Letitia Elizabeth Landon was one of the 19th century’s most romantic figures. When The Improvisatrice came out in 1824, she was described in the press as the female Byron, the English Sappho and, after the notoriously independent eponymous heroine of Madame de Staël’s novel, the English Corinne. Her ecstatic and melancholic verse appeared to exhibit her own passions in an age when ladies were supposed to keep quiet about such things. It is nonetheless assumed, as it was during her life, that her poems do not reflect her own experience. They exclaim love’s passions too hopelessly, it is said, bemoan its cruelty too frequently, and paint too many tears on pale cheeks and dewdrops on roses. But Landon was not a virgin whose naivety about sexual feelings was exceeded only by her incautious writing about them. On the contrary, it now transpires that at the height of her popularity she was secretly carrying on a love affair which resulted in the birth of three illegitimate children.
When ‘L.E.L.’, at the age of 19, first caught the public’s attention, readers of the weekly Literary Gazette (most of its 1822 and 1823 issues contained her verses) wondered if her poetry, especially the rambling, blank-verse ‘Poetic Sketches’ of beautiful women destroyed by their affections for absent men, was written at speed, inspired by passion. In The Improvisatrice, which went to six editions, L.E.L. played up to her public image, claiming that ‘It was not song that taught me love,/But it was love that taught me song.’
Those who met her or heard the London gossip knew that Landon flouted convention in ways that would have dismayed many of her admirers. She didn’t live in Brompton with her upper-middle-class (though poor) parents, but in Chelsea. After her father died in 1824, the money she made by her writing supported both her mother and her brother. Yet she appeared quite carefree, adopting romantic dress and seeming to pay little regard to how immodest or unfashionable her attire – or behaviour – might appear. Invited by ladies of rank to lend their parties the sparkle of her celebrity, she liked to cause a stir by scorning the lachrymose sentiments of her verse and laughing at the notion that she could ever become attached to a single man. She also liked to make jokes at the expense of fellow guests: wit was no more approved of in young ladies than sexual cravings. The Improvisatrice was followed by The Troubadour (1825), which went through four editions, then The Golden Violet (1826), The Venetian Bracelet (1829) and The Vow of the Peacock (1835): these books were all set in an imagined past of chivalric romance, but the source of the melancholy in her verse was the mocking glitter of the London social scene.
In January 1839 news reached England that Landon had died in Africa the previous October: she had been found with an empty bottle of prussic acid in her hand. The shock and grief felt in London society contained an unspoken element of remorse based on a suspicion that Landon had been treated unjustly. She had sailed from England in July 1838, following her marriage to George Maclean, a military officer stationed in the Gold Coast, whom she married, her friends believed, mainly to escape the scandalous rumours which increasingly surrounded her. From 1825 or 1826 until her departure in 1838, tales circulated of her supposed affairs with the journalists William Jerdan and William Maginn, and the painter Daniel Maclise. Though the rumours put an end to her engagement to John Forster in 1835, nothing surfaced that she and her friends could not refute or explain away, and once she was dead, and in such a manner, the scandals faded into the background. It was said that she died of an accidental overdose, of tropical disease, that she was murdered by her husband’s African mistress – anything to avoid the obvious conclusion of suicide that would ruin her name.
Her literary friends set about sanitising her reputation, and few facts about her life or death subsequently emerged. Sentimental poetry meanwhile fell from favour. The rediscovery in the last couple of decades of the work of many forgotten women writers has brought Landon back to prominence, and her work, like that of Felicia Hemans, is now routinely included in anthologies of 19th-century poetry. ‘No female poet before L.E.L. had ever written of women’s passion as she did,’ Germaine Greer wrote in Slipshod Sibyls (1995). ‘It was not like the love plaints of men, but the fierce, impotent, inward-turning tumult of a woman’s heart, the agony of a creature unable to speak or act, forced to wreak her vengeance upon herself, to refuse to live.’ In The Poetics of Sensibility (1996), Jerome McGann remarked that, as a young single woman and professional writer, ‘Landon had to negotiate her way with great care and deliberation’ in London society. ‘The consequence is a (socially) self-conscious style of writing that often – especially in the late work – comes inflected with a disturbing mood or tone of bad faith. Again and again the poetry seems oblique, or held in reserve, or self-censored.’
Landon’s talk of ‘the broken heart, the wasted bloom,/The spirit blighted, and the early tomb’ should not be taken too literally, yet despite the artifice of the verse, the poems are not merely artificial. Sceptical of excessive emotion and wary of biographical interpretations of literary works, we don’t take to poems such as ‘Different Thoughts’: