It is rare that a film separates potential viewers into two camps so easily as Bright Star, director Jane Campion’s ode to the relationship between John Keats, the great 19th century Romantic poet, and Fanny Brawne, an independent, opinionated Englishwoman whose intellectual curiosity and appreciation for poetry won Keats’ heart. For filmgoers who enjoy lushly filmed, micro-detailed period dramas about star-crossed lovers laboring under oppressive social mores, Bright Star offers an impressive example of the genre, with Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish delivering intense, nuanced performances as the penniless poet and his gentlewoman lover, separated by societal restrictions but united by romantic passion. Campion’s film, which she also wrote, is a bravura example of a director’s refusal to compromise thematic depth and character development for the quicker pace favored in modern media.
For the rest of you, two full hours of heated poetry recitations exchanged between longing gazes and chaste kisses may seem like a life sentence at the Jane Austen Correctional Facility. Make no mistake, while Bright Star is a beautiful film, it is exactly what Campion set out to make: a weighty oil painting depicting the doomed love of a Romance poet and his muse, with liberal doses of quoted verse in the dialogue and a willful disdain for pacing.
In 1818 England, Fanny Brawne (Cornish) enjoys a mild, quiet life with her widowed mother and younger brother and sister. Locally known for her skillful needlework and clothing designs, Brawne presents a protagonist who might have leapt from the pages of Pride and Prejudice: a stubborn, candid girl on the cusp of womanhood, too intelligent and self-reliant to be satisfied with her lot in the patriarchal world of Georgian England. Her family, though not wealthy, enjoys a sufficient income to move among the artistic and intellectual social circles of 19th century British society, where Brawne meets talented but impoverished poet John Keats. Keats, a brooding young man, becomes intrigued by Brawne’s earnest curiosity over how to “work out poems” as she puts it, as if each verse were a puzzle for her amusement. Through a confluence of circumstances, Keats’ colleague and financial benefactor, fellow poet Charles Armitage Brown (Paul Schneider), lets rooms next door to Brawne’s home, with Keats and Brown setting up shop to collaborate on their work almost literally under the nose of Keats’ inquisitive admirer.
Brawne seizes the opportunity to study poetry with Keats, and love soon blossoms as her innate romantic nature awakens to the husky-voiced ministrations of Keats’ soulful rhythms and imagery. In turn, Brawne’s blunt humor and intellectual adventurousness lift Keats out of a dry patch in his writing, inspiring him to create new works, including the sonnet devoted to Brawne from which Bright Star takes its title. Keats and Brawne become near-constant companions despite stern opposition from both Brawne’s mother, who admonishes her daughter that she cannot marry a man with “no income and no prospects,” and Brown, who perceives Brawne as a parasitic socialite distracting Keats from his calling as an oracle of romantic truth. A far greater obstacle soon presents itself, however, when Keats takes seriously ill with tuberculosis, which had already claimed his brother at a young age.
For period drama lovers, Bright Star offers numerous arresting images, and the cinematography and scene construction are two of the film’s greatest strengths, relying as much on sumptuous visual metaphors of passionate romantic love as on dialogue. During one of Keats’ occasional absences, Brawne lies on her bed pining for his return, flush with the passion of first love. A breeze ruffles through an open window, rippling under Brawne’s skirts and up her legs while sunlight gently plays across her white dress. If there were any doubt about the blooming of Brawne’s nascent sexuality, it disappears as the contrasting thrill of a cool breeze and warm sunlight heralds a passionate new influence on the ripening girl. In another beautifully constructed scene, after Brawne receives a letter from Keats comparing their love to two butterflies, Brawne puts her brother and sister to work catching dozens of butterflies with which to fill Brawne’s room while she awaits Keats’ return; beneath the elegant surface beauty of the resulting fluttering menagerie, the image suggests the delicate stomach of a young lover, filled with imaginary butterflies. The costuming, excellent all around, provides additional visual context, and Cornish’s wardrobe is particularly eye-catching, representing Brawne’s own suppressed artistic ambitions finding expression through needle and fabric as opposed to pen and paper.
