The Mysterious Ingenue and Siren Who Wowed 19th-Century Readers With Her Verse

The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron”
By Lucasta Miller

By any measure, Letitia Elizabeth Landon led an eventful life. Born in 1802 to shabby genteel parents, Landon was an ascending star in literary London, a tantalizing blend of Romantic feeling and proto-Victorian self-promoting prowess. She died in mysterious and ignominious circumstances, the newly arrived wife of a British governor in West Africa. She was 36 years old.

Landon’s story has arresting plotlines, and her writing ticks a lot of our current culture’s boxes: She wrote in a Romantic idiom that prized discreetly personal artistic expression, but with the vim of a Grub Streeter, producing a true mountain of poems, novels, essays and literary annuals in her short career. Her work was wildly popular, connecting the more rarefied milieu of literary reviewing with the explicitly mercantile project of enticing female readers to buy elaborate editions of modish magazines.

Landon’s story is compelling even before we get to the fact, discovered by the scholar Cynthia Lawford, that Landon, long supposed to have been a virgin until her marriage, in fact produced three children with her longtime publisher and literary patron, William Jerdan. Her brilliant literary ascendance took place while she was still in her teens, and her poems of unrequited love brought in an incredible amount of money. (How much of this bounty Landon herself realized remains unclear.) The poetry Landon published under her own semi-anonymous nom de plume, “L.E.L.,” depended on a balance of truth and fiction. Her delicate, sentimental poetic voice — “My hand kept wandering on my lute, / In music, but unconsciously / My pulses throbbed, my heart beat high, / A flush of dizzy ecstasy / Crimsoned my cheek” — hinted at, rather than announced, her erotic life, one that included secret lovers and illegitimate children, as well as a yearslong effort to hide them from the public.

In light of these facts, it’s astonishing that Landon hasn’t been given a modern reassessment until now. Her career limns Britain’s colonial history — her family’s fortune was destroyed in the South Sea Bubble stock-market crash of 1720, and her final escape from threats of scandal notoriety took the form of flight to a slave-trading fort in what is now Ghana — and the rise of a truly popular literary culture; it also highlights the sexual hypocrisy at the core of both of these developments. Lucasta Miller’s energetic new biography, “L.E.L.: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated ‘Female Byron,’” grapples with all these themes. According to Miller, Landon was a complex amalgam of ingénue and siren, a limpid lyricist and a canny negotiator. Her death, from prussic acid in Cape Coast Castle, lit up the press when the news finally hit England: Did she die by suicide? Was she murdered? Or was it an accident? The mystery surrounding Landon’s death is only fitting for a writer whose success depended on the frisson obtained from living in the buzzing interstices between extremes.

How do we write about overlooked women artists from the past? Often, a woman writer’s sex is brandished like a shield, as if that fact alone explains her current obscurity. Had she been born in a different time, the argument goes, her work would never have been forgotten. Part of the aim of Miller’s biography is reclaiming Landon’s writing as worthy of critical prestige, and it’s a risky move. Although her work is extensive and absorbing, it is uneven. A central problem, then, for Miller is providing a persuasive explanation for why Landon has largely been forgotten. Is it because she was a woman? Or because her style fell out of favor? Should we revisit her poetry now because its qualities have been misjudged, or, rather, because her extraordinary life gives fresh charge to what might, in fact, be a prosaic body of work?

Miller indulges in some of this hand-wringing: Landon’s literary accomplishments have been overlooked because women were culturally invisible, and only now that we have come to value the kind of feminine, self-ironizing work she produced can her star be clearly perceived. This is a difficult claim to make, especially given the densely feminine literary world of which Landon was a part. Miller mentions Mary Shelley and her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, but does not discuss Frances Burney, Felicia Hemans, Maria Edgeworth — all well known, all writing across genres, and for a broad audience. In part, such omissions may reflect the pressure we feel to explain the literary past through our literary present: Landon can only be a captivating subject if she prefigures a later style. But peering through our own cultural lens is not the only way to adjudicate the value of an artist’s work.

How does an upwardly mobile young woman with three illegitimate children do such a thorough job of hiding them? How does an unmarried mother transform herself into a chaste and sentimental poet? Ella Stuart, Landon’s first child, appeared almost in tandem with her first popular collection, “The Improvisatrice” (1824). And while her children were closely guarded secrets during her lifetime, the poet’s close relationship with Jerdan, her rakish publisher, did not go unnoticed in the satirical press. Landon’s entire career develops in the covert space between knowledge and secrecy. In Miller’s account, Landon was able to write with such precision about sexual emotion and get away with it because her poetic persona was girlish. Female protagonists were extraordinarily popular; a girl’s heady combination of vulnerability and possibility suggested both an innocence that could be easily swayed and the promise of an ascendancy that could be thrilling to watch.

By insisting on Landon’s skill as a poet, Miller ends up leaning heavily on the unusual scansion of single stanzas of verse as evidence of her innovative brilliance. This is at odds with Miller’s account of Landon’s savvy involvement in — and rapid dominance of — the highly commercial literary annual, the 19th-century version of gift books. Marketed almost solely to women, these luxurious editions presented poetry in imaginative ways, blending luxury bookmaking with quickly and cheaply produced light verse. Landon’s work in this idiom, part of an effort to dislodge herself from Jerdan’s financial control, highlights the challenges that rapidly changing literary markets posed for writers: Landon’s musical ear made her a success in this new market, but the demanding production schedule meant that the verse she composed for it became increasingly rote and forgettable.

Of course, another possibility is that Landon was never the metricist that Miller thinks she was. By arguing for her ingenuity as a poet, Miller works herself into a corner wherein irregular metrics are a sign of talent, not something else — incompetence, say. Is the ingénue a good writer, or is she just a good character?

Claire Jarvis is the author of “Exquisite Masochism: Sex, Marriage, and the Novel Form.” She is working on a book about mid-20th-century women’s fiction.

The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron”
By Lucasta Miller
Illustrated. 401 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $30.

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