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Bright Star.

Bright Star. Written and directed by Jane Campion. Starring Ben Wishaw and Abbie Cornish. Apparition, 2009.

During her lifetime, Fanny Brawne's identity as Keats's great love remained a secret to all but her family and a few friends. Those who knew about their relationship were not very kindly disposed toward her. Jane Reynolds maligned her to Mrs. Dilke and spoke of the "most unhappy connexion" with Keats. John Hamilton Reynolds referred to her as a "poor idle Thing of woman-kind." Joseph Severn initially thought her "a cold and conventional mistress." And George Keats informed his sister that she was "an artful bad hearted Girl." (1) Her reputation did not benefit from the publication of Sir Charles Dilke's Papers of a Critic (1875), in which Dilke quoted a single sentence from a letter she had sent to Charles Brown in 1829 and from this evidence deduced her callous disregard for Keats's poetry and fame. (2) The greatest blow to her character, however, came three years later with H. B. Forman's publication of Keats's love letters (1878). The book caused a scandal in the Victorian press, and the lovers and editor were exposed to a barrage of criticism. The likes of Arnold, Swinburne and William Michael Rossetti lined up to attack Keats, calling him a vulgar surgeon's apprentice, a howling and sniveling boy, a wayward and mentally unbalanced rhymester. In turn, Fanny Brawne was vilified by the review establishment as cruel, shallow and unfaithful, a heartless flirt unworthy of a great poet.

While Keats's reputation gradually recovered and then soared on the evidence of his poetry and subsequent biographies, Fanny Brawne's took much longer to heal. Because there was so little public (and private) information about her available and because Keats had destroyed her love letters in the interest of concealing their relationship, there was simply no way to accurately refute the charges against her. Even in 1925 when Amy Lowell published excerpts from letters held in a private collection that showed her in a positive light, many discredited the passages as spurious. It was not until 1936 and the publication of Fanny Brawne's correspondence with Fanny Keats that the prevailing view of her changed. And it changed rapidly. From sharp-tongued and calculating vixen-girl she matured into the "unwed widow," a woman sensitive, faithful and long-suffering in her devotion to Keats. Details emerged about her lengthy period of mourning, her pallor and painful thinness, her long solitary walks on Hampstead Heath. Joanna Richardson's short biography (1952), though fairly evenhanded, served to consolidate this idealized and sentimental view.

The truth, as far as we can discern from the surviving evidence, lies somewhere in between. Fanny Brawne was certainly no mincing coquette, nor was she indifferent to Keats's posthumous reception or the fate of his poetry. She was deeply in love with him and deeply upset by his death. At the same time, she was not as simple or as selfless as her advocates claim. Her psychologically complex draft letter to Charles Brown of December 29, 1829, in which she responds to his request to publish several of Keats's poems and letters to her in his biography, is a good case in point and deserves to be better known. Joanna Richardson included the entire draft in her biography but left out what makes it so revealing--the material that Fanny Brawne deleted. These omissions show an inner conflict over her own "feelings" (she cancels versions of the word four times), an insistence on her right to privacy, an uncertainty over the worth of Keats's poems, and a genuine ambivalence over his public memory. The letter's abrupt tonal shifts and obscure diction also convey her alternating feelings of aggression and deference toward Brown--as man and biographer: "As the aggressor I am too happy to escape the apologies I owe you"; "Your wishes were painful to me"; "I am very grateful ... for your kindness and consideration m writing to me."

In radically editing this letter, Dilke actually performed a double disservice. He gave no indication of Fanny Brawne's broader expressions of anguish or self doubt and he failed to mention two key facts about her life at this time--her brother Samuel's death of tuberculosis the previous year and, more agonizingly, the horrific accident the month before (November 1829) in which her mother's dress caught fire and she burnt to death. In these painful contexts it's worth citing the line Dilke quotes along with the three that follow it in the draft:
   I fear the kindest act would be to let him rest for ever in the
   obscurity to which <unfortunate> unhappy circumstances have
   condemned him. Will the writings that remain of his rescue him from
   it? You can tell better than I <can,> and are more <unbias>
   impartial on the subject for my wish has long been that his name,
   his very name could be forgotten by every one but myself, that I
   have often wished most intensely. <Never I> like <I was more
   generous ten years ago, I should not now endure the odium of being
   connected with one who was working up his way against poverty and
   every sort of abuse.> (3)


Nearly nine years after Keats's death, the intensity of her private grief still palpable (along with her anger), Fanny Brawne works through the complexity of her emotions by rewriting "Bright Star" as well as his famous epitaph. Instead of leaving Keats "awake for ever in a sweet unrest" (line 12), Fanny wishes "to let him rest for ever," not on her breast but in "obscurity." Her desire that "his very name" be forgotten echoes the despair that haunts Keats's epitaph--"Here lies one whose name was writ in water"--but with a difference. She humanizes his last words, replacing the element of water with herself, and vows to remain the sole guardian of his memory. Her words slam the door on any public access to him or to their love, a sentiment expressed even more strongly and problematically in the next, deleted sentence in which she states that she cannot bear to be tainted by his poverty or critical abuse in the literary reviews. Here she rejects any association with his name so as to protect her own reputation and avoid the "odium" connected with his class status. No wonder she cancelled this line. Its existence, nevertheless, forces us to rethink any simple assessment of her character or her attitude toward Keats.

