Letter #252: To Charles Brown, 30 November 1820

We call this Keats’s “last” letter, but as with most things Keatsian, some uncertainty remains. And with any body of correspondence, what is left over must of necessity amount to less than the originary material. As they say in forensics, every contact leaves a trace. But not all traces persist, and the contacts always exceed their traces. So goes the phantasmal work of corresponding with Keats. He walks about our imaginations like a ghost, emerging into material, vivid fullness now and then, usually with a reminder of the absence that always haunts presence.

Keats himself draws this last letter to a close with a refusal of finality. “I shall write to XXX to-morrow, or next day,” he tells Charles Brown before issuing his utterly devastating awkward bow. He adds, “I will write to XXXXX in the middle of next week.” In all likelihood, though, he will not. If you were XXX or XXXXX, would you not have done all in your power to ensure that a letter written to you by Keats in his final months would survive into posterity? Given that no such letters exist, nor do any traces of them having ever existed, it’s safe to say that his future correspondence after 30 November 1820 was deferred indefinitely, and remains so. And yet, we persist in uncertainty, even if we know better.

The Xs in place of names gestures toward another bit of mystery connected with this last letter. The original manuscript is lost, as is the case with all but one of the extant letters to Brown (the letter of 30 September 1820 being the exception). The other eight letters come to us through Brown’s transcripts, made in his “Life of Keats” written between 1836 and 1841, and sent to Richard Monckton Milnes in March 1841. As he copied, Brown replaced the names of individuals with Xs, so we cannot know for sure to whom Keats intended to write (Rollins hazards guesses of Dilke and Woodhouse for the correspondents). More ghosts that haunt about the shape of the letter.

Brown clearly had difficulty revisiting the pain of two decades prior as he copied the nine letters then in his possession. In the letter accompanying his “Life of Keats” sent to Milnes, Brown writes, “Yesterday and to-day I have been occupied on this subject, and become fevered and nervous. I feel myself quite unable to fix my attention on these papers, whether in my hand writing or in his, any longer.” After passing on the “Life” to Milnes, Brown seems to have felt content that he was leaving the task of securing Keats’s place “among the English Poets” to a trusted steward. “A true friend of Keats,” he calls Milnes. The particular urgency of doing so at that moment for Brown, was that, as he posed it to Milnes, “I am on the eve of quitting England for ever.”

At the moment of consigning Keats’s final letter to its posthumous existence in Milnes’s care, Brown eerily parallels Keats back in 1820. Keats then found himself having left England for, what turned out to be, ever. And like Brown, he could hardly bear to fix his attention on the hand writing of “a friend I love so much as I do you,” as Keats wrote to Brown in this final letter of 30 November. Brown departed for New Zealand via The Oriental on 22 June 1841 and arrived in New Plymouth on 7 November. His life on Aotearoa did not last much longer than Keats’s in Italy: Brown died at New Plymouth on 5 June 1842.

One tantalizing question remains about the manuscript of this final letter: what did Brown do with it after copying it and sending the transcript to Milnes? Around the same time in 1841 when Brown sends Milnes the transcribed letters as part of his “Life of Keats,” he also sends some of Keats’s poetry manuscripts that were still in possession. He seems not to have ever intended to pass along the originals of any letters, so what became of them? Did he carry them with him across the oceans? Or did he perhaps–as Keats claimed, in a letter to Sarah Jeffrey, to have done in May 1819–make “a general conflagration of all old Letters and Memorandums”? An epistolary fire would certainly be one way to ease the pain of beholding Keats’s handwriting twenty years later. The future will determine whether any further traces of this last–or near-to-last–letter swim back into presence. For now, we have Brown’s copy and all the haunting resonances it summons into life.

The manuscript of Brown’s “Life of Keats” now resides at Harvard’s Houghton Library, along with the vast majority of Milnes’s Keatsiana collected before and after his biography of Keats was first published in 1848. For a reliable nineteenth-century edition in the public domain, we recommend Harry Buxton Forman’s 1901 Complete Works. And images below show Brown’s transcript (via Houghton Library) and the text as it appears in Rollins’s edition (via Google Books).

The KLP will be publishing several different pieces commemorating this final letter, so stay tuned!

Page 1 of Brown’s transcript of Keats’s letter. Image courtesy Harvard University, Houghton Library.

