This long pursuit, p.21
This Long Pursuit, p.21Richard Holmes
Keats may possibly have had some kind of affair with her before meeting Fanny Brawne. He wrote an amusing, seductive account of her ‘very tasty’ apartment in Islington, which he visited alone and unchaperoned in October 1818. It had ‘an Aeolian Harp, a Parrot, a Linnet, a Case of choice Liquers etc etc’. He certainly kissed her, and what’s more recorded it (though not quite in terms of the nectarine). She loaded him with grouse and other treats for the dying Tom (a psychologically acute gesture), and according to his friend Benjamin Bailey supplied the informing idea for both ‘The Eve of St Agnes’ and ‘The Eve of St Mark’. Chronology would suggest that the sexual force of these poems was probably inspired by Isabella, rather than Fanny Brawne. There is even the possibility that the signature sonnet ‘Bright Star’ was originally written for her, not Fanny.
Gittings believed Isabella Jones was Keats’s lost first love; Motion is less certain. Roe investigates her in forensic detail, establishing a slightly louche but attractive background, a seductive personality, unattached but with a rich Irish ‘patron’, and an interest in young literary types. It seems that she ‘collected’ promising young poets, flirted with Keats’s publisher Taylor, and had a simultaneous interest in the young author Barry Cornwall. Significantly, Keats burned Isabella’s letters soon after he had met Fanny Brawne. He appears to mock her, retrospectively, in a love letter to Fanny of July 1819: ‘I have met women whom I really think would like to be married to a Poem and be given away by a Novel.’ Perhaps it was a passing infatuation, or merely a fancy; a cold pastoral on both sides? In a letter to Taylor of 1821, having read the terrible accounts of Keats’s death in Rome, Isabella criticised Severn for making a fuss about it all, and coolly referred to Keats as ‘the fine-hearted creature we both admired’. She remains ultimately puzzling and mysterious to all biographers.
Even Keats’s passionate love for Fanny Brawne seems more significant to some biographers (and film-makers) than to others. They first met in December 1818, when the dark-haired Fanny was just eighteen, ‘pale and thin’, much taken up with clothes, parlour games and dancing, pretty and animated and flirtatious, but evidently very young for her age. It was certainly not love at first sight. Keats described her as ‘beautiful, elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable and strange’; but added impatiently that she was childish and ‘ignorant’, and ‘monstrous in her behaviour, flying out in all directions, calling people such names’. He called her, quite frankly, a ‘Minx’. Of course it is difficult for biography to trace the exact inner evolutions of the heart, but their love story does not really begin to express itself openly until the following year, in July 1819, when Keats was away on the Isle of Wight, alternately writing Lamia and the first of his twenty or so passionately declarative letters to Fanny. It is only now that he suddenly bursts out: ‘Love is my Religion.’
Their love remains, essentially, a drama of absences, longings and withholdings. It continues, more and more painfully, until Keats’s death eighteen months later. It expresses itself in some striking erotic poetry, not only ‘Bright Star’ but also the palpitating sonnet ‘The Day is Gone …’
The day is gone, and all its sweets are gone!
Sweet voice, sweet lips, soft hand, and softer breast,
Warm breath, light whisper, tender semi-tone,
Bright eyes, accomplish’d shape, and lang’rous waist!
Faded the flower and all its budded charms,
Faded the sight of beauty from my eyes,
Faded the shape of beauty from my arms,
Faded the voice, warmth, whiteness, paradise,
Vanish’d unseasonably at shut of eve,
When the dusk holiday – or holinight –
Of fragrant-curtained love begins to weave
The woof of darkness thick, for hid delight;
But, as I’ve read Love’s missal through today,
He’ll let me sleep, seeing I fast and pray.
Andrew Motion gives up nearly a fifth of his six-hundred-page biography to the affair, quoting extensively from Keats’s heartbreaking letters to Fanny, and all five of his desperate late poems to her. Both Bate and Gittings are rather less effusive. Bate is evidently uneasy with the love poems, considering them either ‘tired and flat’ or embarrassingly ‘frantic’. Gittings is understanding, but avuncular: ‘In all his poems to her, Fanny appears as the “sweet foe”, an exact expression of Keats’s complicated feelings towards her …’
By comparison Nicholas Roe is positively austere, covering the whole period in less than forty pages (compared to Motion’s 120). He quotes from only one of the ‘Fanny’ poems, and almost nothing from the love letters. Once Keats is in Italy, Fanny’s presence seems to fade, and Roe narrates the final illness in the form of a diary, a plain record of the sickroom, almost without commentary. Emotionally, the effect is undoubtedly powerful. Yet it is almost as if Roe were retrospectively trying to protect Keats from Fanny Brawne. Or as if the biographer were – unconsciously of course – jealous of the lover.