On the surface, Jane Campion's film, Bright Star, appears to participate in the ongoing feminist recovery of Fanny Brawne evident in recent critical scholarship. Such work situates her in relation to Keats's own anxieties about masculinity, authorship and poetic creation. In these studies she is typically represented through the lens of the poet's various projects and projections, as a voice appropriated or ventriloquized by Keats. To its credit, and as a form of creative visual biography, the film at last pushes beyond the academic focus on Keats to give Fanny her own presence and voice. It celebrates her as the protagonist in a love story she has until now participated in only as the silent object. Formerly the unravished bride of quietness, the belle dame who murmurs if at all in "language strange," Fanny emerges here as a fully autonomous subject, the articulate and affective center of the film. At long last, though of course conjecturally, the film supplies her missing side of the famous correspondence.

At the start, and as played by Abbie Cornish, she is fiery, quick-witted and eager to spar with both Brown and Keats in a drawing-room war of words. She's vivacious and stylishly dressed--the "minx" Keats describes in his famous letter, the "Millamant" he calls her later? But the film depicts her not merely as the stereotypical vixen but as a heroine possessed of talent and an occupation. She is a skilled seamstress adept at needlework and absorbed by a form of production that lends her interest and independence apart from her love for Keats. As the film sets out to establish in a series of visual cross cuts, Fanny's sewing is analogous to Keats's poetry-writing. She stitches lines with her needle, he writes them with his pen. And in one quip early on, she points out to Keats and Brown that she at least makes money by her work. Aptly, the film begins with an extreme close-up of her needle jutting through fabric, a suggestive image that comes closer to sex than anything else in the picture and one that also masculinizes her labor and visually authorizes her craft. Significantly, her needlework rather than his poetry introduces the film. In terms of gender, then, Campion levels the playing field and seems to elevate her heroine to a creative status comparable to if not commercially more viable than Keats. Fanny Brawne is an artist who like the poet creates visual patterns of great beauty. The shocking extravagance of her red-and-white dress, triple-petal mushroom collar and fanciful regency hats also establish her as the visual center of the action.

This argument sounds compelling until we realize with dismay that Fanny's talent fades as the film progresses. As in many Hollywood pictures, an initially independent and resourceful heroine slides inexorably toward domestic captivity,, her ambition strangled by Romantic love. In the double-ending of Campion's far more accomplished, The Piano (1993), by comparison, the main character Ada jettisons and retains (in haunting dream-memories) the musical instrument that represents her voice and art. She is able to find passionate love without fully sacrificing her imaginative life. Fanny, on the other hand, gradually abandons her aesthetic pursuits as she falls for Keats and his poetry. As Keats begins to write she stops sewing, or rather sews differently. She begins to pine and mope, love-stricken. She broods in window-seats. She waits for his rare letters. By the end there's little trace of her original artistic flair. Scissors replace needles as Fanny cuts angrily through ribbons and then shears away her hair after Keats's death, turning the instruments of her craft on herself. Her complex dress-making and cross-stitching, the vividly and intricately crocheted natural scene she presents to Keats on his birthday, for example, yield to more conventional needlework, registered in several shots of her sitting demurely on couches attending to her task like a figure out of Coventry Patmore. Predictably too, as her own aesthetic concerns wane, her interest in his work increases. She begins to read and recite more and more of Keats's poetry, starting with the opening lines from Endymion and leading to a soulful performance of "La Belle Dame sans Merci" in a duet with Keats. She submits to poetry tutorials, stumbling through lessons in scansion and figurative imagery (,'Poems are a strain to work out"). And she undertakes a crash course in the classics.

The film culminates not in an ambitious dress or design for a costume ball but with Fanny confined in black tearfully moaning "Bright Star" as she drifts over the heath. It is Keats himself, now dead, whose voiceover of "Ode to a Nightingale" dominates the weird epilogue. Even in death his words supplant her earlier reading, echoing through and outside of time to fill our space in the theater. Testament to Fanny's loss of agency and her absorption in the life and love of the poet, is the brief intertitle Campion adds at the end to bridge the fictional and historical figure and sketch her subsequent life. Although we are told that she wanders the heath and wears his engagement ring for the rest of her life, no mention is made of the great solace she received from her correspondence with Fanny Keats (1820-1824), or her later marriage to Louis Lindon (by all accounts happy), or her three children by him, or her life on the Continent. Instead, as we are meant to surmise, her grief extends in perpetuity. We eternally see her eternally vanishing--as Keats's widow.