Page 2 of Brown’s transcript of Keats’s letter. Image courtesy Harvard University, Houghton Library.

Page 3 of Brown’s transcript of Keats’s letter. Image courtesy Harvard University, Houghton Library.

Letter #250: To Mrs. Brawne, 24 October 1820

When the Maria Crowther arrived in Naples Harbor on 21 October 1820, its passengers may have thought their journey was over. It had already been somewhat of a difficult passage, having faced storms and unfavorable conditions in the Channel as soon as they reached the sea on 19 September (after sailing down the Thames from London on 17 September. After slow eastward progress along the southern coast (including some backtracking because of poor weather), the Maria Crowther left England for good sometime around 2 October. More bad weather arrived in the Bay of Biscay, as did two Portuguese warships, leading to some worry that the Maria Crowther might be plundered. Such was not the case, and the remainder of the voyage to Naples passed relatively smoothly. Nonetheless, one imagines the passengers were eager to leave their ship when they were instead informed by the Italian authorities that due to a typhus outbreak in London, all English vessels were being forced to remain offshore for 6 weeks. That meant ten more days until the passengers of the Maria Crowther would truly be finished with their voyage.

And so, on the fourth day of ten spent in quarantine aboard the ship, Keats wrote his last direct communication to Fanny Brawne. And most of the communication was indirect, given that he could only muster the psychic fortitude to address Fanny’s mother, and at times specify particular messages to relay to the daughter. Only in the last line of his fourth page could Keats bring himself to address Fanny with these final written words to her: “Good bye Fanny! God bless you.” The devastation conveyed in that brief but double goodbye is matched by the understatement of Fanny’s entry in her copy of Leigh Hunt’s Literary Pocket-Book upon Keats’s departure: “Mr. Keats left Hampstead.” Given Keats’s own focus on vanishing around this time–he writes of Fanny to Charles Brown on 30 September, “I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing”–it is perhaps appropriate that only a vague outline of Fanny’s original inscription remains.

Fanny Brawne wrote “Mr. Keats left Hampstead” in the entry for 8 September (although he actually left on 13 September). Only a faint trace remains. Image via the Keats House Museum

With that we will leave you to read today’s letter to Mrs. Brawne, even if you may need to come prepared with some tissues for your tears. Text of the letter can be read via Harry Buxton Forman’s 1901 edition of the complete works, or via The Keats Letters, Papers, and Other Relics (1914), edited by George C. Williamson. It features a transcription of the letter and facsimile images of the MS, which we reproduce below. And if you would like to know more about Keats’s journey to Italy, check out this wonderful resource from The Keats-Shelley Memorial Association, “John Keats’s Final Voyage.

Once you’ve read the letter, then check out Susan Wolfson’s latest essay for us, where you’ll learn much more about the letter and Keats’s circumstances during this final part of his life.

Williamson, plates xliv-xlvii. Click images to enlarge.

Letter #241: To Percy Bysshe Shelley, 16 August 1820

Certainly in the rankings of Keats’s most famous and celebrated letters, today’s has to be right up there near the top. We won’t waste too much time giving you background on the letter–you have the good fortune to be able to read Susan Wolfson’s excellent essay for that information instead–but suffice it to say this: Shelley invited Keats to Italy, and this letter was Keats’s response. What emerged was not a direct reply to Shelley’s offer (in fact, Keats’s reply on that score was quite ambiguous), but a deeply considered reflection on some of the most fundamental issues about poetry that Keats explored throughout his correspondence.

If you don’t know the letter, or if you just want to read it anew on its 200th anniversary, fear not. We have a few options for you. You can read the letter in Harry Buxton Forman’s 1901 edition of Keats’s complete works, which has the added benefit of including the text of Shelley’s letter to which Keats was responding (Wolfson in her essay engages significantly with Shelley’s letter as well, so it may be worth your time to see the whole text of it). The manuscript of Keats’s letter is at the Bodleian Library, and they have kindly digitized the letter and made the images available. We also include the images here in case you want to practice your skill at reading Keats’s handwriting.

Once you’ve read the letter, prepare yourself for lots of fully-loaded rifts, jam-packed with ores of insight, and go check out Wolfson’s essay!

Keats’s 16 August 1820 letter to Percy Bysshe Shelley. Images courtesy of Bodleian Libraries, Oxford University.

