The Chronicle Review

Keats and His 'Bright Star'

Keats house, City of London

An ambrotype portrait of Fanny Brawne, 1855
September 28, 2009

In the village of Hampstead, England, John Keats wrote most of his great odes and mature poems in a two-family house he shared with his friend Charles Brown. He also lived an acutely pent-up existence there—emotionally, mentally, and sexually.

Fanny Brawne would never become Mrs. John Keats, nor would they ever consummate their love. They became engaged in 1819 but delayed marrying until Keats earned some money or realized his inheritance; he died of tuberculosis in Rome before he could do either. But for a time at least, they did share the same house. Separated from her only by a thin wall, Keats composed lyrics of love and desire and frustration. He tossed and turned feverishly in his bed each night, tortured by the sounds of Fanny in the other half of the house: a laugh, a moan, a tap on the wall or a rustle of falling silks. Much of his later illness, Keats explained to his friend Brown, was caused by her teasing presence.

"I should have had her when I was in health," he said, "and I should have remained well."

In Jane Campion's Bright Star, however, the tease is over. Brawne remains Keats's "still unravished bride," but they do manage to kiss on the sly and embrace in the ivy, and she is the focal point of the film and its clear heroine. That is a radical departure from the negative view of her that lingered for over a hundred years after Keats's death. Indeed, the first major cinematic treatment of their love affair not only promises to create a lasting popular conception of Brawne for the general public, but also reflects the critical transformations in Brawne scholarship in recent years and, in fact, was inspired by the 1998 biography of Keats by a former English poet laureate, Sir Andrew Motion, who also was a consultant for the film.

Scholars have either vilified Fanny Brawne as a vapid girl who tortured Keats with her flirtations or defended her as a conventional, but loving, helpmeet. Even to the more sympathetic of critics, however, she seems a curious love interest for Keats—"silly, fashionable and strange," as Keats called her, preferring balls to ballads and teatime to literary soirees. What could have possibly attracted Keats to a woman engrossed by what he called "the wolfsbane of fashion and foppery and tattle?"

At first glance, she seems a typical young woman for the period: fickle, fashionable, and flirty, studying airs and mannerisms with all the assiduity of her relative, Beau Brummell. Keats speaks of having visions of her in the faux pastoral "shepherdess dress" that created an illusion of bucolic maidenhood. She sketched out designs for Keats's sister that were on the cutting edge of fashion. She read trumpery novels, swooned over the latest Byron "flash poem," coined amusing bons mots, and enjoyed having what Keats called a "tiff now and then" with admirers (including Keats's friend Brown, who wrote her a bawdy Valentine ending with the lines, "Pray were you never whipped / At school for being naughty?"). Keats told her that he loved her all the more for not loving him for his poetry. "I know many young women who would like nothing more than to be married to a Poem and given away by a Novel," he said, but later appreciators of his verse have often wished Brawne had been more of a bluestocking and less of a typical society girl.

"Nothing in Keats's life has been so misunderstood and misjudged as the relations between him and Fanny Brawne, and few women have had to suffer more from the ignorant malevolence of posterity than Fanny Brawne has," wrote Amy Lowell in 1925. But Keats's fiancée continued to be excoriated despite Lowell's sympathetic portrait of her. The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Walter Jackson Bate summed it up this way: "The hardy Victorian legend was that of a dying poet consumed with unsatisfied love for a heartless flirt. So strong a hold did it take that we still find it lingering on as a general impression despite frequent efforts made to correct it."

The vilification of Brawne began in Keats's lifetime. Members of Keats's set dubbed her a "poor idle Thing of woman-kind" and "an artful bad-hearted girl" who disrespected her mother and was cold to her sister. Nor did her reputation improve with the publication of Keats's first biography in 1848; Richard Monckton Milnes did not deem it "decorous" to reveal the identity of Keats's beloved, thereby protecting Brawne from scandal but also robbing her of the chance to defend herself.

When Keats's love letters were published in 1878, they shocked the Victorians and inspired decades of anti-Brawne scholarship. John Middleton Murray characterizes them as "terrible letters, written in the blood of spirit." Even Sidney Colvin, who conceded in his 1917 biography that Fanny "was kind and in essentials constant to her lover," also observed: "But it seems equally clear that she did not half realise what manner of man he was, … had no objection to the prospect of a long engagement, and despite her lover's remonstrances held herself free in the meantime to enjoy to the full the pleasures of her age and the admiration of other men."

