Letitia Elizabeth Landon
Letitia Elizabeth Landon
Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802–1838); variation of the original painting by Daniel Maclise
|Died||15 October 1838 (aged 36)|
|Other names||Letitia Elizabeth Maclean|
Letitia Elizabeth Landon (14 August 1802 – 15 October 1838) was an English poet and novelist, better known by her initials L.E.L.
Letitia Elizabeth Landon was born on 14 August 1802 in Chelsea, London to John Landon and Catherine Jane, née Bishop. A precocious child, Landon learned to read as a toddler; an invalid neighbour would scatter letter tiles on the floor and reward young Letitia for reading, and, according to her father, "she used to bring home many rewards."
At the age of five, Landon began attending Frances Arabella Rowden's school at 22 Hans Place, Knightsbridge. Rowden was an engaging teacher, a poet, and had a particular enthusiasm for the theatre. According to Mary Russell Mitford, "she had a knack of making poetesses of her pupils" Other Rowden's pupils were: Caroline Ponsonby, later Lady Caroline Lamb; Emma Roberts, the travel writer; Anna Maria Fielding, who published as Mrs S. C. Hall; and Rosina Doyle Wheeler, who married Edward Bulwer-Lytton and published her many novels as Rosina Bulwer Lytton.
The Landons moved to the country in 1809, so that John Landon could carry out a model farm project. Letitia was educated at home by her older cousin Elizabeth from that point on. Elizabeth found her knowledge and abilities outstripped by those of her pupil: "When I asked Letitia any question relating either to history, geography, grammar – Plutarch's Lives, or to any book we had been reading, I was pretty certain her answers would be perfectly correct; still, not exactly recollecting, and unwilling she should find out just then that I was less learned than herself, I used thus to question her: 'Are you quite certain?' ... I never knew her to be wrong."
When young, Letitia was close to her younger brother, Whittington Henry, born 1804. Paying for university education for him, at Worcester College, Oxford, was one of the reasons that brought Letitia to publish. She also supported his preferment and later dedicated her poem "Captain Cook" to their childhood days together. Whittington went on to become a minister and published a book of sermons in 1835. Rather than showing appreciation for his sister's assistance, he spread rumours about her marriage and death. Letitia also had a younger sister, Elizabeth Jane (born 1806), who was a frail child and died in 1819, aged just 13. Little is known of Elizabeth but her death may well have left a profound impression on Letitia and it could be Elizabeth who is referred to in the poem "The Forgotten One" ("I have no early flowers to fling").
An agricultural depression meant that the Landon family moved back to London in 1815. There John Landon made the acquaintance of William Jerdan, editor of the Literary Gazette. According to Mrs A. T. Thomson, Jerdan took notice of the young Letitia Landon when he saw her coming down the street, "trundling a hoop with one hand, and holding in the other a book of poems, of which she was catching a glimpse between the agitating course of her evolutions". Jerdan later described her ideas as "original and extraordinary". He encouraged Landon's poetic endeavours, and her first poem was published under the single initial "L" in the Gazette in 1820, when Landon was 18. The following year, with financial support from her grandmother, Landon published a book of poetry, The Fate of Adelaide, under her full name. The book met with little critical notice, but sold well; Landon, however, received no profits, since the publisher shortly went out of business. The same month that The Fate of Adelaide appeared, Landon published two poems under the initials "L.E.L." in the Gazette; these poems, and the initials under which they were published, attracted much discussion and speculation. As contemporary critic Laman Blanchard put it, the initials L.E.L. "speedily became a signature of magical interest and curiosity". Bulwer Lytton wrote that, as a young college student, he and his classmates would
rush every Saturday afternoon for the Literary Gazette, [with] an impatient anxiety to hasten at once to that corner of the sheet which contained the three magical letters L.E.L. And all of us praised the verse, and all of us guessed at the author. We soon learned it was a female, and our admiration was doubled, and our conjectures tripled.
