The Minstrel of Chamouni by Henry William Pickersgill

National Trust Photographic Library/Bridgeman Images

Henry William Pickersgill: The Minstrel of Chamouni, 1828. In L.E.L., Lucasta Miller writes that this painting ‘represented…an attempt to desexualize’ Letitia Elizabeth Landon ‘while keeping her in the fancy-dress realm of romance.’

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. Soon after her death Laman Blanchard, an old journalistic friend, attempted a hagiographic Life and Literary Remains (1841), but it found few readers, and four years later, overcome with depression, he committed suicide.

Landon’s risqué vogue as the “female Byron” (according to Frederic Rowton’s The Female Poets of Great Britain of 1848) quickly declined, and her name disappeared from prudish Victorian anthologies despite the publication of a lavish edition of her Poetical Works in 1873. When in 1928 the Hogarth Press (directed by Leonard and Virginia Woolf) published LEL: A Mystery of the Thirties, a partly fictionalized biography by Doris Enfield, it expressed Bloomsbury’s derision: “In all the work of LEL there is no observation, no insight, no power of analysis; to the end her phantasies remain those of a schoolgirl.”

It was not until 1995 that Germaine Greer replied with “Success and the Single Poet: The Sad Tale of LEL,” a formidable essay deploring Landon’s savage exploitation (“Grub Street destroyed her personal integrity”), lamenting her bad poetry (“so cynically puffed”), but championing her passion: “It was not like the love plaints of men, but the fierce, impotent, inward-turning tumult of a woman’s heart.”

Landon has since had a faithful modern champion, Francis Sypher, who edited her Letters (2001), republished her poetry collections in the Ann Arbor Scholars’ Facsimiles series, and wrote a sympathetic biography (2004). Jerome McGann and Daniel Riess published a thoughtful Selected Writings (1997), both verse and prose, including her autobiographical story “The History of a Child,” a catalog of emotional losses (which included a beloved nurse, a best friend, and even an adoring dog, Clio), and a fifty-page appendix of contemporary reviews—hyperbolic praise soon drowned out by a chorus of male mockery.

As dramatically retold by Lucasta Miller, the British literary critic and author of The Brontë Myth (2001), Landon’s story now takes on elements of a psychological thriller, as well as an unsettling resonance in these days of Me Too. Miller is a brilliant explicator of the troubled trail of fact and fiction that biography leaves in its wake. With Landon she has found “a legacy of lies and evasion.” She reflects, “The fact that her first biographer slit his throat in 1845 was hardly a consoling thought during the nine years I spent entangled, on and off, in the project.”

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This long, fraught entanglement with her subject gives Miller’s biography its intricate fascination. It is scholarly, passionate, and angry. We watch her constantly probing and questioning Landon’s true nature and the value of her work. Was she an innocent victim, “a winsome sentimentalist” in the hands of male exploiters? Or was she a “proto-postmodern,” an ambitious and sophisticated stylist who worked “via buried allusions, half-quotations, and hinted insinuations”? In a haunting phrase, perhaps she was both: “Moonlike, always waxing and waning.” Certainly Landon’s poetry seems tidal like this: great floods of glaring melodrama suddenly contracting to small dark pools of intense pain.

Letitia Landon had been “discovered” at the age of seventeen by the recently appointed editor of the Literary Gazette, William Jerdan. Founded in 1817, the Gazette was a new style of weekly paper dedicated to book reviews, poetry, and lots of gossip. Jerdan was a former parliamentary reporter—handsome, bearded, hard-drinking, and married. He was a “flamboyant and ubiquitous figure in the publishing industry,” hungry for novelties. Thomas Carlyle, a fellow Scot, christened him the “satyr-cannibal Literary Gazetteer.”

