Letter #70: To Margaret Jeffery, 4 or 5 May 1818

After a long stay in Teignmouth (5 months for Tom, 2 for John), the Keats brothers return to Well Walk, Hampstead. The exact date of their departure is uncertain, but it was certainly after 3 May (when Keats sent a letter to Reynolds from Teignmouth–the “Mansion of Many Apartments” letter no less), and it was long enough before 11 May for them to make it back to London, on which date Keats dined with Haydon. Rollins suggests 4 or 5 May, and we won’t quibble with him here.

The letter sent soon after their departure is to Margaret Jeffery, the mother of Marian (or Marianne, or Maryann) and Sarah Jeffery, two young women with whom the Keats brothers became acquainted while staying at Teignmouth. The letter was written at Honiton, some 32 miles, via Exeter, northeast of Teignmouth. (To explore roads and distances via contemporary sources, check out our post from 21 March with relevant links.) Keats, ever the polite young man, sends this letter to Mrs. Jeffery to thank her for her solicitude regarding Tom’s health: “My Brother has borne his Journey thus far remarkably well. I am too sensible of your anxiety for us not to send this by the Chaise back for you.” What a thoughtful guy. Makes certain people, who will not be named (or rather, who will not name themselves), and who still struggle mightily to remember to send thank you notes (sorry, Mom!), look a bit foolish.

Keats’s brief but characteristically thoughtful letter to Mrs. Jeffery.

[**EDITOR’S NOTE: The information in this paragraph is wrong. We’re leaving it to remind ourselves not to blithely trust Rollins in all things. See update below.**] But to return. It seems from this letter that Tom and John were accompanied on the first stage of their trip by Sarah Jeffery. Keats asks Mrs. Jeffery to “Give our goodbyes again to Marrian and Fanny.” (Side note: there really isn’t any consistency in spelling Marian/Marianne/Maryann/Marrian’s name.) Well what about Sarah? No goodbye for her?? Piece of evidence number one that Sarah was with John and Tom when the letter was written at Honiton. That the letter was sent back “by the Chaise” (i.e. in possession of Sarah on her return trip home) is piece of evidence number two, although it’s also plausible that Keats could have sent the letter back by some anonymous chaise passenger who agreed to deliver the letter to Mrs. Jeffery. Piece of evidence number three: in a letter Sarah Jeffery about a year later (31 May 1819), Keats chastises himself, “Why did I not answer your Honiton Letter?” That seems to suggest that after John and Tom continued their journey toward London, Sarah remained in Honiton and sent them a London-bound letter following fast on the brothers’ heels. Piece of evidence number four: in another letter to Sarah Jeffery, sent on 9 Jun 1819, Keats closes it with, “I shall ever remember our leave-taking with you.” That sentiment seems to suggest that their leave-taking with Sarah was separate from their leave-taking from the rest of the Jeffery family.

How do we know of these letters, you ask? Thought you never would! The correspondence with the Jeffery family comes rather late to the Keats story: 1893 to be exact. In that year Albert Forbes Sieveking (mostly remembered now for his history of gardens, The Praise of Gardens) came into possession of four letters by Keats, three by Tom, and a copy of Keats’s “Sonnet on Blue.” These manuscripts had been preserved by Marian Jeffery, who married Isaac Sparke Prowse in 1829, with whom she had a child in 1836, William Jeffery Prowse. Not much is known about the elder Prowse, except that he came from Torquay (just 10 miles or so down the coast from Teignmouth), that he was enrolled as a student in the local school in Torquay in 1805 (see J. T. White’s History of Torquay, published in 1878), that he was a wine merchant, and that he died in 1844. Young William was then adopted by his uncle, John Sparke Prowse, with whom he lived in Greenwich. A year before that, in July 1843, the boy had fallen into the harbor and was rescued by a 12-year-old W. A. Goss, who was awarded £5 and “the Royal Humane Society’s medal for an act of bravery” (J. T. White again). Good work, young man!

William Jeffrery Prowse, having cheated death thanks to the heroism of Goss, grew up to become a celebrated comic writer, though like so many people in this story, he died young, at just 34 years of age in 1870. He was at the peak of his success in the 1860s, when he was one of the contributing writers for Fun, the periodical founded by Tom Hood, son of Thomas Hood and Jane Hood (née Reynolds–the Keats connections abound!). While writing for the magazine Prowse rubbed elbows with Hood, W. S. Gilbert (before he found his more famous career trajectory), Thomas William Robertson, Clement Scott, and Thomas Archer, among others. It was to Archer that Prowse gave the Keats-family manuscripts that had been passed to him by his mother. When Archer died in 1893, the letters were passed on to his son, Launcelot Archer, who then conveyed them to Sieveking.

Sieveking published the four Keats letters, along with significant commentary, in The Fortnightly Review in December 1893. A few things of interest to draw to your attention. Devotees of the history of Keats’s letters may know that the letters to Fanny Brawne (coming starting July 2019–get ready!) were not published until long after Keats’s death (in 1878 to be precise), and when they were published, let’s just say some people (ahem, Matthew Arnold) were not too pleased about it. Arnold, of course, was not the only one, but his comments about those letters are probably the most famous. For just one sample, how about this for a verdict: “one is tempted to say that Keats’s love-letter is the love-letter of a surgeon’s apprentice. It has in its relaxed self-abandonment something underbred and ignoble, as of a youth ill brought up, without the training which teaches us that we must put some constraint upon our feelings and upon the expression of them. It is the sort of love-letter of a surgeon’s apprentice which one might hear read out in a breach of promise case, or in the Divorce Court. The sensuous man speaks in it, and the sensuous man of a badly bred and badly trained sort.”

