It’s the holiday season, and you know what that means: awkward social interactions! We can certainly file today’s letter under that category. Here’s what happened. Keats initially thought he’d end up traveling to Chichester to spend Christmas with the Dilke family (and Charles Brown). Figuring as much, he appeared to have accepted two different invitations for Christmas dinner in London, one from the Reynoldses and one from the Brawnes. Hey, we’ve all been there. Someone asks if you want to do something, and to be polite and kind, you offer up some sort of non-committal, “oooh, that sounds lovely!” But then reality hits and you need to reckon with the impossibility of being in two places at once. Keats’s strategy for handling the situation appears not to have been all that wise.
He writes to Mrs. Reynolds (wife of George, mother of John Hamilton, Jane, Mariane, Eliza, and Charlotte) with this ill-conceived explanation: “When I left you yesterday, ‘t was with the conviction that you thought I had received no previous invitation for Christmas day: the truth is I had, and had accepted it under the conviction that I should be in Hampshire at the time: else believe me I should not have done so, but kept in Mind my old friends.” The problem is that it pits the Reynolds family against the Brawnes, and as we’ll see, the Reynolds sisters in particular ended up resenting Fanny Brawne as she and Keats became more and more entangled in each other’s lives. Keats himself also ended up seeing less and less of the Reynoldses, although his displeasure with them had already surfaced earlier. It’s possible, nay, likely, that Keats actually just preferred to spend Christmas with the Brawnes, and this letter was his attempt at making nice with the Reynoldses while also turning down their invitation. In any case, Keats does spend Christmas with the Brawnes, and, well, you know how things go from there! We’ll have plenty more to hear about young Miss Brawne in the coming months.
A quick note on the provenance of today’s letter. It appears that it remained in the Reynolds family for some time. The first printing of it was in Harry Buxton Forman’s 1883 edition, where he notes that he was personally in contact with the youngest sister, also Charlotte, who lived until 1884. Our best guess is that she still owned the letter in 1883 and lent it to Forman for use in his edition. Later the letter was owned by A. S. W. Rosenbach, a collector of rare books and manuscripts who owned a few other Keats items. One of his purchases–of a letter to Fanny Brawne–was memorialized in a cheeky poem by Christopher Morley.
But we do digress. Today’s letter was acquired by Robert H. Taylor, probably sometime around mid-century (perhaps after Rosenbach’s death in 1952). Taylor bequeathed his collection of materials to Princeton University (his alma mater), where it still resides. For a bit of info on Taylor’s collection and another of Keats’s letters housed within it, check out our post for Keats’s 15 April 1817 letter to George and Tom.
To read the text of the letter, we direct you to Forman’s 1883 edition, where, you’ll notice, he explains his knowledge of the letter coming directly from the younger Charlotte Reynolds.