The engagement ring given by John Keats to Fanny Brawne

The engagement ring given by John Keats to Fanny Brawne

Contributor: Anna Mercer

Location: Fanny Brawne’s Room, Keats House, Hampstead

Description: This is the engagement ring given to Fanny Brawne by the poet John Keats in 1819, probably in sometime in the Autumn of that year. (1) The ring was probably made in the late eighteenth century, and the stone is almandine – a type of garnet – set in a gold openwork scrolled shouldered hoop. It was inexpensive, reflecting Keats’s financial problems, which created anxiety for the poet before his illness the following year. (2) The Historical and Descriptive Guide to Keats House Museum (1934) suggests the ring was worn by Fanny until her death in 1865. (3) It was left to Fanny’s daughter Margaret, who never married. She then left it to her niece Frances Ellis (née Brawne-Lindon) who gifted the ring to Keats House. In 1925, Keats’s old lodgings at Wentworth Place in Hampstead were made into a memorial to the poet and became Keats House Museum. The ring is one of 13 relics relating to Fanny Brawne.

The celebrated engagement ring represents the poet’s hopes for a future of a marriage supported by success as a writer, based in Hampstead with Fanny and surrounded by his literary friends. This hope was left behind in England – with the ring and Fanny herself – when in search of some relief from the symptoms of tuberculosis Keats set sail for the warmer, drier climate of Italy, never to return. Keats had known he had a terminal case of tuberculosis by early 1820; in a famous account of this moment of realisation recorded by his close friend Charles Brown, Keats coughed up blood and said, ‘it is arterial blood […] that drop of blood is my death-warrant; – I must die’. (4) It would, however, not be until September that Keats would leave; as Fanny’s biographer Joanna Richardson has explained, it had become clear that Keats could not survive another English winter. On 13 September 1820 Fanny bleakly noted in her diary: ‘Mr Keats left Hampstead’. (5) Keats and his friend and travelling companion Joseph Severn journeyed by sea to Naples and then on to Rome, where he died on 23 February 1821, just under three years after his first meeting with Fanny in 1818. After hearing of his death, Fanny wrote to Keats’s sister: ‘I know my Keats is happy, happier a thousand times than he could have been here’. (6) Her last letters to her fiancé were buried with him, unopened, in the cemetery for non-Catholics outside the walls of Rome. (7)

Visitors to the Keats-Shelley House in Rome are presented with a narrative of the poet’s final days, and a tribute to the longevity of his writing. Keats House in Hampstead, north London, also celebrates the poet’s legacy, and is similarly elegiac in mood, although with a different inflection. This may be summed up by the engagement ring that effectively became a mourning ring. It is on permanent display on the first floor of the museum in what would have originally been Fanny’s side of the building (the villa was divided into two separate homes in her day), in a room dedicated to the memory of Fanny. It sits beneath an ambrotype of Fanny in her early fifties and an image of Keats’s holograph of ‘Bright Star’, a poem famously associated with her and understood to have been her own favourite amongst his works; she copied it into the edition of Dante he gave to her. (8) The ring is a popular exhibit among visitors who want to connect with the story of love and loss played out in Wentworth Place.

At Keats House, especially as part of our 2018 International Women’s Day tour, we have taken care to explore the fascinating history of Fanny Brawne’s life and the details of her character, as well as her time with Keats, and her status as his muse. Keats’s early impressions of Fanny led him to describe her as ‘beautiful and elegant, graceful, silly, fashionable and strange’. (9) She eventually married twelve years after Keats’s death, becoming the wife of Louis Lindon, with whom she travelled widely – spending time in France, Germany and Austria. (10) She had three children, and she died aged 65. A descriptive guide to Keats House from 1925 includes a neighbour’s recollections of Fanny aged 26: she was ‘a tall handsome woman’, a ‘refined and cultured gentlewoman’. The account also insists: ‘I am sure that Fanny loved [Keats] and mourned bitterly for his death’. (11) This insistence on Fanny’s love, and her grief, symbolised by the engagement ring, serves and still serves to double readerly love and mourning for Keats; but it also tells a story that conspicuously anchors the poet in nostalgia for a romance of a lost time of Englishness, counterbalancing the more European-centred story of his death at the heart of cosmopolitan Europe.

Date: c. 1820

Subject: John Keats, Fanny Brawne

Media rights: Keats House collection

Object type: A gold ring, set with an almandine stone

Publisher: Keats House

Catalogue number: K/AR/01/018

Footnotes

  1. Edmund Blunden, Keats House: A Guide to the House and Museum, 6th edn., (Hampstead: Keats House, 1966 repr. 1968), 7.
  2. Ibid., 7.
  3. Fred Edgcumbe, Keats House and Museum: Wentworth Place Hampstead: Historical and Descriptive Guide (Hampstead: Keats House, 1934), 24. Also stated in Blunden, 28.
  4. Charles Armitage Brown, Life of John Keats ed. Dorothy Hyde Bodurtha and Williard Bissell Pope (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937), 64.
  5. Joanna Richardson, Fanny Brawne: A Biography (London: Thames and Hudson, 1952), 70-72.
  6. Fanny Brawne, Letter to Fanny Keats, 26 Feb 1821, in Letters of Fanny Brawne to Fanny Keats ed. Fred Edgcumbe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936). Online version: <https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.182628/2015.182628.Letters-Of-Fanny-Brawne-To-Fanny-Keats-1820-To-1824_djvu.txt> [accessed: 9 June 2018].
  7. F. B. Pinion, A Keats Chronology (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1992), 138.
  8. Richardson, 41.
  9. John Keats, letter to George and Georgiana Keats, December 1818/January 1819, in The Letters of John Keats (2 Vols), Vol II ed. Hyder Edward Rollins (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958), 8.
  10. Richardson, 124-36.
  11. W. E. Doubleday, The Keats House (Wentworth Place) Hampstead: An Historical and Descriptive Guide (Hampstead: Keats House, 1925), 22.
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