Historical Crushes

Madame Guillotine posted about her historical crushes recently, and what a fun idea!

Mine are mostly writers.

First, Byron, a perfect rake to be sure, but so handsome, and probably charming (or else he wouldn’t have been such a successful rake).

Lord Byron
Portrait by Richard Westall

To be honest, having a historical crush on Byron is the modern equivalent of crushing on bad boys, but much safer. No risk of life or limb. I have read several fictional portraits of Byron, and he always emerges as charismatic, intelligent, and, above all, interesting. Read my reviews of Passion by Jude Morgan and Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley, or better yet, read the books yourself, and you’ll see what I mean.

I have had a mad crush on Shelley since 1989. I am not sure why, but his poetry just speaks to me.

Percy Bysshe Shelley
Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1819, by Amelia Curran

Jude Morgan managed to do what I thought would be impossible in his novel Passion: A Novel of the Romantic Poets: he managed to make Shelley walk on the ground. I always thought he should be among the angels—surely too good for the solid earth.

You can read about the dream I had about having tea with Byron, Shelley, and Keats. I’ve posted about my crush on Shelley before.

Ever since I read The Great Gatsby, I have had a crush on F. Scott Fitzgerald. He writes some of the most beautiful prose in American English.

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald
Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Corbis

He drank way too much, and he thought way too highly of rich people (which is something I glean from reading his novels rather than from a mis-attributed quote Hemingway pinned on him). Hemingway should be more grateful. The Sun Also Rises was a better book for Fitzgerald’s suggestion of deleting the first chapter and beginning with the second. And I love that book, by the way. There are some passages in The Great Gatsby that you can’t beat for poetry. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Robert the Bruce got a raw deal in Braveheart. I know the film was supposed to be about why William Wallace was such a hero, but honestly, did they have to besmirch the character of Scotland’s greatest hero in order to make Wallace look good? For starters, Robert the Bruce did not fight with the English at Falkirk or betray Wallace. He also didn’t decide on the spur of the moment at Bannockburn that he was not going to surrender after all—he was never going to surrender. Any argument the two had was the result of the fact that Wallace probably supported the Balliol claim to the Scottish throne.

Robert the Bruce and Isabella of Mar
Robert the Bruce and Isabella of Mar

One of my favorite legends about Robert the Bruce is the one about the spider. He was a wanted man, an outlaw on the run. Hiding in a cave, he observed a spider trying to make a web. It failed time and again as it tried to attach the silken threads from one section of the cave’s roof to another. Finally, it succeeded, and Robert the Bruce knew that he, too, would eventually succeed in his quest to take the throne he believed was rightfully his. And he did. It’s most likely a complete fabrication, but an inspiring one. Ronald McNair Scott has a great biography of Robert the Bruce: Robert the Bruce: King of Scots.

Queen Elizabeth, while famously known as the Virgin Queen (yeah, right), had a thing for Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex (at least according to many historians). He was so dashing that men clamored to imitate his fashionable beard.

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex
Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex

He was a military hero, but more than that, he had some serious cojones. He came back from Ireland after the Queen expressly forbid it and charged into her bedchamber before she had her wig on. Of course, he eventually paid for this flagrant disregard for propriety with his life (or, to be more accurate, it was the incident that instigated his inexorable fall from favor, rebellion, and eventual execution). Elizabeth was a formidable woman. Anyone who could pull a sword on her after she smacked him one deserves some grudging respect.

There is a legend that Alfred the Great was in disguise and took shelter with a peasant woman. She asked him to mind the cakes on the fire and not let them burn, but he was preoccupied with the troubles of his country. The cakes burned, and the woman scolded the King. Like the story about Robert the Bruce’s spider, it may or may not be true, but it makes a great tale.

Alfred the Great
Statue of Alfred the Great

Alfred is the only English king to have been given the epithet “the Great.” I am obsessed with the British monarchy. There are a load of interesting characters in that crowd. But trust me that Alfred is probably the only one who deserves the epithet “the Great.” He singlehandedly saved the English language. Don’t believe me? Listen to this. If Alfred had lost that battle, who knows where we would all be. Not only did he prevent Vikings from taking all of England, he also valued literacy and ordered translation of essential Latin texts into English for the first time. He also established some of the earliest schools in England.

