanding ability to control correspondence. Writing to Jane and Marianne Reynolds on the 14th September 1817, Keats not only plays with the boundaries of self-making, but layers multiple characters and environments into his correspondence, cannibalising the work of other writers and amalgamating their literary worlds with his own. He teases the Reynolds sisters, challenging their reception of his language and imagery and refusing any sense of resolution or clarity. Purposefully dense and difficult to define, this letter leaves its recipients in an unstable space, lost in an epistolary thicket of alternate personae.

Directing the mind’s eye like a periscope, Keats guides his recipients through a series of abstract images adapted from the work of other writers: ‘the open Sky sits upon our senses like a sapphire Crown – the Air is our Robe of State – the Earth is our throne and the sea a mighty Minstrell playing before it’ (I. 158). In control of this artful, fluid space, Keats compacts the sky and air into tangible shapes. What Keats terms ‘the great Elements’ (I. 158) become items of royal dress; these images are difficult to perceive because Keats is forcing together the untouchable with the touchable, creating a space in which the distinction between the physical and ethereal is blurred. Keats borrows from Milton’s Comus to cement this ‘sapphire crown’ (Milton l. 26) in a tradition of magical, deep sea description. Yet, he adapts and distorts Milton’s image, having his crown sit ‘upon our senses.’ In the space of this letter, the sky can sit, and our senses can be sat upon. Keats breaks the confines of what is ethereal and sensory, forcing the ‘Sky’ and ‘our senses’ into unfamiliar, unnatural shapes. He goes on to borrow and distort the imagery of several other texts, such as the Book of Samuel 16:23, The Tempest, and Wordsworth’s ‘Intimations of Immortality’, to name just a few. By cannibalising the literary worlds of his forbears, Keats not only demonstrates to the Reynolds sisters the extent of his reading, but revels in his ability to reshape the works of other writers to suit his purpose, taking apart accepted language and form and reinventing it under his control.

Keats continues to destabilise the letter with a set of questions: ‘Which is the best of Shakespeare’s Plays? – I mean in what mood and with what accompaniment do you like the Sea best?’ (I. 158) The second sentence reads as though it will supplement the first; it should extend the discussion of Shakespeare’s plays, but it addresses the sea, destabilising what is expected within the letter by refusing logical continuation. Keats is challenging his recipient, drawing their attention and manipulating their reading process with his sporadic, nonsensical misdirection. By merging the two questions so closely, he forces his recipients to check themselves; to re-establish their attention within the letter. How do Jane and Marianne like the sea best? Once more, the letter becomes thick with literary reference, as Keats incorporates Oberon’s lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare Act 3, Scene 2, II. 398-9) and Spenser’s Epithalamion (Spenser, l. 282-3) to offer different descriptions of the sea. Would the Reynolds sisters like the sea best in the morning, ‘when the Sun “opening on Neptune with fair blessed beams/Turns into yellow gold his salt sea streams”’ (I. 158) Keats wonders. Or perhaps in the evening, ‘when the fair planet hastens – “to his home within the western foam”’ (I. 158). By bombarding his reader with ever more literary allusions, Keats continues to complicate his image of the sea, fuelled by the instability he is causing, until he finally inserts his own description: ‘but don’t you think there is something extremely fine after sunset when there are a few white Clouds about and a few stars blinking – when the waters are ebbing and the Horison a Mystery?’ (I. 158-9). For Keats, the sea is best after sunset, shrouded in a semi-gothic strangeness and the promise of a descent into total darkness. Compared to Shakespeare and Spenser, Keats’s description of the sea is quiet, lacklustre; sparsely dotted stars provide faint light in contrast to Shakespeare’s ‘blessed beams’ of ‘yellow gold.’ Keats chooses to succumb to the sublime mystery of the sea, the uncertainty of the horizon it ebbs towards. His own interpretation is muted next to the multitude of grandiose images populating the rest of the section, and this brings a new softness, a poignancy unfound in the rest of the letter. In this isolated moment, Keats stops performing the words of others, and offers an unguarded, unprovocative glimpse into his own thinking. Having teased his recipients and manipulated their reading process, Keats concludes his discussion of the sea with a nod towards the negative capability he would soon define. He leaves Jane and Marianne Reynolds doubting their reception of his imagery, contemplating the mysteries of the horizon, and the uncertain associations he has made. Keats’s alternative imagery is left hanging in the unresolved space of the letter.