This is not to say that Keats's presence in the film is any more powerful or charismatic. Quite the contrary. In outfitting Fanny as the protagonist and casting Charles Brown as the acid-tongued villain, Campion somehow feels compelled to diminish Keats, who at times gets lost in the skirmishes between his companions. It is true that the real-life Keats measured just over five feet, but not that he was the slight and frail figure played by Ben Wishaw. The film gives no clue to the virile Keats who comes across in contemporary accounts and is so well characterized in the biographies of Robert Gittings and W. J. Bate; no sense of the powerful upper body, upright posture, glowing eyes, and bright, dauntless expression; no sense either of the fierce determination to succeed as a writer and be among the English poets. In fact, Keats can't seem to complete a poem in the film and is shown several times trading off and forgetting lines. Ironically, it's not until he's dead that he manages finally to read the whole of "Nightingale" and he does so like a ghost. (Wouldn't his final poem, "This Living Hand," have been a more appropriate closing gesture?) Campion, then, depicts a listless and enervated Keats, habited in black and as wan as a vampire, who seems always to be disappearing into a paneled wall or sofa or under a hedge. The scene where he grabs Brown by the lapels, accuses him of having an affair with Fanny, and shouts, "There is a holiness to the heart's affections!" is the only real hint of the energetic thrust of his character so apparent in Benjamin Haydon's portrait of his head in Christ's Entry into Jerusalem.

In fact, Campion gives Keats virtually no corporeal presence in the film. He is a face and hands without a body. This lack of mortal substance is paralleled by a failure to translate the sensuous fullness of his verse. The film offers a gallery of visual set-pieces--colorful shots of gardens, butterflies, fields panoplied with flowers, and trees blooming in spring (Keats stretched out atop one of them enacting a dream). It's a feast for the eyes. But the other senses, even if they are more difficult to evoke in this medium, are rarely if ever given play. Even the musical score is restrained, an occasional violin wisp of Mozart. The sensuous aurality of Keats's poetry, the rout of the senses, never comes across, and no attempt is made by the actors to convey the synesthesia of his poetry in their deliveries, which all seem so mournful and solemn, as if they were performing a funeral oration. The film cries out for the fleshly poetry of Endymion--a brothel of wet bowers and slippery blisses--or lines from "The Eve of St. Agnes" or from the final anguished lyrics to Fanny Brawne herself. Where's the face swelling into reality? Where are the palate-passions, the "apple tasting--pear-tasting--plum-judging--apricot nibbling--peach scrunching"? Where's the nectarine going down "soft pulpy, slushy, oozy--all its delicious embonpoint melt[ing] down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry" (Rollins, Letters 2: 149, 179)? Everything is too clean here, swept bright, as if all the interiors were lifted from Banana Republic or an advertisement for The Gap. The viewer yearns for a little more gustatory brio (and less cat-petting) and for more veritable nineteenth-century grubbiness.

In the end, "Bright Star" is less a celebration than an elegy for Keats, a visual postmortem that begins by seeing him from the fresh perspective of Fanny Brawne but concludes by interring him in embalmed darkness and then swallowing both characters in his grave. Campion has composed a cinematic version of Shelley's "Adonais" but without either the soaring valedictory stanzas or the jubilant rebirth that culminates this poem. The funereal tone of the film is unlikely to win new converts to Keats's poetry. Nor will Abbie Cornish's exaggerated and prolonged hysterics at the foot of the stairs on hearing of his death generate much additional sympathy for Fanny Brawne. The scene is oddly clinical, inhibiting the viewer from sharing in the traumatic shock she's experiencing. The void created by the sheering away of both lead characters in the final scene leaves us nowhere to turn, nothing to hang onto but a lugubrious and painfully long rendition of "Ode to a Nightingale" and a pocketful of brightly colored images.

Grant F. Scott

Muhlenberg College

(1.) Joanna Richardson, Fanny Brawne: A Biography (Norwich: Vanguard P, 1952) 31; Hyder E. Rollins, ed., The Keats Circle: Letters and Papers 1816-1878, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1965) 1: 156; William Sharp, The Life and Letters of Joseph Severn (London: Sampson Low, Marston, 1892) 38; Hyder E. Rollins, ed., More Letters and Poems of The Keats Circle (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1955) 20.

(2.) Sir Charles W. Dilke, The Papers of a Critic, 2 vols. (London, 1875) 1: 11.

(3.) M. B. Forman, ed., The Letters of John Keats, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1947) lxiii.

(4.) Hyder E. Rollins, ed., The Letters of John Keats 1814-1821, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1958) 2: 13, 36
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Author:Scott, Grant F.
Publication:Studies in Romanticism
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Sep 22, 2010
Words:2835
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