To the extent Bright Star has a significant weakness as cinema, the film suffers from a choppy editing hand, manifesting itself in an uneven narrative structure which occasionally leaves one wondering what exactly is going on. Characters absent themselves mysteriously, coming and going based on narrative events which are not always clear. Campion also doesn’t consistently navigate the complicated social rituals of 19th century England in a way which would allow a 21st century viewer to fully comprehend why a particular action or assertion might be taken as a slight. Problems with editing continuity stand out in a film like Bright Star, which depends mightily on luring the viewer into the room with the characters while the plot meanders through their interactions. When the narrative jumps because of an apparent disconnect in motivation or logic, the effect is a little jarring.
The uniformly excellent cast provides a strong foundation, however, and while Bright Star occasionally staggers under its own weight, the leads and the supporting actors keep the film upright and moving, albeit at a glacial pace. Cornish and Whishaw both take roles that threaten to become stifling and turn them into a focused reverie on the nature of romantic love in an era when the worth of a marriage turned on economic security and matches of appropriate station. Among the supporting players, Schneider in particular is a standout, stealing several scenes as Keats’ complicated and temperamental friend Brown, by turns arrogant, loving, bullying, and hilarious. Although afforded less screen time, child actor Edie Martin provides a welcome counterweight as Brawne’s sister Toots, a pale, wide-eyed elf with curly strawberry-blonde hair and a penchant for blurting out amusingly candid observations. Kerry Fox, best known for smart, sexy roles in movies like Shallow Grave, is almost unrecognizable as the widow Brawne, performing well in the thankless role of Shapeless English Matron.
Yet Bright Star relies most on Whishaw and Cornish to do the heavy lifting, and they do not disappoint. Their portrayals of Keats and Brawne avoid a hazard common to the genre, i.e., the ostensible passionate love affair that more closely resembles cloying, self-absorbed infatuation. Instead, they find a credible chemistry and tone to bind together their romance, creating a sensation that should resonate strongly with anyone who ever pair-bonded over “thoughts that breathe, and words that burn,” to borrow from poet Thomas Gray. In staying true to her own vision, Campion takes a brave stand by making a film that is uncompromising in its insistent focus on the depths of the characters and the minute details of their lives, at the expense of modern filmmaking convention. Bright Star requires a certain patience, but the payoff is worth the wait.
Ted Boynton is usually picked last for kickball, mostly because he treats it as an opportunity to lounge in the outfield with a bottle of rye and a Lone Star — there’s no “I” in “team,” but there are at least two in “inebriation.” Ted also manages to hold down a job and a wife, three hours each per day, whether they need it or not.
‘Shall I give you Miss Brawne? She is about my height with a fine style of countenance of the lengthened sort – she wants sentiment in every feature – she manages to make her hair look well – her nostrils are fine though a little painful – her mouth is bad and good – her Profile is better than her full-face which indeed is not full but pale and thin without showing any bone – her shape is very graceful and so are her movements – Her arms are good her hands badish – her feet tolerable…. She is not seventeen – but she is ignorant – monstrous in her behavior flying out in all directions, calling people such names that I was forced lately to make use of the term Minx – this I think not from any innate vice but from a penchant she has for acting stylishly. I am however tired of such style and shall decline any more of it.’
John Keats to his brother George
Frances Brawne or ‘Fanny’ as she was usually called (9 August 1800 – 4 December 1865) is most known for her betrothal to 19th-Century English Romantic poet John Keats, a fact largely unknown until the publishing of Keats’s letters to her in 1878. Their engagement, lasting from December 1818 until his death in February 1821, covered some of the most poetically productive years of Keats’s life.
Frances (known as Fanny) Brawne was born 9 August 1800 to Samuel and Frances at the Brawnes’ farm hear the hamlet of West End, Hampstead, England. The eldest of three surviving children (brother Samuel was born July 1804; and sister Margaret was born April 1809), she was very generous with her siblings and took special care of them. On 11 April 1810 her father, having reached the final days of consumption, wrote his will; a few days later he died at thirty-five years old, leaving three young children and his thirty-nine-year-old wife a widow.
