you're reading...
2011-12, 371, 372, Book Reviews, Colin Steele, Poetry

Book Reviews

John Keats: A Poet and His Manuscripts by Stephen Hebron  The British Library 165 pp. $59.95

Shelley’s ghost: reshaping the image of a literary family by  Stephen Hebron and Elizabeth C Denlinger

Bodleian Library (Distributed in Australia by Inbooks). 192 pp. $49.95

STEPHEN HEBRON AND the British Library have collaborated to produce a timely and sumptuous book, John Keats: A Poet and His Manuscripts, which reproduces 21 of Keats’s ‘finest poems and letters’ and details their manuscript history. It is published at an appropriate time, given Jane Campion’s recent movie Bright Star about Keats and his love Fanny Brawne.

Hebron divides the book into two parts, the first documenting the ‘dedicated early Keatsians’ and following the various paths that the manuscripts took through various friends and collectors before ultimately ending up in major libraries, such as Harvard and the British Library. In the second part, Hebron explores the 21 manuscripts in order to bring the reader ‘closer to Keats’s voice’.

Keats (1795–1821) published only three volumes of poetry but a solid core of manuscripts underpinned those volumes. Hebron notes ‘In his brief adult life Keats wrote constantly. This book includes manuscripts of his letters and poems – with all their crossings out and revisions, and in his distinctive, curling handwriting – and helps bring us closer to a remarkable writer and a unique personality.’ Hebron reflects that ‘each manuscript is like a one-off performance’.

The facsimile reproductions includes an early draft of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, as well as letters to family, friends and fellow poets, such as Shelley and Leigh Hunt. Keats’s poems were often shared in manuscript long before they appeared in print and he was known to write out copies of a poem for someone’s album, or include one in a letter. When he died his literary manuscripts were widely dispersed among family and friends.

Hebron reminds contemporary readers who take Keats’s fame for granted that ‘Not many people had heard of John Keats, when on 23rd of February 1821, he died in Rome aged just twenty-five’. Keats’s own words to Fanny Brawne ‘If I should die, I have left no immortal work behind me – nothing to make my friends proud of my memory’ are reaffirmed in Hebron’s words that Keats ‘was haunted by ambition, by desire for fame and literary immortality’.

Brawne (1800-1865) and Keats fell in love in 1819, although many of Keats’s friends were against their relationship. Hebron notes that while Keats had fallen ‘passionately in love with an eighteen-year-old girl, Fanny Brawne . . . his precarious financial position, and the onset of the tuberculosis that would kill him, had prevented their marriage’.

Keats’s initial reaction in a letter to his brother George in December 1818, of ‘Miss Brawne’ was mixed: ‘She is about my height with a fine style of countenance of the lengthened sort . . . her shape is very graceful and so are her movements – Her arms are good her hands badish – her feet tolerable . . . She is not seventeen – but she is ignorant – monstrous in her behaviour flying out in all directions, calling people such names that I was forced lately to make use of the term Minx – this I think not from any innate vice but from a penchant she has for acting stylishly. I am however tired of such style and shall decline any more of it’.

The ‘Minx’, however, soon inspired greater affection and tender love letters ensued. In 1820 he wrote to her: ‘When you are in the room my thoughts never fly out of the window: you always concentrate my whole senses . . . In my present state of Health I feel too much separated from you and could almost speak to you in the words of Lorenzo’s Ghost to Isabella – “Your Beauty grows upon me and I feel / A greater love through all my essence steal”.’

Fanny wrote to the other Fanny, Keats’s sister, after his death, ‘I have not got over it and never shall . . . I know my Keats is happy, I know my Keats is happy, happier a thousand times than he could have been here, for Fanny, you do not, you never can know how much he has suffered’. For over 50 years, Brawne’s name remained unconnected to Keats as far as the general public were concerned.

Keats’s ‘Bright star’ words, written to Fanny in 1819, ‘would I were stedfast as thou art’ were to become prophetic in her steadfast protection of their relationship especially in the non disclosure of the love letters. Her own letters to Keats are lost. As Dr Jennifer Wallace has commented: ‘The emotional upheaval of reading her letters sent to him in Rome was too great for the dying poet, and he preferred simply to clutch them to his chest unopened, requesting that they be buried with him in his coffin’.

The publication by H Buxton Forman in 1878, of 37 of Keats’s love letters to Fanny aroused general outrage and also towards Brawne from those who believed she should have destroyed the letters. Sir Charles Dilke, quoted by Hebron, said ‘an English gentleman would as soon think of picking the pocket of a dead comrade as of making public his love-letters’. Forman undoubtedly has had the historical last word with his reply, and he would certainly be in line with modern biographical sentiments, ‘I still think Keats’s letters, without those to Fanny Brawne, very much like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark’.

* * * *

Stephen Hebron, well known for his books on British Romanticism, and Elizabeth Denlinger, Curator of the Shelley collection at the New York Public Library, have combined, in an imaginative archival approach, to re-examine the lives and posthumous reputations of Percy Bysshe Shelley, his wife Mary, and Mary’s parents, the philosopher William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist, overall ‘a family blessed with genius but marred by tragedy’.

Shelley’s Ghost does not adopt a biographical approach, nor is the book a critical appreciation of their works, but rather an analysis of surviving manuscripts and how, over time, access to these manuscripts has shaped the family’s reputation. They demonstrate how Mary Shelley sought to enhance the reputation of her husband and parents by the selective publication of manuscripts, an editing legacy inherited by her son, Sir Percy Florence and particularly his wife, Jane, Lady Shelley.

The Shelley family donated the first two parts of their archive to the Bodleian Library in Oxford in 1893-4 and 1946-61, while the final part was bought by the Library in 2004.

Shelley’s Ghost, which is lavishly illustrated, accompanied a major exhibition at Bodley, which included: the original draft manuscripts of Frankenstein, written by Mary; a suicide note written by Percy’s first wife, Harriet; the sounds of Percy’s guitar; lockets of hair, and other mementos. Links at <http://shelleysghost.bodleian.ox.ac.uk&gt;.

Hebron was asked what Shelley would have made of the exhibition and book celebrating his genius, given that he was expelled from Oxford, for writing, with Thomas Hogg, The Necessity of Atheism. Hebron comments: ‘It was traumatic at the time: it led to a very unsettled existence, but he doesn’t seem to have borne a grudge’. In conclusion, Hebron reaffirms, ‘Whatever we seek today, ghostly or not . . . about the family, there is no disputing their intellectual riches and their continuing hold over the imagination’. Shelley’s Ghost provides a scholarly, yet eminently readable, overview of the archive of that imagination.


Colin Steele





Comments are closed.


%d bloggers like this: