We’ve remarked before about the radical changes the Keats siblings went through in the space of less than a year between the middle of 1818 and the beginning of 1819. As of June 1818, all four siblings remained (more or less) together in London and its surrounding environs. George departed for America at the end of that month. Tom continued to ail throughout the second half of 1818 until his death at the beginning of December. And while John was caring for Tom, Fanny’s guardian, Richard Abbey, was doing his best to keep her from seeing her two brothers who remained in England. Now here we are in early 1819, and communication across the ocean with George must have felt nearly as difficult as communication with Tom across an even greater void.
And what of the relationship between John and Fanny? As we might have expected from the consistently villainous Abbey, there remain obstacles to sustained contact between brother and sister. At the beginning of today’s letter, John expresses his frustration with Abbey by noting to Fanny, “What objection can the[r]e be to your receiving a Letter from me?” Yes, Abbey, what objection indeed?? We learn from Keats’s next journal letter to George and Georgiana (begun on 14 February 1819) a bit more about Abbey’s efforts to limit Fanny’s contact with her brother. He writes to George and Georgiana, “I have had a little business with Mr Abbey–From time to time he has behaved to me with a little Brusquerie–this hurt me a little especially wheen I knew him to be the only Man in England who dared to say a thing to me I did not approve of without its being resented or at least noticed–so I wrote him about it and have made an alteration in my favor–I expect from this to see more of Fanny–who has been quite shut out from me.”
We don’t know too much more about what Keats wrote to Abbey, or about what kind of agreement they reached about Fanny. But it is the case that Keats’s letters to Fanny continue fairly regularly throughout the first half of 1819, with a new letter about once a fortnight, as he promises to do in a letter to her sent at the end of February 1819. For the next few months, then, we’ll get to see lots of letters from brother to sister, including some really lovely ones. We feel confident in claiming that today’s letter counts as rather lovely!
Keats begins by sympathizing with Fanny’s disappointment about Abbey having removed her from school. He encourages her to “keep up all that you know and to learn more by yourself however little.” He also reassures her that “The time will come when you will be more pleased with Life–look forward to that time and, though it may appear a trifle, be careful not to let the idle and retired Life you lead fix any awkward habit or behaviour on you.” This optimism combined with pragmatic and realistic aspirations strikes us as one of Keats’s primary modes of expressing fraternal care towards Fanny. “I feel myself the only Protector you have,” Keats writes in today’s letter. He may not have been able to solve all of Fanny’s problems, but Keats certainly did “live in hopes of being able to make [Fanny] happy.” If you want to read an excellent account of Keats’s relationship with his sister, we highly recommend you Betsy Tontiplaphol’s piece from last fall.
Images below come from Harry Buxton Forman’s 1901 edition of Keats’s complete works, which you can access via this link.