Around twelve years old Fanny, who’d been attending school, learned to read French fluently and to translate from German. She had been able to sew for a long time, and began learning fine embroidery as well, which served her well for her love and knowledge of historical costume. She excelled in dancing and deportment.
According to a new exhibit at the Keats House Museum in London, Brawne was a regular subscriber to fashion magazines (such as Court Magazine, Le Voleur and Petit Courrier des Dames), and would frequently exchange bound volumes. Many of the fashion plates illustrated in these magazines found their way into Fanny’s Fashion Plate Book, which contains a selection of fashion, theatrical and historical costume plates that Brawne collected over a fifty-year period. “The earliest plate dates from when Fanny was 12 years old, suggesting that she had an interest in fashion from a very young age. In addition to fashion, Fanny also occupied herself with embroidery, sewing and knitting. Items in the Keats House Collection, such as a fichu scarf, indicate that she was a skilled worker. Plates featured here form part of a larger display about Fanny and fashion which can be seen at the house.”
Her family’s welfare was provided largely by inheritance from relatives, particularly that of her uncle, John Ricketts, who died in April 1816. Promptly paid, this inheritance stabilized the family’s finances.
It was in 1818 that the Brawnes went to Wentworth Place– “a block of two houses, white-stuccoed and semi-detached, built three years before by Charles Armitage Brown and Charles Wentworth Dilke”– for the summer, occupying Brown’s half of the property. Fanny was introduced to a society which was “varied and attractive; young officers from the Peninsular Wars, perhaps from Waterloo… exotic French and Spanish émigrés …from their lodgings round Oriel House in Church Row and the chapel in Holly Place.” After living at Wentworth Place for a small time a friendship between the Brawnes and the Dilkes developed.
Wentworth Place, now the Keats House museum, Hampstead
At eighteen, Fanny Brawne “was small, her eyes were blue and often enhanced by blue ribbons in her brown hair; her mouth expressed determination and a sense of humour and her smile was disarming. She was not conventionally beautiful: her nose was a little too aquiline, her face too pale and thin (some called it sallow). But she knew the value of elegance; velvet hats and muslin bonnets, crêpe hats with argus feathers, straw hats embellished with grapes and tartan ribbons: Fanny noticed them all as they came from Paris. She could answer, at a moment’s notice, and question on historical costume. … Fanny enjoyed music. … She was an eager politician, fiery in discussion; she was a voluminous reader. … Indeed, books were her favourite topic of conversation”.
It was through the Dilkes that Frances Brawne met John Keats at Wentworth Place in November 1818, at which Keats had been living with Charles Brown in the companion house to the Dilkes’ for some time. Their initial meeting was cordial and not unexpected–the Dilkes were fond of Keats and spoke of him to the Brawnes often. Fanny enjoyed his company, recalling that “his conversation was in the highest degree interesting and his spirits good, excepting at moments when anxiety regarding his brother’s health dejected them”; Keats, writing to his brother George in America, said of Fanny that she was “beautiful, elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable and strange. We have a little tiff now and then–and she behaves a little better, or I must have steered off.” Fanny’s mother invited Keats to spend time with them and “showed him maternal solicitude” because his own mother and grandmother had died.
On December 1, 1818 Keats’s younger brother Tom died of consumption, at age nineteen. Keats’s grief was deep, as “Some years before, Keats had written that his love for his brothers was “an affection ‘passing the Love of Women’” … Fanny showed him the depth of her understanding. She gave him invigorating sympathy, keeping his mind from the past and from introspection; she encouraged his love of life by her obvious interest in him, and by her vivacity. Remarkably soon his own gaiety returned.”
It was not long before Keats fell completely in love with Fanny. “He had transfigured Fanny in his imagination, his passion creating in her the beauty which for him became the truth; and so she had come to be… the fulfillment of Endymion, the very symbol of beauty, the reconciliation between real life and his poetic quest.” On Christmas Day 1818, Keats, having spent the day with the Brawne family, proposed to Fanny Brawne, who accepted. “It was, she wrote, “the happiest day I had ever spent.”
