The Hunt for Keats House Part 5 – The Biographers

Keats, his poetry and his life have obviously been a fascination and an absorption to many people over the last two hundred years and he has been the subject of numerous biographies.  As I said in the previous post the biographies over the last hundred years or so have drawn heavily on the materials contained in the various collections of letters.  So, it would be interesting to see what other official biographers have made of his whereabouts and experience in Teignmouth.

I could spend a lifetime looking through all the biographies but with limited time I have restricted myself to a cross-section over time and have only looked at the specific time-period around his stay in Teignmouth.  So I may have missed something if there were references back to Teignmouth later in his life.  However, the biographies are well indexed so I’m hoping that I have managed to find whatever was relevant.

For completeness I am also including here biographies which I have looked at but in which I also found nothing.

When I started looking at the biographies I wasn’t holding out much hope of startling revelations – after all what is the importance of knowing exactly which house Keats stayed in in a small Devon town 200 years ago when when you are confronting, as a biographer, the mass of information surrounding his life and thinking.  Let’s see what I found …..

Leigh Hunt, 1828: Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries

Leigh Hunt, engraved by H Meyer from a drawing by J Hayter

Leigh Hunt was probably the first biographer of Keats through a chapter in a book he wrote in 1828 entitled “Lord Byron and some of his contemporaries“, with recollections of the author’s life and of his visit to Italy”.

He moved in the London literary circles, published several periodicals, introduced Keats to Shelley and, according to Rollins, ”lost no opportunity of praising the work of his young friend (i.e. Keats)”.

There is no mention of Teignmouth other than an extract from Keats letter written from there in April 1818


Charles Armitage Brown, 1848: Life of John Keats

Charles Brown is quoted as producing this first full biography and he subsequently passed his manuscript to Robert Monckton Milnes for publication in 1848.  It was entitled “The Life, Letters and Literary Remains”.

In describing his compulsion to write about Keats Brown said:

“I knew this task was my duty, and, from the beginning I had from time to time made, I found it a painful one.  Therefore to compel me to my duty, I boldly put down my name at our Institution for a lecture, on 27th December, on “The Life and Poems of John Keats”.  Now that it is advertised, the card printed, the members looking forward to it, there is no retreating: it must be done.

This Lecture, delivered almost sixteen years after Keats’s death, was the first full-length biography of the poet.  At six in the evening, December 27th, 1836 the members took their places in the Lecture Hall of the Plymouth Athenaeum.  It was a solemn gathering ….

Again, though, there is very little reference to Teignmouth, just a recognition that he had been there.

Sir Sidney Colvin 1887 (First Edition): Keats

Sir Sidney Colvin

Sir Sidney Colvin was an eminent English Curator and literary and art critic.  He became a fellow of Trinity College Cambridge at age 23 and five years later the Slade Professor of Fine Art.  He moved to the British Museum as keeper of prints and drawings and has numerous publications including the Keats biography and editions of the letters of Keats.  He is remembered mainly for his friendship and professional relationship with Robert Louis Stevenson.

His biography became part of the series “English Men of Letters” by John Morley.  It seems to be the most in-depth to his date, probably because more letters had been discovered and collated – note that Henry Buxton Forman had also produced his four volume works in 1889 so it is likely that Colvin was aware of the materials being used by Forman as well.

More attention is paid to Teignmouth but, again, there seems to be nothing of direct relevance to this investigation.

Beatrix Cresswell 1901: Teignmouth, its History and its Surroundings

I have already mentioned Beatrix Cresswell in the initial post on the local debate so I won’t repeat the details here. Her book is not a biography but it is the first mention I have found about the issue of Keats’ lodgings and the issue of the milliners.  So I thought it was worth including it here as part of the biography time-line.

Francis Gribble, 1912, The Romance of the Men of Devon

Francis Gribble (1862-1946) was a prolific author of popular historical works and novels so he was not an academic historian or biographer, just a popular writer contributing to the Mills and Boon series.  Make of that what you will.

