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’:
I have yielded,
Foolishly, fondly yielded, to the love
Which is a curse and sickness to me now.
I am as one who sleeps beneath the power
Of some wild dream; hopes, fears, and
Of strange delight, dizzy anxieties,
And looks and words dwelt upon overmuch,
Fill up my feverish circle of existence.
… concealment preys upon me; life
But animate with emotion, which must yet
Be hidden fire. Oh, I must, I must
Turn from this idol! Our love is forbidden –
You are above me, and in loving you –
Oh God! I dare not think to what that leads …
When Landon wrote this she was having an affair with William Jerdan, the editor of the Literary Gazette, who both launched her career and supported her for nearly two decades. Probably the most powerful literary reviewer in Britain in the 1820s, Jerdan was twenty years her senior, married and the father of several children. Landon played with his children when Jerdan’s family lived in a cottage next door to her family in Brompton. The affair seems to have begun shortly after then, when Jerdan had moved a few streets away, still close enough for him often to meet Landon, ostensibly to improve her grasp of the rules of poetry and to tell her what books to read. The affair continued after Landon moved to her grandmother’s home in Chelsea and then to a nearby ladies’ boarding house.
London literary society knew for certain only that Jerdan’s Gazette first published Landon’s poetry; that he escorted her to plays and exhibitions; that he handled her business relations with publishers; and that he wrote the over-enthusiastic reviews of her books that helped their sales and annoyed his rivals. In his review of The Improvisatrice in 1824, for example, he declared that ‘we can adduce no instance, ancient or modern, of similar talent and excellence’ and anticipated ‘immortality’ for L.E.L. The Literary Magnet thundered against such ‘bare-faced puffing, and undisguised partiality’ from a critic who ‘by some accident or other, stands high in the estimation of the public, and conducts a Literary Journal of talent and celebrity’ in which ‘a vast number of love-sick Sonnets under the initials L.E.L… . have appeared.’ In the 1820s, protests such as this were largely ignored by a growing middle-class readership, who were irritated by the political sniping and heavy-handed reviews of the monthlies and quarterlies. The Gazette disseminated information about new books more quickly, more widely and, at a shilling an issue, more cheaply. Jerdan gave uncritical approval to most books of sentimental poetry, knowing the reading public’s enthusiasm for the short-lived but ‘exquisite’ sensations that these poems inspired. When the Gazette arrived ‘in the Reading Room of the Union … every Saturday afternoon’, Bulwer Lytton and his Cambridge friends looked ‘with impatient anxiety … at once to the corner of the sheet which contained the three magical letters of “L.E.L.”’ The young men ‘only thought of homage’ to a being they dreamed at once passionate yet pure.
Landon and Jerdan had three children together: Ella Stuart, Fred Stuart and Laura Landon. The oldest, Ella, was born, according to her burial record, in 1822 or 1823, and christened on 4 April 1824 at St James, Paddington. Her baptismal record states that her parents were ‘William and Lætitia Stuart’, that they lived in Paddington (in the company of a carpenter, gardener and wheelwright, whose children’s baptisms are recorded alongside Ella’s) and that William was a ‘Gentleman’. Pallot’s Marriage Index, which covers most of the parishes for the London area in the early 19th century, has no record of a William Stuart ever marrying a Letitia. Stuart was the maiden name of William Jerdan’s mother, Agnes – this was a customary way for parents of illegitimate children to indicate paternity.
Anyone who was familiar with Landon’s childhood or with Hemans’s Records of Woman (1828) would have recognised in Ella Stuart’s name the legendary figure of Lady Arabella Stuart. Prevented by James I, her cousin, from living with her commoner husband, Arabella Stuart feigned illness to stay a short time at the East Barnet house which was Landon’s childhood home from 1809 to 1815 (when it was known as Trevor Park). Disguised as a man, Stuart left the house at night to ride on horseback to the Channel, but she failed to meet her husband, and was captured by the King’s men and imprisoned in the Tower – which drove her to insanity and, in 1615, death.
