Yesterday, March 13th, was the 200th anniversary of Keats’ first known letter written from Teignmouth. It was to his old friend Benjamin Bailey who was an Oxford undergraduate reading for the Church. Keats had stayed with him in Oxford during the summer of 1817 when he wrote the third book of Endymion.
In this first letter Keats reflects on the dire Devon climate which he had suffered from his arrival in Teignmouth although, to be fair, the weather was much the same across the country during that time …..
“… by the way you may say what you will about Devonshire: the truth is, it is a splashy, rainy, misty, snowy, foggy, haily, floody, muddy, slipshod County …”
A number of the clues in the previous post are based on what is claimed to have been said in Keats letters; so what better place to continue the forensic investigation then with that original source material.
We are fortunate that Keats was such a prolific letter writer – to such an extent that all the biographies of Keats over the last century rely heavily on the contents of those letters to gain an insight into what Keats was doing and thinking, as well as his relationships with other people.
Over the years, more and more of Keats’ original letters have been discovered and gradually brought together with other Keats’ memorabilia into collections in the USA. I would like to thank the Harvard Library, the Houghton Library, the Smithsonian for their help in responding to my email queries. Also, I was given some useful pointers by Ian Newman of North Dakota university and Brian Rejack of Illinois State University who are both involved in the Keats Letter Project which is publishing on-line each of Keats original letters 200 years on.
The letters, with commentaries, have been brought together into various published collections over time. These include those of:
Henry Buxton Forman, 1889, part of a four volume collection of “Poetical Works and Other Writings of John Keats”.
Maurice Buxton Forman, his son, who edited “The Letters of John Keats” in four editions between 1931 and 1952
Hyder Edward Rollins, 1958, “The Letters of John Keats”
In my last post I mentioned my admiration for historians. I should add to this an admiration for those who have transcribed the letters. To our eyes today the handwriting is not easy to decipher but it is further complicated at times by Keats overwriting a page of writing in the opposite direction, presumably to save paper, as can be seen on this letter of March 13th.
So what can we learn from the letters?
My first thought was that if you are writing a letter you would normally put your address on it. Similarly, if someone is writing to you then you would expect your address to be on the envelope you receive. That would establish clearly where Keats lived.
Unfortunately it appears that is not the way it worked in 1818. None of Keats’ letters have an address – simply “Teignmouth” and possibly a date, as can be seen from this letter to James Rice
Similarly, when Keats was still in London he wrote to his brothers in Teignmouth and this is what appeared on the wax-sealed outside of the letter. This shows that the letter was addressed to George Keats at the Post Office in Teignmouth. So, my assumption is that Keats would visit the Post Office each day that a Royal Mail coach was due to check if any mail had been delivered. The Post Office at that time was in Fore Street, just up the hill from the Coaching Inn that the coach would have arrived at (see future post for the geographical layout).
I have checked all the letters written by and to Keats whilst in Teignmouth; also letters from the time his brothers came down to Teignmouth and any letters with a Teignmouth association following his return to London (these are the few written by John Keats and his brothers to the Jefferys). There is actually very little in the contents to substantiate where Keats lodged but there are references from which inferences have been made as we have already seen in the “local debate” posts.
This is what I have found …..
There is no mention in any of the letters of Northumberland Place, the Strand or indeed other street locations in Teignmouth.
14th March 1818, letter to John Hamilton Reynolds
This is where the reference to the view from his window is found:
“I made up my mind to stop indoors, and catch a sight flying between the showers: and, behold, I saw a pretty valley, pretty cliffs, pretty brooks, pretty meadows, pretty trees, both standing as they were created, and blown down as they were uncreated.”
There is no mention of the sea or the Denn so the clear inference is that his lodgings were facing upriver or possibly across the river. His use of the word “cliffs” is interesting because, if this is the normal use of the word, then it would suggest a partial sea view. If he were not facing towards the sea he would struggle to see the only feature, the Ness, which could be described as cliffs, from No 20 Northumberland Place or from No 35 Northumberland Place, unless through a side window. There would have been other locations in Teignmouth (e.g. Old Market Street) which would have had clear views more closely corresponding to the description.
Of course there may be some poetic licence in his description – perhaps “cliffs” are just the steep slopes from the hills on the opposite shore down to the riverbank.
Next is the reference to the bonnet-shop:
“Atkins the Coachman, Bartlett the surgeon, Simmons the barber, and the girls over at the bonnet shop, say we shall now have a month of seasonable weather – warm, witty, and full of invention.”
Considering he’s been indoors for 5-6 days he seems to have met a lot of people! The reference to the bonnet-shop has been used by others to suggest that Keats’ lodgings were “opposite” or “almost opposite” or “across the way from” or “across the road from” the bonnet shop. No-one yet has used the actual words “over at” which could indeed be interpreted as something like “opposite” but equally it could imply a location further away.
WHAT THE LETTERS DO NOT SAY.
If we check back against the list of clues in the previous post then I can confirm that the letters do not say that
- Keats dined with William Rufus Jordan. Keats did mention other people he had met in Teignmouth but not Mr Jordan. Of course he could simply have chosen not to mention him, or maybe there there other lost letters which might refer to him. Note also that there is no reference either by name to the Jeffery family in any of the letters written from Teignmouth. That is surprising given that that family appears to have had a fairly close relationship with initially George and Tom Keats and later with John Keats when he arrived. Given this you would think that he would have mentioned them in the letters to his friends. He and his brothers did write to the Jefferys after they left Teignmouth
- Keats ogled the milliners at the corner across the way.
- There was a glove shop opposite
- From Tom and George’s window they often signalled across the road to the girls at the bonnet shop
- The house where he lodged was a corner house
- John’s room was at the back of the building
- He was lodging in Northumberland Place
The Lake/Forman Connection
Hyder Edward Rollins in his “The Letters of John Keats” makes specific reference to a letter dated 4th April 1913 from Dr W C Lake of Teignmouth to Louis A Holman, one of the American collectors of Keats memorabilia.
“.…. on April 4, 1913, Lake had identified the Teignmouth house in which John, George, and Tom Keats lived as 20, The Strand, now Northumberland Place (today marked with a tablet), and the shop of ‘the Girls over at the Bonnet shop’ as 35, The Strand. Whether the former was the house of Mrs Jeffery cannot be proved, though I think it is likely that the Keats brothers lodged with, or visited, her there.”
The actual reference to the letter actually occurs later in Rollins book and is given as the Harvard Library Bulletin IV 1950 p390. It is not available on-line and I am still trying to get hold of a copy which, hopefully, would explain exactly Dr Lake’s reasoning on his identification of Keats’ House.
In summary there is little in the letters to substantiate many of the assertions previously made about the characteristics and location of Keats’ House. The strongest piece of evidence at this stage would seem to be a letter written in 1913 – but what did it say?