As soon as it takes this quiet turn, however, the letter careers back to a roaring pitch. Keats pens a lengthy fantasy describing what his future landlady, Mrs. Dilke, would have experienced ‘had I remained in Hampstead.’  Keats would have: ‘made precious havoc with her house and furniture – drawn a great harrow over her garden – poisoned Boxer [her dog] – eaten her Cloathes pegs, – fried her Cabbages fricaceed (how is it spelt?) her radishes – ragouted her Onions – belaboured her beet root – outstripped her scarlet Runners – parlez vou’d with her french Beans – devoured her Mignon or Mignonette – metamorphosed her Bell handles – splintered her looking glasses – bullock’d at her cups and saucers – agonized her decanters – put old Philips [the gardener] to pickle in the Brine tub – disorganized her Piano – dislocated her Candlesticks – emptied her wine bins in a fit of despair – turned out her Maid to Grass and Astonished Brown – whose Letter to her on these events I would rather see than the original copy of the Book of Genesis’ (I. 159). Breathless, this irregular set of actions sees Keats complicating language and meaning to an even greater extent. In this alternate reality in which he ‘remained at Hampstead,’ Keats creates an alternate self, a destructive, comical force who writes to entertain and astonish. Keats couples each item in the list with an unconventional verb, creating a jarring series of images which impact the reader through sensory impression, rather than clear association. Firstly, this serves to dehumanise Keats’s alternate self; as a creature who eats clothes pegs and bullocks at cups he becomes a farm yard animal let loose in a domestic space.  Poisoning the dog and pickling the gardener see him running sadistic errands, while metamorphosing the bell handles – turning them into something else entirely – speaks of witchcraft. Keats’s alternate self is somewhere between the animal and the supernatural, denatured, comically absurd, and at liberty to upset domestic and linguistic order. Secondly, Keats personifies the household items; Mrs. Dilke’s decanters are ‘agonized,’ her candlesticks ‘dislocated.’ These objects become bodily, reimagined into a rhetoric of pain and disfigurement, anthropomorphised to heighten the absurdist tenor of this alternate Hampstead. Deftly designed to entertain, Keats creates a topsy-turvy space in which the human becomes animal – magical, even – and the inanimate object develops human characteristics. Keats pens destructive images in quick succession to entertain; but it also serves to plot a dialogue of broken conventions. Everything here is misshapen and reimagined: verbs and objects unnaturally forced together allow Keats to refigure the domestic, the linguistic, and the conventional approach to letter writing. By denaturing his own identity and performing the unreal parts of inanimate objects, Keats maintains control of this increasingly complicated space, generating comic confusion, and leaving his readership in even greater uncertainty.