For beneath the scholarly objectivity, Roe too reveals an intensely personal commitment to his subject. Throughout his fine biography there is a tell-tale trail of ‘photographs by the author’, faithfully following in Keats’s footsteps through southern England, Scotland, and finally out to Italy. There is a particularly dreamy, evocative study of the Old Mill House, Bedhampton, on the Chichester estuary, where Keats started work in January 1819 on ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, a poem especially dear to Roe. All Keats biographers go to Rome. Robert Gittings drove there, and Andrew Motion actually sailed there in a small boat reminiscent of the Maria Crowther on which Keats took his passage. But Roe’s passionate researches took him not merely to Rome, but as far as New Zealand, on the trail of the later life of Charles Brown. Here, the local papers reported, Roe delivered a gallant oration on Keats’s great friend, while standing at Brown’s forgotten graveside.
Despite the familiarity of the Keats story, this points to one of the most remarkable biographical enigmas that still remain. What was the true nature of that unlikely friendship with the apparently bluff, cynical, womanising Charles Armitage Brown? They were very different personalities. Brown was nearly nine years older than Keats, large, outgoing, noisy and self-confident, with considerably more experience of the world. Born in Lambeth, the son of a small businessman, he had gone with his elder brother to St Petersburg, and made a quick fortune in the fur trade, which he then promptly lost in high living, and returned to London penniless. Nothing daunted, Brown transformed his Russian adventure into a comic opera, Narensky. Unlikely as it sounds, this was successfully staged at Drury Lane in 1814, restored his fortunes, and turned him towards literature.
According to Brown, he first met Keats quite by chance while walking across Hampstead Heath in the summer of 1817. Brown’s first impressions of the shy, self-contained twenty-one-year-old poet were never forgotten, and were vividly physical:
He was small in stature, well proportioned, compact in form, and, though thin, rather muscular;– one of the many who prove that manliness is distinct from height and bulk … His full fine eyes were lustrously intellectual, and beaming (at that time!) with hope and joy. It has been remarked that the most faulty feature was his mouth; and, at intervals, it was so. But, whenever he spoke, or was in any way excited, the expression of the lips was so varied and delicate, that they might be called handsome.
Brown slipped effortlessly into the role of Keats’s genial, easy-going, extrovert companion: a sort of substitute elder brother, both teasing and encouraging. The friendship was deepened in 1818, by the humour and high spirits of the athletic Scottish summer tour, and then by the grim tragedy of Tom Keats’s agonising death from tuberculosis the following winter. This formed an intimate emotional bond, though a largely unexpressed one. Except that Brown insisted that Keats come and live with him after Tom’s death. As Brown later narrated it, the moment was unforgettable:
Early one morning I was awakened in my bed by a pr
Brown’s home was Wentworth Place, a large, airy, newly-built house of white stucco, set back from the road amidst gardens on the western edge of Hampstead Heath (and later known as Keats House). One half of it was rented out to temporary tenants, and in April 1819 these became Mrs Brawne and her family of three children, including of course Fanny.
The seventeen months that followed Tom’s death, between December 1818 and May 1820, were the period of Keats’s greatest creativity. In this respect Brown’s influence significantly antedates that of Fanny Brawne, who became the girl next door. On many occasions Brown and Keats worked opposite each other, at the same table or in the same garden, and discussed poetry (and claret) late into the night. They collaborated on a play, Otho the Great, with Brown hoping to bring Keats another Drury Lane success. During the ominous summer of 1820 Brown helped Keats combat the terror of his tubercular symptoms (‘that drop of blood is my death warrant’), and kept alive the possibility that he might expand the range of his writing into theatre and journalism, and even make a living from it.
Theirs now became a truly intimate friendship, emotionally more intense than either would quite admit. Keats hesitatingly uses the word ‘heart’ in expressing his feelings of gratitude to Brown: ‘I wish, at one view, you could see my heart towards you. ’Tis only from a high tone of feeling that I can put that word upon paper – out of poetry.’ In turn, Brown later said he had not realised how far Keats had ‘tightly wound himself’ about his own heart.
Brown often drew sketches and made silhouettes of Keats, especially one very striking and romantic chalk drawing of him, sitting sideways on a chair, his hair a bramble of curls, and his closed fist resting thoughtfully on his cheek. The finely finished work of this drawing seems an act of special care and devotion, revealing feelings which could not otherwise be expressed. The friendship was only shaken by jealousy and misunderstanding in May 1820, when Keats bitterly reproached Fanny Brawne (still a ‘minx’ perhaps) for her ‘habit of flirting with Brown …’
It is clear that both Brown and Fanny always felt guilty that they had not accompanied Keats to Rome. Perhaps in some way they were rivals in love. Fanny wore mourning for years, though she did eventually marry. A later ambrotype photograph of her, probably in her late forties, shows her ‘thin and pale’, still astonishingly young for her age, but now self-contained, her long, aquiline face poised and darkly beautiful. She has become, in retrospect, a romantic heroine.
Brown became a Victorian. He married and almost immediately abandoned his wife, Abigail O’Donohue, a young Irish serving girl employed at Wentworth Place, whom he had casually made pregnant. He took responsibility for their son, Carlino Brown, and drifted with him through expatriate Italy, trying to write novels, reminiscing with other Romantic survivors – Trelawny, Landor, Leigh Hunt and Severn. But Brown was psychologically prevented from writing his friend’s full biography, the one thing he longed to do, by some unspoken form of regret. The short memoir which he finally pulled together just before he and his son emigrated to New Zealand in 1841 has many of the features of a delayed love letter. In it Brown wrote:
Often have I been urged to write a biography of Keats, and almost as often have I urged a promise of every information in my power to others. Earnestly wishing it done, I have myself recoiled from the office; for it is painful. He was dearly beloved, and honoured as a superior being by me. Now that twenty years have passed since I lost him, his memory is still my chief happiness; because I think of him in the feeling of Shelley’s lines [from Adonais].