In Rebecca Fraser’s The Story of Britain: From the Romans to the Present: A Narrative History, a story about Major General James Wolfe taking Quebec is recounted:

At dead of night, Wolfe led the the 5,000 British and American soldiers with blackened faces silently downriver in rowing boats till they were opposite the Heights of Abraham. As he was borne along the treacherous river whose rocks and shoals made it a hazard to all but Quebeçois, Wolfe softly read out his favourite poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray, published only a few years before, a copy of which his fiancée had just sent out to him from England. His thin face, touched by moonlight, seemed to wear a beatific expression as he murmured the sonorous words whose Romantic, melancholic spirit echoed his own. As the mysterious cliffs loomed up ahead and the men rested on their muffled oars, Wolfe closed the book. ‘Well, gentlemen,’ he said, ‘I had rather have written that poem than take Quebec.’ But then he leaped overboard, into the swirling St Lawrence, and ran ahead of them until his was only one of the many tiny figures on the vast cliff face pulling themselves up by ropes.

When dawn rose over Quebec Montcalm [the French commander] awoke to see on the plain behind him, above the cliffs said to be unclimbable, row after row of British redcoats. They were in battle array and far outnumbered the French, whose sentries’ mangled bodies bestrewed the cliffs or floated in the river below. It was a breathtaking, almost impossible, feat, to have put thousands of men on top of a cliff overnight, but Wolfe had done it.

Major-General James Wolfe
Major-General James Wolfe

Besides his dashing bravery in the face of illness—he was dying of consumption when he led the raid—he has an appreciation for poetry over military prowess. Why he isn’t more well known outside of Canada, I’m not sure.

And finally, after having read Jude Morgan’s Passion and seeing the movie Bright Star, I admit to developing a girl crush on Fanny Brawne.

Fanny Brawne
Ambrotype of Fanny Brawne ca. 1850

Fanny Brawne was the fiancée of Romantic poet John Keats and is believed by some scholars to be the inspiration for Keats’s sonnet “Bright Star”:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

I wrote much more about her in the post I linked. She was an interesting woman in her own right.

Perhaps next week will be a good time to share my crushes on fictional characters. I must have already done it at some point, but I can’t remember.

So who are your historical crushes. And don’t say Henry VIII. He didn’t look like Jonathan Rhys Meyers. He had a disgusting sore from a jousting wound, he was despotic and arrogant, and he was a serial wife murderer. I will concede he was interesting.

Fanny Brawne

Fanny Brawne

Ambrotype of Fanny Brawne ca. 1850

As I wrap up reading Jude Morgan’s Passion (I have about 100 pages to go), I think I’ve developed a girl-crush on Fanny Brawne. Fanny Brawne was John Keats’s fiancée and muse for some of his poetry. While perhaps not classically beautiful, she had something of wit and charm about her that reminds me of a Jane Austen heroine. While I understand Morgan’s book is fiction, his novel is not the only such fictional account to portray her this way: the Jane Campion film Bright Star , starring Abbie Cornish as Fanny and Ben Whishaw as Keats, also characterizes Fanny as a sparkling wit and a gifted fashion designer.

Bright Star

Ever since I picked up Morgan’s novel (and, I admit, since I saw Bright Star last month), I have been learning all I can about the late Romantic poets—Byron, Shelley, and Keats. I took a course in college in Late Romantic Literature, and as I learn and I read, I can’t help but wonder what my professor for that course must think of Passion and Bright Star.

Bright Star

One of the things I’ve learned is that Fanny’s reputation in the nineteenth century was much maligned by both Keats’s friends and literary scholars who seemed to feel Fanny undeserving of Keats’s devotion. Keats’s friend Charles Brown seemed to feel Fanny was a capricious flirt who toyed with Keats’s affections. In any case, many of Keats’s friends felt Fanny was bad for Keats. On the other hand, he was at his most prolific while in love with Fanny, and many critics believe some of his famous works, such as the sonnet “Bright Star,” were written about Fanny:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art—
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

Bright Star

Fanny Brawne was largely unknown to Keats scholarship until the publication of Keats’s letters to her in 1878. R. H. Stoddard criticized their publication:

Miss Fanny Brawne made John Keats ridiculous in the eyes of his friends in his lifetime, and now she (through her representatives) makes him ridiculous in the eyes of the world.  She (and they) have had fifty-seven years in which to think about it; she forty-four years as maid and wife; they thirteen years as her children.  Why did she keep his letters all those years?  What could she keep them for but to minister to her vanity, and to remind her that once upon a time a crazy young English poet was desperately in love with her, was her captive and her slave?  What else could she keep them for?  She revered the memory of Keats, did she?  This is how she revered it…. I have two more questions to ask: What motive actuated the descendants of Fanny Brawne in allowing the publication of this objectionable book?  Could there be any motive other than that of lucre?

