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A guest post by London Historians member Frank Jeffs. 

Inspired by the upcoming bicentenary of the death of John Keats, I was briefly motivated to revisit the famous poet and the story of his life. But a surprising detour led me from Keats via Rome and Madrid to, of all places, Somers Town in London, and the long-forgotten late 18th century housing development known as The Polygon.

This somewhat convoluted story began when my curiosity was piqued by reading that Keats’s sister, Frances (or more commonly, ‘Fanny’), did not die until 1889, 78 years after her brother John, and died in, surprisingly, Madrid. How did this come to be?

Finding out much about the life of Frances Mary Keats via a basic Google search is a frustrating experience; she does not even merit her own Wikipedia entry, and I initially more readily found out more about her life via the Spanish Wikiwand entry on her husband Valentín de Llanos Gutiérrez (1795-1885) – which is how one ends up via another detour in Somers Town.

fanny and valentin

A portrait of Fanny Keats in 1880 by her son, the painter Juan Llanos y Keats. Portrait of Valentín de Llanos Gutiérrez, possibly by his son Juan.

The son of a wealthy merchant in Valladolid, Llanos had spent six years wandering about Europe following his voluntary exile from Spain in 1814 as a result of the ‘violently liberal views’ acquired through his university studies. He was in Rome in 1821, and being interested in England and English writers, gained an introduction to Keats. He is said to have met and spoken with him during Keats’ attempted convalescence, even to the extent of conversing with him just three days before his death on February 23, 1821. Llanos then left for England, possibly with a letter of introduction from Keats’ friend, the artist Joseph Severn, and by September in some way had met Fanny Keats for the first time. This was despite her oppressive confinement to her guardian’s home in Walthamstow, being still under age. The meeting may have been enabled either via Llanos’s acquaintance with the immensely wealthy Sir Robert Wigram, of Walthamstow House, or possibly via Fanny Keats’ growing friendship with the much more outgoing figure of Fanny Brawne, Keats’s famous muse.

Ambrotype Fanny Brawne 1850

Ambrotype Fanny Brawne 1850.

Once in London, Llanos developed his career as a writer in English, probably in contact with the substantial community of Spanish liberal exiles that had established themselves in the city, and later specifically Somers Town, since early in the second decade of the 19th century. A further substantial wave of emigration from Spain to London occurred in what was known as the ‘Ominous Decade’ in Spain of 1823-1833. Some 1,000 middle class families are thought to have established themselves in the city – and as old allies against Napoleon, each entitled to a monthly subsidy of 200-500 reales from the British government. They earned their livings in exile as writers, editors, translators and teachers of Spanish – but also many more in more humble tasks such as shoemakers.

Many were military officers, but also lawyers, priests, merchants, doctors and even a bullfighter. Literary and political activities were restarted in their new home, even to the extent of opening Spanish language bookshops. Their most significant action was the continued development of political periodicals published in London but also widely distributed across the Spanish-speaking world. All had the object of creating a sustained campaign of propaganda against the absolutist restoration of Peninsular Spain.

The history and impact of this foreign political press in London in the early 19th century, together with the history of this community and its printing and bookselling businesses well into the late 1820s – all of which ended in 1833 with the return from exile following the death of Ferdinand VII – may well remain as a worthwhile field of potential research. As does the detail of the actual lives of the families in Somers Town: where exactly did they live, and did any live in the Somers Town Polygon, one of London’s early housing developments?

But before going down that bit of architectural history, we should return to Valentín de Llanos and his relationship with Fanny Keats. Fanny Brawne, at least, was impressed with this new arrival in her social scene, describing him in 1821 as ‘everything that a Spanish Cavalier ought to be’, and again in 1823 as ‘the beau of the room.’ Others would later come to have less favourable opinions. Nevertheless, much aided by Fanny Brawne and others in the Keats’ Hampstead circle, once Fanny Keats had come into her inheritance in 1826, she was in a position to accept Llanos’s offer of marriage, writing to her brother George in Kentucky that she was ‘married to a Spaniard of good family, and consequently well educated… highly respected and esteemed…’ and of course ‘known to our dear John.’ By this point Llanos had published two novels in English, a Spanish grammar for English learners, and other works; however, to what extent he now also anticipated benefitting from the long-drawn out final inheritance of his wife is another matter. Before they eventually left England for Spain in 1833 Llanos had managed to lose some £2,000 of Fanny’s money in a fruitless scheme to develop a new form of horse bridle bit, and in 1832 had been threatening legal action over a disputed charge on his wife’s inheritance.