In a disquieting scene, the thirty-eight-year-old Jerdan claimed to have spotted the teenaged Landon’s “exuberance of form” from his study window while she was innocently “bowling a hoop” and carrying a book around the garden next door. She was a “tomboy,” well read in Robinson Crusoe and The Arabian Nights, with a formidable memory for poetry, and would “lie awake half the night” reciting her own verses aloud. Her governess and then her ambitious mother, who cultivated “a trophy acquaintance” with the celebrated actress Sarah Siddons, started sending Jerdan her compositions. He befriended her, tutored her, and gradually began publishing her poetry anonymously in the paper’s “Correspondents” column. Her first poem was entitled “Rome” (1820). Soon he “marketed” her work under the intriguing but carefully ungendered initials L.E.L. Two years later, Jerdan finally let slip that the author was in fact “a lady yet in her teens,” and Landon immediately started to receive fan mail. The novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton remembered the sensational impact of L.E.L. when he was still an undergraduate at Cambridge:

There was always, in the Reading Room of the Union, a rush every Saturday afternoon for “The Literary Gazette,” and an impatient anxiety to hasten at once to that corner of the sheet which contained the three magical letters of “L.E.L.” And all of us praised the verse, and all of us guessed at the author…. Was she young? Was she pretty?…was she rich?

In 1824 Landon published The Improvisatrice and Other Poems, whose long title poem “launched her to stardom” at the age of twenty-one. It was a transitional moment for English poetry, two years after the death of Shelley in Italy, the same year that Byron died in Greece, and six years before Tennyson began to publish in London. The archetypal male poet was to be replaced, at least temporarily, by the self-proclaimed “poetess” who loved and suffered for her art. “I ever thought that poet’s fate/Utterly lone and desolate,” lamented L.E.L.

In The Improvisatrice Landon adopted the figure of the passionate half-Italian adventuress in Madame de Staël’s novel Corinne (1807),2 who composed and recited her verse extempore to an adoring public in Rome, accompanying herself on a lyre and attracting a Scottish aristocrat who worshipped and then betrayed her. This established a new kind of doomed post-Romantic heroine and found a new kind of youthful readership. To this persona Landon added the legendary Greek figure of the lovelorn Sappho, who threw herself over a cliff for unrequited love (not yet acknowledged as lesbian). Landon dashed off the main poem in less than five weeks. It ran to fifteen hundred lines, with numerous exotic subplots and lyric interludes like “The Hindoo Girl’s Song,” the address to “Divinest Petrarch,” and the sultry “Sappho’s Song”:

Farewell, my lute!—and would that I
     Had never waked thy burning chords!
Poison has been upon thy sigh,
     And fever has breathed in thy words.

The Improvisatrice sold out in six editions. The Gentleman’s Magazine acclaimed her “passionate intensity of sentiment.” But Miller thinks that “her naiveté was faux,” that there were elements of “sophisticated high camp” even in her most nakedly emotional lines, and that Landon was “improvising her own identity” with fatal consequences. She acted out a drawing room version of her Improvisatrice “in swansdown muff and tippet” and a necklace of fake diamonds. She was promoting a “Frankenstein’s monster of a best seller” that would eventually prompt the literary world to hound and destroy her.

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How far this persona was forced upon her by Jerdan, or cynically exploited by Landon herself, or a combination of the two (were they “mutually complicit”?) is Miller’s persistent question. Her inquiry also produces a devastating picture of the competitive subculture of literary London in the 1820s and 1830s: “It is hard not to conclude that her sentimentalized portrayals of poetesses as exotic slave girls had as much of a tawdry real-life undertow as her depictions of overblown love agonies.”

Jerdan launched Landon into London society, escorting her to receptions, theaters, galleries, and dinner parties. Initially she took a wry attitude toward her growing celebrity and was self-mocking about her single state. At twenty-four she wrote, “Alas for my powers of conquest…my fair hand is as free from mortal shackle as the North Pole.” A year later: “It would be a very fine thing to be married, if it were not for the husband.” Miller suggests, a shade ambitiously perhaps, that she was “a Dorothy Parker avant la lettre.

She was the object of intense fascination, not always unmixed. The poet Thomas Moore sat next to her at a London dinner and summed up “Miss L.E.L.” as “girlish enough in manner (affectedly so indeed) but no girl at heart.” The young Disraeli cut her at a soirée: “I avoided L.E.L., who looked the very personification of Brompton—pink satin dress and white satin shoes, red cheeks, snub nose, and hair à la Sappho.” When she appeared at the theater in a dramatic outfit topped with a black feather, the Comte d’Orsay quipped that she was wearing her “inkwell on her head and had not even forgotten her quill pen.”