Fanny’s mother was not so welcoming of the engagement: Keats had given up a career in medicine to pursue poetry, a pursuit which, at this point in his life, did not seem to have great prospects. His family had been stricken with illness, and he was unable to sustain himself financially. Her mother did not outright forbid the marriage, but withheld her legal consent until such a time as there was financial stability to match the couple’s emotional bond.
Keats, by February, was at Wentworth Place, where Fanny visited him frequently and occasionally met his friends, one of whom was Joseph Severn. However, “as Keats could not dance and was too unwell to take her out himself, she went to parties with army officers. Through the Dilkes and her mother’s wide circle of friends she received many invitations,” which caused Keats significant anxiety.
In April the Brawnes moved back to Wentworth Place, next door to Keats, and subsequently saw each other almost every day. This constant presence–which he did not dislike–distracted him from poetry; and although he had in May what is regarded as some of the most productive time of his poetic life, he left for the Isle of Wight in June, six months after their engagement, promising Fanny that he would not return unless he could promise her a secure future.
Over the next months Fanny and Keats carried on an emotional, anxious, and somewhat jealous correspondence; he wrote of love and death, and in between letters he wrote and revised poems. He returned to Wentworth Place in 1819, physically and emotionally unwell.
In early February 1820 Keats went to London and “returned late, cold and feverish. He staggered so badly that Brown thought him drunk. As he got into bed he coughed slightly, and seeing a single drop of blood upon the sheet said to Brown, ‘I know the colour of that blood; – it is arterial blood … that drop of blood is my death warrant.’ Later that night, a large lung hemorrhage followed that almost suffocated him. All he could think of was Fanny.” Hopes of early recovery vanished when, on March 6, 1820, Keats suffered another violent attack; doctors warned Brown that another one could prove fatal. Fanny seldom visited Keats in person over the next month for fear of his delicate health giving out, but occasionally would pass by his window after walks, and the two often wrote notes to each other.
In May 1820 Keats decided to go to a new residence at Kent Town, and over the next months the two continued emotional correspondence. Doctors had urged him to relocate to Italy for recovery, as another English winter would most likely prove deadly. He returned, for the last time, to Wentworth Place on August 10, 1820.
Even the imminence of his leaving for Italy (which was to happen in a month’s time) did not move Fanny’s mother to grant her consent to their marriage; she did, however, promise that “when Keats returned he should marry Fanny and live with them.” On September 11, 1820, Fanny wrote Keats’s farewell to his sister, also named Frances; and “with [Fanny’s] consent he destroyed the letters she had sent him.” Before leaving, they exchanged gifts: “perhaps at parting, he offered her his copy of ‘’The Cenci’’ and the treasured facsimile of the folio Shakespeare in which he had written his comments and the sonnet on ‘’King Lear’’. He gave her an Etruscan lamp, and his miniature, the perfect likeness which Severn had painted of him… Fanny gave him a new pocket-book, a paper-knife, and a lock of her hair, taking one of his own in exchange. She lined his travelling cap with silk, keeping some material in remembrance. She gave him, too, a final token, an oval white cornelian.” (This cornelian was an oval marble which she often used to cool her hands while sewing and which could also be used by a fevered patient. This marble would rarely leave Keats’s hands in Rome.)
Stanley Plumly writes that this good-bye, on September 13, 1820, was “the most problematic… the equivalent, in Keats’s mind, of leaving life and entering what he will now call, in earnest, his posthumous existence.”
On December 1, 1820 Brown received a letter from Keats, which he read to the Brawnes, “ “skipping & adding, without the slightest suspicion on their part,” telling Fanny that if Keat’s spirit improved, Severn expected an early recovery”; this illusion was sustained, and all of the worst news was kept from Fanny. On 17 February John Taylor, one of Keats’s social circle, received a letter from Severn detailing Keats’s suffering; “The doctor said that he should never have left England, for even then he had been incurable; the journey had shortened his life and increased his pain. … Severn had tried to comfort him with thoughts of spring. It was the season Keats loved best, and he would not know it again. Bitterly he wept. “He kept continually in his hand a polished, oval, white cornelian, the gift of his widowing love, and at times it seemed his only consolation, the only thing left him in this world clearly tangible.”” Fanny wrote to Frances Keats on February 26, “All I do is to persuade myself, I shall never see him again.” “Late on Saturday, March 17th, the news reached Wentworth Place. On Friday, February 23rd, a little before midnight, Keats had died in Severn’s arms.”