His subjects ranged from ‘Early Mountaineers’ to ‘The Life of the Emperor Francis Joseph’.  There are no references to source material in his book but he does describe Keats’ lodgings.

“For Keats was only “in lodgings”, and not in very fashionable lodgings.  He could not afford rooms “on the front”, but located himself in the Strand.  The house is still standing (though it has no commemorative medallion), and every visitor can decide for himself whether it is the sort of house that he would like to stay in.  Instead of a view of the sea, it commands a view of a bonnet shop – which bonnet shop was already there in Keats’s time, and figures in his letters …. It seems that signals of some sort were flashed from his window to theirs (and also, no doubt, from their window to his) and that when the rain rained every day (as he protested that it was apt to do at Teignmouth) he used to step across and ask them, individually and collectively, when they thought it was likely to clear up.

Keats House 1912

For me, much more importantly, the book also contains a photograph of the No 20 house at the time, reproduced here.  If you zoom in you will see that although there is no commemorative plaque there is the name “Keats House” emblazoned on the front door.

The name is no longer there today since that section of the door has been replaced by a glass panel to allow light into the internal hall. It would be interesting to know when the name had been first added and who did it.

Keats House 1912 zoomed in

I also wonder how Beatrix Cresswell, who was still alive in 1912, would have felt when only 11 years earlier she had declared that No 35 was the house.

There is also a plaque at the side of the door showing presumably the name and occupation of the occupant at the time – G Hexter, Mason.

(Interestingly, as an aside, a Hexter was mentioned as the mason responsible for the rebuilding of St Gregory’s church in Dawlish in 1825 in the book “The Teignmouth, Dawlish and Torquay Guide” published in 1829 by Edward Croydon) – 

Amy Lowell, 1925: John Keats

Amy Lowell from Time Magazine cover

Amy Lowell Lowell was born into Brookline’s Lowell family, sister to astronomer Percival Lowell and Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell.  Her work is labelled “Imagism”  and she posthumously won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1926.

Shortly before her death she completed her two-volume biography of John Keats (work on which had long been frustrated by the non-cooperation of F. Holland Day, whose private collection of Keatsiana included Fanny Brawne’s letters to Frances Keats).

Lowell wrote of Keats: “the stigma of oddness is the price a myopic world always exacts of genius”.

From her biography we read:

P598: “George and Tom Keats, like their brother, possessed the happy faculty of making friends.  They had been at Teignmouth three months and had already ‘dug themselves in’ in the society of that little town.  The family with whom they appear to have been most intimate were the Jeffreys, a mother and two daughters.  Mrs Jeffrey seems to have been a long time a widow when the Keats brothers knew her, for she is listed under her own name, Margaret Jeffrey, as one of the taxpayers of Teignmouth as early as 1800 (1)  Footnote: (1) From information supplied by Dr Luke (sic) of Teignmouth to Mr Louis A Holman.”

This is interesting because, as we will see in a coming post, the Jeffreys’ mother was Sarah Jeffrey so this questions Dr Lake’s research.

P605: “Woodhouse records that, at one time during his sojourn, Keats was so low in funds as to obliged to borrow of his landlady (1) ….. Footnote: (1) Woodhouse Book, Morgan Collection.

This is interesting because there is no reference to this in Keats’ letters.  Therefore, there is an alternative source which may include a name of the landlady which, in turn, could be tied to a house through local records.  UPDATE:  I am really impressed with the responses I have received from the various US collections.  I contacted the Morgan Library and Museum and received the following reply:

Thank you for your email – we appreciate your interest in the Morgan. I checked our transcriptions of items selected from Richard Woodhouse’s collection of letters and manuscripts relating to John Keats (transcribed by Amy Lowell from Pierpont Morgan Library scrapbook MA 215), and I believe I have found what Lowell is referencing in her biography of Keats. Below is the transcription – as you can see, it is very brief, and unfortunately the landlady is not named, nor is the house where he stayed mentioned:

 Transcript of Notes of Keats by Woodhouse:

 Her feet were sandall’d ready for the way.
The fight at Hampstead.
Loan of money to him at Teignmouth by his Lndldy.
If I die you must ruin Lockhart.
Brown, he ought not to have asked me.
Thos. K & Wells

So a BIG thankyou to Polly Cancro, Reader Services Librarian, at the Morgan Library.  It doesn’t solve the question but it does confirm the loan which seems somewhat strange – why would a Landlady lend money to a tenant she hardly knows and should be paying her!

