LEL by Lucasta Miller review – the scandalous death of a popular poet

Did a love affair lead to the demise of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, one of the most famous and most exploited poets in early 19th-century Britain ?

In 1838 the newly married wife of the governor of Cape Coast Castle in West Africa was found dead in her room, having apparently poisoned herself. You can see why she might have been feeling defeated. George Maclean, responsible for keeping the peace in a large stretch of what is modern-day Ghana, had turned out to be a dour bully with a “country wife” and family already in residence. Then there was the melancholy discovery that, despite slavery being illegal, the fortress over which the new Mrs Maclean was expected to preside was kept shipshape by black “prisoners” guarded by soldiers with bayonets. Finally, there was the tropical climate, which spoiled everything: “Keys, scissors, everything rusts,” the 36-year-old bride wrote home miserably to her mother.

In the normal run of events the sad news of Mrs Maclean’s death would have warranted a short paragraph in the Times and a tactful side-stepping of whether this was actually suicide or an accidental overdose. But Mrs Maclean was not simply a disillusioned last-chance bride abandoned in a rotten corner of the burgeoning British empire. In her former life, as Letitia Landon, or rather LEL, she had been the most famous poet in Britain. For almost two decades she had spewed out – and sometimes it really did feel like an involuntary hurl – poetry that managed to be mawkish and sensational, coy and fruity. In poems – or songs as she liked to call them – with such titles as “The Fate of Adelaide” and “Romance and Reality”, LEL gushed tales of female passion and social ruin, all sufficiently coded so that nice girls could get away with reading them.

The teenage Brontës in Haworth certainly lapped up LEL’s work, especially “The Disconsolate One”, whose accompanying illustration – a distraught young lady weeping over a letter – they carefully copied out in their notebooks. A generation later, when George Eliot was writing Middlemarch and wanted to signpost Rosamond Vincy’s emotional and intellectual vacuity, she makes the flirtatious girl into a devotee of Landon’s tritest tinklings. Young men also found themselves turned on. The writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton recalled how, while at Cambridge, he and his friends would pile into the Union’s reading room to await the arrival of the weekly Literary Gazette containing LEL’s latest raunchy effusions and wonder about the woman behind them. “Was she young? Was she pretty? and – for there were some embryo fortune-hunters among us – was she rich?”

In fact, LEL was poor and rather plain. She was young, though, being at this point the same age as Bulwer-Lytton and his teenage Cambridge chums. In this sprightly recuperative biography Lucasta Miller takes great pains to make us see that Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s life, for all its surface sheen, is actually a story about the bleakest kinds of female vulnerability and the crudest forms of exploitation. While still at school and showing a “fatal facility” for phrasemaking, Landon was primped for the literary marketplace by her impoverished, ambitious mother. More specifically, she was pushed towards William Jerdan, the married editor of the Literary Gazette, who had a thing for lisping poetesses barely out of childhood who looked as though they still played with their dolls. With Byron’s death in 1824, Jerdan was quick to spot a vacancy for a confessional poet who could walk the increasingly fine line between personal revelation and public propriety, all wrapped up in some swoony phrases. He put LEL to work, treating her less as a child genius and more as a milch cow who could efficiently supply literary product in whatever form was currently required: poetry initially but then novels too and, latterly, lavish “annuals” intended for the Christmas market.

Inevitably the gossip turned dark, especially concerning the revelation that LEL and Jerdan were actually lovers and had produced three illegitimate children. It was one thing leading your readers on with saucy imaginings, quite another to be exposed as a dead-eyed participant in transactional sex. The only thing for LEL to do now was launder her reputation by finding a respectable husband. George Maclean, a third-rate colonial administrator who had conveniently spent most of his life outside Britain, seems to have been the only literate man in Britain who didn’t know that LEL was damaged goods. Miller speculates, however, that Maclean’s discovery of Letitia’s whole story, including the three babies, may have sparked the row that ended with Letitia killing herself.

Miller wants us to see LEL less as a great poet (she really wasn’t) and more as an interesting “foremother” of today’s performative culture. In this reading, her first-person voice, which often seems provisional or about to be overwritten by the next thought or a new poem, becomes akin to the serial self-staging that you see on Twitter and Instagram. Under the particular pressure of the age, which languished somewhere between Romanticism and Victorianism, Landon threw together an identity for herself that spoke to the commercial demands of mass market publishing, but also answered the decree that authenticity was everything. Although it is hard to imagine readers scurrying to rediscover LEL’s verse, they will come away from Miller’s excellent biography understanding why she matters.

• L.E.L. is published by Jonathan Cape (£25). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.


Kathryn Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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