Life, Love & Death!
Autumn had arrived in its majestic form in Britain in 1819. A young poet was getting ready for his engagement with his 19-year-old fiancée in Hampstead, London. The poet did not become famous at that time. Moreover, he was not from a rich family. He had met the girl few months back, and had hardly had any idea that whether the event would be joyful or etched with sorrow! Although a few close friends had the knowledge about the love affair between John Keats (October 31, 1795 – February 23, 1821) and Frances ‘Fanny’ Brawne Lindon (August 9, 1800 – December 4, 1865), no one knew about their engagement on that day. Even, Joseph Severn – the close friend of Keats who had accompanied the poet during his tour of Rome, and even during his final days – had no information about the secret engagement! It is quite natural that a person, who wanted to keep his affair a secret, would not disclose the date of his engagement…
The love-letters of Keats to Fanny were published in 1878, 57 years after the sad demise of the poet. By that time, he had become a famous personality. However, the publication of his letters triggered uproar in Britain and the US. Readers raised various questions about the unknown love story of the late poet. It was, perhaps, the revelation of a person’s innermost emotions that had hurt the readers, who developed their literary tastes in the Victorian Era! People also started criticising Fanny, saying that she did not deserve a person, like John Keats. Some even went on to express negative opinions about the culture Keats used to adhere to!
The letters of Keats to Fanny were auctioned off in 1885… and, those were sold for GBP 543. In one of his verses, Oscar Wilde compared this auction with breaking of a poet’s heart! Later, the researchers realised the value of those letters. The last of Keats’ privately owned letters was purchased by the London Municipal Corporation for GBP 96,000 in 2011.
When Keats first met Fanny, he was deeply concerned about his younger brother, Tom, who was suffering from tuberculosis. This dreaded disease had claimed their mother’s life eight years ago! After some time, Tom had to leave this world, as well! These two deaths changed the poet’s life. On December 1, 1818, Charles Armitage Brown requested his lonely friend to stay at their Wentworth Place residence. Keats accepted the proposal and agreed to become his friend’s tenant in an attempt to forget his pain. He also started a new life as a poet, ignoring the scathing remarks of his conservative critics.
After four months, Fanny – with her mother, brother and sister – arrived at Wentworth Place as tenants in a neighbouring house. As Keats met Fanny, romance and poetry began to fill his life. During this period, he penned some romantic verses and famous odes! Those creations in 1819 helped him become one of the greatest romantic English poets of all time…
However, roses, too, come with thorns. Fanny had lots of admirers… and, she used to like some of them. Keats noticed her participation in dance performances at the local military barracks on a regular basis. All of a sudden, the young poet, upset, left London… He visited Portsmouth, Winchester and many other cities mainly to concentrate on his works. At the same time, he used to send letters to Fanny from those places.
Keats’ letters to Fanny, which are now available at Keats Museum in London, were written at that period of time. The letters, exchanged between Keats and his friends, have also become immortal due to their valuable opinions about his verses. In one such letter to Fanny, the poet wrote: “I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days – three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.” In another one, he mentioned: “I cannot be happier away from you – ’T is richer than an Argosy of Pearles. Do not threat me even in jest. I have been astonished that Men could die Martyrs for religion – I have shudder’d at it – I shudder no more.” He added: “I could be martyr’d for my Religion – Love is my religion – I could die for that – I could die for you. My Creed is Love and you are its only tenet – You have ravish’d me away by a Power I cannot resist; and yet I could resist till I saw you; and even since I have seen you I have endeavoured often to reason against the reasons of my Love. I can do that no more – the pain would be too great – My Love is selfish. I cannot breathe without you.”
