Letter #80: To Fanny Keats, 2-5 July 1818

In the course of chronicling all of Keats’s extant letters one by one, some intriguing realizations which might not otherwise rise to the level of consciousness do just that. Here’s one: this letter to Fanny Keats is only the second such letter. The first to Fanny was way back in September 1817, when her eldest brother John proposed that they “begin a regular question and answer–a little pro and con … this I feel as a necessity: for we ought to become intimately acquainted, in order that I may not only, as you grow up love your as my only Sister, but confide in you as my dearest friend.”  Keats ends the letter reiterating his opening message that they ought to keep a regular correspondence: “You will preserve all my Letters and I will secure yours–and thus in the course of time we shall each of us have a good Bundle.” So what happened between September 1817 and July 1818? Was Keats delinquent in his fraternal duties?

It seems unlikely that he was entirely delinquent, though he may have not kept up quite the level of regular correspondence he proposed in the September 1817 letter. In early October, having returned from his stay in Oxford with Benjamin Bailey, Keats writes back to Oxford asking Bailey to inquire for a letter which Fanny had sent there. He writes to George and Tom in January 1818 that he has “seen Fanny twice lately,” and he asks that they send her “a Co-partnership Letter.” Another mention of seeing her occurs in the 23-24 January 1818 letter to George and Tom, and Keats then mentions their guardian Richard Abbey discouraging such regular visits to Fanny (what a jerk!). Presumably when George was back in London for spring 1818 (while John and Tom stayed in Teignouth), he would have looked after their sister. And then by June 1818, one of her brothers is sick and not long for the world, another is on his way across the Atlantic, and John is on his Northern Tour.

So it seems likely that the extant correspondence from John to Fanny increases after summer 1818 for a few reasons. Being the only sibling left in physical proximity to Fanny, John likely felt more a greater sense of responsibility for her well-being. I also suspect that Fanny became more likely to preserve the letters. She had seen one brother die and another depart for America, so it seems likely that she would begin to more carefully preserve the familial connections that still remained. It’s also worth noting that in September 1817 when the first extant letter from Keats arrives, Fanny is just 14 years old. She was forced pretty quickly to mature over the next several years–by spring 1821, not yet 18 years old, she was essentially on her own.

But for now we still see the great love and affection that Keats felt towards his sister. Like many of the other letters to her, this one contains lots of good humor and kindness. He tells her of how he and Brown “have been taken for travelling Jewellers, Razor sellers and Spectacle venders because friend Brown wears a pair.” He relays the story of the “notorious tippler” he and Brown encountered at an Inn in Endmoor on 25 June, who stumbled over to Brown and asked, “with his nose right in Mr Browns face ‘Do– yo  u sell Spect–ta–cles?'” And he gets in this subtle jab at the dastardly Richard Abbey, never one to approve of anything undertaken by the Keats family: “Mr Abbey says we are Don Quixotes–tell him we are more generally taken for Pedlars.” (Incidentally, Abbey probably would have preferred that Keats find employment as a pedlar than as a poet.)

Keats also offers Fanny a pair of amusing poems for her entertainment. First is a little ballad composed on the subject of Meg Merrilies, a character from Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering, about whom Keats writes, “of whom I suppose–you have heard–.” Whether Fanny would have read the novel or not is unknown, but it is the case that Meg Merrilies became a popular figure apart from the novel. A stage version of the novel had been performed in early 1818 (at the same time Keats writing a pair of reviews in place of Reynolds for The Champion). Claire Lamont’s article “Meg the Gipsy in Scott and Keats” gives more context for understanding the ways in which Keats (and Fanny) might have understood this character and the broader type she represented.

The next day, 3 July, Keats returns to the letter and writes another poem,  which he refers to as “a song about myself.” It’s pretty fantastic stuff. We might go so far as to say it’s Keats’s best comic poem. You can read the whole thing here. And you should! And then go follow your nose to the north.

After the poem, Keats’s comic flourishes are not done yet. This part we have to quote in full:

My dear Fanny I am ashamed of writing you such stuff, nor would I if it were not for being tired after my days walking, and ready to tumble int{o bed} so fatigued that when I am asleep you might sew my nose to my great toe and trundle me round the town like a Hoop without waking me–Then I get so hungry–a Ham goes but a very little way and fowls are like Larks to me–A Batch of Bread I make nor more ado with than a sheet of parliament; and I can eat a Bull’s head as easily as I used to do Bull’s eyes–I take a whole string of Pork Sausages down as easily as a Pen’orth of Lady’s fingers–Oh dear I must soon be contented with an acre or two of oaten cake a hogshead of Milk and a Cloaths basket of Eggs morning noon and night when I get among the Highlanders.

If anyone out there wants to draw an image of a sleeping Keats tied head-to-toe rolling round town like a hoop, we will gladly feature it here. Also, seems like Keats is a bit hungry, no? And boy does he grow to hate the oat cake…

The letter closes with a brief message saying that Keats and Brown have walked sixty (!) miles since beginning the letter (on 2 July), which he now deposits at the post office in Newton Stewart on 5 July. And they still had another 15 miles to go to reach Glenluce where they lodged that night! Makes the legs hurt just thinking about it.

Text of the letter comes from Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition (images below, link here). The MS is at the British Library, along with most of the letters to Fanny Keats. She kept them in her possession all of her long life. Two years after she died in 1889, her daughter Rosa Llanos-Keats presented them to the British Library through Forman, who had first published the letters in 1883 (thanks to help from Fanny (then Fanny Llanos-Keats) and her son, Juan Llanos-Keats).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *