One of the reasons I value Keats’ letters even more than most of his poetry is the big-brother affection and playfulness he always shows his sister, Frances Mary “Fanny” Keats. She was born in 1803, eight years after her oldest brother, and died in 1889, sixty-eight years after him. On July 4, 1818, while on a six-hundred-mile walking tour of Scotland with his friend Charles Brown, the poet writes to fifteen-year-old Fanny:
“I am ashamed of writing you such stuff, nor would I if it were not for being tired after my day’s walking, and ready to tumble into bed so fatigued that when I am asleep you might sew my nose to my great toe and trundle me round the town, like a Hoop, without waking me.”
Recall that Keats was already suffering from the tuberculosis that would kill him in less than three years, and that had already killed his mother and would kill his brother Tom later that year. Yet he manages to keep his letter to Fanny loving and amusing. Keats had a comic gift, one we would hardly suspect if we read only his poetry. He continues in his letter:
“Then I get so hungry a Ham goes but a very little way and fowls are like Larks to me — A Batch of Bread I make no more ado with than a sheet of parliament; and I can eat a Bull’s head as easily as I used to do Bull’s eyes. I take a whole string of Pork Sausages down as easily as a Pen’orth of Lady’s fingers. Ah dear I must soon be contented with an acre or two of oaten cake a hogshead of Milk and a Clothes-basket of Eggs morning noon and night when I get among the Highlanders.”
Keats loved food. It appears often in his poems and letters – yet another fact that scuttles the image of Keats as a hypersensitive wraith. During the same Scottish journey he writes to his dying brother Tom that “we dined yesterday on dirty bacon, dirtier eggs and dirtiest potatoes with a slice of salmon.” On Aug. 6, 1818, he writes to Mrs. James Wylie, his brother George’s mother-in-law, that he’s eating oat-cakes and drinking whiskey:
“Sometimes, when I am rather tired, I lean rather languishingly on a rock, and long for some famous beauty to get down from her palfrey [OED: “a horse for ordinary riding (as distinct from a warhorse); esp. a small saddle horse for a woman”] in passing, approach me, with—her saddle-bags, and give me—a dozen or two capital roast beef sandwiches.”
In 1826, Fanny Keats married a Spaniard, Valentin Maria Llanos y Gutiérrez, who had admired the poet’s work and visited him in Rome three days before his death. Fanny and her husband left England in 1833 and never returned. From 1861 to 1864, they lived in Italy, where she befriended Joseph Severn, who had accompanied Keats on his final journey to Italy and was with him when he died in Rome.