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.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.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