The crescendo of this letter’s creative subversion comes at its close. Keats introduces a second speaker to address the Reynolds sisters: ‘Endymion and I are at the bottom of the Sea,’ (I. 160) Keats declares before introducing Endymion/Endymion as an authorial voice in the letter. ‘My dear Ladies … how ever my friend Keats may have teazed and vexed you believe me he loves you not the less’ (I. 160). In a bold turn, Keats personifies Endymion, who addresses the Reynolds sisters from the sea. Refiguring his authorial voice into new possibility, Keats is unclear whether this is the voice of Endymion the character or Endymion the poem now given centre stage. He plays on this ambiguity to obscure the close of his correspondence; speaking from the sea, this is a final subversion – and, indeed, a submersion – of the identity Keats assumes as letter writer. The personified Endymion/Endymion tells the Reynolds sisters he has a message for them from ‘John Keats,’ who ‘sends you moreover this little scroll’ (I. 160). This imagined scroll reads: My dear Girls, I send you per favor of Endymion the assurance of my esteem of you and my utmost wishes for you Health and Pleasure – being ever – Your affectionate Brother. John Keats’ (I. 160). It is almost impossible to conjecture who is signing off this letter, which of all the selves he creates has become the ‘John Keats’ who puts his name at its close. This final self, ‘John Keats,’ is communicating through an imagined scroll entrusted to Endymion/Endymion, the personified character or poem, by Keats, the letter writer. Leading his recipients on a wild goose chase through a series of brilliant, conflicting scenes and diverse selves, Keats upturns and challenges the letter form. This letter barely breathes, ‘hawling’ (I. 160) its recipients, much like the personified Endymion/Endymion claims Keats is ‘hawling’ him, or indeed it, through a sea of enchanting and uncertain images. Keats speaks through other writers; through a destructive, alternate self; becomes the poet at the bottom of the sea; the character Endymion; the poem Endymion; and, lastly, arrives at ‘John Keats.’ Creating and destabilising these personae, Keats disrupts the conventional, singular voice of the letter writer, making it impossible to trace one identity through the multiple layers of artifice. Bound to no single self, challenging and subverting the very rules of language and composition, dealing with illusion and magic: Keats assumes control by deliberately destabilising the form, demonstrating the unique epistolary prowess that characterises his letters of 1817.



The Letters of John Keats, ed. by Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Milton, John, ‘Comus’, Milton’s Comus with Introduction and Notes (London: Macmillan, 1891)

Shakespeare, William, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Cheltenham: Stanley Thornes, 1994)

Spenser, Edmund, Amoretti, and Epithalamion (UK: Dodo Press, 2010)

Letter #27: To Jane and Mariane Reynolds, 14 September 1817

Wow. What a letter. There is so much in this letter. Despite its amazing features, today’s letter is not particularly well known. The KLP thinks it’s fair to say that the letter is an overlooked one. But it really shouldn’t be! It’s got the funnies; it’s got Shakespeare; it’s got playful teasing; it’s got a letter-within-a-letter delivered by Endymion from the bottom of the sea! In short, it’s got it all. So prepare to be blown away.

As the KLP has been of late obsessing over the possible provenances of the letters Keats wrote to the Reynolds sisters, we ought to say a word or two thereon here. Yesterday we mentioned that today’s letter is the only one (of five) to Jane and/or Mariane which made its way into Milnes’s 1848 collection (although he publishes only excerpts, and without identifying the sisters by name). Milnes had access to the letter via John Taylor, Keats’s publisher, and, after the poet’s death, an effective collector and preserver of Keatsiana. Today’s MS was sold at auction in 1903 along with many other Keats-related materials, and then through Amy Lowell the letter became part of Harvard’s collection in 1925.

As befits a letter which features a fictional character from Keats’s poem delivering a scroll from Keats to the Reynolds sisters through submarine courier service… the actual MS letter took a circuitous path before finding its recipients. The letter was addressed to Little Hampton but was missent to Minchinhampton! We know this because of the postage marks visible on the fourth image included below. What that means is that the letter first traveled west from Oxford before the mistake was discovered, at which point the letter then traveled south toward Little Hampton. If we here at the KLP knew a bit more about postal routes in 1817 we could tell you more–but alas, we simply have not world enough, nor time, to figure that out right now!

To guide you along the winding mossy ways of today’s wonderful letter, we have a response from Rosie Whitcombe. In it she deftly catalogues Keats’s “epistolary thicket of alternate personae.” After reading the letter, make sure you follow Whitcombe to the bottom of the sea and back as well!