One could find the character of a suspicious boyfriend in his letters written to Fanny after 1820, when he suffered from tuberculosis. In February 1820, he wrote: “My greatest torment, since I have known you, has been my fear of your being a little inclined to the Cressida.” As Keats was a great fan of William Shakespeare, he mentioned Cressida – the breaker of trust in ‘Troilus and Cressida’, a tragedy by Shakespeare written in 1602 – in the letter. In his last letter to Fanny, Keats compared himself to Hamlet! Hamlet once became suspicious of his girlfriend Ophelia and all other women. In August 1820, Keats wrote to Fanny: “Hamlet’s heart was full of such Misery as mine is when he said to Ophelia ‘Go to a Nunnery, go, go!’ Indeed, I should like to give up the matter at once – I should like to die. I am sickened at the brute world which you are smiling with. I hate men, and women more. I see nothing but thorns for the future…”
Keats returned to Hampstead in October 1820. When he met Fanny after a long interval, their love intensified! He wanted to marry Fanny as early as possible. However, he was going through a financial crisis. Although Fanny’s mother was reluctant in accepting their relation initially, she changed her mind after considering their love for one another. The promise of love brightened the grey autumn days in 1820…
Gradually, the health crisis became worse than the financial crisis. A couple of weeks after his secret engagement with Fanny the health condition of Keats deteriorated. The young poet rightly realised that he would have to leave this world soon. He wrote to Fanny: “How hurt I should have been had you ever acceded to what is, notwithstanding, very reasonable! How much the more do I love you from the general result! In my present state of Health I feel too much separated from you…” Indeed, it was a strange situation. So near, yet so far. This wonderful love story was somewhat like a repetition of the crisis of Tantalus as described in the Greek mythology!
There were thorns of doubt and poison of jealousy in their love. However, the pain of unrequited love caused Keats a great uneasiness, as the shadow of certain death loomed large on his mind. Although the doctor advised him not to meet friends and Fanny, the 19-year-old girl used to visit him everyday. No wonder, they also exchanged letters. Unfortunately, Fanny’s letters, written to Keats, are yet to be found…
At one point, Keats had to leave Brown’s Wentworth Place residence to curtail his expenditure. As he rented a new house far away from London, there was hardly any chance to meet Fanny. One day, he appeared in front of Fanny’s house. Fanny’s mother immediately called the sick and tired Keats inside, and allowed him to stay with them for one and half months. The tireless and sincere nursing of the mother-daughter duo definitely had made Keats feel better. Later, the poet admitted that his stay with Fanny’s family was the happiest time of his life.
As the summer was over, the doctor advised Keats to visit Rome in order to avoid the harsh winter in Britain. He accepted the advice… However, it was painful for him to leave Fanny. Ahead of his departure on September 13, 1820, he received a hat wrapped in silk, a diary, papers for writing letters and a marble to cool the hot hands during fever from Fanny. Upon his arrival in Naples, Keats wrote to Charles Armitage Brown: “I am afraid to write to her – to receive a letter from her – to see her handwriting would break my heart – even to hear of her anyhow, to see her name written would be more than I can bear… My dear Brown, for my sake, be her advocate for ever… I am afraid to write to her. I should like her to know that I do not forget her.” He added: “My imagination is horribly vivid about her – I hear her. There is nothing in the world of sufficient interest to divert me from her for a moment… O that I could be buried near where she lives!”
The poet spent his final days in deep sorrow, far away from his beloved. He did not even try to open Fanny’s letters, leave alone read them! Keats tried to feel Fanny by touching the marble given by her. An autopsy on him revealed that tuberculosis badly damaged his lungs… Keats did not open the last letter sent by Fanny. He requested Charles Armitage Brown to keep the letter inside his grave! He told his friend Joseph Severn that he did not want his name to appear on his tombstone, but merely this line: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.“
And Fanny? Twenty-two days after Keats passed away on February 23, 1821, she received the news! In a letter to Keats’ sister (who coincidentally was also named Fanny), she mentioned: “I know my Keats is happy, I know my Keats is happy, happier a thousand times than he could have been here… he might have died here with so many friends to soothe him and me… me with him. All we have to console ourselves with is the great joy he felt that all his misfortunes were at an end.“
Fanny had never removed the ring, gifted by Keats, even after she tied the nuptial knot with Louis Lindon in 1833. The ring is now kept at the Keats’ House in Hamstead. She also kept those 39 letters, which she had received from Keats, with her throughout her life. Even after his death, Keats did not get the recognition, which he deserved, for quite some time. Hence, Fanny did not keep his letters out of greed for fame. Perhaps, she used to consider those letters as God-gifted. Fanny Brawne, the mother of three, passed away on December 4, 1865 at the age of 65.
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