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.

Letter #117: To Charles and Maria Dilke, 24 January 1819 (with Charles Brown)

Today’s letter is a rollicking pun-fest featuring the collaborative comedy team of Keats and Charles Brown. Brown had been visiting with Dilke’s parents during the Christmas season, and Keats joined them in Chichester on the 18th or 19th of January. The day before writing this letter together, Brown and Keats walked from Chichester to Bedhampton, where they stayed with John Snook (who was connected to the Dilkes through his marriage to Letitia Dilke, sister of Charles). Brown and Keats relay news concerning the Dilkes’ relatives as well as the goings-on in Chichester and Bedhampton. We can particularly relate to Brown’s comment that “Mrs Dilke [i.e. Charles’ mother] is remarkably well for Mrs Dilke in winter.” Curse you, winter!

The playful spirit of the letter comes across right from the opening. Brown first addresses Charles as such: “This letter is Wife, and if you are a Gentleman, you will deliver it to her, without reading one word further.” It appears that Brown then made a dotted line across the page underneath this section and then began his letter to Maria Dilke. We say “it appears” because it seems likely that the additional text above that dotted line was added later, given that it is squeezed in above the line rather tightly. Keats wrote here “‘read thou Squire,” which was then followed by Brown writing “There is a depending on this.” What that all means is not entirely to us, but Keats’s phrase does appear in Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Perhaps the wager was simply whether Dilke would read the letter or behave like a gentleman and deliver it direct to his wife, or perhaps it had something to do with Keats’s allusion? We don’t know. Moving on!

There’s a decent amount of punning, but things really get out of control on the letter’s third page, where Keats takes over and unleashes a string of playful sentences. The jokes continue as Brown returns claiming, “This is abominable! I did but go up stairs to put on a clean & starched hand-kerchief, & that over weening rogue read my letter & scrawled over one of my sheets.” Brown and Keats–just a couple of jokers!

We’ll leave you with just one more bit of wordplay, which Keats adds cross-wise on the letter’s first page: “N. B. I beg leaf to withdraw all my Puns–they are all wash, an base uns–” Zing!

To read the rest of the letter you can find it in The Keats Letters, Papers, and Other Relics Forming the Dilke Bequest in the Hampstead Public Library. Those materials are now in possession of the Keats House Museum in Hampstead. Facsimile images of the manuscript come from the book linked above.

Image of the first page of the manuscript of Brown and Keats's letter to Charles and Maria Dilke, 24 January 1819.
Page 1 of Brown and Keats’s letter to Charles and Maria Dilke, 24 January 1819.
Image of the second page of the manuscript of Brown and Keats's letter to Charles and Maria Dilke, 24 January 1819.
Page 2 of Brown and Keats’s letter to Charles and Maria Dilke, 24 January 1819.
Image of the third page of the manuscript of Brown and Keats's letter to Charles and Maria Dilke, 24 January 1819.
Page 3 of Brown and Keats’s letter to Charles and Maria Dilke, 24 January 1819.
Image of the fourth page of the manuscript of Brown and Keats's letter to Charles and Maria Dilke, 24 January 1819.
Page 4 of Brown and Keats’s letter to Charles and Maria Dilke, 24 January 1819.

Letter #113: To George and Georgiana Keats, 16 December 1818–4 January 1819

Today we encounter the second of Keats’s great “journal letters” to George and Georgiana in America. Readers will recall the first of these from back in October 1818. Between that letter and this one, Keats had not heard any further news from George and Georgiana, nor would he until several months into 1819. This was also the first letter Keats sent to America after Tom’s death, although it seems that, according to Keats’s opening, William Haslam had sent notice to George and Georgiana sometime between Tom’s death on 1 December and when Keats began the letter on the 16th.