Letter #184: To Fanny Keats, 6 February 1820

Just a few days after his serious hemorrhage, Keats writes to his sister to assure her that he is recovering well. His typical warmth and kindness towards her is on full display here. There is the first instance of what will become somewhat of a refrain over the next few weeks: here he tells her, “You must be careful always to wear warm clothing not only in frost but in a Thaw.” We also see Keats’s concern that George may at some point face a similar attack, but he hopes that “the sea air will be his Physician in case of illness–the air out at sea is always more temperate than on land.” When Keats is himself ailing, he thinks only of others and their health and happiness.

There’s also the small detail of Keats defending Fanny against a complaint from Richard Abbey (Fanny’s guardian), who seems to have complained to George that she was too often “moped and silent.” George writes to Fanny that she should “cheer up and look lively as nature made you.” Keats’s response is a bit different. Instead of chastising her to smile more (c’mon, George!), Keats defends his little sister by pointing out that “It is entirely the fault of his Manner.” Presumably this comment refers to Abbey’s manner, but it could also refer to George’s manner in addressing the topic and blaming Fanny for her behavior. Who wouldn’t mope while having to live apart from your brothers (one of whom is John Keats, no less) and in the company of the ever-practical and staid Richard Abbey? George really lost some points in our estimation of him…

Another interesting tidbit is brought up at the very end of the letter: the death of King George III on 29 January 1820. Keats notes, “The Papers I see are full of anecdotes of the late king: how he nodded to a Coal heaer and laugh’d with a Quaker and lik’d boil’d Leg of Mutton.” What a man of the people! One senses that Keats’s wry, cutting assessment is not borne of an overly fond view of the late King. However, there is a bit of room for human understanding that emerges from the letter’s final lines. Noting that Peter Pindar (John Wolcot, famous satirist of the King) had died just a year earlier, Keats wonders, “what will the old king and he say to each other? Perhaps the king may confess that Peter was in the right, and Peter maintain himself to have been wrong.” Everybody is in their own mess (as Keats wrote back in spring 1819), and here we see him extending a bit of imaginative grace between two lifelong foes, just as Keats finds himself in his most serious mess yet (health-wise, at least).

Today’s letter resides at the British Library, along with most of the letters to Fanny Keats. Text of the letter can be read via Harry Buxton Forman’s 1901 edition of the Complete Works. Images below come from the same book, via HathiTrust.

Letter #183: To Fanny Brawne, 4 (?) Feb 1820

This first letter of February 1820 comes just one day after Keats’s pulmonary hemorrhage, which, according to Charles Brown, signaled to Keats that he would not ultimately recover from his illness. Brown claims that when Keats saw the color of the blood he had coughed up, he remarked: “I know the colour of that blood,–it is arterial blood–I cannot be deceived in that colour; that drop is my death-warrant. I must die” (as relayed in Milnes’ Life and Literary Remains). Keats would be confined to his room in Wentworth Place for much of the next month. Meanwhile, Fanny Brawne was living just on the other side of a wall from Keats. Because of his condition, and out of fear of passing his disease to Fanny, Keats primarily communicated to her via short messages written on small pieces of paper and delivered by hand to the other side of the house.

In the first of these approximately 15 letters from February 1820 (there may have been others now lost, and some dated to February may have been from slightly earlier or later), Keats sounds a somewhat optimistic note, predicting that while the doctors were saying he “must remain confined to this room for some time,” it would nonetheless be a “pleasant prison” because of Fanny’s presence: “The consciousness that you love me will make a pleasant prison of the house next to yours.” As will be seen from future letters as the month goes on, the prison seems to have become less and less pleasant over time. One finds it difficult to imagine the particular kind of torment posed by the combination of nearness and absence that this situation enforced on the young couple. (Jane Campion’s depiction in Bright Star, however, does a pretty great job of depicting it–even if it becomes in her talented cinematic hands more deliciously sensual and full of devastating longing than it probably was in the reality of experiencing it. Then again, we’re talking about Keats here, and he’s pretty good at longing and devastation.)

