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), 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, with a particular enthusiasm for the theatre. Rowden was not only a poet, but, according to Mary Russell Mitford, "she had a knack of making poetesses of her pupils" This links Landon to other of Rowden's pupils such as Caroline Ponsonby, later Lady Caroline Lamb; Emma Roberts, the travel writer; Anna Maria Fielding, who published as 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, and Landon was educated at home by her cousin Elizabeth from that point on. Elizabeth, though older, soon 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 very close to her younger brother, Whittington Henry, born 1804. Paying for Whittington through university (Worcester College, Oxford) was one of the needs that drove 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. Sadly, he did not show any appreciation for all his sister's financial assistance but spread false 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 soon followed, and the family moved back to London in 1815, where John Landon made the acquaintance of William Jerdan, editor of the Literary Gazette. According to 19th-century commentator Mrs A. T. Thomson, Jerdan took notice of the young 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, after examining her work, of which he later described her ideas as "original and extraordinary", 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, never received any profits, as the publisher went out of business shortly thereafter. 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.
Landon's father died later that year, and Landon was forced to use her writing to support both herself and her family; Contemporaries saw this profit-motive as detrimental to the quality of Landon's work, after all, 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 high reputation began to suffer as rumours circulated that she had had affairs or secretly borne children. (In 2000, scholar Cynthia Lawford published birth records implying that Landon had in fact borne children in the 1820s from a secret affair with Jerdan. Details of Letitia's children by Jerdan (Ella, Fred and Laura) and their descendants can be found in Susan Matoff.) Landon continued, however, to publish poetry, and in 1831 she published 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 of Landon's purity, 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, however, 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."
After this, 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, 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, Landon was found dead, a bottle of prussic acid in her hand. However, that she was poisoned thereby was a gross assumption. There is ample 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 seems, in retrospect, almost certain that Landon suffered a fatal convulsion. Hence her death arose from a pre-existing condition and was independent of her location. Moreover, her having that syndrome without a heart pacemaker made a premature demise more or less inevitable.
In addition to the works listed below, Landon is known to be responsible for innumerable anonymous reviews and other articles whose authorship is unlikely ever 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 that, besides "Lady Anne Granard" (first volume completed) and her 'tragedy' (Castruccio Catrucani) included 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".
Among the poets of her time to recognise and admire her 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 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.)
Landon's reputation, while high in the 19th century, fell during most of the 20th as literary fashions changed and Landon's 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. Moreover, 20th century opinions were perhaps influenced by the almost completely inaccurate picture of the poet and her life that built up following her death. It was not considered that the very bases for such criticism had already been systematically and effectively demolished by Sarah Sheppard in her "Characteristics of the Genius and Writings of L E L" of 1841. and she explains their misconceptions in her opening paragraph to that work thus:
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.
Any assessment should not forget the factors that brought Landon to pre-eminence: the originality of her ideas and the sheer beauty of her poetry in all its many diverse forms. Those ideas engendered a whole new school of poetry (the "Landon School"), which spread not only 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!