L.E.L.: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron”
It is a disturbing story. Letitia Elizabeth Landon was born in 1802 in Hans Place, Chelsea, a fashionable and wealthy quarter of West London (near the present site of the luxury emporium Harrods); but after a brief and riotous literary career, she died in mysterious circumstances thirty-six years later in Cape Coast Castle, a former slave-trading station on the west coast of Africa.
She was prolific, even prodigal. In her short life, Landon published six collections of poetry, three novels, a book of short stories, a slew of literary sketches, and a cascade of glittering verse contributions to the so-called Keepsakes and Annuals. These were deluxe productions, sometimes illustrated by J.M.W. Turner, that included miscellaneous work by Walter Scott, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Felicia Hemans, Robert Southey, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Landon’s oeuvre has not been fully cataloged, but more than a thousand of her poems, written with astonishing speed, facility, and confidence, have been identified. Yet her actual handwriting is disconcertingly childlike.
For over a decade Landon also contributed to an immensely popular weekly, the Literary Gazette, reviewing and editing. Simultaneously she was publishing a stream of agonized love lyrics, most of them concerning loss, treachery, and rejection. Nearly forty of them begin with the word “I.” Here is an early example, “Lines Written under a Picture of a Girl Burning a Love-Letter”:
I took the scroll: I could not brook
An eye to gaze on it, save mine;
I could not bear another’s look
Should dwell upon one thought of thine.
My lamp was burning by my side,
I held thy letter to the flame,
I marked the blaze swift o’er it glide,
It did not even spare thy name.
Soon the light from the embers past,
I felt so sad to see it die,
So bright at first, so dark at last,
I feared it was love’s history.
Is this touchingly naive or brazenly cynical? It is a question that echoes through all her work.
Few female writers achieved wider recognition in the 1820s, except possibly Felicia Hemans (whose 1828 poetry collection, Records of Women, went almost instantly into four editions and was still selling 26,000 copies in the Edinburgh Family Edition of 1876). Together they helped to create the brief publishing phenomenon of the embattled “poetess,” though in very different ways.1 Hemans wrote largely about domestic affections and imperial loyalties, Landon about antique fantasies and erotic love. Yet unlike Hemans (for whom she would write a passionate elegy, bidding her fold her “golden wings”), Landon was swiftly forgotten.…
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