Florida State University
RE: Keats’s 14 February 1820 letter to Fanny Keats
How important is a minor letter by a major poet? John Keats’s 14 February 1820 letter to his sister Fanny is a hundred and sixty-six words and begins with a report on his physical state. “I am improving but very gradually,” writes Keats, who goes on to grumble about Fanny’s guardian Richard Abbey. “I am vex’d that Mr Abbey will not allow you pocket money sufficient,” he says. In comparison to his previous letters to Fanny, in which Keats projects an air of good cheer, here, he complains about his friends (“No one from town has visited me since my last”) and glooms about the future (“it will be a long while before I shall be able to walk six miles”).
Kelvin Everest has described Keats’s letters as “an achievement ranking almost with the poetry,” noting that the letters “articulate a personality of extraordinary critical intelligence, generous sympathies, and richly engaging tactful good humour” (ODNB). Fanny Keats was frequently the audience for Keats’s verbal artistry. In a letter posted earlier in February, Keats describes for his sister the view from his “Sopha bed”—a parade of passers-by that included “two old maiden Ladies,” “gipseys,” and the neighbor’s dog—and he projects a general bonhomie (8 February 1820). “I took a walk for a quarter of an hour in the garden and was very much refreshed by it,” he writes. But in the February 14 letter, we get only a brief glimpse of Keats the Poet. “I have had so many presents of jam & jellies that they would reach side by side the length of the sideboard,” he writes. After this flicker of vivid description, Keats glumly continues, “I hope I shall be well before it is all consumed.”
Keats’s 14 February 1820 letter gains poignancy from the clock we hear ticking in the background—he died a year and a week after it was posted. In another letter written around the same time, Keats reports, “I am reccommended not even to read poetry much less write it.” The letters are at this point Keats’s primary creative output, but they display less and less in the way of verbal pyrotechnics.
If Keats’s 14 February (St. Valentine’s Day!) letter to his sister is not as dazzling as some of his earlier letters, it’s partly because he’s more focused on the other Fanny, to whom, throughout February, he writes anguished cris de coeur. The dating of many of the Fanny Brawne letters is uncertain, but in Hyder Edward Rollins’ edition, Keats’s 14 February letter to his sister is sandwiched between letters he wrote to Fanny Brawne. Of the possibility that they will be separated from each other by Brawne’s trip to town, Keats writes, “How I shall be able to bear it, or whether it will not be worse than your presence now and then, I cannot tell” (February (?) 1820).
Keats’s letters to Fanny Brawne heat to a boil; his letters to his sister hover around average body temperature. Another distinction between the two sets of letters is that the ones Keats wrote to Fanny Brawne got scattered—although the scattering occurred after Brawne, by then Fanny Lindon, had died—whereas the letters he wrote to Fanny Keats have remained carefully preserved. Maurice Buxton Forman highlights this difference in the Preface to his 1952 edition of Keats’s letters, in which he writes, “It is to be regretted that they [Keats’s letters to Brawne] did not share the fate of the letters to that other Fanny, his sister, which at her death passed from my father’s care, all save six, into the hands of the nation” (ix).
Fanny saved her letters from Keats more carefully and comprehensively than did the other people to whom he wrote. Of the extant Keats letters, those Keats wrote to Fanny Keats comprise twenty percent of the total. More letters survive of Keats’s correspondence with his sister than of his correspondence with any other single person. Edmund Blunden, in a 1931 review of Maurice Buxton Forman’s edition of the letters, noted the likelihood of omissions. The number of extant letters “for a man so befriended and attended as Keats was, is clearly an imperfect total,” Blunden wrote (261). Given the factors conspiring against John and Fanny’s correspondence—that the siblings lacked “a certain affective psychological foundation” due to their early separation (see Talia Vestri’s essay about Keats’s earliest extant letter to his sister), that Keats was more intellectually engaged with writer friends and more passionately engaged with Fanny Brawne—it seems unlikely that Keats wrote more letters to his sister than he did to any other correspondent. “Your Letter shall be answered like an echo,” Keats wrote to Fanny, but the echo was often delayed (27 February 1819). He ends his 14 February letter by promising that Fanny will hear from him again “the day after tomorrow,” but his next letter to her was posted on February 19th.
Nevertheless, Fanny conscientiously clung to Keats’s letters, ever faithful to the vision that he sketched out for the two of them. “You will preserve all my Letters and I will secure yours,” he writes to Fanny on 10 September 1817. “Thus in the course of time,” he writes, “we shall each of us have a good Bundle—which, hereafter, when things may have strangely altered and god knows what happened, we may read over together and look with pleasure on times past—that now are to come.” As an elderly woman, Fanny said that they had been out of her possession only once.
In old age Fanny (Keats) Llanos became known to Keats enthusiasts as a letter receptacle, a figure like Juliana Bordereau in Henry James’s The Aspern Papers. James’s male protagonist condescends to a woman who controls alluring literary manuscripts. In a similar manner, Fanny Keats was disparaged by Keats acolytes like Robert Gittings, who described her as “a stodgy little person, who turned out to have inherited the financial acumen and persistence of her grandmother”(75-76). Frederick Locker-Lampson called Fanny “fat, blonde and lymphatic,” and insisted she was only interesting by association (343). “She was John Keats’s sister!” Locker-Lampson exclaimed. “I had a good deal of talk with her, or rather at her, for she was not very responsive. I was disappointed, for I remember that my sprightliness made her yawn; she seemed inert and had nothing to tell of her wizard brother of whom she spoke as of a mystery—with a vague admiration but a genuine affection.”
