Keats and His 'Bright Star'

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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?"...

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