The fragmentary and odd letters just keep on coming as September rolls on! Today we have another letter to Jane Reynolds, and as with the letter from 4 September, this one shares space with Benjamin Bailey. Remember that Keats at this time was staying in Oxford with Bailey, and the two were “lead[ing] very industrious lives,” as Keats wrote to Fanny on 10 September. The nature of their industry seemed to include Bailey engaging in his studies (especially reading his beloved Jeremy Taylor), Keats making progress with Endymion, and both writing plenty of correspondence. Today’s fragment again demonstrates Keats’s playfulness, and it also points toward the extent to which he at times falls into a regular back-and-forth with his correspondents. Most of what Keats writes in this letter is either in response to something Jane had written previously, or it anticipates future responses from her. Keats also promises that he will write a longer letter soon (“I hope to attack you in a very short time–more at length–“), which we know he does on 14 September. More on that one on Thursday.
The provenance of today’s letter reveals relatively little. However, the KLP never hesitates to entertain a bit of wild surmise! Here’s what we know: the letter was owned by William Thomas Hildrup Howe, an American collector active in the early-20th century. After he died in 1939, his collection of manuscripts and books was acquired by Albert Berg (in 1940), who would go on to donate thousands of items to the New York Public Library (where today’s letter still resides). What we don’t know is how, um, Howe came into possession of it, nor do we know when he did, nor where he did. It had to have been before 1925, because the letter was first published in Amy Lowell’s biography of Keats published that year.
What sort of surmises might we make, wild or otherwise? As we learned from the 4 Sept letter, after Bailey’s courting of Mariane Reynolds went south, he asked for her to return the correspondence Bailey had had with her. Since today’s letter was addressed solely to Jane, it seems uncertain if it would have been among those returned letters. If it had been, it may have followed a similar path of sale as that we saw with the 4 Sept letter. It seems more likely, however, that today’s letter remained in Jane’s possession. Of the five extant letters to Jane Reynolds (one of which is also addressed to Mariane Reynolds), only one of them makes it into publication in Milnes’s 1848 volume. It did so because the letter was in the possession of John Taylor, and remained in his family until the early-20th century, when it and many other Keats papers were auctioned. The other four letters seem to have moved through private sellers in the mid-to-late-19th and early-20th centuries.
One final thought about the possibilities for how this letter might have circulated before arriving at its permanent home in the New York Public Library. In 1825 Jane Reynolds married Thomas Hood. The two were active in literary circles in London, and it seems plausible that at some point during their next two decades (Hood died in 1845, and Jane the year after) they would have shared with friends the letters sent to Jane by Keats, whose reputation during that period steadily grew and expanded beyond the bounds of his own circle of friends and supports. Perhaps at some point they gave the letters away as gifts. However it happened, the letters eventually passed on to other owners (either through sale or otherwise). And that’s all the KLP can say on the matter!
So end the wild surmises. But the fun continues with a special treat. For a response to this letter, the co-hosts of This Week in Keats (Brian Rejack and Mike Theune) are debuting a shorter-format video, appropriately titled “This Day in Keats.” Enjoy!