Letter #72: To Marian and Sarah Jeffrey, 4 June 1818

When Keats left Teignmouth back at the beginning of May, he and Tom were (most likely) accompanied on the first part of their trip by Sarah Jeffrey, one of the daughters of Margaret Jeffrey, to whom Keats sent a polite note assuring her that the beginning of their journey had gone well and that Tom’s health was stable. As explained in our post about that letter, the Keats brothers had become friendly with the Jeffreys during their stay. After their departure, they would send a few letters to them over the next year or so. Tom was the first to do so, on 18 May. At the end of that letter he wrote that “John will write to you shortly.” Well, as we say in his most recent letter to Bailey, Keats was not exactly on top of his correspondence at this time. So it took him a little over two weeks to get around to his letter. Give the guy a break!

Anyway, once Keats did get around to writing his letter to Marian/Marianne/Mary Ann and Sarah, he seems to have found some good humor. The letter is a pretty darn funny one. He begins by apologizing for his delay in writing, and then quickly turns playful: “I am a fool in delay for the idea of neglect is an everlasting knapsack which even now I have scarce power to hoist off–by the bye talking of everlasting knapsacks I intend to make my fortune by them in case of a War (which you must consequently pray for) by contracting with Government for said materials to the economy of one branch of the Revenue. At all events a Tax which is taken from the people and shoulder’d upon the Military ought not to be snubb’d at.” Who doesn’t love a good war profiteering joke? His next bit of whimsy involves a plan to clean St. Paul’s Cathedral, which had apparently turned black “on the tolling of the great Bell for the aimable and tea-table-lamented Princess [i.e. Charlotte, whose death following childbirth in 1817 had set off intense national mourning, the genuineness of which Keats questions a bit here). That idea of “sympathy in inanimate objects” leads to another illustration of the principle from one of the “veal-thigh Aldermen” reputedly discussing the plan to clean St. Paul’s. By the by, jokes about the London Aldermen as idle gourmands were commonplace in the early-19th century. Not sure if they still have that reputation. So this Alderman who suggested St. Paul’s darkened to mourn Princess Charlotte tells the story of Robert Waithman, then MP and later Lord Mayor of London, quoting Peter Pindar, at which point “the head of George the third although in hard marble squinted over the Mayor’s seat at the honerable speaker so oddly that he was obliged to sit down.”

The laugh riot continues as Keats interrupts his writing for a snuff break: “You see how badly I have written these last three lines so I will remain here and take a pinch of snuff every five Minutes until my head becomes fit and proper and legetimately inclined to scribble.” Regular readers (and regular viewers of This Week in Keats) will recall Keats spelling legitimate in this same manner all the way back in December 1816. You can see what Mike Theune and Brian Rejack had to say about the spelling in December 2016 (in the very first episode of This Week in Keats!). They still do not agree.

Keats seems to have been successful with his snuff inspiration (to use snuff one breathes it in–see what we did there???). The rest of the letter certainly feels a bit influenced by a stimulant. As is proper when one has been inspired, Keats first praises his muse: “Oh! there’s nothing like a pinch of snuff except perhaps a few trifles almost beneath a philosophers dignity, such as a ripe Peach or a kiss that one takes on a lease of 91 moments,–on a building lease.” Here we encounter the limitations of HTML to effectively present Keats’s pun on building/billing lease. Notice in the image below that he crosses our the u and the d in “building” and adds an l above the crossed-out d.

Keats’s ode to snuff, which he enjoys almost as much as a kiss taken on a building/billing lease.

Lots of possibilities regarding what Keats is hinting at here, but it certainly seems to be the case that he’s being a bit flirtatious with the Jeffrey sisters. There’s been lots of speculation about the Keats brothers’ relationships with these young women. Albert Forbes Sieveking, who first published the letters, notes that Keats writes “in terms of such warm intimacy and friendship.” Harry Buxton Forman in 1901 noted the tradition, apparently still believed in Teignmouth at that time, that Marian had been in love with Keats. More recently Angus Graham-Campbell (in the Keats-Shelley Journal in 1984) entertained the possibility by turning to Marian’s poetry.

Yes, in 1830, then recently married to Isaac Sparke Prowse, Marian published a volume, titled simply Poems, just like the first volume published by Keats, under the name Mrs. I. S. Prowse. You can read the book here. According to Rollins, the “effusions” are “up to the low standard of the 1830’s,” which, although it is a sick burn on both Marian and the 1830s, is also not that nice. And more importantly it’s also rooted in masculinist and misogynistc assumptions about canonicity. So nuts to that! We suggest you read Graham-Campbell’s much more detailed and fair assessment of the work, and of the question of what sort of relationship existed between Keats and Marian Jeffrey. The sense we gather from this letter and the two later ones to Marian is that Keats had a great fondness for the sisters, and that he also respected and valued Marian’s intellect and friendship. And while he seems not to have developed any serious romantic feelings, Keats certainly displays a bit of coy flirtation in this letter.

We’ll conclude with one of the poems from Marian Jeffrey’s 1830 volume. In the spirit of her affection for and appreciation of Keats, we’re going with “To Autumn.”

“To Autumn,” from Poems by Mrs. I. S. Prowse (Marian Prowse, née Jeffrey)

“To Autumn,” from Poems by Mrs. I. S. Prowse (Marian Prowse, née Jeffrey)

For the text of Keats’s letter we direct you to Forman’s 1895 edition. Or go ahead and practice reading Keats’s hand via the images below (courtesy of Harvard).

Page 1 of Keats’s 4 June 1818 letter to Marian and Sarah Jeffrey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.29). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 2 of Keats’s 4 June 1818 letter to Marian and Sarah Jeffrey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.29). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 3 of Keats’s 4 June 1818 letter to Marian and Sarah Jeffrey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.29). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Page 4 of Keats’s 4 June 1818 letter to Marian and Sarah Jeffrey. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.29). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

P. S. Keats has a funny post-script in his letter about other possibilities that P. S. might stand for. One sample: “Upon a Garter Pretty Secret.” See, Keats being playful, saucy, flirtatious, what have you.

P. P. S. How did this letter get delivered? You’ll notice that there are no postage marks, and no address. One possibility: in his letter two weeks prior Tom mentioned a “Mrs. Atkins” who had come to London bearing a letter from Mrs. Jeffrey. He claimed that he was thinking about sending his letter back with her, but instead he posted it. So perhaps she stuck around in London until after June 4 and then took John’s letter back to the Jeffreys? One other connection: Keats mentions “Atkins the Coachman” in his 14 March letter to Reynolds. Perhaps Mrs. Atkins was his wife?