Letter #23: To Jane and Mariane Reynolds, 4 September 1817

Today marks the beginning of a series of letters written by Keats during his stay at Oxford with Benjamin Bailey. Many of these letters are sent to members of the Reynolds family, including today’s letter, the first extent letter to Jane and Mariane Reynolds, two of the sisters of John Hamilton Reynolds (the recipient of several letters we’ve encountered previously–see here, and here, and here). During the summer Keats had spent significant time with the Reynoldses, as he indicated in last week’s letter, and including a dinner engagement with them just a day or two before heading to Oxford. As Keats departed for Oxford, the Reynolds sisters also embarked on a journey: they would be doing a bit of late-summer seaside vacationing at Littlehampton.

As we at the KLP are wont to draw attention to firsts of various kinds, we should note that today’s letter is the first of Keats’s sent to female correspondents. Keats himself will regularly note his anxiety about women, as in a letter to Bailey in July 1818 where he writes, “I am certain I have not a right feeling towards Women.” Some of that “not right feeling” is on display in the letter to Jane and Mariane, which is at times affectionate and playful, but at others condescending and mean. That Keats condescends in a self-conscious, slightly self-deprecatory way, however, only highlights his own awareness of his anxiety. So at least he knows he’s being a jerk?? But come on–be nice, JK!

Now, one other factor that may influence his anxiety: Keats has a co-correspondent here. At the top of this letter are several lines written by Benjamin Bailey, and later crossed out rather rigorously. Bailey was at this time courting Mariane, although it seems Keats did not know as much just yet. One wonders what Bailey had to say in his opening half of the letter, and how it might have affected Keats’s own part in the correspondence.

As can be seen from the images of the letter, it’s likely that Bailey wrote not only the few lines at the top of the page which remains, but also filled the first two pages of an adjoining leaf. Recall that Keats’s letters (as would have been true of other letters during this period) were typically written on four sides of two conjugate leaves of paper (or think of it as one sheet folded in half to make a mini-booklet of four pages and two leaves). So, Bailey would have begun the letter, filled the front and back of the first leaf completely, and then finished his message on the top of the second leaf. Although the crossed out lines are almost completely illegible, it seems to the KLP that after Bailey’s struck-through signature, we have a brief post-script that concludes with “Keats.” Thus, Bailey probably wrote something like, “and now I’ll turn things over to Keats.”

The KLP’s educated guess: Bailey’s signature, then just below it to the left, “Keats,” and then Keats’s part of the letter clearly begins below.

“Ah!” you ask, “but what happened to that other leaf??” Well, here’s the KLP’s best guess on that one. In a letter to George and Georgiana in early 1819, Keats explains how the Bailey-Mariane Reynolds drama unfolded: Mariane had rejected a proposal from Bailey sometime in late 1817 or early 1818, but Bailey asked her to give it more thought and reconsider. Meanwhile, having left London after obtaining a curacy at Carlisle, Bailey proceeded to fall in love with a Miss Hamilton Gleig, the sister of one of Bailey’s Oxford classmates. He thereby withdrew his proposal to Mariane, returned her letters and asked for his from her. (Incidentally, Bailey’s conduct in this matter led to the end of his friendship with most of the circle around the Reynoldses. Way to go, Bailey.) Presumably this letter was one of those which Mariane did indeed return to Bailey. After Keats’s death, when Bailey provided much of his correspondence with Keats to John Taylor, he presumably removed the first leaf, crossed out the few lines on the top of the remaining leaf, and sent it on its way. Most of the papers in Taylor’s possession remained in the family until they were sold at auction in 1903 to Bernard Quaritch, soon thereafter purchased by Amy Lowell, and then ultimately bequeathed to Harvard. This letter, however, took a slightly different route, having entered into the possession of a Boston-based collector named William E. Benjamin sometime before March 1886, when he sold it to James R. Osgood. After a few more sales, it eventually wound up with Arthur Houghton, who presented the letter to Harvard.

A final intriguing tidbit: Hyder Edward Rollins notes in his edition of the letters that Bailey’s crossed out lines “fail to reveal their secret to ultra-violet photography.” First, how cool that he (or someone) tried to do so. Second, what additional tools exist now that might be brought to bear on revealing the secret to us? If any DH practitioners want to take a stab at it, please be our guest!

Ok, now comes our admission of guilt… the KLP is a bit “behind hand” with our correspondence right now, as Keats would be at various times. If Keats can fall behind, then we figure we’re allowed some wiggle room too. But fear not, an excellent response from Lauren Neefe is on the way! Once the KLP editorial team catches up again, we’ll have it posted for your reading pleasure. For now, see if you can figure out what Bailey crossed out! Here are the images, courtesy of Houghton Library at Harvard.

Page 1 of Keats’s 4 Sept 1817 letter to Jane and Mariane Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.10). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 4 Sept 1817 letter to Jane and Mariane Reynolds. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.10). Houghton Library, Harvard University.