Review: Madeleine Schwartz on Letitia Elizabeth Landon

“Do you know the story of L.E.L.?—the poetess who committed suicide, as some say; but others feel sure was murdered?” Virginia Woolf wrote to Lytton Strachey in 1927. Few readers now will recognize the name, but, as Lucasta Miller shows in her tantalizing recent biography, Letitia Elizabeth Landon was as recognized in her time as Shelley and Byron—a poet who charmed Heinrich Heine, inspired the Brontës, and dazzled literary London with her confessional, first-person verse. 

Her rise to fame was a combination of luck and wile. She showed talent early, writing and reciting verse to her governess. But it was her mother’s insistence that she exercise in the garden with a hoop that garnered the notice of William Jerdan, editor of The Literary Gazette. From his window, he was drawn to the teenage Landon’s “exuberance of form.”

Jerdan was both a controlling editor and a womanizer, a “satyr-cannibal Literary Gazetteer,” according to contemporary Thomas Carlyle. He fathered at least twenty-three children with different mothers. Jerdan published Landon’s work but stole from her earnings. He used her as a coeditor but never paid her a salary. He flaunted her as his mistress and sullied her reputation by speaking openly of his sexual conquest. With Jerdan, Landon had three children who were all given up for adoption. Jerdan controlled public perceptions in part by hiring Landon’s doctor as a medical columnist for his paper. Even after her death, Jerdan was still taking credit for the work he had “cherish[ed] and improv[ed].” 

In both her writing and her appearance, Landon tried to both play up and dispel her reputation as a flirt. “I avoided L.E.L., who looked the very personification of Brompton—pink satin dress and white satin shoes, red cheeks, snub nose, and hair a la Sappho,” wrote statesman Benjamin Disraeli in 1832, referring to her neighborhood’s reputation for pretense. But as news of her pregnancies spread throughout London, she was unable to control her rapidly disintegrating social status. Jerdan ignored her when his attention turned to new (and younger) possible protégées. 

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Still, it’s not clear that Landon would have had an easier life had she hewed to the rigid conventions of her time. Miller shows how Landon had to put on a faux-naif persona to be taken seriously; although literary men loved women writers, they preferred that these be uneducated and ignorant. (“The longer I live, the more I do loathe in stomach, and deprecate in Judgement, all, all, Bluestockingism,” Coleridge wrote in praise of a female writer’s poor spelling.) Over the course of Landon’s own career, the literary scene in London became segregated and more male. “By 1839,” Miller writes, “literary men were choosing to meet in the new male-only clubs.” 

As Landon’s reputation suffered from the very relationship that had catapulted it to fame, her friends tried to marry her off. A first prospect stepped away from the engagement when anonymous letters chronicled his fiancé’s past. Finally, they found a suitable target in George Maclean, the governor of Cape Coast Castle (today’s Ghana) who had conveniently lived outside England and didn’t know the extent of her scandal. Landon married Maclean and sailed off to Cape Coast, where she wrote chirpy letters to her friends trying to hide her loneliness.

She was found dead two months later. She had a bottle of prussic acid (the chemical compound hydrogen cyanide) by her side. Gossip suggested that Maclean’s “country wife,” an African woman with whom he had lived and borne several children, had murdered her rival. Miller argues that, either unintentionally or not, Landon took her own life.

Landon’s friends tried to preserve her reputation, in part by whitewashing the extent of her own pursuit of career. Her first biographer, Samuel Laman Blanchard, wrote that it was his goal to “keep her memory as a pleasant odour in the world.” These efforts ultimately made Landon an object of pity and easily forgotten. 

Miller’s book is fascinating—a beguiling mix of gossip, scandal, and social analysis. It’s a shame that the poems themselves are not so good. Landon’s talent for mimicry and pastiche of Romantic poetry was impressive, but her poems are hampered by shallow ideas and images that would already have seemed tired and clichéd two hundred years ago. Miller sees in this work the stresses of Landon’s dissimulations and secrets. L.E.L.’s poem “Lines of Life” reads in part: 

And one fear, withering ridicule, 
Is all that I can dread;
A sword hung by a single hair
For ever o’er the head ...

In Orlando, Woolf called this poem—through her narrator—“the most insipid verse she had ever read in her life.” Miller argues that “Woolf recoiled in such disgust because she intuitively sensed the poem’s submerged emotional violence.” I’m not sure that’s true. But after reading the Miller’s account of this strange and sad life, it’s hard to read the poems without sympathy, or what Landon lacked in her own life: respect. 

Madeleine Schwartz is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books and London Review of Books. This week she received the European Press Prize for her essay “The End of Atlanticism” in the Guardian.

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Image: detail from a portrait of Letitia Elizabeth Landon by Henry William Pickersgill. Bethnal Hall, Shropshire, National Trust Photographic Library, Bridgeman