Frances Brawne cut her hair short, donned black clothing, and wore the ring Keats had given her. “A letter from Severn to Taylor reached Hampstead about April 16th, and Fanny learned how the Italian health authorities had burned the furniture in Keats’s room, scraped the walls and made new windows and doors and floor. She read of the post mortem and the funeral near the monument of Caius Cestius and how Dr. Clark had made the men plant daisies on the grave, saying that Keats would have wished it. Unknown to her family, slowly and with great pain she copied the account of his last days; she did not seal it because his sister might want to read it but she could not read it again.” Fanny felt that the only person with whom she could fully share her grief was Frances Keats and the two carried on correspondence that lasted quite some time. In autumn 1821 Fanny visited the young Keats in Walthamstow, who had been in the care of the Abbeys and the two reveled each other’s company. Their constant communication allowed them to develop a close friendship. Eventually Fanny shared with “Keats’s sister a little of the literary companionship which she had once known with him.”
Two years after the death of Keats, Fanny began to learn Italian and began translating short stories from the German, eventually publishing them in various magazines. Frances Keats, having come of age around this time, left the Abbeys and went to live with the Brawnes, where she was warmly welcomed.
In 1827 Fanny came out of mourning, six years after Keats’s death. She rejoined society and donned brighter, gayer clothing again. This was to be short-lived: her younger brother Samuel, then twenty-three who had been showing signs of consumption, grew increasingly ill. On March 28,1828 he died.Fanny’s mother, never fully recovering from Samuel’s death, made her will in October 1829 and on November 23,died some days after her dress caught fire while leading a guest across their garden by candle light.
Around 1833 the Brawnes went to reside with family (the Bakers) in Boulogne. It was here that Fanny met Louis Lindon whom on June 15, 1833, more than twelve years after Keats’s death she married. July 26, 1834 saw the birth of Fanny’s first son, Edmund and on 22 May 1838 her second son Herbert was born. Early in the 1840’s the Lindons went to live in Heidelberg and on August 10, 1844 her only daughter Margaret was born.
After many years abroad, the Lindons returned to England in 1859. Financial troubles towards the end of her life led Fanny to sell her miniature of Keats, painted by Severn to Charles Dilke. In the autumn of 1865, Fanny told her children about her time with Keats and entrusted to them the relics from that romance, including the letters Keats had written to her which she said would “someday be considered of value.”
On 4 December 1865, Fanny Brawne died and was buried the next day in Brompton Cemetery.
Following the death (October 21, 1872) of Fanny’s husband Louis, Herbert and Margaret Lindon set about looking for potential buyers of their mother’s relics. After negotiations with the Dilke family and R. M. Milnes, Herbert decided to publish the letters in book form and auction them some time after. “In February 1878 appeared a slim, elegantly designed volume of under two hundred pages. Edited with an introduction by another of the day’s prominent literary men, H. B. Foran, it was entitled simply Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne.”This move proved shrewd as the publication of the letters caused much interest in England and America. The letters were sold in March 1885 for £543 17s.
The publication and subsequent auction of Keats’ letters led to more than just interest in the affair, Fanny Brawne was attacked as unfit to be the object of Keats’ affection. Sir Charles Dilke in a review of the collection of letters in the Athenaeum, “calls the book “the greatest impeachment of a woman’s sense of womanly delicacy to be found in the history of literature.”” Louise Imogen Guiney remarked in 1890 that “Fanny “was vain and shallow, she was almost a child; the gods denied her the ‘seeing eye,’ and made her unaware.” Seventy years after the poet’s death, “most of us are soberly thankful that he escaped betimes from his own heart’s desire, and his worst impending peril, Mrs. Keats.”” Richard LeGallienne wrote that “it is certainly a particularly ironical paradox that the lady irritatingly associated with [Keats’] name should be the least congruous of all the many commonplace women transfigured by the genius they could not understand, and the love of which they were not worthy…. Fame, that loves to humour its poets, has consented to glorify the names of many unimportant poor relations of genius, but there has never been a more significant name upon its lips than the name of Fanny Brawne…. One writes so, remembering… the tortures to which she subjected a noble spirit with her dancing-class coquetries.”