We often guide you to Harry Buxton Forman’s 1883 edition of Keats’s works for a readable and well-edited edition in the public domain, but in this case it appears that Forman had only Milnes’s excerpt of today’s letter as the basis for his text in 1883. However, by 1895, when Forman published a one volume edition of Keats’s letters, he appears to have accessed either the MS or the Woodhouse transcript of the letter (if you’re so inclined to compare Forman’s printed text to both the MS and Woodhouse’s transcript, please do so and let us know your conclusions!). So we direct you to that edition if you have yet to find the pure joy that comes from reading Keats’s letters in his own hand via digital reproductions of them. Otherwise, enjoy these images courtesy of Harvard (click the images for larger sizes, and to download).

Page 1 of Keats’s 14 Sept 1817 letter to Jane and Mariane Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.11). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 14 Sept 1817 letter to Jane and Mariane Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.11). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 14 Sept 1817 letter to Jane and Mariane Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.11). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 14 Sept 1817 letter to Jane and Mariane Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.11). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Letter #26: To Jane Reynolds, September 1817

The fragmentary and odd letters just keep on coming as September rolls on! Today we have another letter to Jane Reynolds, and as with the letter from 4 September, this one shares space with Benjamin Bailey. Remember that Keats at this time was staying in Oxford with Bailey, and the two were “lead[ing] very industrious lives,” as Keats wrote to Fanny on 10 September. The nature of their industry seemed to include Bailey engaging in his studies (especially reading his beloved Jeremy Taylor), Keats making progress with Endymion, and both writing plenty of correspondence. Today’s fragment again demonstrates Keats’s playfulness, and it also points toward the extent to which he at times falls into a regular back-and-forth with his correspondents. Most of what Keats writes in this letter is either in response to something Jane had written previously, or it anticipates future responses from her. Keats also promises that he will write a longer letter soon (“I hope to attack you in a very short time–more at length–“), which we know he does on 14 September. More on that one on Thursday.

The provenance of today’s letter reveals relatively little. However, the KLP never hesitates to entertain a bit of wild surmise! Here’s what we know: the letter was owned by William Thomas Hildrup Howe, an American collector active in the early-20th century. After he died in 1939, his collection of manuscripts and books was acquired by Albert Berg (in 1940), who would go on to donate thousands of items to the New York Public Library (where today’s letter still resides). What we don’t know is how, um, Howe came into possession of it, nor do we know when he did, nor where he did. It had to have been before 1925, because the letter was first published in Amy Lowell’s biography of Keats published that year.

What sort of surmises might we make, wild or otherwise? As we learned from the 4 Sept letter, after Bailey’s courting of Mariane Reynolds went south, he asked for her to return the correspondence Bailey had had with her. Since today’s letter was addressed solely to Jane, it seems uncertain if it would have been among those returned letters. If it had been, it may have followed a similar path of sale as that we saw with the 4 Sept letter. It seems more likely, however, that today’s letter remained in Jane’s possession. Of the five extant letters to Jane Reynolds (one of which is also addressed to Mariane Reynolds), only one of them makes it into publication in Milnes’s 1848 volume. It did so because the letter was in the possession of John Taylor, and remained in his family until the early-20th century, when it and many other Keats papers were auctioned. The other four letters seem to have moved through private sellers in the mid-to-late-19th and early-20th centuries.

One final thought about the possibilities for how this letter might have circulated before arriving at its permanent home in the New York Public Library. In 1825 Jane Reynolds married Thomas Hood. The two were active in literary circles in London, and it seems plausible that at some point during their next two decades (Hood died in 1845, and Jane the year after) they would have shared with friends the letters sent to Jane by Keats, whose reputation during that period steadily grew and expanded beyond the bounds of his own circle of friends and supports. Perhaps at some point they gave the letters away as gifts. However it happened, the letters eventually passed on to other owners (either through sale or otherwise). And that’s all the KLP can say on the matter!

