Charles Armitage Brown

Charles Armitage Brown

Charles A. Brown
Bust of Charles Brown (London Metropolitan Archives)
Born (1787-04-17)17 April 1787
Died 5 June 1842(1842-06-05) (aged 55)
New Plymouth, New Zealand
Nationality British
Occupation businessman
Known for friend of Keats

Charles Armitage Brown (14 April 1787 – 5 June 1842) was a very close friend of the poet John Keats, as well as being a friend of artist Joseph Severn, Leigh Hunt, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, Walter Savage Landor and Edward John Trelawny. He was the father of Charles (Carlino) Brown, a pioneer and politician of New Plymouth, New Zealand.

Early life

Brown was born in Lambeth (London). He had very little formal education and to a large extent was self-taught.[1] He began a career as a merchant, starting as a clerk at the age of fourteen, earning £40 per year. At eighteen he joined his brother in St. Petersburg, Russia in a fur-trading business where they were to accumulate the sum of £20,000, only to lose most of it in an unwise speculation in bristles. They returned to England almost penniless,[2] though Brown capitalized on his Russian experience by writing a comic opera, Narensky, or, The Road to Yaroslaf, which was produced at Drury Lane in January 1814, earning him ₤300 and free admission for life to this theatre.[3]

Friendship with John Keats

Brown is best known for his close friendship with the poet John Keats. When Charles Brown first met Keats in the late summer of 1817, Keats was twenty-one, and Brown thirty.[4]

Shortly after their meeting, Keats and Brown were planning to see Scotland together. Their famous tour was described in their letters and in “Walks in the North”. In 1818, after Keats's brother died of consumption, Keats moved into Brown’s half of Wentworth Place, taking the front parlor, where he lived for the next seventeen months. During this time Brown collaborated with Keats on a play, Otho the Great,[5] which was not staged until the 1950s.

Around 1890 Brown's son, Charles (Carlino) Brown claimed that Brown married Abigail O'Donohue in a Roman Catholic ceremony in Ireland in August 1819, after Brown had left Keats at Winchester. However, most biographers do not appear to believe that the marriage took place and that Carlino's story was motivated by a desire to cover up his illegitimacy, due to the social stigma it would cause Carlino as a leading citizen of New Plymouth. Also there is evidence that Brown was in Chichester while Keats was in Winchester.[6]

After a severe haemorrhage in February 1820, Keats developed tuberculosis and Brown took care of him. This included handling all his affairs, paying his bills, writing his letters, even lending him money and standing as surety for a loan to him. Although Keats appeared to recover from the initial attack and the medical advice was that his lungs were sound, Keats's health fluctuated from that time on, gradually deteriorating.

On medical advice that he could not survive the cold of another English winter, Keats travelled to Rome, Italy on 17 September 1820. Although Keats had wanted Brown to accompany him, Brown had not returned from a holiday in Scotland by the date of Keats's departure and so, on just over three-day's notice, the artist Joseph Severn agreed to accompany Keats.[7] Ironically (and unknown to them at the time), Brown's and Keats's ships were both moored at Gravesend on the same night as Brown returned to London and Keats departed to Italy, literally ships that passed in the night.

Brown remained at Wentworth Place in Hampstead, London during Keats's final illness, writing and receiving letters from both Keats and Severn. He shared some of the contents of those letters with Keats's fiancee Fanny Brawne, but did not disclose any information that he thought might upset her too much. Severn nursed Keats through his final illness until the poet's death in Rome on 23 February 1821.

Move to Italy

In July 1822, Charles Armitage Brown travelled to Italy with his illegitimate son Charles (Carlino) Brown. It is not clear what became of Carlino's mother Abigail.[8]

Brown lived in Pisa from 1822 to around 1824, after which he moved to Florence. He published many articles in English periodicals, the best-known being "Shakespeare's Fools" in 1823. For many years he worked on his own autobiographical novel, Walter Hazlebourn, which he never finished.

In Italy he moved in with Joseph Severn. His friend Leigh Hunt was there as well, and through him Brown was introduced to Lord Byron, John Taaffe, Jr. (friend of Byron and Shelley), Seymour Kirkup, Thomas Jefferson Hogg, Walter Savage Landor, and many others.

In 1829, Edward John Trelawny, whom Brown had met in 1823 (just before Byron had sailed to Greece) came to live with him in Florence. For half the profits from its publication, Brown rewrote Trelawny’s Adventures of a Younger Son. Brown provided Trelawny with passages from Keats’s unpublished poems to be used (with others from Shelley and Byron) as chapter headings. Unfortunately this resulted in Trelawny being linked to Keats when he had actually never met him in person.