Describing Keats leaving Teignmouth: “ ….. a post-chaise jangled up to the door of the house opposite the bonnet shop.  At the window stood poor little Tom hoping for one more glimpse of his friends, the Jeffreys.”

Dorothy Hewlett, 1937 (revised 1970): A Life of Keats

Dorothy Hewlett has already appeared in the first post about the “local debate”, as quoted in a local newspaper.  I thought it was worth transcribing here for completeness though the actual reference in her book to Keats House:

Page 148: “At No 20, the Strand, there is a granite plate on the face of the old white Georgian house to the effect that John Keats lived here in 1818.  This, by no means a certainty, rests on the memory of one old man in 1901 who said his father, William Rufus Jordan, a solicitor in the town, had told him that Keats had dined with him one evening and informed him he was lodging in either 21 or 22 the Strand.  H Buxton Forman was able to narrow this down to what is now No 20.  We know that there was opposite Keats’s lodgings a bonnet-shop – he used to talk to the girls employed there – but reference to old directories failed to track down a bonnet shop in the Strand at that date.  There was one however, in the thirties, at No 35 at the corner of Queen Street opposite to No 20 the Strand which may have already been there in 1818.”

So Dorothy Hewlett is reflecting some doubt about the house but also doubt about the bonnet-shop. Because of this latter doubt I can only assume that when she says “We know that there was opposite Keats’s lodgings a bonnet-shop” she is inferring this from Keats’ letter; but, as we saw, Keats actually said “over at” which has been interpreted here as “opposite”.  If H Buxton Forman was indeed able to narrow it down on the basis of a bonnet-shop then did he have concrete evidence that such a shop existed at No 35 at that time?

The other interesting point from her biography is that, in the preface, she indicates that she knew Maurice Buxton Forman and had been helped by Mr Fred Edgcumbe, curator of the Keats Memorial House in London.  From the time-scale it would appear that he would have been the curator who had come down to Teignmouth to decide on the location for the plaque.

Given these contacts it is reasonable to assume that she has based her comments in the text on information that was as close to an original source as possible at that time.  It would be interesting to know if Fred Edgcumbe left any contemporaneous notes regarding how he reached his decision.  I have written to the Keats House in London to see if there is anything in their archives and am awaiting their reply.

Aileen Ward, 1963: John Keats, the Making of a Poet

Professor Aileen Ward taught at Wellesley and Barnard. She joined the Vassar English department in 1954 and, later in her career, taught at New York University.  She spent nine years researching “John Keats: The Making of a Poet” which won two major awards, the 1964 National Book Award (in the category Arts and Letters (nonfiction)), and the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize of 1963.

“.… Their lodgings were less than satisfactory – a small, airless apartment facing north on a narrow alley, an unhealthy location for a tubercular patient, and still more so for anyone shut in at close quarters with him.”

It’s not clear where this description has been derived from.  A north-facing view would not correspond with the views that Keats described in his letters.

“.…. But George and Tom had already made some pleasant acquaintances among the townspeople, especially Mrs Jeffery, their landlady, and her three daughters.”

There has been no other evidence so far that Mrs Jeffery was the Keats’ landlady.  In fact, as we saw in the post on the Letters, there had been no reference at all by John Keats to the Jefferys until after he left Teignmouth.  Also, Mrs Jeffery had only two daughters.  I suspect that the confusion arises from the reference to “Fanny” being interpreted as a third daughter rather than an affectionate name for the daughter Sarah Frances.

“They packed hastily, borrowing some money from Mrs Jeffery for the journey.26 Sarah Jeffery offered to go with them on the first stage, and Tom, under doctor’s orders to avoid emotional scenes, made a brief farewell to Marianne and her mother.  Then the two brothers climbed into the post chaise with Sarah, to make a dash to Honiton for the Exeter coach which would carry them back to London.