Landon served as the Gazette's chief reviewer as she continued to write poetry; her second collection, The Improvisatrice, appeared in 1824. Her father died later that year, and she was forced to write to support her family; Contemporaries saw this profit-motive as detrimental to the quality of Landon's work: a woman was not supposed to be a professional writer. Mary Mitford claimed that the novels of Catherine Stepney were honed and polished by Landon.
By 1826, Landon's reputation began to suffer as rumours circulated that she had had affairs or secretly borne children. She continued to publish poetry, and in 1831 her first novel, Romance and Reality. She became engaged to John Forster. Forster became aware of the rumours regarding Landon's sexual activity, and asked her to refute them. Landon responded that Forster should "make every inquiry in [his] power", which Forster did; after he pronounced himself satisfied, however, Landon broke off their engagement. To him, she wrote:
The more I think, the more I feel I ought not – I can not – allow you to unite yourself with one accused of – I can not write it. The mere suspicion is dreadful as death. Were it stated as a fact, that might be disproved. Were it a difficulty of any other kind, I might say, Look back at every action of my life, ask every friend I have. But what answer can I give ... ? I feel that to give up all idea of a near and dear connection is as much my duty to myself as to you....
Privately, Landon stated that she would never marry a man who had mistrusted her. In a letter to Bulwer Lytton, she wrote that "if his future protection is to harass and humiliate me as much as his present – God keep me from it ... I cannot get over the entire want of delicacy to me which could repeat such slander to myself."
Landon began to "[talk] of marrying any one, and of wishing to get away, from England, and from those who had thus misunderstood her". In October 1836, Landon met George Maclean, governor of the Gold Coast (now Ghana), at a dinner party given by Matthew Forster, and the two began a relationship. Maclean, however, moved to Scotland early the following year, to the surprise and distress of Landon and her friends. After much prodding, Maclean returned to England and he and Landon were married shortly thereafter, on 7 June 1838. The marriage was kept secret, and Landon spent the first month of it living with friends. Emma Roberts writes of Mr Maclean:
No one could better appreciate than L.E.L. the high and sterling qualities of her lover's character, his philanthropic and unceasing endeavours to improve the condition of the natives of Africa; the noble manner in which he interfered to prevent the horrid waste of human life by the barbarian princes in his neighbourhood; and the chivalric energy with which he strove to put an end to the slave-trade. L.E.L. esteemed Mr Maclean the more, in consequence of his not approaching her with the adulation with which her ear had been accustomed, to satiety; she was gratified by the manly nature of his attachment. Possessing, in her estimation, merits of the highest order, the influence which he gained over her promised, in the opinion of those who were best acquainted with the docility of her temper, and her ready acquiescence with the wishes of those she loved, to ensure lasting happiness.
In early July, the couple sailed for Cape Coast, where they arrived on 16 August.
Two months later, on 15 October 1838, Landon was found dead, a bottle of prussic acid in her hand. That she was poisoned was an assumption. There is evidence that she showed symptoms of Stokes-Adams syndrome for which the dilute acid was the standard remedy. No autopsy was carried out and from the eye-witness accounts it has been argued that Landon suffered a fatal convulsion.
"Do you think of me as I think of you,
|From "L.E.L.'s Last Question," by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1844)|
Landon's appearance and personality were described by a number of her friends and contemporaries:
L.E.L. could not be, strictly speaking, called handsome; her eyes being the only good feature in a countenance, which was, however, so animated, and lighted up with such intellectual expression, as to be exceedingly attractive. Gay and piquant, her clear complexion, dark hair, and eyes, rendered her, when in health and spirits, a sparkling brunette. The prettiness of L.E.L., though generally acknowledged, was not talked about; and many persons, on their first introduction, were as pleasingly surprised as the Ettrick Shepherd, who, gazing upon her with great admiration, exclaimed "I did na think ye had been sae bonny." Her figure was slight, and beautifully proportioned, with little hands and feet; and these personal advantages, added to her kind and endearing manners, rendered her exceedingly fascinating.