All of the extant February letters to Fanny Brawne were included in Harry Buxton Forman’s edition of those letters, first published in 1878. For the most part his ordering of the letters matches the ordering of Hyder Edward Rollins (although there are a few small changes with the ordering of the last few letters of the month). Unlike most of these letters, though, today’s is no longer accounted for in manuscript form. It was sold at an auction of Frank J. Hogan’s collection of rare books and manuscripts in 1945. Since then, not sure! The letter was part of the original collection that Fanny Brawne’s son, Louis Lindon, sold to Forman after his mother’s death. Most of those letters were passed down from Forman to his son Maurice Buxton Forman, who sold many of the manuscripts in the 1930s. Rollins says that this particular letter was owned by Frederick Holland Day (one of the Bostonian Keatsians, the most famous of whom was Amy Lowell). Hogan likely acquired it from Day (or someone else) sometime around the time of Day’s death in 1933 and the sale in 1945. Whoever owns it now, lucky you!

Text of the letter can be accessed via the original form in which it was first published: Forman’s 1878 Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne. The letter is undated in that edition, but Forman estimates the date as 4 February in later editions, and as do other editors. (Images of the letter below are taken from the linked Hathitrust digital version of the book.)

Letter #143: To Fanny Brawne, 1 July 1819

Today (or thereabouts) marks the 200-year anniversary of the earliest extant letter from John Keats to Fanny Brawne. Over the last two centuries that correspondence–or at least the half of it that still exists–has been reviled and revered, with the revulsion coming mostly from readers at the end of the nineteenth century (when the letters were first published) and the reverence coming more consistently from later readers (like those who might have purchased the Love Letters and Poems of John Keats to Fanny Brawne in 2009, when it was published by Penguin to coincide with the release of the film Bright Star). Considering they were written by a poet who delighted in a contradictory, chameleon-like persona, the letters to Fanny Brawne unsurprisingly feature a John Keats who can be at times cruel, possessive, jealous, and callous, and yet also tender, playful, admiring and unbearably sweet. This first letter is no exception. But first, what is Keats up to when he writes this letter?

Part of the reason is that Keats had been in London for most of the time during which he and Brawne had become acquainted and begun their courtship. They met sometime during fall 1818, and, at least according to some accounts, had come to an understanding about their future by the time Keats spent Christmas day with the Brawnes at the end of that year. Surely there would have been notes sent between the two during the first half-year of their relationship, but for whatever reason, Brawne appears not to have preserved any until we reach the correspondence from summer 1819, when Keats spent significant time away from London. He had departed for Portsmouth on 27 June (and enjoyed quite the storm during the carriage ride), and the day after that sailed for the Isle of Wight. He stayed there with James Rice for most of July, and then moved to Winchester with Charles Brown for the remaining weeks of summer (leading up to his famous composition of “To Autumn” while in Winchester right around the change to that season). As such we have a number of letters from this period when Keats and Brawne are separated.

As Keats had done in previous summers, this trip to the Isle of Wight was undertaken with the aim of devoting himself to writing poetry. In this letter, as we’ll see in others to Brawne, Keats fears that his romantic attachment to her will impede his ability to write. One of those moments when Keats shows himself to be kind of a jerk (even if his tone might be playful), is when he writes, “Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom.” But then immediately after that typical I’m-a-dude-who-needs-to-be-free-to-pursue-my-art moment, Keats goes into what is rightly one of the more beloved passages from all of the correspondence to Brawne (just search for “Keats” and “butterflies” on instagram, and you’ll see):

write me the softest words and kiss them that I may at least touch my lips where yours have been. For myself I know not how to express my devotion to so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days–three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.

Even though modern readers (like us at the KLP, we confess) might swoon at such sincere expressions of young love, Victorian readers tended to feel a bit differently about them. Matthew Arnold is often cited as one of the exemplars of this disapproval: he wrote that the letters were “the sort of love-letter[s] of a surgeon’s apprentice which one might hear read out in a breach of promise case.” Arnold was not the only one, of course. Many responses to the publication of Harry Buxton Forman’s The Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (1878) echoed sentiments like Arnold’s. The objections weren’t just about the act of publication itself, which was seen by some as an improper breach of privacy, but also that the letters reflected poorly upon Keats, who by the 1870s had acquired enough literary status that any tarnishing of his reputation would be met with resistance. The publication of the letters also led to plenty of misogynistic reactions against Brawne herself: these readers assumed that Keats’s volatility and cruelty must have been the result of Brawne’s behavior.