In 1934, a collector of Keats donated his collection to the Keats Memorial House, Hampstead, on the condition that he should remain anonymous. Included in the donation were the letters that Fanny Brawne had written to Fanny Keats between September 1820 and June 1824. In 1937 Oxford University Press published ‘’Letters of Fanny Brawne to Fanny Keats’’ and Fred Edgcumbe, editor of the volume and curator of the Keats Memorial House, commented in his introduction that “Those who believed in Fanny Brawne’s devotion to Keats have the satisfaction of knowing that their faith has at last been justified.” It did not take long for this idea to take general hold. “A leading critic, to then an archfoe of Fanny’s, almost gladly announced his capitulation. “I have seized the opportunity,” explained John Middleton Murry, “of considering anew the character of Fanny Brawne and the nature of her influence on Keats.” After reviewing what he’d written about her twenty-five years before, he says, “I have had the deep satisfaction of being able completely to recant the harsh judgment I then passed upon her.”” This sentiment has remained strong, as “in 1993 appeared a book discussing Keats’ “Poetics, Letters, and Life.” It ends with a chapter on the notorious love-letters… Fanny is approved as a paragon among women, “unsentimental, clear-sighted, frank, inquisitive, animated, kind, and invigorating. Her beauty resonated with the grace that comes of insight and deep abiding affection.””
According to Amy Leal, Jane Campion’s film, Bright Star about Keats’ and Brawne’s relationship “reflects the critical transformations in Brawne scholarship in recent years,” painting her as “the steadfast “Bright Star” of Keats’s sonnet, and it is Keats who is fickle, torn between his vocation and Fanny… she is La Belle Dame without the nightmare thralldom, witty and chic but also deeply kind and maternal, an aspect of her character that is often missed in readings of her.”
John Evangelist Walsh presents a more moderate approach to Fanny. He remarks that the letters, rather than completely do away with what had been implied in Keats’ letters to her, “briefly illuminate another side of the girl’s character, those quieter personal qualities which had helped attract Keats in the first place but which were not always uppermost. Certainly the letters show her to have been, as Edgcumbe said, intelligent, observant, perceptive, though not unusually so, not to the “remarkable” extent perceived by their well-disposed editor.”
There is a letter Fanny wrote to Charles Brown in 1829, granting him permission to reproduce for biographical purposes some letters and poems of Keats concerning his relationship with her without using her name, which has caused scholars attempting to fit it into her life considerable difficulty–so much so, that the letter is virtually ignored in some major Keats biographies and written off as unimportant in others.
Of this letter, there are two passages in particular on which critics tend to focus. In the first, which is crossed out in the original manuscript, Fanny tells Brown: “I was more generous ten years ago, I should not now endure the odium of being connected with one who was working up his way against poverty and every sort of abuse.” The second, which is not crossed out, reads: “I should be glad if you could disprove I was a very poor judge of character ten years ago and probably overrated every good quality he had but surely they go too far on the other side.”
Joanna Richardson writes of the first remark: “One sentence, removed from its context and published by Dilke’s grandson in 1875, was to rouse the indignation of half-informed critics for more than sixty years”; and that “it suggests the prolonged strain which she had felt during her engagement, and the emotional disturbance caused by her mothers recent death, but it is no evidence of a final change of heart.” Walsh interprets the second remark to say just the opposite of what Richardson had argued: “Fanny is saying that, looking back, she finds her former high opinion of Keats as a man is no longer warranted: she had “overrated” him. As to why she changed her mind, there exists no direct hint (though it at least deserves recording that in the meantime she had become a fairly wealthy woman, inheriting from her brother who died in 1828, and from her mother). There are only her remarks about being “more generous” ten years before, and about not liking to recall how she once gave her heart to a little-known young poet struggling to find his way”
John Keats (31 October 1795 – 23 February 1821) was the latest born of the great Romantic poets. Along with Byron and Shelley, he was one of the key figures in the second generation of the movement, despite publishing his work over only a four-year period. During his short life, his work was not well received by critics, but his posthumous influence on poets such as Alfred Tennyson and Wilfred Owen was significant. The poetry of Keats was characterised by sensual imagery, most notably in the series of odes which remain among the most popular poems in English
literature. The letters of Keats are among the most celebrated by any English poet.