William Jerdan, from his autobiography:
In truth, she was the most unselfish of human creatures; and it was quite extraordinary to witness her ceaseless consideration for the feelings of others, even in minute trifles, whilst her own mind was probably troubled and oppressed; a sweet disposition, so perfectly amiable, from Nature's fount, and so unalterable in its manifestations throughout her entire life, that every one who enjoyed her society loved her, and servants, companions, intimates, friends, all united in esteem and affection for the gentle and self-sacrificing being who never exhibited a single trait of egotism, presumption, or unkindliness!
Perhaps the greatest magic she exercised was, that, after the first rush of remembrance of all that wonderful young woman had written had subsided, she rendered you completely oblivious of what she had done by the irresistible charm of what she was. You forgot all about her books, – you only felt the intense delight of life with her; she was penetrating and sympathetic, and entered into your feelings so entirely that you wondered how "the little witch" could read you so readily and so rightly, – and if, now and then, you were startled, perhaps dismayed, by her wit, it was but the prick of a diamond arrow. Words and thoughts that she flung hither and thither, without design or intent beyond the amusement of the moment, come to me still with a mingled thrill of pleasure and pain that I cannot describe, and that my most friendly readers, not having known her, could not understand.
It was her invariable habit to write in her bed-room, – "a homely-looking, almost uncomfortable room, fronting the street, and barely furnished – with a simple white bed, at the foot of which was a small, old, oblong-shaped sort of dressing-table, quite covered with a common worn writing-desk, heaped with papers, while some strewed the ground, the table being too small for aught besides the desk. A little high-backed cane chair, which gave you any idea but that of comfort, and a few books scattered about, completed the author's paraphernalia."
Emma Roberts again:
She not only read, but thoroughly understood, and entered into the merits of every book that came out; while it is merely necessary to refer to her printed works, to calculate the amount of information which she had gathered from preceding authors. The history and literature of all ages and all countries were familiar to her; nor did she acquire any portion of her knowledge in a superficial manner; the extent of her learning, and the depth of her research, manifesting themselves in publications which do not bear her name; her claim to them being only known to friends, who, like myself, had access to her desk, and with whom she knew the secret might be safely trusted.
Many contemporaries praised Landon's exceptionally high level of intelligence. Fredric Rowton, in The Female Poets of Great Britain, put it thus:
Of Mrs Maclean's genius there can be but one opinion. It is distinguished by very great intellectual power, a highly sensitive and ardent imagination, an intense fervour of passionate emotion, and almost unequalled eloquence and fluency. Of mere art she displays but little. Her style is irregular and careless, and her painting sketchy and rough but there is genius in every line she has written.
(Like many others, Rowton is deceived by the artistry of Landon's projection of herself as the improvisatrice, L. E. L. As Glennis Stevenson writes, few poets have been as artificial as Landon in her "gushing stream of Song". She cites the usage of repetition, mirroring and the embedding of texts amongst the techniques that account for the characteristic intensity of Landon's poetry.)
Among the poets of her own time to recognise and admire Landon were Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who wrote "L.E.L.'s Last Question" in homage; and Christina Rossetti, who published a tribute poem entitled "L.E.L" in her 1866 volume The Prince's Progress and Other Poems.