Ella Stuart sailed to Australia in late 1852 or 1853, apparently impatient with Victorian prudery, which perhaps indicates that she felt some sympathy for her parents. She took with her Jerdan’s just published Autobiography, containing his inscription to ‘Ella Stuart’, dated 1 August 1852, wishing the daughter he would never see again a ‘prosperous and happy journey in the distant world to which she is now going’. On 23 June 1853, Ella Stuart married James Lesslie Gregson, the ship’s captain, in Richmond, Victoria. The couple had five children (one was named Laura Landon Gregson after Ella’s sister) and spent the rest of their lives in the Melbourne area, where Ella is said to have started a school for girls. She died in 1910 at the age of 87.
Fred Stuart was probably born in 1826 but seems not to have been christened by his parents, possibly because the risk of recognition was thought too great. The one substantial record of Fred’s existence is a long undated letter from Port of Spain, Trinidad, to Ella in Australia, in which he calls her ‘my dear sister’, says he has received her letter through ‘Laura’, and signs himself ‘Your affectionate brother, Fred’. He does not mention Letitia Landon or Jerdan, but the letter makes plain that Fred, Ella and Laura have a common past. ‘You will not be surprised to hear that thro’ all’ – his illness and poverty in Trinidad – ‘from home I have not received the slightest assistance,’ he remarks. We can be fairly sure his surname was Stuart because Ella kept a photograph of a baby who is likely to be Fred’s daughter. The baby’s name, Emily Ella Stuart, is written beside the photograph, which was taken by a studio in Port-of-Spain.
According to her baptismal record of 17 March 1850, Laura Landon was born on 29 June 1829. She gave the details of her parentage at her baptism 11 years after her mother’s death, and the parish register for St Michael, Queenhithe, in the City of London, records: ‘Laura daughter of William Jerdan and Letitia Elizabeth Landon’. Asked for her father’s profession or rank, Laura appears to have been unsure what to say. The beginnings of ‘Manufacturer’ and ‘Lithographer’ are crossed out; ‘Gentleman’ is left standing. The 1851 census supplies Laura’s surname, recording that the unmarried ‘Laura Landon’ then lived in Dalston with Theophilus Goodwin, a ‘Master Silk Manufacturer Employing 320 persons’, and his wife Mary. Laura’s place of birth is given as Clerkenwell, and she is described as Theophilus Goodwin’s niece.
Laura was surely named by her mother, who admired ‘Divinest Petrarch! He whose lyre,/Like morning light, half dew, half fire,/To Laura and to love was vowed’. Jerdan names Laura in a letter written around 1865 to Ella Gregson. The letter is clearly in Jerdan’s hand:
My dear Ella,
I send you my Autograph at the age of Eighty-four & upwards – rather downwards. I think you have neglected me a good deal, but I rejoice, not the less, that you are well-doing in the world. Laura is a dear Creature & I love her beyond expression. I have been greatly pleased with the accounts of your children. Perhaps the new generation in the next few years may lead to many acceptable recognitions when I am in the grave. Till I go, believe me Ella to be most affectionately Your
Jerdan died impoverished in 1869 in Bushey Heath, Hertfordshire, at the age of 88, leaving no will.
I was told about the three children by Ella Stuart’s great-great grandson, Michael Gorman, who grew up in New Zealand and now, in his fifties, lives in Japan. Landon’s portrait hung in the drawing-room of his boyhood home. Over the years, as a matter of the most casual curiosity, Gorman had gleaned from relatives and 19th-century memoirs the essence of what was known of Landon’s life, including the scandalous rumours and mysterious death. (He finds the poems a ‘struggle’.) Last year he bought a computer and discovered, on exploring the Internet, that Landon was receiving a surprising amount of attention. An e-mail address posted at a Landon website (the family is listed in Burke’s Landed Gentry) led him to an academic who knew that I was writing Landon’s biography and put me in contact with Gorman. On Gorman’s suggestion, I phoned two of his cousins: Margaret Malval, a woman in her nineties living in Connecticut, and Zara Gamble, who is in her eighties and lives in Victoria, Australia. They sent me copies of a number of documents, and shared speculations about Ella Stuart and her parents, drawing on information that had passed down through several generations of Ella’s family, when her mother’s poems seemed of no interest to the outside world. Visiting a London museum in the 1970s, Gamble told an archivist who knew about the early Victorian period that she was a descendant of Letitia Landon, only to be told she must be mistaken; Landon had had no children.