What is most interesting to Austen scholars is the apparent link between Jane Austen’s work and the influence it may have had on Keats’ poetry.
The lives of both these writers overlap almost perfectly and as Katie Mastrucci writes in An Imitation of Spenser—comes in 1814, when Keats was
nineteen. In 1815, Keats registered as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital (now part of King’s College London). Within a month of starting, he
was accepted for a “dressership” position within the hospital—a significant promotion with increased responsibility and workload, taking up
precious writing time and increasing his ambivalence to working in medicine. Strongly drawn by an ambition inspired by fellow poets such as Leigh Hunt and Byron, but beleaguered by family financial crises that continued to
the end of his life, he suffered periods of deep depression. His brother George wrote that John “feared that he should never be a poet, & if he
was not he would destroy himself”. In 1816, Keats received his apothecary’s licence but before the end of the year he announced to his guardian
that he had resolved to be a poet, not a surgeon.
Though he continued his work and training at Guy’s, Keats was devoting increasing time to the study of literature. In May 1816, Leigh Hunt,
greatly admired by Keats, agreed to publish the sonnet O Solitude in his
magazine The Examiner, a leading liberal magazine of the day. It is the first appearance of Keats’s poems in print and Charles Cowden
Clarke refers to it as his friend’s “red letter day”, first proof that John’s ambitions were not ridiculous. In the summer of that year he went
down to the coastal town of Margate with Clarke to write. There he began Calidore
and initiated the era of his great letter writing.
In October, Clarke personally introduced Keats to the influential Hunt, a close friend of Byron and Shelley. Five months later Poems, the first volume of Keats
verse, was published. It was a critical failure but Hunt went on to publish the essay Three Young Poets (Shelley, Keats and Reynolds),
along with the sonnet on Chapman’s Homer, promising great things to come. He introduced Keats to many prominent men in his circle, including
editor of The Times Thomas Barnes, writer Charles Lamb, conductor Vincent Novello and poet John Hamilton Reynolds, who would become a
close friend. It was a decisive turning point for Keats. He was established in the public eye as a figure in, what Hunt termed, ‘a new school
of poetry’. At this time Keats writes to his friend Bailey “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of
the imagination — What imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth”. This would eventually transmute into the concluding lines of Ode on a Grecian Urn ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’ – that is all / you know on
earth, and all ye need to know”.
Endymion, on its eventual publication, was also damned by the critics, giving
rise to Byron’s quip that Keats was ultimately “snuffed out by an article”. One particularly harsh review by John Wilson Croker appeared in the
April 1818 edition of The Quarterly Review:
…It is not, we say, that the author has not powers of language, rays of fancy, and gleams of genius – he has all these; but he is
unhappily a disciple of the new school of wha
Poor soul! I am sure if I had had a notion of it, I would not have joked her about it for all my money. But then, you know, how should I guess such a thing? I made sure of its being nothing but a common love letter, and you know young people like to be laughed at about them. Sense and Sensibility
The love letter has been composed and treasured for centuries. Through the years, the letter’s form, media, and content have changed. Its purpose, however, remains the same–to communicate via written word the true and raw emotion of human passion.
The history of love letters begins early on. The love letter’s earliest manifestation may perhaps be the Bible’s Song of Solomon. Letter writing was furthered by Cicero and Pliny, turn-of-the-century Romans who affectionately wrote letters to their wives. As a literary form, the history of love letters probably began in the early Renaissance. The Age of Chivalry produced a series of discreet correspondences that were based on the chaste compliments and excessive self-deprecation of courtly love.
In the early eighteenth century, love letters became much more personal and pure. Missives from this period showed tenderness, charm, and even humor.
As the eighteenth century progressed and romantic ideals were cast aside, love letters, too, were changing. Intellectuals applied their ideas to the art, which they considered not to be trivial, but rather essential to the search for self-knowledge and happiness.