Landon's reputation, while high in the 19th century, fell during most of the 20th as literary fashions changed: her poetry was perceived as overly simple and sentimental. In recent years, however, scholars and critics have increasingly studied her work, beginning with Germaine Greer in the 1970s. Critics such as Isobel Armstrong argue that the supposed simplicity of poetry such as Landon's is deceptive, and that women poets of the 19th century often employed a method of writing which allows for multiple, concurrent levels of meaning. Such criticism had already been addressed by Sarah Sheppard in her "Characteristics of the Genius and Writings of L E L" of 1841. Her opening paragraph runs:
Because they whose decision it is, are subjects of the superficial spirit of the age, which leaves them unacquainted with all of which it appoints them judges. Because, either from a dislike of trouble, or inability to pursue the inquiry, these judges never deviate from their own beaten right line to observe how genius acts and is acted upon,—how it is influenced, and what effects it produces on society. Hence the mistaken opinions concerning literary characters one is often compelled to hear from those who, it is to be feared, know little of what they affirm; and of literary works from those who, it is also to be feared, are not competent to decide on their merits. It is indeed strange with what decision people set their seal of condemnation on volumes beyond whose title-pages they have scarcely looked.
Her ideas and the diversity of her poetry engendered a "Landon School", in England but also in America. As for style, William Howitt comments: "This is one singular peculiarity of the poetry of L. E. L.; and her poetry must be confessed to be peculiar. It is entirely her own. It had one prominent and fixed character, and that character belonged solely to itself. The rhythm, the feeling, the style and phraseology of L. E. L.'s poetry, were such, that you could immediately recognize it, though the writer's name was not mentioned."
A tribute in The London Literary Gazette, following Landon's death, ran:
To express what we feel on her loss is impossible – and private sorrows of so deep a kind are not for public display: her name will descend to the most distant times, as one of the brightest in the annals of English literature; and whether after ages look at the glowing purity and nature of her first poems, or the more sustained thoughtfulness and vigour of her later works, in prose or in verse, they will cherish her memory as that of one of the most beloved of female authors, the pride and glory of our country while she lived, and the undying delight of succeeding generations. Then, as in our day, young hearts will beat responsive to the thrilling touch of her music; her song of love will find a sacred home in many a fair and ingenuous bosom; her numbers, which breathed of the finest humanities, her playfulness of spirit, and her wonderful delineation of character and society – all – all will be admired, but not lamented as now. She is gone; and, oh, what a light of mind is extinguished: what an amount of friendship and of love has gone down into the grave!
List of works
In addition to the works listed below, Landon may have been responsible for anonymous reviews, and other articles whose authorship is unlikely now to be established (compare Emma Roberts above). She also assumed the occasional pseudonym: for one, she adopted the name Iole for a period from 1825-27. Two of her Iole poems, "The Wreck" and "The Frozen Ship", were later included in the collection, The Vow of the Peacock. On her death, she left a list of projected works. Besides "Lady Anne Granard" (first volume completed) and her "tragedy" (Castruccio Catrucani), there were: a critical work in 3 volumes to be called "Female Portrait Gallery in Modern Literature" for which she says she has collected a vast amount of material (only some portraits based on Walter Scott were produced); a romance called "Charlotte Corday" for which a plan was sketched plus a "chapter or two"; and a projected 2 volume work on "travels in the country I am about to visit, including the history of the slave trade of which I shall [have] the opportunity of collecting so many curious facts".
- The Fate of Adelaide. A Swiss Romantic tale and other poems. London: John Warren, 1821.
- Fragments in Rhyme. London. The Literary Gazette, 1822-3.
- Poetic Sketches (5 series). London. The Literary Gazette, 1822-4.
- Medallion Wafers. London. The Literary Gazette, 1823.
- Poetical Catalogue of Pictures. London. The Literary Gazette, 1823.
- The Improvisatrice and other poems, with embellishments. London, Hurst Robinson & Co., 1824.
- The Troubadour. Catalogue of pictures and historical sketches. London: Hurst, Robinson and Co., 1825.
- The Golden Violet with its tales of Romance and Chivalry, and other poems. London, Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, 1827.
- The Venetian Bracelet, The Lost Pleiad, A History of the Lyre and other poems. London, Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, 1829.
- Romance and Reality. London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley. 1831.
- The Easter Gift, A Religious Offering. London: Fisher, Son, & Co, 1832.
- Fisher's Drawing Room Scrap Books. London & Paris: Fisher, Son, & Co., 1832-1839.
