July 18, 2019

The Salacious Poetry of Letitia Elizabeth Landon

“The story ended in October 1838 in modern-day Ghana, at Cape Coast Castle, a British commercial garrison and a former slave-trading post. There, the recently married 36-year-old wife of the chief British official, George Maclean, was found by her maid dead on the floor of her dressing room, an empty prescription bottle of highly toxic prussic acid in her hand. Nearby, probably in Accra, were the governor’s “country wife” and her several children; upon the new wife’s arrival from the literary precincts of London, they had been discreetly removed from the castle. Rumors would soon circulate in Britain that the governor’s previous consort was the murderer, though no evidence emerged to support those suspicions. On the desk was an unsent letter, banal and cheerful, rather than a suicide note.

The enigmatic celebrity death was of a piece with the life. Under the pen name “L.E.L.,” Letitia Elizabeth Landon had been one of the most famous literary women of her brief pre-Victorian moment, her poetry a staple of the popular literary press for well over a decade. A child of bourgeois-bohemian London, she had earned fame early on for her canny way of promising confessions that never quite materialized, lamenting all that she could not tell. She was a performer whose alluring mystery—constant hints and half-revelations—was her calling card. Was she the lovelorn maiden, virginal and yearning? The betrayed woman, experienced too soon? Was she sinner, victim, or the cynic playing at both poses? Even her several portraits look like different women.

L.E.L.: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron” is the first biography of Landon to explore recent revelations about her life, and the literary critic Lucasta Miller’s sleuthing delivers an unexpected result. The figure who emerges from her pages is not just a missing link in literary Romanticism, but a progenitor of something modern: Landon explored the art of performative self-creation in the commercial press—an art fated to become a habit in the social-media age—and she was one of the first to pay its costs. Neither sincere in a 19th-century sense nor confessional in a 20th-century one, L.E.L.’s signature style was a curiously opaque self-obsession.”

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