As mentioned last week, text from a letter in Special Collections is featured in the new film, Bright Star. Jane Campion’s period piece tells the story of the tragic love between sickly poet John Keats and fashionable girl-next-door Fanny Brawne.
Following the death of John Keats in Italy, Fanny Brawne spent several years in mourning, “wandering the Heath,” as the film tells us. But eventually she did marry, and she bore three children. She never told her husband of her relationship with John Keats, but she did keep his letters-over three dozen of them.
After both she and her husband had died, Fanny’s children decided to sell the letters at auction. The news of this sale shocked the literary world. The letters, of course, are intensely personal and many believed they showed the poet in a desperate and pitiful state. One commentator on the sale was none other than Oscar Wilde, who, one day before the auction, penned this sonnet:
On the sale by auction of Keats’ love-letters
These are the letters which Endymion wrote
To one he loved in secret, and apart.
And now the brawlers of the auction mart
Bargain and bid for each poor blotted note,
Ay! for each separate pulse of passion quote
The merchant’s price. I think they love not art
Who break the crystal of a poet’s heart
That small and sickly eyes may glare and gloat.
Is it not said that many years ago,
In a far Eastern town, some soldiers ran
With torches through the midnight, and began
To wrangle for mean raiment, and to throw
Dice for the garments of a wretched man,
Not knowing the God’s wonder, or His woe?
A first batch of letters was sold by Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge on March 2, 1885 and fetched a sum total of 543 pounds. While Oscar Wilde was offended by the sale the day before, he found it in him to attend the auction and purchased one of the letters himself.
In a future blog post, we will describe how our particular letter made its way from this auction to Haverford and we’ll present a facsimile of this most famous billets-doux.