So end the wild surmises. But the fun continues with a special treat. For a response to this letter, the co-hosts of This Week in Keats (Brian Rejack and Mike Theune) are debuting a shorter-format video, appropriately titled “This Day in Keats.” Enjoy!

Keats’s letter to Jane Reynolds, courtesy Google Books.

Dear Friend, Dearest Sister

Talia M. Vestri
College of the Holy Cross

Re: Keats’s 10 September 1817 letter to Fanny Keats

“An advantage this, a strengthener of love, in which even the conjugal tie is beneath the fraternal. Children of the same family, the same blood, with the same first associations and habits, have some means of enjoyment in their power, which no subsequent connexions can supply; and it must be by a long and unnatural estrangement, by a divorce which no subsequent connexion can justify, if such precious remains of the earliest attachments are ever entirely outlived. Too often, alas! it is so. Fraternal love, sometimes almost everything, is at others worse than nothing.”  ~ Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814)

As may be familiar to any reader of Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the love between siblings—or the lack thereof—can have a tremendous impact on one’s life. For Fanny Price, Edmund’s brotherly affections prove him to be a suitable partner and a decent replacement for Fanny’s biological kin, William. In Austen’s other novels, siblings are similarly influential. Without the presence of Jane, Mary, Lydia, and Kitty, for instance, Elizabeth Bennet would have had a much easier time navigating the complicated waters of Longbourn—but, then again, she might also have turned out to be a lot less spunky. And without Marianne’s persistent melodramatics, Elinor Dashwood would certainly have remained immoveable in her stoic austerity. On the flip side of these sisterly entanglements, the failures of a sibling to engage with his or her family could often leave others destitute—both emotionally and materially. When John Dashwood, for one, fails to provide for his consanguineal relations, Austen points to his innate flaws: only bad men—only bad brothers—don’t take care of their sisters.

In his first letter to Fanny, his youngest sibling and only sister, John Keats adopts an Austenian perspective on sibling behavior: he wants, at the very least, to be a good brother.

Keats recognizes, however, that he lacks any substantial knowledge of his fourteen-year-old sister at this point. Born eight years apart, John and Fanny never shared a mutual development during their childhoods, since John was at school or serving his apprenticeship to the surgeon Thomas Hammond during most of her youth. The two possessed none of the essential “associations and habits,” to quote Austen, that might have entwined them into one another’s hearts. “We have been so little together,” Keats laments. He does not know, for example, which stories she prefers, nor what her “favorite little wants and enjoyments” currently might be.

Such a remark, however, belies the fact that a younger teenage John did spend many nights watching his baby sister being put to sleep, often reading to her during the nights when they were living with their grandparents and their aging, depressed mother. Following their father’s death in a freak accident when Fanny was only ten months old, the four siblings (including George and Tom) were orphaned by the time Fanny was seven. As the oldest, Keats likely felt a keen responsibility to get to know her.

To make up for his deficiencies, Keats feels drawn to encourage fraternal intimacies with Fanny before it is too late—he wants to ensure that he performs “in a way befitting a brother.” To do so, he must supply those “enjoyments” that siblings of the “same family, the same blood,” in Austen’s words, are supposed to have gained instinctually simply by way of sharing a nursery.

That shared nursery was, indeed, a significant source of sibling closeness—at least according to biological anthropologists such as Edward Westermarck. In his 1891 tome, The History of Human Marriage, Westermarck rivals what would become Freud’s dominant theories on the family system. While Freud highlights what he believed were innate sexual desires amongst members of a biological clan, Westermarck thought, in contrast, that intimate unions between siblings led to a natural aversion toward sexual liaisons rather than to an illicit attraction. This connection, he suggests, stems from siblings’ proximity in a shared home, and not from shared biological lineage.

Domestic proximity functioned so strongly in forging these attachments, Westermarck argues, that even children raised together in adoptive, foster, step, or surrogate sibling arrangements—“brothers” and “sisters” in name only, in other words—developed a similar repugnance to later sexual congress with their sibling-like kin. Proximity shapes the sibling dynamic.