As is typically the case with these journal letters, written over weeks and even months, this one ranges widely in terms of its topics. There is the discussion of Tom’s final illness and the ensuing grief, but also more hopeful and light topics such as Keats’s first impressions of Fanny Brawne and the receipt of a laudatory sonnet enclosed with a £25 note. There is also the inclusion of two poems which will end up in Keats’s 1820 volume: “Fancy” and “Bards of Passion and of Mirth.” So go ahead and read the whole letter. It’s well worth your time! Forman’s 1901 edition includes the text of the letter based on John Jeffrey’s transcript, which, in Jeffrey’s defense, is one of his more accurate and comprehensive ones. The entire manuscript can be viewed via Houghton Library at Harvard

And for your additional pleasure and delight, we have two posts in response to this journal letter. First is “Improper Time” from Kamran Javadizadeh (Villanova), who focuses on the temporal oddities that occur when writing letters across the ocean in 1818-19. And then we have a set of paired responses by Kathleen Béres Rogers (College of Charleston) and Brittany Pladek (Marquette), both of whom focus on Keats’s reflections on illness and death in their piece “Sensation and Immortality.” Enjoy!

Letter #112: To Ann Griffin Wylie, 1 January (?) 1819

The first letter of 1819 may have actually been the last letter of 1818, but we’ll go with Hyder Edward Rollins’s guess at the date. Keats is writing to Mrs. Wylie, the mother of Georgiana Wylie Keats, who would have then been nearing her first anniversary of her marriage to George Keats. Since the letter was delivered by messenger, we have not postage marks to help us with the date. But Keats does mention a sore throat, which he had also mentioned to Fanny Keats on 30 December 1818. And we know that he will indeed send off his second journal letter to George and Georgiana on 4 January 1819, so the reference to the ship bound for Philadelphia fits in that time frame as well.

The first/last letter of 1819/1818 has another distinctive honor: it is one of the few letters to have been rediscovered in the past century. As regular KLPers may remember, we’ve encountered some relatively recently uncovered letters before. One of them was in fact first published by the same figure who is responsible for bringing today’s letter to light: Louis Arthur Holman. We last heard from him back on March 25, 2017, when we wrote about his first publishing of a letter to Charles Cowden Clarke written on that date in 1817. Today’s letter Holman came across in the holdings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and he published the letter in his pamphlet, Within the Compass of a Print Shop in October 1935. Below we reproduce the letter via image from Rollins’s edition, and from Holman’s original publication! KLP co-editor Brian Rejack was lucky enough to find a copy of Holman’s pamphlet for purchase on the interwebs a few weeks ago. Enjoy!

From Hyder Edward Rollins’s The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821 (Harvard UP, 1958). Screenshot via Google Books
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.

Letter #111: To Fanny Keats, 30 December 1818

Keats writes to Fanny today to explain that a sore throat is keeping him “confined at Hampstead,” and that he won’t be able to visit her for at least a few days. He also recognizes that he has sometimes been careless of his health and vows to be a bit more careful: “I intended to have been in Town yesterday but feel obliged to be careful a little while–I am in general so careless of these trifles, that they tease me for Months, when a few days care is all that is necessary.” If only that had been true for Keats for longer…

And with that we leave 1818 behind! Another milestone, if you’ve been following along with your trusty copy of Hyder Edward Rollins’s scholarly edition of the letters: we’re now embarking on volume 2! A halfway point of sorts, then. The KLP is pleased to have you along for the next stage!

Text of the letter can be accessed via Harry Buxton Forman’s 1901 edition of the letters, courtesy of HathiTrust.

Letter #110: To John Taylor, 24 December 1818

Just a brief note from Keats to Taylor, and really only one main purpose for sending it: money money money! Keats has really come a long way regarding his anxiety about money matters. Just compares today’s note to the one Keats sent to his publishers Taylor and Hessey back in June 1817 (and while you’re at it, read David Sigler’s insightful and hilarious analysis of the letter). Whereas Keats bent over backwards to excuse his request for a loan 18 months ago, here he simply begins the letter by asking for the cash outright! Good for you, Keats.

The manuscript of the letter resides at Houghton Library at Harvard. You can view the images below, courtesy of their online resource.

Page 1 of Keats’s 24 December 1818 letter to John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.44). Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Page 4 of Keats’s 24 December 1818 letter to John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.44). Houghton Library, Harvard University.