How Fanny Brawne Mourned the Death of John Keats

The love story between John Keats and Fanny Brawne lasted only a few short years but, when Keats died in 1821, Brawne was plunged into a deep mourning.

Their romance began in 1818 when they first met while the Brawne family visited the Dilkes, who shared a house--Wentworth Place--with Keats’s best friend, Charles Armitage Brown. When Keats visited, and later lived with Brown, Fanny got to know Keats. Fanny and Keats seemed like a mismatched pair. He was a poet, she was interested in fashion, but the two quickly forged an intense bond.

In 1819, the Brawnes moved into Wentworth Place, living in the part of the house once occupied by the Dilkes. Keats and Fanny could now spend more time together and their love blossomed; they were soon engaged, though Fanny's mother disapproved of a possible marriage because of Keats's dismal financial prospects. During this time, Keats wrote some of his most beloved poems, including “Ode to a Nightingale” and “La Belle Dame sans Merci."  When he traveled with Brown to the Isle of Wight, he wrote passionate love letters to Fanny. In fact, anytime they were separated, whether due to travel or because of his ill health, Keats wrote letters and notes to Fanny, professing his love and his desire for them to always be together.

Unfortunately, his health deteriorated in 1820 after he was caught in the cold without a coat and subsequently suffered a lung hemorrhage. Doctors advised him to move to Italy where the weather was better for his tubercular condition. The looming trip to Italy was difficult for both Fanny and Keats. According to Jane Campion's introduction to Bright Star: Love Letters and Poems of John Keats to Fanny Brawne, Keats reports that Fanny said "Is there another life?...There must be, we cannot be created for this kind of suffering." After moving to Italy, Keats found it impossible to write another letter to Fanny. He died in Italy in 1821.

Keats’s death devastated Fanny. She wore black mourning clothes for many years, chopped her hair off, and wandered the woods where she and Keats had often spent time together. It’s clear that the depth of her grief matched the depth of her love for Keats. Eventually, Fanny went on with her life. She married and had children, she translated and published short stories. She died in 1865.

In 2009, Jane Campion brought the story of Fanny Brawne and John Keats to the big screen. Starring Abbie Cornish and Ben Whishaw, Bright Star is an exquisite tribute to two extraordinary lives. Campion is careful to capture how the love affair unfolded, beginning as innocent flirtation and then exploding into an all-consuming romance. We do not have Fanny's letters to Keats. We only have Keats's letters to Fanny, which were published fifteen years after Fanny died. The film does a tremendous job of giving Fanny a complex and nuanced personality. She's witty, smart, and stylish. She's a young girl who finds--and loses--the love of her life in a short period of time.

The film vividly depicts Fanny’s grief over the death of Keats. When Fanny hears the news that Keats has died in Italy, she is physically debilitated. She falls to her knees, gasping for breath, and calling for her mother. Abbie Cornish gives a tour de force performance. Few films have captured the painful physicality of grief.

We watch Fanny sew her black mourning clothes and cut her hair. Throughout the film, Fanny is an ethereal presence, wearing daring and colorful ensembles. The decision to wear black and chop off her hair communicates her grief in a visible way. She literally wears her grief on her body.

The film ends with Fanny walking by herself on the heath, reciting Keats’s poem “Bright Star.” As she wanders alone, her face expresses so many emotions.  At times, she cries, but there’s a moment when she smiles, probably thinking of Keats and their time together.

Their love affair was obstructed by distance--she was often kept from him due to his ill health, he was geographically separated from her both in England when he lived away from Wentworth Place and then when he moved to Italy--but language created an intimacy. His love letters and poems deepened and sustained their relationship. So it's profoundly fitting that the movie leaves us with an image of Fanny reciting Keats's words, for they are the one part of him that can never be lost.