Today marks a sad day for the Keats family. On the morning of 1 December 1818, Tom Keats succumbed to the “family disease” (tuberculosis), which would also take John’s life a few years later, and George’s two decades after that. The only sibling to avoid the same fate was the recipient of today’s letter, Fanny Keats.
Tom’s illness had been progressively worsening since the summer, and Keats had been preparing his other siblings for the news. Back in October Keats wrote to George and Georgiana in America that “[Tom] is no better but much worse.” And his letters to Fanny during the autumn were likewise full of trepidation about their brother’s health. It’s unclear exactly when he wrote this last letter to Fanny before Tom’s death, but it seems clearly intended to prepare her for that eventual fate. He notes that “[Tom] is in a very dangerous state–I have scarce any hopes of him.”
The letter is postmarked at noon on 1 December 1818, which was a few hours after Tom’s death. Fanny Keats’s biographer, Marie Adami, makes the supposition that Keats wrote the letter at some point during the night or early hours of the morning, and then posted the letter on his way to inform Charles Brown of Tom’s passing. Brown took it upon himself to do the difficult work of informing Keats’s friends of the news. He wrote to Richard Woodhouse soon after Keats arrived at Wentworth Place, noting that “Mr Keats requests me to inform you his brother Thomas died this morning at 8 o’Clock quietly & without pain.”
While it may seem odd that after Tom’s death Keats would mail a letter to Fanny indicating that he had “scarce any hopes” of Tom’s recovery. But as Adami points out, the letter demonstrates that amidst his own grief, Keats was thinking of how he might mitigate Fanny’s by preparing her for the worst and planning to break the news to her soon after in person: “Perhaps nowhere so much as in the last words of this letter … are the tenderness of his care for her …. Waiting in the inaction which the last hours of unconsciousness bring to the watcher, he looked beyond them to Fanny, foreseeing her coming grief, bracing her against it. He gave her something to do, he gave her something to hold. Found and set down as they were, it would be hard to imagine words more moving.” One suspects that after dispatching his letter, Keats would have made the trip to Walthamstow to see Fanny, thereby reinforcing his wish that she would “repose entirely in / Your affectionate Brother / John.”
Keats’s life takes a significant turn from this point on. Soon he’ll be living in Wentworth Place with Brown, and soon after that he will begin his relationship with Fanny Brawne. And, of course, let’s not forget the poetry he will write over the next year: the majority of the poems which establish his literary fame as the century proceeds. But for now let’s recall the loss that preceded all those other things, and the moment of kindness Keats showed to his sister, hoping to do at least something to help make her grieving process less painful.
Text of the letter comes from Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition (image below). Quick note on the dating of the letter: although Keats indicates “Tuesday morn,” which would have been 1 December, and although the postmark is also for that date, Rollins dates the letter as 30 November, following Adami’s suggestion that Keats wrote the letter the night before.