Today (or thereabouts) marks the 200-year anniversary of the earliest extant letter from John Keats to Fanny Brawne. Over the last two centuries that correspondence–or at least the half of it that still exists–has been reviled and revered, with the revulsion coming mostly from readers at the end of the nineteenth century (when the letters were first published) and the reverence coming more consistently from later readers (like those who might have purchased the Love Letters and Poems of John Keats to Fanny Brawne in 2009, when it was published by Penguin to coincide with the release of the film Bright Star). Considering they were written by a poet who delighted in a contradictory, chameleon-like persona, the letters to Fanny Brawne unsurprisingly feature a John Keats who can be at times cruel, possessive, jealous, and callous, and yet also tender, playful, admiring and unbearably sweet. This first letter is no exception. But first, what is Keats up to when he writes this letter?
Part of the reason is that Keats had been in London for most of the time during which he and Brawne had become acquainted and begun their courtship. They met sometime during fall 1818, and, at least according to some accounts, had come to an understanding about their future by the time Keats spent Christmas day with the Brawnes at the end of that year. Surely there would have been notes sent between the two during the first half-year of their relationship, but for whatever reason, Brawne appears not to have preserved any until we reach the correspondence from summer 1819, when Keats spent significant time away from London. He had departed for Portsmouth on 27 June (and enjoyed quite the storm during the carriage ride), and the day after that sailed for the Isle of Wight. He stayed there with James Rice for most of July, and then moved to Winchester with Charles Brown for the remaining weeks of summer (leading up to his famous composition of “To Autumn” while in Winchester right around the change to that season). As such we have a number of letters from this period when Keats and Brawne are separated.
As Keats had done in previous summers, this trip to the Isle of Wight was undertaken with the aim of devoting himself to writing poetry. In this letter, as we’ll see in others to Brawne, Keats fears that his romantic attachment to her will impede his ability to write. One of those moments when Keats shows himself to be kind of a jerk (even if his tone might be playful), is when he writes, “Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom.” But then immediately after that typical I’m-a-dude-who-needs-to-be-free-to-pursue-my-art moment, Keats goes into what is rightly one of the more beloved passages from all of the correspondence to Brawne (just search for “Keats” and “butterflies” on instagram, and you’ll see):
write me the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been. For myself I know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days–three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.
Even though modern readers (like us at the KLP, we confess) might swoon at such sincere expressions of young love, Victorian readers tended to feel a bit differently about them. Matthew Arnold is often cited as one of the exemplars of this disapproval: he wrote that the letters were “the sort of love-letter[s] of a surgeon’s apprentice which one might hear read out in a breach of promise case.” Arnold was not the only one, of course. Many responses to the publication of Harry Buxton Forman’s The Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (1878) echoed sentiments like Arnold’s. The objections weren’t just about the act of publication itself, which was seen by some as an improper breach of privacy, but also that the letters reflected poorly upon Keats, who by the 1870s had acquired enough literary status that any tarnishing of his reputation would be met with resistance. The publication of the letters also led to plenty of misogynistic reactions against Brawne herself: these readers assumed that Keats’s volatility and cruelty must have been the result of Brawne’s behavior.
The controversy continued a few years after the initial furor over Forman’s decision to publish the letters in 1878. In 1885 the Lindon family (Fanny Brawne married Louis Lindon in 1833; the couple had three children) decided to sell the original manuscripts of the letters. One attendee at the auction was Oscar Wilde, who wrote a sonnet in which he described the other attendees as “the brawlers of the auction mart.”
If publishing the private love-letters were a problem, then it seems that profiting off their sale was even worse. Wilde’s conclusion is that “they love not art / Who break the crystal of a poet’s heart / That small and sickly eyes may glare and gloat.” Well, that hits a bit too close to home here at the KLP… In any case, the result of the letters being sold at auction in 1885 is that they are now scattered across the globe in various libraries, archives, and institutions. The whereabouts of some are entirely unknown–the source for several letters remain Forman’s editions from the 1870s and 1880s.
For the text of the letter we direct you the American edition of the 1878 Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (via Hathitrust). The manuscript is one of those whose whereabouts are unknown. Most likely some lucky auction-goer (or brawler, as Wilde would have it) purchased it in 1885. Here’s hoping it comes back into the public view once again.