Tuesday, 10 November 2009

First Impressions: Bright Star

by Kathryn Hadley

Bright Star was released in cinemas last Friday, November 6th. Written and directed by Jane Campion and inspired by Andrew Motion’s 1997 biography of Keats, the film tells the story of John Keats (1795-1821) and Fanny Brawne’s ill-fated and tragic romance.

John Keats’ began his career as an apothecary surgeon. Soon after passing his medical examinations at Guy’s Hospital in 1816, however, he increasingly devoted himself to literature. He published his first poems and sonnets in a volume entitled Poems in 1817.

The film begins in 1817 when his younger brother Tom begins to show signs of tuberculosis. The two brothers move to lodgings in Well Walk Hampstead and John Keats begins to nurse Tom on a daily basis. It is during this time that Keats meets Fanny Brawne. Tom dies at the very beginning of December 1819 and following his brother’s death, John moves to Hampstead Heath where he shares lodgings with his friend Charles Brown at Wentworth Place. When the Dilke family move out of the adjoining house in April 1819, the Brawne family move into Wentworth Place. John Keats and Fanny Brawne develop a close friendship and some form of engagement is eventually arranged between them.

It was during the spring of 1819 that Keats wrote the ballad La Belle Dame sans Merci as well as Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode on Melancholy, Ode to Psyche and Ode on Indolence. In June, he and Brown travelled to the Isle of Wight. Upon their return to Hampstead in October 1819, however, Keats began to show the first signs of tuberculosis, suffering to particularly severe attacks in February 1820. His doctors advised him to spend the winter in a warmer climate and his friends raised money for him to travel to Italy. He left in September accompanied by his friend the painter Joseph Severn. They arrived in Rome at the end of the year where they took lodgings in the Piazza di Spagna. Following a relapse in December, John Keats died on February 23rd, 1821, and was buried in the Protestant cemetery in Rome.

The film is not strictly historical, but it provides, nonetheless, a compelling insight into daily life and social conventions in early 19th-century England. It is set at a time and in a place when and where consumption was rife. Keats’ mother died of tuberculosis in 1810; his younger brother Tom died in 1819, just two years before John. Keats and Fanny Brawne’s romance was also heavily constrained by the social mores of the time. Their informal engagement was criticised and disapproved of and they were unable to marry due to the precarious state of Keats’ finances.

Bright Star is, above all, a beautiful film in every sense. The costumes, scenery, dialogues and acting are all beautiful to the extent that we are transported and enthralled effortlessly back in time. The film is deeply moving and touching. It is a beautiful tribute to the tragic life of John Keats.

On yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 programme Start the Week Andrew Marr talked to Sue Brown about her new biography of Keats’ friend Joseph Severn entitled Joseph Severn, A Life: The Rewards of Friendship (Oxford University Press).

Costumes from the film are currently on display at Keats House in Hampstead until November 22nd.

Keats House
Keats Grove
London NW3 2RR
Telephone: 020 7332 3868

For further information on disease in 19th-century Britain, visit our History of Medicine focus page.
For further information on the surprising passion for boxing of many Romantic poets such as John Keats, read our article by John Strachan Poets & Pugilists.

Images: (City of London, Keats House)
- Miniature of John Keats by Joseph Severn
- The engagement ring that Keats gave to Fanny Brawne
- Ambrotype portrait of Fanny Brawne-Lindon (1855)

1 comment:

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