A number of Landon’s contemporaries were not so sure, however. On 7 October 1826, the Wasp – a short-lived periodical whose staff included Henry Colburn, Henry Brougham, Coleridge and Theodore Hook, the satirist who founded the journal John Bull – remarked that Letitia Landon ‘in the course of a few months acquired so perceptible a degree of embonpoint as to induce her kind friend Jerdan to recommend a change of air … Strange to say, such was the effect of even two months’ absence from Brompton, that she returned as thin and poetical as ever!’ On 14 October the Wasp charged ‘L.E.L. (alias Letitia Languish) … with having written a sentimental elegy on the Swellings of Jordan. She pleaded that the flood had gone off; but the plea was overruled; and she was ordered into the country to gather fruit, and to deliver an account thereof on her return.’ This has always been dismissed as a libel, but it now appears that it was true. Landon had just returned from visiting her uncle, an Anglican vicar, and his family in Aberford, Yorkshire – her letters from Aberford date from June to late September 1826. With Jerdan’s help, Landon could have arranged to give birth when she was supposed to be travelling straight to her uncle’s. Fred Stuart might well have been left with a wet nurse while she recovered in Yorkshire.
Hook and Colburn knew Jerdan well. If they were not merely speculating that Landon was pregnant because she had put on weight (conflicting descriptions of Landon as plump or thin abound), they may have heard an incautious boast from Jerdan. The one surviving report of Jerdan’s boasting comes from Rosina Bulwer Lytton. It can be found in the Unpublished Letters of Lady Bulwer Lytton to A.E. Chalon (1914) and concerns an incident in the mid-1830s, retold twenty years later. According to Rosina’s husband, ‘that loathsome satyr, old Jerdan, in one of his drunken fits at some dinner let out all his liaison with Miss Landon and gave her name coupled with some disgusting toast.’ Rosina Bulwer Lytton says that she then warned Landon not to admit Jerdan, and Landon promised not to, but not long afterwards, making a surprise visit to the poet’s room at the boarding house, she found ‘Miss Landon on old Jerdan’s knee, with her arm around his neck!’ This moved her to end her long friendship with Landon. No one has ever paid much attention to the allegations made in her letter to Chalon.
Another periodical, the Ass, also alluded to rumours about Landon and Jerdan, smuttily parodying her with ‘The Charms of Nature’ and the ‘Bower of Love’. The Ass was ‘sure Jerdan would not have’ rejected ‘The Charms of Nature’, which culminates thus:
The Apple-tree with snowy top;
The peach like burnished gold;
False Love, that like a mutton chop,
Is flung aside when cold;
The hail that’s but the heavens in grief,
Congealing tears of rain;
The true love, like a rump of beef,
That’s out and come again.
Landon left herself open to such ribaldry. Not only did she encourage ladies to meet suitors ‘When the dew is on the boughs,/ When none else are near them’, but she saw purity where it was not supposed to be:
Never yet did the first June flower
Bare purer bosom to the bee,
Than that which yielded to Love’s power,
And gave its sweetest wealth to thee.
The Ass believed the sex was real, but not the anguish:
Alas! That man should ever win
So sweet a shrine to shame and sin
As woman’s heart! – and deeper woe
For her fond weakness, not to know
That yielding all but breaks the chain
That never reunites again!