Miller follows Landon’s freaks of fashion with an amused and critical eye, tracking down many wildly different sketches and portraits, sometimes with feathers, sometimes with ballooned sleeves, sometimes with ribbons, and usually with lyres. The most striking one is by Henry William Pickersgill, shown at the Royal Academy in 1829, in which Landon appears as “the Minstrel of Chamouni,” wearing a Swiss broderie costume and a large Spanish hat while dreamily plucking at an Italian mandolin. “This minstrel is an imposter,” remarked the London Magazine.

The Improvisatrice was promptly followed by four more collections, each with a glamorous title poem: The Troubadour (1825), The Golden Violet (1827), The Venetian Bracelet (1829), and The Vow of the Peacock (1835). Landon’s self-projections became ever more plangent:

She look’d from out the window
With long and asking gaze,
From the gold clear light of morning
To the twilight’s purple haze.
Cold and pale the planets shone,
Still the girl kept gazing on….

Miller thinks Jerdan had become her Svengali, her “puppeteer,” and this enigmatic relationship is “the key to understanding her life.” But what exactly was its nature? Jerdan always claimed it was close but purely professional. He was a generous, worldly master to his brilliant, innocent protégée. He later dedicated the third volume of his Autobiography (1852) to Landon, in which he “waxes lyrical” about his responsive pupil: “From day to day and hour to hour, it was mine to facilitate her studies, to shape her objects, to regulate her taste, to direct her genius and…to cultivate the divine organisation of her being.” Miller suspects that last phrase is “quaintly” ambiguous. But Greer remarks in her long disenchanted essay on Landon, “There is no proof that L.E.L. ever had a lover…. One would like her rather better if she had.”

Nonetheless there had long been rumors of a sexual affair among the society gossips and columnists of the day. As early as March 1826, the newly founded Sunday Times ran a scandalous exposé entitled “Sapphics and Erotics,” suggesting that a “well-known English Sappho” who was “famous for the amorous glow of her fancy” had been “detected in a faux pas with a literary man.” In October 1826 The Wasp, a short-lived satirical periodical, went further and announced that “Letitia Languish” had “written a sentimental elegy on the Swellings of Jordan.”

Thereafter the tide of scandal and innuendo was unstoppable, especially among the “raffish” journalistic set who wrote for the newly founded Fraser’s Magazine. Miller describes their attitude as endless “salacious bullying.” Landon was rumored to have had affairs with the magazine’s mercurial Irish editor, William Maginn, as well as its mischievous artist Daniel Maclise, who sketched her for Fraser’s “Gallery of Illustrious Literary Characters” in an extravagantly wasp-waisted dress. She even got entangled with Charles Dickens’s future biographer, the bearish John Forster, who proposed marriage and then regretted it.

Finally, to everyone’s astonishment, in 1838 Landon abruptly accepted the hand of George Maclean, the civilian governor of Cape Coast Castle, a quiet self-sufficient Scotsman briefly on leave from his West African duties. Maclean evidently knew little of the London literary world or of Landon’s place within it. He seemed mainly worried that she would not withstand the tropical climate or the discovery that he kept a black mistress (or “country wife”) back at the Castle.

On the ship out to Africa, Landon wrote one of her simplest and most moving poems, “A Night at Sea.” It contains a repeated appeal and refrain: “My friends, my absent friends,/Do you think of me, as I think of you?” This was soon answered by Elizabeth Barrett Browning in her poem “L.E.L.’s Last Question” (1839) and later by Christina Rossetti in “LEL” (1863), with its echoing refrain, “My heart is breaking for a little love.” So the lost literary line of the “poetess” would eventually be transformed by other female poets, including Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson, who managed to guard their independence of vision and genius more successfully, though still at great personal cost.3 “A Night at Sea” has a memorable central stanza in which L.E.L. seems to see her own persecuted life unexpectedly symbolized in the savagery of the sea:

No life is in the air, but in the
     waters
   Are creatures, huge and terrible
       and strong,
The sword-fish and the shark
     pursue their slaughters,
   War universal reigns these
       depths along.
Like some new island on the
     ocean springing,
   Floats on the surface some
       gigantic whale,
From its vast head a silver
     fountain flinging
   Bright as the fountain in a
       fairy tale.
     My friends, my absent
         friends!
       I read such fairy legends
           while with you.