The controversy continued a few years after the initial furor over Forman’s decision to publish the letters in 1878. In 1885 the Lindon family (Fanny Brawne married Louis Lindon in 1833; the couple had three children) decided to sell the original manuscripts of the letters. One attendee at the auction was Oscar Wilde, who wrote a sonnet in which he described the other attendees as “the brawlers of the auction mart.”

Wilde’s sonnet written on the occasion of the sale of the Brawne letters in 1885.

If publishing the private love-letters were a problem, then it seems that profiting off their sale was even worse. Wilde’s conclusion is that “they love not art / Who break the crystal of a poet’s heart / That small and sickly eyes may glare and gloat.” Well, that hits a bit too close to home here at the KLP… In any case, the result of the letters being sold at auction in 1885 is that they are now scattered across the globe in various libraries, archives, and institutions. The whereabouts of some are entirely unknown–the source for several letters remain Forman’s editions from the 1870s and 1880s.

For the text of the letter we direct you the American edition of the 1878 Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (via Hathitrust). The manuscript is one of those whose whereabouts are unknown. Most likely some lucky auction-goer (or brawler, as Wilde would have it) purchased it in 1885. Here’s hoping it comes back into the public view once again.

Letter #121: To Fanny Keats, 27 February 1819

Keats continues to uphold his efforts to write his sister on a biweekly basis, and although he worried that he’d lost track of time and been truant, turns out he was only off by two days (his last letter to her was on 11 February). Not too shabby. As in that previous letter, Keats empathizes with Fanny’s disappointment about her current living situation. Back on the 11th, Keats bemoaned that her guardian Richard Abbey removed Fanny from her school (The Ladies Boarding Academy run by Mary Ann and Susanna Tuckey at 12 Marsh Street in Walthamstow). Today Keats focuses on Mrs. Abbey.

It appears that Fanny had complained to her brother about Mrs. Abbey’s “unfeeling ignorant gabble.” We don’t know exactly to what that refers, but it seems at least possible that Mrs. Abbey may have been speaking ill of Fanny’s brothers. We know that Mr. Abbey tried to keep Fanny apart from the young men whom he deemed to be bad influences (a poet and an American adventurer, yikes!). Perhaps Mrs. Abbey had some negative “gabble” to say about the brothers as well. In any case, it seems Fanny indicated that Mrs. Abbey’s “crying” was constant. Keats advises that Fanny persevere: “Many people live opposite a Blaksmith’s till they cannot hear the hammer.”

Another topic of significance is one that we’ll hear more about over the course of this year. Keats notes that “I have been a little concerned at not hearing from George–I continue in daily expectation.” Turns out that the 19th-century transatlantic postal system could be a bit unreliable! Particularly in Keats’s letters to George and Georgiana, we find him frequently bemoaning the uncertainty of epistolary communication across the ocean. As a contrast to that span of distance and time, Keats closes today’s letter to Fanny with a more felicitous notion of letter writing: “Write me directly and let me know about them [the status of Fanny’s chilblains]–Your Letter shall be answered like an echo–“

Now we’ll let that echo reverberate and encourage you to read the letter to Fanny in Forman’s 1901 edition. Images below via HathiTrust.

Letter #120: To Benjamin Robert Haydon, 18 (?) February 1819

The date of today’s letter is a bit uncertain, but a few hints suggest that the 18th is about right. First, we hear from Keats again about his latest struggle with Richard Abbey over the question of seeing and corresponding with Fanny Keats on a regular basis. On 14 February Keats had explained the situation to George and Georgiana as such: “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.” To Haydon Keats writes that he’d “had several interviews with my guardian–have written him a rather plain spoken Letter–which has had its effect.” Take that, Abbey!

Now, the topic of interest to Haydon was not Keats’s right to see Fanny, but rather Keats’s right to his money. The Keats family inheritance woes were well nigh Jarndycean, and we don’t have the time (or insight) to lay them out in all their complexities here. But in this particular instance, at least according to Keats, the question being pursued with Abbey was the fate of Tom’s portion of their inheritance. As he notes to Haydon, Keats was worried that those monies would remain under Abbey’s guardianship until Fanny came of age (in 1824). Unfortunately, back in December Keats had made a promise to loan Haydon money. As it became clearer in the next months that Keats’s financial prospects were not quite as favorable as he’d hoped, the tension with Haydon would increase.