Without this type of shared upbringing, John and Fanny Keats lacked a certain affective and psychological foundation. In this first letter to her, Keats expresses moderate anxiety over their growing unfamiliarity: “This I feel as a necessity,” he instructs, “for we ought to become intimately acquainted, in order that I may not only as you grow up, love you as my only sister, but confide in you as my dearest friend.”

In her biography of Fanny Keats (the only one written to date), Marie Adami compares Fanny and John’s relationship, perhaps unsurprisingly, to that other paradigmatic Romantic sibling pair, Dorothy and William Wordsworth. William, too, conceptualized his sister in the dual roles of kin and companion, both sister and friend, as he writes famously in “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey” (1798):

For thou art with me here upon the banks
Of this fair river; thou my dearest Friend,
My dear, dear Friend…
……………………….…Oh! yet a little while
May I behold in thee what I was once,
My dear, dear Sister!

The thing is: friends we choose; siblings we cannot. The desire to conflate these two registers of friendship and sibling-ship implies that an individual might be converted from one to the other—but this only works in a single direction. It’s like a little kinship logic game: all siblings can be friends, but no friends are siblings. (Wordsworth bemoans as much when he forlornly attempts to designate Coleridge the “brother of [his] soul” in Book 5 of The Prelude—a transposition that works only metaphorically, of course.)

As Adami notes, the exemplary nature of the Wordsworths and their collective place in the history of English letters cannot be paralleled with the Keats siblings, for “Dorothy was the intimate companion of her brother for many years, [but] there is nothing of this in the life of Fanny Keats” (Adami 1). Fanny “never knew her brother’s life as it was really lived” (Adami 4), yet that does not mean she did not appreciate his presence or his legacy. In fact, she would retain his correspondence for more than sixty years, finally turning them over to her country to preserve her famous brother’s personal history. Despite this divergence between, on the one hand, the Wordsworths, who cohabitated as adults for more than fifty years, and, on the other, the Keatses, who spent barely a few early years together, William and John felt similarly towards their respective sisters. Both want to interpolate these women into the equal positions of their “dear, dear Sister” and their “dear, dear Friend.”

But Keats’s translation of Fanny into this doubled role required some creative license, and his letter acknowledges this psychological work. Keats closes his letter with an imperative request: he not only asks Fanny to hang onto his correspondence, but also intends that these missives will guide them to create mental images of each other, so that they might one day return to the letters as representatives of a shared history—a history, of course, that they are currently in the process of fabricating, through writing, rather than living:

“Now Fanny you must write soon—and write all you think about, never mind what—only let me have a good deal of your writing—You need not do it all at once—be two or three or four day[s] about it, and let it be a diary of your little Life. You will preserve all my Letters and I will secure yours—and thus in the course of time we shall each of us have a good Bundle—which hereafter, when things may have strangely altered and god knows what happened, we may read over together and look with pleasure on times past—that are now to come.”

Even though John and Fanny Keats would never develop a relationship as adults—he left England when she was seventeen and died shortly thereafter—Keats imagines their joint future as something they will actively manifest through this unique correspondence. Like Wordsworth, who envisions a time when Dorothy will recollect the present memory they are producing together, here and now, on the banks of the Wye, at a future time when she no more can hear her brother’s voice, so too does Keats envision a future when he and his sister will fondly recall a nostalgic past that they are communally conceiving together, now, even though it is one they have not yet produced. He is hopeful, though, that they will.

Literary historian Ruth Perry has suggested that sibling intimacies were in fact fading at the turn of the nineteenth century. Allegiances to the patriarchal family—consanguineal, blood-based kin—were being overwritten, Perry suggests, by the demands of conjugal matrimony and the “chosen” family of spouses and subsequent offspring. In this particular historical moment, the intimacies displayed between brothers and sisters in literary fiction were, Perry suggests, becoming proportional to the deterioration of that bond in real life. When we take into consideration sibling families like the Keatses and the Wordsworths, however, this supposition seems to be far from true.