I have included this extract because it aligns with Amy Lowell’s previous claim that Keats had borrowed from his landlady.  Aileen Ward now claims that the landlady was Mrs Jeffery, which is possibly checkable from local records.  However, the description of the route to London is obviously wrong – they would have gone first to Exeter and then Honiton.  I am also uncertain where the reference to Sarah accompanying them from has come from.

Robert Gittings, 1968:  John Keats

Dr Robert Gittings was an honorary fellow at Jesus College, Cambridge, a producer and writer of features and educational scripts for the BBC and subsequently a visiting professor at several universities in the USA.  He received the WH Smith Literary Award for ‘the most outstanding contribution to English Literature’ in 1968 for this biography of John Keats.

The extract is brief:

Page 198: “Tom and George had enjoyed themselves at Teignmouth.  They lodged in the Strand (1), a narrow street parallel with the waterfront and leading to the Den, the fashionable promenade where there was a bandstand. Footnote 1: The identification as No 20 is based on insufficient evidence

Nicholas Roe, 2012:  John Keats

Nicholas Roe is professor of English Literature at the University of St Andrews, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and Chair of the Keats Foundation, Keats House, Hampstead.

This extract is brief too and, probably sensibly, he doesn’t enter the debate:

“Tom greeted him in streets littered with tiles, branches and other debris.  Together they walked to their lodging at 20 Strand, a compact townhouse some fifty yards from Teignmouth’s busy port.

On a personal note, I attended today, as part of the Teignmouth Poetry Festival, an excellent presentation by Nicholas Roe.  One of the hypotheses he was postulating was the apparent link between Keats’ writings and a sense of place.  In other words his works written at a particular location to some extent were influenced by or represented that location.

With this in mind he wondered whether, in Keats long letter to Reynolds on 3rd May in which he explores the concept of the Mansion of human life, the reference to the “Chamber of Maiden Thought becomes gradually darken’d and at the same time on all sides of it many doors are set open – but all dark – all leading to dark passages” reflects the conditions of the house in which he was living.  This may be the case but unfortunately it wouldn’t discriminate between the two houses vying for the name of ‘Keats House’ since both are three-storey Georgian townhouses with what would have been in Keats time, many small rooms and dark corridors.


So have we learned anything more from the official biographers?  Here are some summary points with indicators in parentheses of the favoured site.

  1. The first mention of the debate about the location of Keats’ lodgings is in Creswell’s book of 1901, and this was a history book rather than a biography. (No35 Northumberland Place)
  2. The earliest photo I have found referencing Keats’ house is in the 1912 book by Francis Gribble, again not a formal biography. (No20 Northumberland Place)
  3. The first official biography to raise the debate was Dorothy Hewlett’s in 1937. (No20 Northumberland Place but by no means a certainty)
  4. The uncertainty continues with Robert Gittings. (The identification as No20 is based on insufficient evidence)
  5. Nicholas Roe: (No20 Northumberland Place)
  6. So the balance of probabilities lies with No20 Northumberland Place but I concur with Dorothy Hewlett when she says that it could simply rest “on the memory of one old man”.
  7. Supporting what we have seen so far the biographies suggest that identifying whether there was indeed a bonnet-shop opposite where Keats lived, where exactly it was and whether Mrs Jeffery was the Keats’ landlady and, if so, where she lived would provide circumstantial corroborative evidence for the memory of one old man. So I’ll start to explore that in the next post using local records sources.

3 thoughts on “The Hunt for Keats House Part 5 – The Biographers

  1. Pingback: The Hunt for Keats’ House Part 7 – One Old Man | Teignmouth in Verse

  2. Pingback: The Hunt for Keats House Part 7 – One Old Man cont. | Teignmouth in Verse

  3. Pingback: The Hunt for Keats House Part 7 – One Old Man cont. ….. The Home Straight | Teignmouth in Verse

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