Fanny saved Keats’s letters and left them to her children after she died in 1865. If John Keats meant nothing to her, why did she wear mourning for six years after his death? Why save these letters? Stoddard would argue that she hoped they’d be valuable, but she cannot have known that as it took some time after Keats’s death for his work to be appreciated. Later on, she must have thought they might be valuable or she would not have entrusted them to her children. It is known she had to sell a miniature of Keats that she had kept for years after his death. Stoddard criticizes Fanny for not burning the letters, but these letters are widely considered to be among the most romantic letters ever written. Why would any woman burn them?

Bright Star

It would seem that after Fanny’s letters to Keats’s sister Fanny Keats were published in 1937 by the Oxford University Press, the tide turned for Fanny, who was revealed to have truly loved Keats: “If I am to lose him I lose everything,” she declared in one letter written as Keats’s death neared.

Keats addressed Fanny in his letters as “My dearest girl,” and it is clear he was devastated not to be able to marry her. Fanny’s mother would not approve the marriage until Keats proved able to support Fanny, but that success came too late as Keats developed the consumption that had also taken his brother, Tom. Keats, a surgeon, recognized the signs of consumption only too well when he first began displaying symptoms.

Bright Star

The love story of Fanny Brawne and John Keats is one of the great love stories of literary history. It’s a shame that we do not have Fanny’s letters to Keats, which were destroyed by Keats’s request after his death, for we truly only have part of their story. In March 1820, Keats wrote to Fanny:

My dearest Fanny, I slept well last night and am no worse this morning for it. Day by day if I am not deceived I get a more unrestrain’d use of my Chest. The nearer a racer gets to the Goal the more his anxiety becomes so I lingering upon the borders of health feel my impatience increase. Perhaps on your account I have imagined my illness more serious than it is: how horrid was the chance of slipping into the ground instead of into your arms—the difference is amazing Love—Death must come at last; Man must die, as Shallow says; but before that is my fate I feign [sic] would try what more pleasures than you have given so sweet a creature as you can give. Let me have another op[p]ortunity of years before me and I will not die without being remember’d. Take care of yourself dear that we may both be well in the Summer. I do not at all fatigue myself with writing, having merely to put a line or two here and there, a Task which would worry a stout state of the body and mind, but which just suits me as I can do no more.

Bright Star

One of my favorite dialogues between Keats and Fanny in Passion:

“Will you oblige me by leaning a little closer, Mr Keats? I wish to make Mr Swain jealous.”

Keats, emerging from his shade of watchful quietness, frowns. “I see no Mr Swain.”

“That’s because you don’t have my eyes. Everyone for me has two names, Mr Keats. The real one and the appropriate one. The real one is arbitrary and nonsensical. Would you say that I am characterized by brawn?”

“I might if you vexed me enough.”

“That is not gallant, and you know what I mean. Now when you assign a title to a poem, you don’t choose any old arbitrary words, do you? You choose a title that suits. So I call that gentleman with the thin legs and weak hair Mr Swain, because he is so exactly like a swain, or how I have always fancied a swain in poetry. Or, rather, not fancied it.”

“A sad fate for a fine old word. You would rather have a lover than a swain, then?”

“Mr Keats!”

“I speak of words. With words. If I lean towards you, Miss Brawne, I shall do it because I want to, not to save you from Mr Swain.”

“That would be an unpardonable liberty, and I only allow the pardonable ones. Besides, Mr Masterful has gone in to cards, and if I do any leaning in, I want him to see it and be jealous.”

He sits back, studying her. Those wide cheekbones: she has an acute image of a sculptor lightly pressing both thumbs into damp clay, creating him: stepping back from the beautiful intensity.

“My name for you,” he declares, “shall be Minx.”

“Why, I ought to be insulted.”

“You ought to be, indeed, on a daily basis: it might do you good.”

Images from Bright Star. Dir. Jane Campion. Perf. Abbie Cornish, Ben Whishaw. Pathé Renn, 2009. Film.

For more information, see The Life and Work of John Keats.