A house with a romantic soul

30th June 1995 at 01:00
O poet, come you haunting here?Where streets have stolen up all aroundAnd never a nightingale pours oneFull-throated sound?" So asked Thomas Hardy in 1920 in "At a House in Hampstead: Sometime the Dwelling of John Keats", a poem which helped to raise funds for a public subscription to save Wentworth Place from destruction. Five years later Keats's former lodging house was open to the public, and it has remained so ever since.

If Keats's shade were to return to his "sometime dwelling", he would certainly find much changed. The plum tree in the garden, under which he wrote "Ode to a Nightingale", has been replaced. The stables at the back have gone; newer buildings rise beyond the back garden wall in what were then fields. Yet the place retains a serenity and seclusion he would have recognised although the nightingales have long since gone. In his short tragic life, Keats never owned a place of his own. But while staying in Wentworth Place (now Keats House) he gained some glimpses of happiness, wrote many of his finest poems, and met the love of his life, Fanny Brawne.

A stylish white Regency building close by Hampstead Heath, it was originally two semi-detached houses. The owner of one, Charles Brown, a retired businessman friend of Keats, took pity on the poet after the tragic death of his younger brother Tom in 1818, and took him in as a paying lodger.

Here Keats had his own quite spacious sitting-room, where he kept his library of books, and where "I'd sit and read all day like a picture of someone reading". There was also a separate kitchen, complete with bread oven, and a capacious wine cellar.

During his recurring illness, Keats spent much of his time in his bedroom until he tired of the bed curtains, and had a sofa bed made up in Brown's sitting room. It was in his bedroom that, after catching a chill one day, the one-time medical student calmly and accurately described to Brown the blood he coughed up on his sheet as "my death-warrant".

Apart from his clothes and books, Keats had few belongings. The house, furnished in the style of the period, nevertheless holds a few personal treasures. There's the garnet engagement ring he gave to Fanny, who for a while lived in the adjoining house; two locks of his chestnut-coloured hair; a few good miniatures; his writing desk; and a striking copy of his death-mask.

But the minimal amount of personal objects of the poet "whose name was writ in water" is compensated for by the literary material, exhibited in a wing added after Keats's death as a drawing-room and conservatory by the actress Eliza Chester, a mistress of George IV, who converted the two houses into one.

Here are the originals of letters in Keats's flowing hand, to Shelley, to his sister Fanny, to Mrs Brawne; his much-treasured copies of Shakespeare's poems and plays, and other books that he annotated and his medical notebook from his days at Guy's and St Thomas's, complete with floral doodles in the margin.

There are also first editions of his own poems, some of which, as Robert Gittings shows in his wonderful biography, were viciously attacked at the time in Blackwood's Magazine principally it seems because of Keats's association with Leigh Hunt, Hazlitt and others of "low birth and low habits".

Shamefully the house, run by Camden Leisure Services, is badly in need of repair. The presentation makes few concessions to modern ideas of interpretation. "We haven't lowered our standards," is how curator Christina Gee puts it. Students are accepted, but grudgingly. "People come here to commune with Keats, and don't like being upset by children," she says.

Further information from Keats House, Keats Grove, Hampstead, London NW3 2RR. Tel: 0171 435 2062. John Keats by Robert Gittings, Penguin (Pounds 8.99).

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