Here today, though, we see Keats still feeling pretty good about his financial future. He’s confident, almost gloating, about his dealings with Abbey, and he concludes by remarking that he’ll either get money soon or be forced to “incontinently take to Corderoy Trowsers.” He expresses his optimism once again, concluding that “I am nearly confident ‘t is all a Bam.” For those of you not fluent in Regency slang, “Bam,” according to Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, meant more or less the same thing as “humbug.” Unfortunately for the Keats siblings, Abbey’s handling of their finances was not a bam after all. More of a bummer. As we’d say in the US, it’s all about the Benjamins (and not just Haydon). Or, according to Grose once again, it’s all about the Balsam.

From Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

Ok, enough lame jokes for now! Text of the letter to Haydon can be read via Forman’s 1901 edition (where he dates it to January 1819). The image of the manuscript below comes courtesy of Houghton Library at Harvard University.

Keats’s 18 (?) February 1819 letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.49). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Letter #119: To Fanny Keats, 11 February 1819

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.

Keats’s 11 February 1819 letter to Fanny Keats. From The Complete Works of John Keats, edited by Harry Buxton Forman. Volume 5. Gowers & Gray, 1901.

Keats’s 11 February 1819 letter to Fanny Keats. From The Complete Works of John Keats, edited by Harry Buxton Forman. Volume 5. Gowers & Gray, 1901.

Letter #118: To William Mayor, 4 February 1818

Today’s letter is one of the more recently discovered Keats manuscripts, having been first published in 1935. We’ve encountered its initial publisher before. Way back in the halcyon days of October 2016 we wrote about the fortuitous re-discovery of Keats’s 9 October 1816 letter to Charles Cowden Clarke. The same characters from that story–J. H. Birss and Louis Arthur Holman–return again with this letter to William Mayor. At this time we don’t have any information on how or where Birss came across the letter, but as with the 9 October 1816 letter, Birss went to Louis Arthur Holman to arrange its initial publication.

Holman you may also remember from the 25 March 1817 letter to Cowden Clarke, which Holman located in the National Portrait Gallery of Scotland in 1929. Those two letters to Clarke, along with a letter from November 1819 which we’ll return to later this year, Holman printed in his pamphlet Within the Compass of a Print Shop in 1932. Three years later, in October 1935, Holman issued a new number of the pamphlet which included today’s letter to Mayor. It also included Keats’s letter to the mother of Georgiana Wylie Keats from January 1819. All of this is to say, Holman has pride of place when it comes to the first publication of Keats letters during the first few decades of the twentieth century.

There isn’t too much we know about William Mayor, beyond his connection to Benjamin Robert Haydon. According to Maurice Buxton Forman, Mayor was a student of Haydon’s and later a collector of paintings. While it doesn’t seem that Keats was particularly close with Mayor (this is the only extant letter between them, and we don’t encounter any other mentions of Mayor in Keats’s correspondence), the note is a friendly one, and it includes an invitation for Mayor to come and stay with Keats and Brown at Wentworth Place. Also of note is that Keats sends his regards through Mayor to Charles Cowden Clarke. In the early days of Keats’s correspondence, Clarke was one of his most frequent addressees. The two seem to have grown apart a bit by this time in early 1819, but Keats wishes Mayor to express to Clarke, “the assurance of my constant idea of him–notwithstanding our long separation and my antipathy=indolentissimum to letter writing.” Well, we daresay that Keats did pretty good work on the letter writing thing as a whole, even if he felt like he neglected Clarke.

Images below show the letter as it was first published by Holman in 1935, and the manuscript courtesy of Houghton Library. Note that Holman got the date incorrect–the postmark is faint, but it does indeed read “CAMDEN TOWN / EV / 4 FE / 1819” (EV for evening, FE for February).

The letter as it was first published in Louis Arthur Holman’s Within the Compass of a Print Shop, October 1935. Image via Brian Rejack’s personal copy.
Page 1 of Keats’s 4 February 1819 letter to William Mayor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.48). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 2 of Keats’s 4 February 1819 letter to William Mayor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.48). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 3 of Keats’s 4 February 1819 letter to William Mayor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.48). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 4 of Keats’s 4 February 1819 letter to William Mayor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.48). Houghton Library, Harvard University.