But that was back in 1878, and by 1893 the debates about the propriety of publishing personal correspondence had been long settled, right? Sieveking, who devotes several pages to the question, shows that it had not. As he was publishing these newly-rediscovered letters, you might imagine that Sieveking was cool with publishing letters, even if they might be embarrassing to an author. And you’d be right. Clearly he felt the need to defend his decision because other writers were still complaining about the Fanny Brawne letters! Sieveking’s main named antagonist is William Watson, a poet himself, and the author of an essay in August 1890 in the National Review titled “The Punishment of Genius.” Watson’s argument is essentially: “ugh, good thing Keats is dead so he doesn’t have to be embarrassed all the time!” Got news for you, Watson, Keats and embarrassment was kind of a thing when he was alive too (just ask Christopher Ricks). Here’s a choice bit, in which Watson sarcastically lists off all the great wishes for fame that Keats had realized by 1890 and would have witnessed if, as Shelley claimed, Adonais “lives, he wakes”: “He will have seen the passionate letters to his somewhat mundane goddess catalogued in sale lists, and knocked down under the auctioneer’s hammer.” The KLP will officially change its Twitter handle to “Somewhat Mundane Goddess Project” in July 2019 when the letters to Fanny Brawne begin. Just so you know.

There are some more-than-somewhat mundane matters stuck in Watson’s craw as well, to which we here at the KLP must take exception. Watson has the gall to slag off “the painstaking modern editor!” In this case, Harry Buxton Forman is the one Watson has in mind. What are Forman’s sins? How about this one: “Keats wrote in a letter, ‘I much wait,’ instead of ‘I must wait,’ and Mr Forman carefully preserves the blunder.” Who would ever care about such things?? Only fools and charlatans, for sure. The KLP wholeheartedly agrees with Watson’s assessment below:

“Minutely and uselessly laborious idleness” indeed. Why bother devoting one’s time to the minute particulars of something like Keats’s letters…

But back to Sieveking and his response to Watson. Here’s what he has to say about such matters: “Much has been said by the critics as to the bad taste and indiscretion of publishing over-detailed biographies and letters of a private nature. But there is nothing in these letters which can by any possibility suggest the desirability of suppression. And even had there been, I do not think I should have yielded to the desire. If we are to know anything at all about a great poet after his death, I am of opinion we can hardly know too much.” To which we say, Mr. Sieveking: same.

To read the rest of Sieveking’s commentary, along with his transcripts of the letters, head over to the Fortnightly Review via Hathitrust. We’ll hear more about the Jeffery sisters in early June when Keats writes to Sarah and Marian.

**UPDATE–7 June 2018**
Turns out there are some inaccuracies in Rollins’s reading of the Jeffery family. First, it appears that the spelling of their name was JeffERY, not JeffREY. Confirmation of this fact comes largely from the fairly consistent spelling of William Jeffery Prowse’s name in that manner in publications mentioning or by him from the time. It also appears that Rollins’s supposition about Sarah traveling with John and Tom to Honiton is wrong. The problem that led to Rollins’s mistakes was his assumption that there were three sisters, Marian, Sarah, and Fanny. Alas, Fanny was a nickname for Sarah, whose full name was Sarah Frances Jeffery. So when Keats asks Mrs. Jeffery to give his goodbyes to Marian and Fanny, that means Marian and Sarah.

Because Rollins assumed that Sarah and Fanny were two different people, he also makes a mistake in identifying the recipient of the two letters Keats sends in May and June 1819. The first is addressed simply to “Miss Jeffry.” The second is to the same, although without the surviving manuscript, we don’t know exactly how it was addressed (or how Keats spelled the name). As Robert Gittings pointed out in his 1970 edition of Keats’s selected letters, the “Miss Jeffry” in question would have been Marian (as the eldest daughter, she would have been referred to as Miss Jeffery). Rollins mistake is compounded by Keats asking about “Fanny” in his 31 May 1819 letter, and also offering “my Compts to Mrs–your Sister.” Rollins assumes that the writer must be Sarah, because he assumes that the new “Mrs” was Marian, who did marry Isaac Sparke Prowse, but not until ten years after Keats’s letter. It seems, therefore, that Sarah/Fanny, not Marian, may have wedded sometime between May 1818 and May 1819.

Ok, takeaways: Tom and John traveled alone when they left Teignmouth, “Fanny” and “Sarah” are in fact one person (Sarah Frances), and Keats’s 1819 letters are to Marian, not to Sarah. Keats’s bit in his 9 June 1819 letter, “I shall ever remember our leave-taking with you,” is also cast in a different light knowing the you in question was Marian. That sentiment lends credence to the idea that there was some sort of close attachment, albeit perhaps mostly a one-sided one. For more on Marian and Keats, see our post about the 4 June 1818 letter.

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