On St Valentine’s Day – putting a price on love? Keats comes up for auction…

Update 14th February 2012. The letter was auctioned on 29th March 2011, raising £96,000. It was bought by the City of London Corporation for Keats House, Hampstead. So all’s well that ends well then?

There are many people who are very cynical about the commercialisation of Valentine’s Day. After all, it seems that we are not even sure who St Valentine was, or whether whoever might claim the title was especially romantic. Perhaps 150 years ago the little love notes sent to friends and lovers were more personal and romantic; but I have to admit that rows upon rows of modern red and white cards with messages ranging from ‘You are my life,I will die without you’ to ‘Get your knickers off’ are more likely to send me running than encourage me to browse. In addition the knowledge that 85% of all such cards are sent by women makes me feel rather humiliated on behalf of my gender.

However, I bought a really nice card for my OH and got one in return. It was a shame he hadn’t had time to write it before he gave it to me but at least I can use the envelope again.

Apart from my mixed feelings about the 14th of February I was prompted to write this post following my discovery of a Guardian article, dated 25th January, that I had previously missed. In it Maev Kennedy reports that a letter from the poet John Keats to Fanny Brawne, written in 1820 when he was seriously ill and knew he was dying, is to come up for auction in March. It has an estimated value of up to £120,000 and offers a rare opportunity for a private collector to own something of Keats; most of his correspondence and any manuscripts that survive are in museums and archives. But this strikes me as something of an obscenity.

Anyone reading my blog would know that Keats has been a passion of mine for many years. The sight of an original manuscript is an absolute thrill. If Keats had written me a letter I would treasure it forever. However, if I had £120,000 to spend on this letter would I bid? No. Why? Because it is an incredibly private message.  It is between two people – the one writing and the one to whom it is addressed. Keats himself did not want his letters to become public. The letters Fanny wrote to him he destroyed and any others that survive have done so because they were treasured by friends, family, and Fanny Brawne herself, who kept Keats’ letters all her life, refusing any attempts to make them public. They were only published after her death and wonderful though many of them are – intensely personal, so heartfelt and passionate – some of them are quite uncomfortable to read. Although many love letters written by the great and good are public property, this feels like voyeurism.

So, whilst understanding why collector and poet Roy Davids may be selling the note (alongside other documents and portraits of eminent persons, including Sir Walter Raleigh, William Blake, Winston Churchill and the late poet laureate Ted Hughes) there seems something rather shabby in the enterprise. How can one justify spending over £100,000 on a piece of paper written on by someone without two coins to rub together, especially when it exposes such intense feeling?

Perhaps I am insufficiently ‘romantic’ in the Valentines Day sense of the word. But how many of us writing notes to our loved ones today – using language we would never use in the company of others –  would feel comfortable in the knowledge that they may one day be made public, for the world to judge us? When Keats’ letters to Fanny were published after her death Keats’ reputation suffered a blow. Many Victorians thought them ‘unmanly’ or signalling madness. There is little doubt that many of the notes exchanged today might also seem more than a little foolish to an objective observer.

So I for one won’t be at Bonham’s in March, even if I win the lottery. I hope the note goes to a home that values it in other than financial terms, but in these times I rather doubt it.

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6 Responses to On St Valentine’s Day – putting a price on love? Keats comes up for auction…

  1. Viv says:

    definitely with you on this one Suzie.
    I am horrified that such a personal letter might be up for auction. Imagine: one’s own love letters being persued hundreds of years later by strangers.

  2. Our obsession with celebrity clearly knows no historical boundaries. The voyeuristic tendencies that crave the latest on Alex and Jordan, at its basest level, also crave the most intimate offerings from our literary greats, albeit disguised under the label of intellectual interest. Shabby indeed!! …Here from Blog Gems…great post 🙂

  3. Sue says:

    I agree private love letters are not for sharing no matter how many years have passed. How can anyone judge the heart of someone they did not know personally after reading a letter that was never meant to be shared with anyone expect the object of their affection? More importantly why do we judge?

    • keatsbabe says:

      I agree with you. I think what concerns me is the fact we sometimes feel we have a right to know the most private thoughts of historical figures. It is like some 19th C OK mag…

  4. Kirsty says:

    I can really sympathise with your point of view, but at the same time I think if it was me, I wouldn’t care – I’d be dead! I cringe at the thought of people reading some of my personal letters/emails etc now, but if in hundreds of years they have value and give someone pleasure – fine by me.

    • keatsbabe says:

      I think that if you are happy about that happeniing it is fine. There are lots of really fascinating letters out there that have contributed so much to social history. But if you know that the peopple involved expressly didn’t want them made public? Feel a little dubious about that one…

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