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.