The nineteenth century spawned the great private love letters of Beethovan to his “Immortal Beloved”, as well as the literary romance of poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett.
Computers, fax machines, and modern transportation have not outdated the art of the love letter. Instead, they have fueled its interest and effect. The history of love letters continues to write itself. Love letters can now be emailed, faxed, and even sent overnight to lovers separated by oceans and continents. Clearly, the love letter has evolved through the ages, still to be treasured and meaningful in the present day.
Although letters play pivotal roles in all of Jane Austen’s works, she rarely attempts to actually spell out the contents of a love letter. One exception to this is Captain Wentworth’s immortal letter to Anne Elliot, in Persuasion, Austen’s final work. Not only does it quickly turn the plot and bring about a satisfactory resolution to the story, it remains today, a standard by which all other love letters can be measured. On par with Mr. Darcy’s passionate proposal, Captain Wentworth’s heartfelt words stand out as some of the most memorable lines, not only in Austen’s novels, but in all of literature.
The private letters of many of Jane Austen’s contemporaries have been published, among them, these, from Regency notables. Written from the battlefield, from a foreign country–even from next door, the theme is the same–love, longing, desire for reunion. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death.
General Napoleon Bonaparte To Citizeness Joséphine Bonaparte:
A few days ago I thought I loved you; but since I last saw you I feel I love you a thousand times more. All the time I have known you, I adore you more each day; that just shows how wrong was La Bruyére’s maxim that love comes all at once. Everything in nature has its own life and different stages of growth. I beg you, let me see some of your faults: be less beautiful, less graceful, less kind, less good…
My one and only Josephine, apart from you there is no joy; away from you the world is a desert where I am alone and cannot open my heart. You have taken more than my soul; you are the one thought of my life. When I am tired of the worry of work, when I fear the outcome, when men annoy me, when I am ready to curse being alive, I put my hand on my heart; your portrait hangs there, I look at it, and love brings me perfect happiness…Oh, my adorable wife! I don’t know what fate has in store for me, but if it keeps me apart from you any longer, it will be unbearable! My courage is not enough for that.
Come and join me; before we die let us at least be able to say: “We had so many happy days!”
Percy Bysshe Shelley To Mary Godwin Shelley
Bagni di Lucca, Sunday, 23rd August, 1818
My dearest Mary,
We arrived here last night at twelve o’clock, and it is now before breakfast the next morning. I can of course tell you nothing of the future, and though I shall not close this letter till post-time, yet I do not know exactly when that is. Yet, if you are still very impatient, look along the letter, and you will see another date, when I may have something to relate…Well, but the time presses. I am now going to the banker’s to send you money for the journey, which I shall address to you at Florence, Post Office. Pray come instantly to Este, where I shall be waiting in the utmost anxiety for your arrival… Do you know, dearest, how this letter was written? By scrap and patches and interrupted every minute. The gondola is now coming to take me to the banker’s. Este is a little place and the house found without difficulty. I shall count four days for this letter, one day for packing, four for coming here–and the ninth or tenth day we shall meet.
I am too late for the post, but I send an express to overtake it. Enclosed is an order for fifty pounds. If you know all that I have to do! Dearest love, be well, be happy, come to me. Confide in your own constant and affectionate
P.S. Kiss the blue eyed darlings* for me, and do not let William forget me. Clara cannot
*Their son and baby daughter
John Keats to Fanny Brawne
25 College Street, 13 October 1819
My dearest Girl,
This moment I have set myself to copy some verses out fair. I cannot proceed with any degree of content. I must write you a line or two and see if that will assist in dismissing you from my mind for ever so short a time. Upon my soul I can think of nothing else. The time is passed when I had power to advise and warn you against the unpromising morning of my Life. My love has made me selfish. I cannot exist without you. I am forgetful of everything but seeing you again–my life seems to stop there–I see no further. You have absorbed me. I have a sensation at the present moment as though I was dissolving–I should be exquisitely miserable without the hope of soon seeing you. I should be afraid to separate myself far from you. My sweet Fanny, will your heart never change? My love, will it? I have no limit now to my love…