In comparing Fanny’s stolid demeanor unfavorably to his own “sprightliness,” Locker-Lampson calls to mind literary unreliable narrators (“I have just returned from a visit to my landlord”) and real-life gasbag dinner guests (“Have I told you about my start-up plan?”). He suggests Fanny was incapable of appreciating her brother’s wizardry, that she kept Keats’s flame lit without herself being enlightened. This view of Fanny differs from the way in which Keats himself regarded his sister. Unlike Wordsworth, who, in “Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” depicts Dorothy Wordsworth as a future museum of William memories, Keats imagines a mutual preservation society—“You will preserve all my Letters and I will secure yours” (10 September 1817).
Toward the end of Keats’s 14 February letter to Fanny, he writes of their brother George being obliged, due to Abbey’s withholding of money, to return to London from Louisville, Kentucky, a distance of 4,043 miles, and one that took six to fourteen weeks, depending on sailing conditions (see Brian Rejack’s “The Misadventures of a Letter” for more on trans-Atlantic travel). The letter’s other reference to distance appears in the address and postmark. Keats posted his letter from Wentworth Place in Hampstead to Fanny’s Pancras Lane, Queen Street, Cheapside address. The distance between Fanny and Keats throughout most of their correspondence was around five miles, but it proved frequently insurmountable. Keats often explains his failure to carry out planned visits.
I’m writing about Keats’s 14 February letter to his sister in the Minami-ku library, a branch of the Yokohama public library system. The view from my library table takes in a graveyard reinforced by a concrete wall, across which cats occasionally wander.
Perhaps because I’m far from home (and also from my home institution’s library), I’m moved to dwell on the precarity and preservation of Keats’s relationship with his sister. I sought out Keats’s 14 February letter in the holdings of the Yokohama National University Library, which, luckily for me, is rich in Keats letter collections. On its shelves can be found Lord Houghton’s The Life and Letters of Keats, Maurice Buxton Forman’s The Letters of John Keats, and Hyder E. Rollins’s The Letters of John Keats. Curious as to whether Keats’s letter to his sister had been translated into Japanese, I looked into Japanese compilations of Keats’s letters without finding the 14 February letter. It was likely deemed too inconsequential to merit inclusion in selective collections.
An obsolete check-out card in the Hyder Rollins edition suggested light usage of that collection, but I discovered, tipped into the first volume, a slip of paper left by a past reader.
The slip records the page number for Keats’s famous “negative capability” letter, but it is placed between pages on which a letter to Fanny Keats ends and a letter to Richard Woodhouse begins. In the letter to Richard Woodhouse, Keats sets forth his description of the “camelion Poet,” who “has no self.” The reader who left her book slip behind was almost certainly toggling back and forth between Keats’s two most famous accounts of poetic identity, rather than forging a link between negative capability and Keats’ letter to Fanny, which tells her how to evade her guardian’s constraints. There’s always a chance, however, that some future reader of Keats’s letters will forge such a connection, that a seemingly minor letter will come to assume greater importance, and that Fanny, the literary archivist, will seem especially prescient.
“The Sun appears half inclined to shine,” Keats wrote to Fanny on a not- particularly-remarkable day in mid-February of 1820. “[I]f he obliges us I shall take a turn in the garden this morning.” For Fanny, unlike for Keats scholars and enthusiasts, Keats’s weather forecast was as valuable as his more ambitious prognostications. The small letter she preserved from 14 February 1820 allows us to see Keats the convalescent more vividly than Keats the poet, to imagine Keats strolling around his garden on a morning that promised better weather.
Judith Pascoe is the George Mills Harper Professor of English at Florida State University. She has published Romantic Theatricality: Gender, Poetry, and Spectatorship (Cornell, 1997), The Hummingbird Cabinet: A Rare and Curious History of Romantic Collectors (Cornell, 2006), and The Sarah Siddons Audio Files: Romanticism and the Lost Voice (U of Michigan, 2011). She has also published essays in Public Books, The American Scholar, and the Hudson Review. Pascoe’s most recent book, On the Bullet Train with Emily Brontë: “Wuthering Heights” in Japan (U of Michigan, 2017), which was completed with the support of a Guggenheim fellowship, explores how and why Brontë’s novel has been embraced by Japanese readers and writers.
Bates, W. Jackson. John Keats. Harvard University Press, 1963.
Blunden, Edmund. “Keats’s Letters, 1931; Marginalia,” Reprinted Papers Partly Concerning English Romantic Poets. Tokyo, Kenkyusha, 1950. 209-266.
Everest, Kelvin. “John Keats.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online edition.
Forman, Maurice Buxton. The Letters of John Keats, 4th ed. Oxford University Press, 1952.
Gittings, Robert. John Keats. Penguin, 1968.
Locker-Lampson, Frederick. My Confidences: An Autobiographical Sketch Addressed to My Descendants. New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1896.
Okada, Akiko. Keats and English Romanticism in Japan. Peter Lang, 2006.
Rollins, Hyder Edward. The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821. 2 vols. Cambridge University Press, 1958.