A fascinating letter from Keats to Woodhouse, not so much for the content of the letter as for the context it alludes to. Some background, then. Woodhouse had a cousin named Mary Frogley, whom the Keats brothers had known through their friendship with George Felton Mathew (and his cousins, Ann and Caroline). Earlier in 1818 Frogley had borrowed Woodhouse’s copy of Endymion. She and her future husband, Henry Neville, asked Woodhouse for more time with the book, explaining that their friends Jane Porter had seen the book on Neville’s table while visiting with him, and asked if she might borrow it from him. After she (and her sister Anna Maria) had read the poem and been pleased with it, the Porters asked if Neville knew the author and might be able to arrange an introduction with him. Through Woodhouse, Neville passed along a letter from Jane Porter in which she expressed this desire.
Keats’s letter to Woodhouse, then, is in response to Porter’s letter and Woodhouse’s offer of making the “introduction to a Class of society, from which you may possible derive advantage as well as gratification, if you think proper to avail yourself of it.” The Porter sisters were already well-established authors, each of them having published several books by this time in 1818. Keats, however, was not overly inclined to make new friends at the moment. We see an increasingly anti-social side of Keats over the next few months: he writes to George and Georgiana in January 1819 of Woodhouse’s offer, and in that same letter he also expresses his frustration with Leigh Hunt and his social circle. So part of Keats’s hesitancy surely results from his desire for a bit of solitude. He writes to Woodhouse, “I have a new leaf to turn over–I must work–I must read–I must write–I am unable to affrod time for new acquaintances–I am scarcely able to do my duty to those I have.”
There is, however, another factor likely at play here. As we’ve seen in the past, and as we’ll see on multiple occasions again in 1819, Keats had an anxious relationship with women writers. One senses his condensation in his letter to Woodhouse: “I must needs feel flattered by making an impression on a set of Ladies–I should be content to do so in meretricious romance verse if they alone and not Men were to judge.” Keats elsewhere associates women’s writing with popularity as against the seriousness of male discourse. One imagines that Keats’s disdain for popularity is in part a result of not achieving it. An easy defense mechanism for the little-read poet is to dismiss more popular writing (in this case, by women) as less significant, less consequential, less serious.
Keats’s disdain comes across more fully when he copies Porter’s letter to George and Georgiana, after which he offers this gloss on the invitation: “Now I feel more obliged than flattered by this–so obliged that I will not at present give you an extravaganza of a Lady Romancer. I will be introduced to them if it be merely for the pleasure of writing to you about it.” One hopes that if Keats had met the Porter sisters, he would have changed his attitude about “Lady Romancers.” Surely he had a thing or two to learn from them if he would have been willing to know them genuinely, and not just as fodder for ridicule.
The letter can be read via Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition here. Below are images of Keats’s letter, as well as Woodhouse’s transcript of the letter from Jane Porter to Henry Neville (both courtesy of Harvard’s Houghton Library).