In this, Charles Brown set the tone for most of these subsequent modern biographies. It explains why they are all so different, yet all so excellent; and why Keats has survived so vividly. He has survived because he has been so variously, yet so greatly, loved.
For his biographers, the subject of Shelley’s death is a strangely haunting one. In my own biography of 1974, I stopped the main narrative the moment the waves closed over his head in the Gulf of Spezia. I could not bear to witness the long-delayed recovery of his battered body, or the fantastic rigmarole of the beach cremation which Trelawny stage-managed, or the grotesque tangled history of his heart (or was it his liver?), which was apparently snatched from the funeral pyre. My strategic retreat was later noticed in a perceptive essay by my fellow biographer Hermione Lee, in a witty chapter entitled ‘Shelley’s Heart and Pepys’s Lobsters’, from her fine book Body Parts: Essays on Life-Writing (2005).
Leaving aside that other deep-sea question (that of Pepys’s lost lobsters), Lee correctly remarked that Holmes would have ‘no truck with any of the versions of Shelley’s death’, and that my refusal to deal at all with Shelley’s lost heart (‘a body part that goes missing’) was my way of escaping a particular ‘biographical trap’. She was quite right about this trap, although at the time it was a purely instinctive escape on my part. I think it must have arisen at some level from my subliminal identification with Shelley: we were both twenty-nine at the time. Now, many years later, and in calmer (but perhaps shallower) waters, I have reflected further upon it.
In the summer of 1822 the Courier, a leading Tory newspaper in London, carried a brief obituary that began: ‘Shelley, the writer of some infidel poetry, has been drowned: now he knows whether there is a God or no.’ From this moment on, the dramatic death of Percy Bysshe Shelley in the Gulf of Spezia was set to become one of the most powerful of all Romantic legends. And also perhaps the most misleading.
Shelley perished in his own sailing boat, the Don Juan, while returning from Livorno to Lerici in the late afternoon of 8 July 1822, during a violent summer storm. He was a month short of his thirtieth birthday. Like Keats’s death in Rome the year before, or Byron’s at Missolonghi two years later, this sudden tragedy set a kind of sacred (or profane) seal upon his reputation as a youthful, sacrificial genius. But far more comprehensively than theirs, Shelley’s death was used to define an entire life, to frame a complete biography. It produced not hagiography, but what might be called thanatography.
Through an astonishing array of pictures, poems, inscriptions, memoirs and Victorian monuments, this death spun a particular image of Shelley’s character more effectively than any modern PR campaign. It projected a writer who was unearthly, impractical and doomed. In Matthew Arnold’s notorious summation, Shelley was ‘a beautiful and ineffectual angel, beating in the void his luminous wings in vain’. Shelley could always fly, but he could never swim.
The legend of his death transformed his life almost beyond recovery. Here for instance is what was inscribed (in Italian) on the wall of his last house, the skull-like Casa Magni, with its five gaping white arches and open terrace, gazing out to sea at San Terenzo, on the bay of Lerici:
Upon this terrace, once protected by the shadow of an ancient oak tree, in July 1822, Mary Shelley and Jane Williams awaited with weeping anxiety the return of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who, sailing from Livorno in his fragile craft, had come to shore by sudden chance among the silences of the Elysian Isles. – O blessed shores, where Love, Liberty and Dreams have no chains.
This unearthly legend had been built up steadily throughout the nineteenth century. Shelley’s wife Mary herself launched it, writing immediately after his death: ‘I was never the Eve of any Paradise, but a human creature blessed by an elemental spirit’s company & love – an angel who imprisoned in flesh could not adapt himself to his clay shrine & so has flown and left it.’
Shelley’s friend and champion, the incorrigible myth
This inscription gathered its own irony. In his journal for 1822, Trelawny had written a simple graphic description of the seasonal storm that had overwhelmed Shelley’s boat, and the cremation of Shelley’s body on the beach at Viareggio, which Trelawny had brilliantly stage-managed as a pagan ceremony, with libations of wine, oil and spices.
But he obsessively rewrote his account nearly a dozen times over the next fifty years, accumulating more and more baroque details, like some sinister biographical coral reef. He raised the possibility that Shelley’s boat had been rammed, or alternatively that Shelley had been suicidally unseamanlike. ‘Death’s demon,’ he intoned delphically in his Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author, the final version of which was published in 1878, ‘always attended the Poet upon the water.’
By 1889 Louis Fournier’s celebrated painting The Cremation of Shelley showed a miraculously undamaged corpse offered up to heaven on a martyr’s pyre, with Trelawny and Byron striking solemn Romantic poses (actually they went swimming), and a pious Mary kneeling on the windswept beach in floods of tears (although in fact she was never there at all).
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