- The Book of Beauty; or, Regal Gallery. London: Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1833.
- "The Enchantress and Other Tales." The Novelists Magazine 1 (1833): 90-118.
- Metrical versions of the Odes tr. in Corinne or Italy by Madame de Staël tr. by Isabel Hill. London. Richard Bentley, 1833.
- Francesca Carrara. London: Richard Bentley. 1834.
- Calendar of the London Seasons. The New Monthly Magazine, 1834.
- The Vow of the Peacock and other poems. London, Saunders and Otley, 1835.
- Versions from the German. London. The Literary Gazette, 1835.
- Traits and Trials of Early Life. London. H. Colburn, 1836.
- Subjects for Pictures.. London. The New Monthly Magazine, 1836-8.
- Ethel Churchill; or, The Two Brides. London: Henry Colburn, 1837.
- Flowers of Loveliness. London, Ackerman & Co., 1838.
- Duty and Inclination: A Novel (as editor). London: Henry Colburn, 1838.
- The Female Picture Gallery. London. The New Monthly Magazine, 1838 and Laman Blanchard.
- Castruccio Castrucani, a tragedy in 5 acts. In Laman Blanchard.
- Life and Literary remains of L. E. L. Laman Blanchard. London and New York, Lea & Blanchard, 1841.
- Lady Anne Granard, or Keeping Up Appearances. London, Henry Colburn, 1842 - L.E.L. volume 1, completed by another.
- The Zenana, and minor poems of L.E.L. London: Fisher, Son & Co. 1839.
- "The Love Letter, circa 1816"
- The Marriage Vow
In 2000, scholar Cynthia Lawford published birth records implying that Landon had in fact borne children in the 1820s from a secret affair with William Jerdan. Details of Letitia's children by Jerdan (Ella, Fred and Laura) and their descendants can be found in Susan Matoff.
- Byron (2004).
- Thomson (1860), 147.
- eds, Lilla Maria Crisafulli & Cecilia Pietropoli, (2008). "appendix". The languages of performance in British romanticism (Oxford; Bern; Berlin; Frankfurt am Main; Wien$nLang. ed.). New York: P. Lang. p. 301. ISBN 3039110977.
- Corley, T. A. B. "Rowden [married name de St Quentin], Frances Arabella (1774–1840?), schoolmistress and poet". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/59581}. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Qtd. in Wu (2006), 1442.
- Thomson (1860), 145.
- Thomson (1860), 151.
- Quoted in Byron (2004).
- Quoted in Thomson (1860), 152.
- Thomson (1860), 153.
- Catherine Stepney, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, retrieved 5 December 2014
- Thomson (1860), 164.
- Thomson (1860), 165.
- Thomson (1860), 166.
- Watt (2010)
- Qtd. in Armstrong and Bristow (1998), 286.
- Jerdan (1852–3)
- Greer, Germaine. Slip-shod Sybils
- Armstrong, Isobel. "The Gush of the Feminine".
- Letitia Elizabeth Landon at Corvey Writers on the Web
- Fisher's Drawing Room Scrap Book, 1840
- The Gallery of Engravings Volume II by George Newenham Wright
- Ketter collection
- Adriana Craciun
- Lawford (2000), 36-37.
- Matoff (2011)
- Armstrong, Isobel, and Joseph Bristow, eds. Nineteenth-Century Women Poets. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1998.
- Blain, Virginia. "Letitia Elizabeth Landon, Eliza Mary Hamilton, and the Genealogy of the Victorian Poetess." Victorian Poetry 33 (Spring 1995): 31-51. Accessed through JSTOR on 21 September 2009.
- Byron, Glennis. "Landon, Letitia Elizabeth (1802–1838)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/15978. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Dibert-Himes, Glenn, Introductory Essay on the Works of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, 1997
- Elwood, Mrs Anne K. C., Memoirs of the Literary Ladies of England from the Commencement of the Last Century, Henry Colburn, London, 1843.