The transforming shock that Miller delivers to this whole account is that Landon had not one but quite possibly three illegitimate children. All were apparently fathered by Jerdan: Ella Stuart, christened in April 1824 (using Jerdan’s mother’s maiden name); Fred Stuart sometime in 1826; and Laura Landon in 1829 (not using her own mother’s name until 1850). The claim is based on modern research into baptismal records by the American scholar Cynthia Lawford, first published in 2000,4 and explored more deeply by Miller. Landon’s previous biographer, Francis Sypher, knew of these finds, largely accepted them, but felt that “further documentary evidence” from contemporary sources was still needed.

Miller agrees that the circumstances of these births are “clouded.” There is no explicit mention of the children in Landon’s letters of the time, though Jerdan once refers to Laura as a “dear Creature.” But Miller assembles plenty of subsequent gossip (Disraeli said the fact was “well known to everyone”) and “a wealth of family correspondence” by descendants “confirming the three children’s existence.” This includes an Australian photograph of Ella Stuart in middle age. Throughout, Miller assumes all this to be true and presents Landon’s secret guilt, but also her cynicism, with conviction and often outrage. The children were all farmed out by Jerdan, and there is no evidence that Landon “had any further contact” with them after their births. If Miller does not absolutely prove the case, she succeeds in offering a gripping and tragic reinterpretation of Landon’s life: “She would become the Scheherazade of her generation, destined to please the public while risking social death.”

As for the predatory Jerdan, Miller is scathing. He was lecherous, bibulous, bankrupt: “If Jerdan was the showman, Letitia was his female freak.” He fathered no fewer than twenty legitimate children in his first marriage and one later long-term partnership, as well as his three illegitimate ones. He groomed at least two more “teenage poetic” prodigies—Mary Anne Browne and Eliza Cook. The latter, the daughter of a Southwark brass worker, told Jerdan provocatively, “My muse is wild, and my judgement very immature and crazy.” So Landon, however exceptional her gifts, emerges as part of a pattern of exploitation.

Miller can find little sense of what Landon herself might have felt about those supposedly abandoned children. Occasional poems, such as “The Dying Child,” though “mawkish,” may channel “much suppressed personal rage.” The notion of social hypocrisy becomes central to Miller’s revisionist account. A sequence of chapters is expressively entitled “Fame,” “Shame,” and “Lyre Liar.” Much of Landon’s early sentimental verse presents “a split perspective on her imagined self.” Miller pictures her reciting her lines “with coquettishly simulated wide-eyed innocence.” Her manner is compared to the “famously equivocal voice” of her German contemporary Heinrich Heine (whom she met on a visit to Paris) with his “jeering irony.”

Miller gives a good deal of skeptical attention to Landon’s later autobiographical poems “Erinna” (1826) and “A History of the Lyre” (1829). These ambiguous confessions of “quasi-sexual violation,” disguised as antique history and myth, deliberately provided “fodder for gossip.” But they were also skillfully designed to engage her readers’ pity for the “private agony” that her celebrity had brought her, and “the chill and bitterness belonging even to success.”

In 1829 Landon wrote “Lines of Life,” which Miller describes as “arguably Letitia’s signature poem.” Virginia Woolf mocked it briefly as “insipid.” But in an extended passage of great force, Miller hails it as “a perverse parody of an evangelical hymn…a cry of nihilistic rage…a twisted torch song to the hypocrisy culture on which Letitia depended for her social survival.”

I live among the cold, the false,
   And I must seem like them;
And such I am, for I am false
   As those I most condemn….

I hear them tell some touching
     tale,
   I swallow down the tear;
I hear them name some generous
     deed,
   And I have learnt to sneer.

Yet behind this whole dismaying tale of scandal and exploitation lies something genuinely heroic: Landon’s immense struggles to become an independent female writer in London and to maintain “a room of one’s own.” For ten years she managed to rent not a silken boudoir but a garret above her old school at 22 Hans Place, which surely now deserves a Blue Plaque (1826–1837). Here, paradoxically, she wrote her most exotic poetry. The room was plain and “homely-looking,” with a single bed, a washstand, a cracked mirror, and “a common, worn writing-desk heaped with papers.” The attic window had a view of the London rooftops, partially blocked by a low parapet. “Oh that parapet!” she sighed, and “O for oblivion, and five hundred a year!”