They remained married throughout Llanos’s subsequent career in Spain, until his death in 1885, four years before that of Fanny. They initially had a daughter and a son, the former born for some reason in Paris in 1827, and the son in London in 1829; both had died in Spain by 1834. A second son, Juan Henrique Llanos Keats, born in England in 1831, died in 1905. A second daughter, Rosa Matilde, was born in 1833 after their return to Spain, and who also died in 1905. Two further children, Isabel Beatriz and Luis Jorge, were born in 1839 and 1843 respectively; Isabel was the last remaining direct link to John Keats at her death in 1926.

By all accounts, Fanny Keats’s life in Spain and later In Rome was in large part comfortable and enjoyable, with her children constantly around her. It would have been in great measure some compensation for the 16 years of oppression under ‘that consummate villain’ Richard Abbey that she suffered under his guardianship in Walthamstow, from the age of six until her eventual marriage in 1826. Changes to the Llanos family’s circumstances led to a return to live in Madrid, and by 1871 Llanos was involved in yet another failed business venture. Up until the return to Spain Fanny seemed to have little knowledge or interest in how her brother’s fame in England and further afield had developed; now, in reduced circumstances she took advantage of contacts from England and America to eventually gain a state pension and other funds from her native country. Following the death of her husband in 1885 she remained in Madrid, still as English as ever – she never learnt or used Spanish – until her own death in 1889.

But to return to Somers Town in 1821, the year of Llanos’s arrival in London. It seems that part of Somers Town, that area bounded on the west by what was formerly Clarendon Square, and which is now delimited on the west by Werrington Street and Phoenix Road to the south, and extending east to Midland Road, was begun with social and architectural ambitions. The main focus was what was known as The Polygon, designed by the architect Jacob Leroux and built in 1793-99. It consisted of 32 houses arranged in the form of a sixteen-sided figure surrounding gardens, the whole built within the open space later completed as Clarendon Square. Phoenix Road ran out to a crescent of houses begun by 1804. On the east side of the square, Chalton Street ran south to the Euston Road. The whole scheme – polygon, square and crescent, with their linking streets – was architecturally ambitious, but subsequently was a victim of the Napoleonic wars and a downtown in investment in construction up to the 1820s. This initially ambitious scheme was of course by then surrounded by less desirable terraced and other properties, explaining why Somers Town was affordable to the exiled families.

The Polygon 1850_500

South-west corner of the Polygon building in Clarendon Square, Somers Town, around 1850.

1837 map Somers Town_500

Somers Town in 1837; the Polygon was the circular building at the centre of Clarendon Square, to the north-west.

However, as a centre for publishing activities, Llanos must have been familiar with these streets. Without further research, it is impossible to know whether he lived in Somers Town prior to his marriage, not least whether he ever lived in any part of the Polygon. Other perhaps more famous writers did live there: Mary Wollstonecraft died at 29 The Polygon in 1797 after giving birth to the future Mary Shelley, and Dickens lived at 17 The Polygon from November 1828.

It would seem unlikely that Llanos and his new bride ever lived themselves in Somers Town; at the time of their marriage Fanny was living temporarily in Chelsea, and the social circles they mixed in thereafter were hardly likely to have anything to do with such a deprived area of London, however much Llanos might have continued to meet and work with his fellow countrymen in Somers Town in the years prior to his return to Spain. In fact, the Llanos family eventually came in 1828 to live in Wentworth Place in Hampstead, where John Keats had lived with Charles Brown, and where he first met Fanny Brawne. With the Brawne family still as neighbours, they remained there until 1832 when it seems they left for France to begin a long-drawn out journey back to Spain.

So – a convoluted trail from the poet whose bicentenary we memorialise today, to the story of his sister and her eventual death in Madrid so many years later. And on the way, her husband and his links to a long-lost community of exiles in what still remains a fascinating part of London, despite being threatened on all sides by change and redevelopment.

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Frank Jeffs is a founder member of London Historians, with a particular interest in Victorian cultural and literary history.

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