Over spring and summer 1820 Keats moved lodgings three times within four months. This was tough, even for someone who had never known one settled family home. During his medical training and early writing career Keats rented different rooms with friends or his brothers depending on where he wanted to be. Lodging with Charles Brown at Wentworth Place during 1819 was one of Keats’s happiest times. He was neighbours with his beloved Fanny Brawne and he could rest there comfortably when he first became ill in February 1820. However, by April 1820, he had to find somewhere else to lodge. Having to move while still recovering was another stress to add to his lengthening list of troubles.
From May 1820 Brown rented out his side of Wentworth Place to visitors. He could charge a high price from those wanting to stay in Hampstead over the summer, and this was an important part of his income. In previous years Keats had spent the summers travelling, one year to Scotland, another to the Isle of Wight. This year, his illness meant travelling wasn’t an option.
With the support of his friend Leigh Hunt, Keats found a room at 2 Wesleyan Place, just around the corner from Hunt in Kentish Town. Charles Brown lent him the rent money. Like Hampstead, Kentish Town was then outside of London, popular with people ill with consumption who wanted fresh air. A friend described his room as ‘clean, airy, and quiet’ but despite this comfort, it was not a good time for Keats to live alone. Loneliness, illness and fatigue meant he could not concentrate on his writing. During the weeks spent at Wesleyan Place he became overwhelmed by his longing for Fanny Brawne and the almost paranoid anxiety she did not feel the same about him. At a time when he was making final edits to the poems in his book, his pleading, painful letters to Fanny Brawne show how distracted he was by the fear she would abandon him.
After around seven difficult weeks living at 2 Wesleyan Place, Keats’s health suffered a serious relapse. While setting out to visit his sister at her guardian’s house in Walthamstow, he began to spit blood. That evening, he had a major haemorrhage. In need of care, he was brought round the corner to Mortimer Terrace, to stay with Leigh Hunt and his family. It was a noisy household filled with children, but Keats felt grateful for their support. He wrote to his sister:
‘Mr Hunt does everything in his power to make the time pass as agreeably with me as possible.I read the greatest part of the day, and generally take two half hour walks a day up and down the terrace which is very much pester’d with cries, ballad singers, and street music.’
Keats writing to his sister, 22 July 1820
While at Hunt’s house, Keats’s book was finally available in print and he arranged for copies to be sent to friends. He spent his time reading, going for short walks and marking passages he thought Fanny Brawne would enjoy reading in a book by Edmund Spencer. But he was still physically weak and emotionally fragile. When a letter from Fanny was opened by someone in the house before being given to him, he was so angry he packed a few belongings and left. He headed back to Hampstead, hoping to rent a room where he had previously stayed in the postman’s house, despite it being where his brother had died two years before. It’s unclear what happened, but he ended up being invited back to Wentworth Place, this time to stay with Fanny Brawne’s family.
On 12 August Keats was back at Wentworth Place,staying on the other side of the wall from the summer visitors now occupying Charles Brown’s part of the building. This time he was within the same household as his beloved Fanny Brawne. Mrs Brawne was a widow, and Fanny Brawne was the eldest of her three children. She must have realised the hopeless state Keats was in,offering him help and overcoming the social impropriety of allowing him to stay under the same roof as her unmarried daughter.
It was back at Wentworth Place that, at 24 years old, Keats scribbled out a short will and made arrangements to travel to Rome, where he hoped the climate would make him well again. Despite his serious illness,Keats wrote of how happy he felt during these weeks with Fanny Brawne. He remained with her until he left England the following month.
Keats’s Last Book: a virtual journey is a Keats House exhibition, published in July 2020 to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the publication of Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and Other Poems.
The Keats200 bicentenary is a celebration of Keats’s life, works and legacy, beginning in December 2018 through to February 2021 and beyond. It is led by three major partners – Keats House, Hampstead, The Keats Foundation and the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association – and is open to all individuals and organisations who have an interest in Keats or poetry. The bicentenary of Keats’s most productive years as a poet, and the period when he found inspiration, friendship and love, is an exciting opportunity to (re)discover and enjoy his works as well as engage with poetry and its ongoing relevance to us all today.