This room became a legend of its own, and a generation later it appeared, with its symbolic window and its bleak London views of “slant roofs and chimney-pots,” in Book 3 of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856), the great Victorian epic poem of female self-sufficiency. Browning, of course, signed herself EBB. She later wrote that if she could choose between Hemans’s poetic gift and that of Landon, “I mean the raw bare powers…I would choose Miss Landon’s. I surmise that it was more elastic, more various & of a stronger web. I fancy it would have worked out better—had it been worked out.”

Jerdan reckoned that his protégée earned some £2,585 during this period, though Miller suspects he siphoned off much of it. Nonetheless, Landon appears to have supported her mother and probably a ne’er-do-well younger brother. But she was steadily forced to turn to the more remunerative form of the new “silver fork” novel, smartly satirizing fashionable aristocratic follies, which in the hands of her rivals Disraeli and Bulwer-Lytton was replacing poetry in popular esteem (and sales). By the mid-1830s, and immediately before her desperate marriage, she seemed close to a breakdown.

Her third novel, Ethel Churchill (1837), contains the portrait of a young poet, Walter Maynard, dying in an unfurnished attic. Her friend Katherine Thomson recalled, “She would sometimes break forth into a bitter invective upon the hollowness of society—the worldliness of all mankind—‘everybody was selfish and cold—there was no one to be trusted—no one to be believed’…and often, suddenly breaking off the middle of her harangue, would burst into a flood of tears.”

Her later poems reflect this bitterness with a surprising new power. “The Factory” is about child labor, “Disenchantment” about lost love, and “Gossipping” about cruel social scandal. Miller opens this final perspective so effectively that it is perhaps a pity that she did not look at “A Supper of Madame de Brinvilliers.”

This is a poem about sexual revenge. It is based on a true story that Landon found in Paris, about a murderous seventeenth-century marquise who probably poisoned several relatives and (according to Landon) a string of faithless lovers. It had inspired a novel by Alexandre Dumas père and a hit at the Opéra-Comique. Its subject matter, a sort of Improvisatrice’s revenge fantasy, must have appealed deeply to Landon. Her retelling, in nine swiftly moving stanzas, is both sinister and lush. Its hypnotic music surely struck a chord with her American admirer Edgar Allan Poe (who considered her “a genius”). It may also have influenced Robert Browning’s homicidal monologue “My Last Duchess.” The rich decor of its opening stanza swiftly unfolds to reveal Madame’s next male victim trembling in its last line:

Small but gorgeous was the
     chamber
   Where the lady leant;
Heliotrope, and musk, and
     amber,
   Made an element,
     Heavy like a storm, but
       sweet.
Softly stole the light uncertain
   Through the silken fold
Of the sweeping purple curtain;
   And enwrought in gold
     Was the cushion at her feet.
   There he knelt to gaze on her—
   He the latest worshipper.

But it was Landon herself who died, and without worshippers. A mere two months after landing at Cape Coast Castle, she was found collapsed against the door of her bedroom. As Miller examines in fine forensic detail, poison was certainly involved in the form of a small vial of prussic acid. But Landon was known to use this as a medication for “hysterical affections,” alongside opium as a stimulant. Miller concludes that it was not murder but a self-administered overdose, either taken in error or in a suicidal fit of depression. Had news of those mysterious children reached her in a letter received the day before? she speculates. Or worse, had it reached George Maclean? Landon remains a biographical enigma to the last, and “resists a final, single definition, just like her poetry.” But thanks to Lucasta Miller’s fierce and enthralling book, a complex kind of justice has been rendered to L.E.L. for the first time.

  1. 1

    See Anne K. Mellor, “The Female Poet and the Poetess: Two Traditions of British Women’s Poetry, 1780–1830,” Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Summer 1997). 

  2. 2

    See my article in these pages, “The Great de Staël,” May 28, 2009. 

  3. 3

    See the revelatory Nineteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology, edited by Isobel Armstrong and Joseph Bristow, with Cath Sharrock (Oxford University Press, 2008). 

  4. 4

    Cynthia Lawford, “Diary,” London Review of Books, September 21, 2000.