Muse: The Well-Stitched Fanny Brawne

This is a post about Miss Fanny Brawne. She was, in fact, a real person, but the Fanny up for discussion today is the character in Jane Campion’s stunning 2009 film Bright Star. I have long loved this film–it was one of the first to make me want to pursue filmmaking–but my first few times watching it, I wasn’t so sure about Miss Brawne. She seemed, at times, a little overdramatic and maybe even vapid. But I have learned to love Fanny, and see a lot of myself and other women I know in her. She is full of contradictions, as are we all.

Bright Star opens with a closeup shot of Fanny’s needlework, which we will soon learn is a craft she holds dear to her heart. The camera follows her precise work on a crisp white piece of fabric, as she stitches by the early light of morning. This little glimpse of Fanny in a quiet moment is immediately contrasted with the loud outfit she wears to visit the home of the Dilkeses and Mr. Brown. A bright orange hat with a yellow feather sits atop her head, and out from her cropped red jacket shoot her bold cuffs and collar. Upon seeing her, the annoying–shall we call him?–Mr. Brown declares, “Ah, the very well-stitched little Miss Brawne, in all her detailing!” The statement is perhaps in jest, but Fanny does not laugh. Instead she walks away from him, calling him “the enemy.” Fanny understands that Mr. Brown’s words are more aggressive than a light mockery. She quotes him, recalling his cruel words about “her obsession with flounce and cross-stitch.” Fanny always has a sharp response to Mr. Brown’s patronizing tone and though he is the poet, it seems she always gets in the last well-chosen word. She soon meets John Keats, to whom she also displays a quick wit, telling him and Mr. Brown that her stitching “has more merit and admirers than [their] two scribblings put together.” It’s this confidence that catches Keats’s (and my) eye.

Since she believes Mr. Brown to be preposterous and arrogant, Fanny surely is worried that Mr. Keats is quite the same. She buys his book of poetry, Endymion, to “see if he’s an idiot or not.” Although she does not quite understand Mr. Keats’s poetry, she thinks his words are beautiful. I personally think this is when she falls in love with him. She enlists him to teach her poetry, exposing her anxieties that she is not clever enough to understand it. This little worry of Fanny’s has always stuck with me. Though she is confident enough in her stitching to laugh in the face of Mr. Brown, she feels a pressure to be just as knowledgable in the realm of poetry. Poetry is a more respectable art form, as the men around her see it, and she feels that perhaps her own medium leaves her less intelligent than them. I relate to this more than I wish to admit: there have been so many times when I felt “oh if we could just swing the conversation to fashion or photography or the weird films I like” I would be seen as more intelligent. I spent a long while in fear that I was not intelligent because of my interests–because they are not always seen as being as noble as other subjects that are deemed (usually by men) important. What I love about Fanny is that she both continues her own craft, believing in her heart that it is of merit, and educates herself on this new one.

Fanny’s confidence couldn’t have been easily won. What is seen by Mr. Brown, and perhaps much of society, as “flounce-y” women’s work–certainly less important than poetry–to Fanny is worthy of time, patience, ingenuity, and hard work. She is incredibly skilled and creative. One doesn’t make the first triple-pleated mushroom collar in the county by simply dabbling in needlework. She works hard at her craft, despite being told it is superficial. I love the shots of Fanny modeling her work in a mirror or sauntering around, showing it off. She of course, always looks fabulous (you know how I feel about collars, and she is the master of them), but she takes pride in what she does. There is a fiery passion behind her dressing, something that she feels is important to her own style and the advancement of the art form.

Fanny Brawne is complex. A fully-rounded character. She dances with boys and she likes to be amused. But she also feels incredibly deeply and falls fiercely in love with a Romantic poet. She likes a good pleated collar but it does not mean she can’t also love and think and feel. She is intentional in all her movements, thoughts, and creations. She reminds us that women are allowed to be more than one thing–something I even need reminding of sometimes. Everything Fanny cares about matters, and it is this that makes her such a triumphant character.