First thoughts on the Fanny Brawne to Fanny Keats letters, by Phoebe Lambdon

Phoebe Lambdon, Research Student at Roehampton University and Keats House
The address and postmark of a hand-written letter. 
Fanny Brawne’s letter to Fanny Keats, 27 March 1821, showing the address and postmark. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/MS/02/049.

‘And now my dear I must hope you will favor me with your company, it will I assure you be a real favor. And yet I hardly like to press you to make such a dull visit. I once hoped for a very different one from you, I used to anticipate the pleasure I should feel in showing every kindness and attention in my power to you. And I felt so happy when he desired me to write to you while he was away.’  

Fanny Brawne to Fanny Keats, 27 March 1821.

Fanny Brawne and Fanny Keats’s correspondence started in September 1821, immediately after Keats departed for Rome, and ended in mid-June 1824, shortly after Fanny Keats came of age and was finally able to leave her guardian’s house in Walthamstow. They were distant from Keats’s circle of friends, either physically in Fanny Keats’s case, or emotionally in Brawne’s. Fanny Brawne felt unable to openly discuss her feelings towards Keats’s death with his friends and her family, and instead turned to his sister. The pair began to grieve for Keats in a way that neither of them could share with others.

Fanny Brawne was aware of the strict rules surrounding Fanny Keats’s life. As with Keats’s letters to Fanny Keats, Brawne refers to the looming figures of her guardians, the Abbeys, with their restrictions on who Fanny Keats could see and offers advice on how best to live with them. It would be a year after Brawne first wrote that the two young women would finally get to meet in person. It was not the meeting which either had originally hoped for, especially for Fanny Brawne who must have looked forward to claiming the young Fanny Keats as a sister. They were able to share their memories of Keats, recalling intimate moments with him – perhaps Fanny Keats spoke of her time in Edmonton with Keats taking fish from the nearby brook. 

While the two women were brought together by their joint grief over Keats, the Brawne-Keats correspondence is not just limited to this. With each letter, we get glimpses into their lives. The letters go from discussions of books, with Fanny Brawne taking over the role of literary guideto Keats’s sister, to advice on fashion, pigeons, and boys. Fanny Brawne would send Fanny Keats the books she had received from Keats, introduce her to Shakespeare and de Quincey and, probably to the chagrin of Keats, Byron. In return, Fanny Keats would send three pigeons as a gift to her in Hampstead. Their letters weren’t just reserved for more trivial matters. The young Fanny would come to Brawne with worries about opium and whether the Abbeys had lied to her about her age. For the latter, Samuel Brawne would be sent to London to find Fanny Keats’s birth certificate.

In late 1821 Valentín Llanos Gutiérrez is first mentioned. From then on, all of his visits were recorded and passed on to Fanny Keats. A particularly funny event surrounding Valentín is recorded in Brawne’s letter of February 3rd, 1822 when Mrs Abbey tried to unsuccessfully question Fanny Keats about him:

‘How I liked that sly question about Mr Gutierez that morning. I did not dare look up for fear of laughing but it amused me to see how people commit themselves by trying to see through others. I felt so glad I had told you because I thought it must have delighted you as it did me. It was quite a scene–‘

All this secrecy would eventually pay off when, in March 1826, Fanny Keats would marry Valentín Llanos. In her biography of Fanny Brawne, Joanna Richardson paints this as a culmination of Fanny Brawne’s hopes for Fanny Keats:  

‘In the summer of 1825 Fanny perceived that one of her oldest and most cherished hopes would soon be fulfilled: that all Fanny Keats's reading of Spanish poetry, her struggles with the guitar, her anxiety to look Iberian, would at last, and imminently, be rewarded. For the last few years she had advised and encouraged her, and shared her confidence; and just as Fanny Brawne's diplomacy had taken her to Walthamstow, so, one feels, it helped to bring Valentine Llanos to Hampstead. With her warm approval, he proposed to Keats’s sister’  

While the letters may have ended in June 1824, their friendship continued. Fanny Keats, no longer restricted to Walthamstow, was free to visit Hampstead whenever she pleased. After spending time on the Continent, in 1828 Fanny, Valentine and their daughter, Irene, would move in next door to the Brawnes.

Phoebe Lambdon is a research student working with Roehampton University and Keats House from 2020 to 2024, funded through the Techne Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP). Their research will lead to new understandings and interpretations of, and engagement with, the Keats House collections.

Keats House are currently republishing the Fanny Brawne to Fanny Keats letters online, for the Keats200 bicentenary legacy programme. You can experience the first letter, and subsequent letters which appear on the 200th anniversary of them being written here. Find out more about Fanny Brawne by visiting our Keats200 bicentenary exhibition.

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.

Find out more about #Keats200 by following Keats House on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.