In an effort to carve out space for his sister, Keats attempts to inscribe Fanny, literally, into his life. And, as big brother, he attempts to ensure that George and Tom follow suit: “I had a long and interesting letter from George, cross lines by a short one from Tom yesterday dated Paris,” he writes, adding, “They both send their loves to you.” Further on, Keats tells Fanny that he has given their brother George explicit instructions, “as you wish I should, to write to you.”

By writing Fanny into his imagination, Keats looks forward to gaining her friendship as well as her sibling-ship, perhaps because, as Victor tells us in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, “the companions of our childhood always possess a certain power over our minds, which hardly any later friend can obtain” (211). Not wanting to miss out on an opportunity to become intimate with a companion of his childhood, John Keats reaches out to his only sister in order to welcome her into his world—a world of letters, in more ways than one.



Adami, Marie. Fanny Keats. London: J. Murray, 1937.

Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Edited by Claudia L. Johnson. New York: Norton, 1998.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats. Edited by Hyder Edward Rollins. 2 vols. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Perry, Ruth. Novel Relations: The Transformation of Kinship in English Literature and Culture, 1748-1818. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Richardson, Alan. “Rethinking Romantic Incest: Human Universals, Literary Representation, and the Biology of Mind.” New Literary History 31, no. 3 (2000): 553-572.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. 3rd edition. Edited by D. L. Macdonald and Kathleen Scherf. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2012.

Westermarck, Edward. The History of Human Marriage. 2nd edition. London: Macmillan, 1894.

Wordsworth, William. Lyrical Ballads. Edited by R. L. Brett and A. R. Jones. 2nd edition. London and New York: Routledge, 1991.

Letter #25: To Fanny Keats, 10 September 1817

Another significant first for today: Keats’s first of many lovely letters written to his sister Fanny. Readers of the letters tend to agree that the Keats we see on display in his letters to his sister is one of the most caring and kind versions of the poet. Fanny was just 14 years old when Keats wrote her this first letter. His solicitude as the eldest of the Keats siblings looking out for his young sister clearly comes across. We daresay that Keats behaves in this letter (and later ones to Fanny) “in a way befitting a brother.”

In addition to his kindness, Keats’s playfulness shines through with great frequency in his letters to Fanny. Towards the end of this letter he bemoans the tendency in English education to privilege instruction in the French language (“perhaps the poorest one ever spoken since the jabbering in the Tower of Babel”) over that in Italian (a language “full of real Poetry and Romance”). Keats concludes with an image of youngsters having instruction in French “cramm’d down our Mouths, as if we were young Jack daws at the mercy of an overfeeding Schoolboy.” Maybe not Keats at his funniest (and the KLP begs to differ about the poetry and musicality of the French language), but it’s a good taste of the kind of jocular tone he tends to adopt when corresponding with Fanny.

Keats concludes this letter by suggesting that he and Fanny each save all their correspondence for posterity’s sake (“You will preserve all my Letters and I will secure yours”). Turns out Fanny took this advice. In 1826 she married Valentin Maria Llanos y Gutierrez. After living for a few years in England, she left England in 1833 and lived the rest of her life in Spain. During that time she kept her letters safe, and, after corresponding with Harry Buxton Forman regularly in the late 1870s and early 1880s, arranged for publication of the letters for the first time in Forman’s 1883 edition of Keats’s collected writings. After Fanny died in 1889, her daughter Rosa Keats de Llanos provided the letters (through the care of Forman) to the British Museum. Today they remain at the British Library–in all, 42 letters.

So here we are at letter number 1 to Fanny Keats! We’ll have many more over the next few years, in large part thanks to Fanny’s life-long impulse to preserve the letters and eventually ensure that they make their way into literary history. They now form one of the most significant parts of Keats’s epistolary legacy.