Saturday 24th March sees the UK television premiere of the 2009 film, Bright Star, about the doomed love affair between Romantic poet John Keats and the young Fanny Brawne. This film is the latest example in a long tradition in which Keats’ poetic legacy and tragic romance have inspired artists to represent his life visually.
In the film, closely modelled on Keats’ own short and difficult life, Keats is seen struggling through grinding poverty and constant ill-health to establish himself as a writer, while the young seamstress Fanny Brawne is intrigued by her secretive neighbour and is determined to seek him out. The two begin a blissful three-year romance of lazy summers and slow burning love, until Keats’ protective friend Charles Brown grows wary of Brawne. However, this soon proves to be the least of their problems when Keats’ health starts to fail badly, beginning the end of the magical love affair.
Not surprisingly, along with Keats’ poetic legacy, the romantic tragedy of his short life provided a rich source for representation by subsequent generations of artists. Dr Sarah Wootton is the author of a book on Consuming Keats: Nineteenth-Century Representations in Art and Literature, which explores the impact of John Keats’ story on authors and artists of the long nineteenth century. As well as examining his legacy in the work of poets such as Robert Browning and Thomas Hardy, Consuming Keats looks at celebrated paintings by Holman Hunt and Millais as well as tributes from women authors and artists, such as Christina Rossetti, Alice Meynell and Jessie Marion King.
Dr Wootton notes of the film Bright Star:
Visually, it is ‘a thing of beauty’. The scene where Fanny Brawne fills her bedroom with butterflies speaks of a fragile beauty that is conscious of a fleeting happiness; Byron’s sentence on life as the ‘summer of a dormouse’ is ever-present. Campion’s film is the screen equivalent of the High Victorian aestheticisation of Keats. His life and work is, once again, an objet d’art, seen now from the perspective of Fanny Brawne. Viewing the romance between Keats and Fanny Brawne from the position of the ‘love interest’, the recipient of Keats’s most anguished and poignant letters, has the odd effect of distancing the poet from his own story.
On Saturday 14th April, 2012, Dr Wootton will be giving a lecture at the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, to tie in with its temporary exhibition on “Illustrating Keats.”