- Garnett, Richard (1892). Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. 32. London: Smith, Elder & Co. . In
- Gorman, Michael, L.E.L - The Life and Murder of Letitia E. Landon - A Flower of Loveliness, Olympia Publishers, 03/11/2008, SBN-10: 1905513704 - ISBN 9781905513703
- Hall, Mrs S. C., Memories of Authors: A series of Portraits from Personal Acquaintance, The Atlantic Monthly, Volume XV, Boston, 1865.
- Jerdan, William, Autobiography: Chapters XII–XIII: London, Arthur Hall, Vertue & Son, 1852–53.
- Lawford, Cynthia. "Diary". London Review of Books, 22:18 (21 September 2000), pp. 36–37. Accessed online 19 December 2013.
- Matoff, Susan, Conflicted Life: William jerdan 1782-1869: Sussex Academic Press, Eastbourne, 2011.
- Rappoport, Jill. "Buyer Beware: The Gift Poetics of Letitia Elizabeth Landon." Nineteenth-Century Literature 58 (March 2004): 441-473. Accessed through JSTOR on 21 September 2009.
- Roberts, Emma, Memoir of L. E. L.: In The Zenana and Minor Poems, Fisher & Son, London & Paris, 1839.
- Rowton, Frederic, The Female Poets of Great Britain, Longman, Brown & Green, London, 1848.
- Stevenson, Glennis. "Letitia Landon and the Victorian Improvisatrice: The Construction of L.E.L." Victorian Poetry 30 (Spring 1992): 1-17. Accessed through JSTOR on 21 September 2009.
- Thomson, A. T., and Philip Wharton. The Queens of Society. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1860.
- Watt, Julie, Poisoned Lives: The Regency Poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L.E.L.) and British Gold Coast Administrator George Maclean: Sussex Academic Press, Eastbourne, 2010. ISBN 978-1-84519-420-8
- Watt, Julie, The Victorianisation of Letitia Elizabeth Landon 
- Wu, Duncan, ed. Romanticism: An Anthology. Third edition. New York: Blackwell, 2006.
- Craciun, Adraina, Fatal Women of Romanticism: Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0-521-11182-9
- Miller, Lucasta. L.E.L.: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron” 2019
- Thomas, Chas. W. Adventures and observations on the west coast of Africa, and its islands, London: Binns & Goodwin: E. Marlborough & Co.: Houlston & Wright, 1864. Chapter VI. "L.E.L. and Cape Coast Castle—Her marriage – Arrival on the Coast – Reception – Employment – Her death – Inquest – Verdict – Impressions in England regarding her death – Epitaph of Mrs Maclean – Miss Staunton and L.E.L. – Points of comparison and contrast, etc." Available online from Internet Archive and Haithi Trust Digital Library
- Biographical information. The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities, edited by Robert Chambers. London & Edinburgh: W. & R. Chambers, Vol. II [1888?]: p. 417. "Mrs Maclean" Available online from Internet Archive
- Julie Watt. The Victorianisation of Letitia Elizabeth Landon. 
- Sybille Baumback and others, A History of British Poetry, Trier: WVT. ISBN 978-3-86821-578-6. Section 19: "Poetic Genres in the Victorian Age. I: Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s and Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Post-Romantic Verse Narratives", by Anne-Julia Zwierlein.
- Daniel Riess, "Letitia Landon and the Dawn of Post-Romanticism", Studies in English Literature, 36 no.4, p. 807-821 (1996).
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Letitia Elizabeth Landon
- Works by or about Letitia Elizabeth Landon at Internet Archive
- Works by Letitia Elizabeth Landon at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
- Letitia Elizabeth Landon at Corvey Writers on the Web
- An almost complete collection of Landon's poetry can be found, listed alphabetically, here: Peter's Unsung Spheres
- "An Acrostic", L.E.L. and Edgar Allan Poe