And yet Keats admitted to a friend, "I am certain I have not a right feeling towards women," and his fever-warped letters give only one side of the story. Critical opinion of Brawne changed only with the 1936 publication of her kindly letters to Keats's sister, Fanny. "For many years after Keats's death, she was thought to have been trivial, shallow, thoughtless," Robert Gittings explains. "She is now often represented as a true mate for Keats, understanding, stimulating, thoughtful, patient." It is this latter view that tends to preside in more-recent accounts of her, perhaps erring, if anything, on the side of hagiography.

This is the Fanny Brawne of Campion's film, inspired by her reading of Andrew Motion's biography of Keats. Gone are Fanny's endless flirtations, fickleness, shallow opinions, and sanguine attitude toward her long engagement. She is the steadfast "Bright Star" of Keats's sonnet, and it is Keats who is fickle, torn between his vocation and Fanny. In the film, he falls in love with her largely because of her sympathy for his dying brother Tom. She is La Belle Dame without the nightmare thralldom, witty and chic but also deeply kind and maternal, an aspect of her character that is often missed in readings of her. Fanny mourns for him in the film, as she did in real life, by wearing widow's weeds—though the actual Brawne also later confessed to Brown, "I was more generous 10 years ago. I should not now endure the odium of being connected with one who was working up his way against poverty and every sort of abuse."

Campion also redeems Brawne's passion for sewing by making it an art form in itself, a view that likewise informs Gale Vance Flament's recent master's thesis, entitled "Fanny Brawne Reconsidered: A Study of a Fashion-Conscious Woman of the British Middle Class, 1800-1865." Campion's film begins with erotically charged footage of a needle and thread sliding in and out of holes and ends with Brawne's finishing her mourning pelisse. As the movie progresses, we come to see that Brawne's genius in textiles parallels Keats's genius in text. "My stitching has more merit and admirers than your two scribblings put together," Brawne quips to Keats and Brown. "And I can make money from it." Brawne was, in fact, far more accomplished than she has been given credit for.

Which view of Fanny Brawne is the correct one, and why did Keats fall for her in the first place? He first met her in the autumn of 1818 and was, by his own admission, instantly smitten and scandalized. Keats described her to his brother and sister-in-law with a peculiar blend of exactitude and bafflement:

"She is about my height—with a fine style of countenance of the lengthen'd sort—she wants sentiment in every feature—she manages to make her hair look well—her nostrils are fine—though a little painful—he[r] mouth is bad and good—he[r] Profil is better than her full-face which indeed is not full but pale and thin without showing any bone—Her shape is very graceful and so are her movements … but she is ignorant—monstrous in her behavior flying out in all directions, calling people such names."

And yet, to Keats, Fanny Brawne was also a minx, a lamia, an uncanny creature who fascinated men despite her lack of conventional beauty. She was Jane Eyre unrebuked and Becky Sharp unrepentant. Like Elizabeth Bennet, she attracted men by refusing to be merely "unexceptionable." She confessed to Keats's sister, "I never can make compliments" and "am not at all bashfull and hardly modest." In an age in which women were beset by the blue devils, she remained remarkably sober, clearheaded, and a trifle peculiar. "I have no pity whatever for your nerves," she wrote to Fanny Keats, "because I have no nerves."

For Harold Bloom, literary genius consists of "a strangeness that we either never altogether assimilate, or that becomes such a given that we are blinded to its idiosyncrasies." Keats's work has that quality—a startling aptness of phrase that seems to come "as naturally as leaves to a tree," in Keats's words, and yet at the same time is unpredictable, uncanny, and exquisitely beautiful. Brawne was no genius, and yet she, too, had something of this quality, an odd unsettling originality that belies any attempt to define her in film or prose.

The one ambrotype we have of Brawne comes closest to capturing something of that strangeness that fascinated Keats. The image shows a fashionable woman with sleek dark hair pulled back into an elaborate looping plait. She wears a small white fichu affixed with a broach and the then-popular pagoda sleeves. The ambrotype was reputedly taken when Fanny was in her 50s, but nothing in her seems to have aged except the expression in her odd, luminous eyes. She is timeless and unfathomable, a lamia battening on grief, a tantalizing enigma to scholars and biographers alike.

And what might she have made of this assessment, and of the critical controversies over her character?

"For my part," she told Keats's sister, "I think people are all mad."

Amy Leal teaches in the English department at Syracuse University and is working on a book about Keats.