John Keats Letters To Fanny Brawne
John Keats Letters To Fanny Brawne – Today (or thereabouts) marks 200 years since the first surviving letter from John Keats to Fanny Brawne. Over the past two centuries, this correspondence – or at least the half that still exists – has been reviled and revered, with revulsion coming mostly from readers in the late nineteenth century (when the letters were first published) and reverence coming from more consistently by later readers (such as those who might have bought it
). Given that they were written by a poet who enjoyed a contradictory chameleon-like persona, the letters to Fanny Brown unsurprisingly show a John Keats who can be sometimes harsh, possessive, jealous and cruel, but also tender, playful, admiring. and unbearably sweet. This first letter is no exception. But first, what is Keats thinking when he writes this letter?
John Keats Letters To Fanny Brawne
Part of the reason is that Keats was in London for most of the time during which he and Brawne had met and begun their courtship. They met sometime during the autumn of 1818, and, at least according to some accounts, had come to an understanding about their future by the time Keats spent Christmas Day with the Brawnes later that year. Notes would certainly have been sent between the two during the first half of their relationship, but for whatever reason, Brown does not seem to have kept any until we reach the correspondence from the summer of 1819, when Keats spent considerable time away from London . He had left for Portsmouth on 27 June (and enjoyed the storm during the carriage ride) and the next day sailed for the Isle of Wight. He stayed there with James Rice for most of July and then moved to Winchester with Charles Brown for the remaining weeks of the summer (leading to his famous composition of ‘To Autumn’ while in Winchester just around the turn of that season). We therefore have a number of letters from this period when Keats and Brawne part.
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As Keats had done in previous summers, this trip to the Isle of Wight was undertaken with the aim of devoting himself to writing poetry. In this letter, as we shall see in others to Browne, Keats fears that his romantic attachment to her will hinder his ability to write. One of those moments when Keats appears to be a little shaky (even if his tone can be playful) is when he writes, “Ask yourself my love, if you’re not too cruel to crush me, so you ruined the my freedom.” But right after that typical “I’m a fellow” moment who should be free to pursue my art, Keats goes into what is rightly one of the most beloved passages in all the Brawne correspondence (just look up “Keats ” and “butterflies” on instagram and you will see):
Write me the softest words and kiss them so that I can at least touch my lips where yours were. For myself I know not how to express my devotion in so fair a form: I want a brighter word than bright, a fairer word than fair. I almost wish we were butterflies and lived, but three summer days—three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty years together could ever contain.
Although modern readers (like us at KLP, we confess) may be drawn to such frank expressions of young love, Victorian readers tended to feel somewhat differently about them. Matthew Arnold is often cited as one of the examples of this disapproval: he wrote that the letters were “the sort of love letters of an apprentice surgeon that one might hear read in case of a broken promise”. Arnold wasn’t the only one of course. Many responses to Harry Buxton Forman’s post
(1878) echoed sentiments like Arnold’s. Objections were not only to the act of publication itself, which was seen by some as an inappropriate invasion of privacy, but also that the letters did not reflect badly on Keats, who by the 1870s had achieved enough literary status to be tarnished his reputation would meet resistance. The publication of the letters also led to many misogynistic reactions against Browne herself: these readers assumed that Keats’s instability and cruelty must have been the result of Browne’s behavior.
Bright Star Love Letters And Poems Of John Keats To Fanny Brawne
The controversy continued for a few years after the initial outrage over Forman’s decision to publish the letters in 1878. In 1885 the Lindon family (Fanny Brawne married Louis Lindon in 1833; the couple had three children) decided to sell the original manuscripts of letters. One of the attendees at the auction was Oscar Wilde, who wrote a sonnet in which he described the other attendees as “the brawlers of the auction market”.
If publishing the private love letters was a problem, then it seems that profiting from their sale was even worse. Wilde’s conclusion is that “they love no art / That break the crystal of a poet’s heart / Those small and sickly eyes may twinkle and greet.” Well, this hits a little too close to home here at KLP… In any case, the result of the letters auctioned in 1885 is that they are now scattered around the world in various libraries, archives and institutions. The whereabouts of some are completely unknown – the source for many letters remains Forman’s editions from the 1870s and 1880s.
(via Hathitrust). The manuscript is one of those whose whereabouts are unknown. Probably some lucky auctioneer (or brawler, as Wilde would say) bought it in 1885. We hope it will come up for auction again. Today marks a sad day for the Keats family. On the morning of December 1, 1818, Tom Keats succumbed to the “family disease” (tuberculosis), which would also take the life of John a few years later and George two decades later. The only sibling to avoid the same fate was the recipient of today’s letter, Fanny Keats.
Tom’s illness had been gradually worsening since the summer and Keats was preparing his other brothers for the news. In October Keats wrote to George and Georgiana in America that “[Tom] is no better but much worse.” And his letters to Fanny in the autumn were also full of dread for their brother’s health. It is not clear exactly when he wrote this last letter to Fanny before Tom’s death, but it seems clear that it was intended to prepare her for this ultimate fate. He notes that “[Tom] is in a very dangerous condition – I have no hope of him.”
Page:the Complete Poetical Works And Letters Of John Keats, 1899.djvu/476
The letter is postmarked at noon on December 1, 1818, which was a few hours after Tom’s death. Fanny Keats biographer Marie Adami speculates that Keats wrote the letter sometime during the night or early morning hours and then posted the letter on his way to inform Charles Brown of Tom’s death. Brown undertook the difficult task of informing Keats’ friends of the news. He wrote to Richard Woodhouse soon after Keats’s arrival at Wentworth Place, noting that ‘M
Keats requests me to inform you that his brother Thomas died this morning at 8 o’clock quietly and without pain.’
Tom’s Death Keats would send a letter to Fanny stating that he had “little hope” of Tom’s recovery. But, as Adami points out, the letter shows that in his own grief, Keats was considering how he might assuage Fanny by preparing her for the worst and planning to break the news to her soon afterwards in person: ‘Perhaps nowhere so much as at the last words of this letter… are the tenderness of his care for her…. Waiting in the indolence which the last fainting hours bring to the watcher, he looked beyond them at Fanny, foreseeing her coming grief, bracing her against it. It gave her something to do, it gave her something to hold on to. They were found and captured as they were, it would be hard to imagine words more moving.” One suspects that after sending his letter, Keats would have made the trip to Walthamstow to see Fanny, thus reinforcing his desire to “rest wholly in / your loving brother / John.”
Keats’ life takes a major turn from this point on. Soon he is living at Wentworth Place with Brown and soon after begins his relationship with Fanny Brawne. And, of course, let’s not forget the poetry he would write over the next year: most of the poems that would establish his literary reputation as the century progressed. But for now let’s remember the loss that preceded all these other things, and the moment of kindness Keats showed his sister, hoping to at least do something to make her grieving process less painful.
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The text of the letter is taken from Harry Buxton Forman’s 1895 edition (image below). Quick note on the dating of the letter: although Keats states “Tuesday morning”, which would be December 1st, and although the postmark is also for that date, Rollins dates the letter as November 30th, after Adami’s suggestion that Keats wrote the