Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Price of Ill-Fated Love: A Love Letter from John Keats to Fanny Brawne, 1820

Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Susan reporting:

Doomed young lovers are a perennial favorite of romantic literature, whether Romeo & Juliet or Love Story. But what plays well in a book is often unbearably tragic in real life, as was the case of poet John Keats (1795-1821) and Fanny Brawne (1800-1865.)

Fanny was the inspiration for some of his best poetry - she was famously his "bright star" - and they were dear friends as well as betrothed to wed. But Keats was already feeling the affect of the tuberculosis that would finally kill him, and though he and Fanny lived next door, their relationship was often limited to letters that are heartbreaking in light of his failing health. After he died in Rome in 1821, Fanny mourned him for six years, and kept his letters for the rest of her life.  She asked her children to take care of them as well, supposedly telling them that the letters could "someday be considered of value."

"Someday" came today, though more than 150 years too late to benefit Fanny. This morning several of those well-treasured letters were auctioned by Bonhams in London.  The final sale price for the letter transcribed below, one of the most moving in the collection, would have shocked the often impoverished Fanny Brawne and John Keats: £96,000.

My dearest Fanny,
The power of your benediction is of not so weak a nature as to pass from the ring in four and twenty hours - it is like a sacred Chalice once consecrated and ever consecrate. I shall Kiss your name and mine where your Lips have been - Lips! why should a poor prisoner as I am talk about such things. Thank God, though I hold them the dearest pleasures in the universe, I have a consolation independent of them in the certainty of your affection. I could write a song in the style of Tom Moores Pathetic about Memory if that would be any relief to me. No. It would not. I will be as obstinate as a Robin, I will not sing in a cage. Health is my expected heaven and you are the Houri - this word I believe is both singular and plural - if only plural, never mind - you are a thousand of them
Ever your affectionately
my dearest

On the back of this letter, Keats poignantly warned "You had better not come to day," a reference to his contagious illness.

Click here to see the actual letter.

Above: John Keats by William Hilton, c. 1822, National Portrait Gallery, London (Wikipedia)
Below: Fanny Brawne, artist unknown, c. 1833
Many thanks to Michael Robinson for sharing news of this letter's sale.


Unknown said...

I love Keats. Such lovely poetry and watching the movie Bright Star made me fall in love with their romance and his letters.

Men like that just don't exist anymore.

Jane O said...

One of the most poignant things about Keats is that he was such a good person—responsible, caring, honorable, all those good things. If anyone deserved a HEA, he did, and that he died thinking of himself as a failure (Here lies one whose name was writ in water) is almost unbearably painful.

Marti said...

I noticed that Keat's portrait said circa 1822 yet he died in 1821. Was it completed after his death?

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Lady Renate, Bright Star is on my Netflix list! Everyone I know who's seen it has loved it, including Loretta.

Jane O, totally agree about Keats. Among romantic poets, he's the polar opposite to bad ol' Lord Byron. If Keats hadn't nursed his brothers, who also died of TB, he wouldn't have caught it himself. You're totally right: if any man deserved a happy ending, he should have been the one.

Marti, the portrait used above is a posthumous copy of one painted by Keats' good friend & painter John Severn. Severn's original was in fact painted while the poet was alive.

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

I'm not a huge Jane Campion fan but I adored Bright Star. I remember touring the Keats House in Hampstead many years ago and being amazed at the love story between him and Fanny Brawne. It's too bad that it couldn't have ended happier. Were they sold by Fanny's descendents? I hope they went to a museum where everyone can see them.

Karyn said...

I've always been a huge admirer of Keats. And Bright Star is on my top 5 favorite movie list. I've always been fascinated by this love story, and his letters to Fanny are some of the most beautiful missives ever written.

Thank you so much for this post. I want to watch Bright Star again.

Anonymous said...

For so many reasons I am
grateful for your blog...It
has opened so many worlds to
me, including this letter confirmation that Bright Star was, indeed, a genuine
love story.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Elizabeth Keri, I believe this letter was part of the lot sold by Fanny's son in the 1880s. There's more about the current sale here:

Karyn, I think one of the most touching parts of this story is that while his letters survive, hers to him don't, because he requested that they all be buried with him. I assume they're all there still. ::sigh::

Anonymous, thank you for your praise! The love story in "Bright Star" was indeed genuine. Something about seeing that letter, in his handwriting, is genuinely affecting, isn't it?

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