On 6 June 1834 Brown suffered an apoplectic fit in Vieusseux’s Library, Palazzo Ferroni, Florence. Fortunately, a "surgeon with a lancet and bandage in his pocket" happened to be present and immediately administered a blood-letting (the normal treatment at that time) and he appeared to sustain no permanent damage from the incident.[9] However it should be noted that he died 8 years later from an apoplectic stroke.

Return to England

On 30 March 1835, Brown left Italy to return to England[10] in order to provide a better education for his son Carlino, who was talented in mathematics and wished to pursue a career in civil engineering.[11] He settled in Plymouth, Devonshire.

Emigration to New Zealand

In 1840, Brown became a shareholder in the newly formed Plymouth Company, which aimed to colonise New Plymouth, New Zealand. Shortly afterwards, his finances were ruined when he was forced to repay a friend's loan having agreed to be guarantor.[12] With what little fortune remained to him, Brown decided that they should emigrate to New Plymouth as a pioneer community to provide the best opportunities for his son Charles as a civil engineer.[12] His son Charles emigrated on the "Amelia Thompson", the first settler ship of the Plymouth Company arriving in 1841 aged 17 years old.[12][13] Brown followed on a second ship "Oriental" arriving 3 weeks later.[12][14]

Before leaving for New Zealand, in 1841, he turned over copies of the unpublished poems of Keats to Richard Monckton Milnes. [5]

When Brown arrived in New Plymouth, his disappointment was profound. Unlike its namesake in England, this Plymouth was wilderness, with a treacherous coast instead of a harbour. He proposed an early return to England.[15]

His last letters from New Plymouth, New Zealand, dated 22 and 23 January, were addressed to Joseph Severn and Trelawny.


Charles Armitage Brown died from an apoplectic stroke on 5 June 1842 aged fifty-five at New Plymouth.[16]

He was buried on the slope of Marsland Hill in Charles Cowden Clarke, an author and Shakespearean scholar who taught Keats and encouraged his poetic leanings.

Although the emigration to New Plymouth was not successful, Brown's wish that his son Carlino (known as Charles in New Zealand) would prosper there was fulfilled, as Charles went on to become a prominent businessman, military man and politician.

The descendants of Charles Brown in New Zealand inherited items of John Keats memorabilia and many of these have been donated to the Keats House museum.[12]

Popular culture

The 2009 film Bright Star, written and directed by Jane Campion, focuses on Keats's relationship with Fanny Brawne. In it, according to critic Ty Burr (The Boston Globe), Brown (played by actor Paul Schneider)[20] is presented as "the closest the movie comes to a villain, a cynical boor who knocks up his housemaid (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) and banishes Fanny so the boys can work on their plays and poems."[21] Burr does however go on to emphasize that this portrayal of Brown's "love for Keats humanizes him... even if he loves the art more at first." Abigail O'Donohue, Brown's housemaid in the film, becomes pregnant and has his child. Yet many film critics and the filmmaker herself have felt that Brown was imbued with many qualities, including loyalty and wit, and in reality there was no villain just real life humans. A new online edition of Brown's letters to Joseph Severn reveals that he was a complex figure with a tremendous capacity for friendship and loyalty.[22]



  • Shakespeare's Autobiographical Poems, by Charles Armitage Brown, London: J. Bohn, 1838
  • , edited by H. Buxton Forman, London: Oxford UP, 1910
  • Life of John Keats, by Charles Armitage Brown, edited by Dorothy Hyde Bodurtha and W. B. Pope, London: Oxford UP, 1937
  • Some Letters & Miscellanea of Charles Brown. The friend of John Keats & Thomas Richards, edited by H. Buxton Forman, London: Oxford UP, 1937.
  • The Letters of Charles Armitage Brown, edited by Jack Stillinger, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1966
  • The Friend of Keats: A Life of Charles Armitage Brown, by E. H. McCormick, Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria UP, 1989
  • "New Information on Keats's Friend Charles 'Armitage' Brown and the Brown Family", by Gillian Iles, Keats-Shelley Journal 49 (1991): 146-166
  • , edited by Grant F. Scott and Sue Brown. College Park, Maryland: Romantic Circles, 2007; revised 2010
  • Joseph Severn, A Life: The Rewards of Friendship, by Sue Brown, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009
  • Walking North with Keats, by Carol Kyros Walker. Yale University Press, 1992. Retraces the journey of Keats and Brown through Scotland.

External links

Biographical material
  • Keats House, Hampstead: a number of items belonging to Brown are displayed at his former home in 'Wentworth Place', now a museum to Brown's friend Keats
  • EText Center, University of Virginia Library
  • Romantic Circles
  • Puke Ariki Museum, New Plymouth, various archives relating to Brown
  • Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, 1966.
  • the UK National Archives
  • National Portrait Gallery, London, 1819
  • Internet Archive, retrieved 28 March 2012
  • Internet Archive, retrieved 28 March 2012
  • , by Charles Armitage Brown, about 1841.