Landon had taken a fancy to the role of martyr for love well before the affair began. Once it had, she could not stop writing about it. She was the heroine of ‘Rosalie’ (1824), who ‘was left to brood/ O’er wrongs and ruin in her solitude’; or the maiden in ‘A Legend of Tintagel Castle’ (1832) who led Sir Lancelot ‘away to an odorous cave’, where ‘they might have been happy’, but the knight rode to war, ‘And the wood-nymph was left as aye woman will be,/Who trusts her whole being, oh, false love, to thee.’ She also seems to have used her poems to remind Jerdan of her charms: she who with ‘fresh wild pulse’ loves ‘as youth – woman – Genius loves’ (‘Roland’s Tower’, 1824). Over and over she bids him farewell, upbraids him and bemoans their plight: ‘we feign we do not feel,/Until our feelings are forgotten things,/Their nature warp’d in one base selfishness.’
An engraving of ‘St Mawgan Church & Lanhern Nunnery, Cornwall’ (1834) provided her with cover towards the end of the affair. She wonders if ‘Some spirit passionate as mine’ exists in the nunnery, condemned
To listen to her beating heart,
In shame – in solitude and fear:
To know no hope before the grave,
To fear there is no hope beyond,
Yet scarcely dare of heaven to crave
Forgiveness for a faith too
One of the last poems she wrote before leaving England, ‘The Laurel’ (1838), is prophetic:
A thousand songs of mine are on the air,
And they shall breathe my memory, and mine only;
Startling thy soul with hope no longer
And love that will but rise to leave thee
Landon must have had many reasons to hate Jerdan. As Hawthorne remarks in an 1856 entry to English Notebooks, Jerdan was known to be ‘a very disreputable old fellow, who had spent all his life in dissipation’, having ‘seduced … innumerable women, and had an infinity of illegitimate children’. Landon’s contemporaries would have marvelled that she loved him at all. The affair, which began in about 1822, lasted until at least 1834, when she wrote to Jerdan from Paris (the letter is reprinted in his Autobiography), not long before her engagement to John Forster: ‘We parted on Thursday … You cannot think how I missed you. I really thought the morning never would pass.’ When news of her death reached him in January 1839, Jerdan wrote to the Countess of Blessington: ‘Truly and devotedly did I love her for fifteen eventful years.’
In an anonymous memoir of 1848 introducing Landon’s Romance and Reality, Jerdan is restrained: ‘We cannot quite assent to the propositions laid down by preceding biographers that the whole [of Landon’s work] proceeded from imagination and not real feeling. On the contrary, we think it impossible that such could have been the case with any mind that ever existed.’ He is more forthcoming in his Autobiography. After describing her feelings for him as ‘a grateful and devoted attachment’, he makes what Germaine Greer describes as a ‘repellent’ claim: ‘all phases’ of this attachment, he says, ‘demonstrate and illume the origin of her productions. Critics and biographers may guess, and speculate, and expatiate for ever; but without this master-key they will make nothing of their reveries.’ And ‘Thy name is breathed on every song,’ L.E.L.’s ‘Conclusion’ affirms. In ‘The Legacy of the Lute’ she asked:
I pray thee, dearest one! forget
All that can link my thought with fame;
I’d have thee but recall those songs
Whose only music was thy name.
In ‘L.E.L.’s Last Question’ (1839), Elizabeth Barrett Browning attributed to Landon a ‘True heart to love, that pourëd many a year/Love’s oracles for England, smooth and well’. But when this elegy was printed in Poems (1844), the lines read: ‘Hers was the hand that played for many a year/Love’s silver phrase for England, – smooth and well!’ In the interim, Barrett Browning had read Laman Blanchard and Emma Roberts’s memoirs of Landon, both of which claimed that, in Roberts’s words, when Landon lingered ‘with apparently earnest tenderness upon the sorrows of love’, she was ‘lamenting … over miseries which she had never felt’. Barrett Browning told Mary Russell Mitford she was dismayed to learn ‘the passion was pasteboard from the first’. She now saw Landon as
the actress, & not Juliet. Her genius was not strong enough to assert itself in truth. It suffered her to belie herself – & stood by, while she put on the mask. Where is the true deep poetry which was not felt deeply & truly by the poet? What is the poet, without the use of his own heart? And thus, the general character of Miss Landon[’s] most popular poems is … melancholy without pathos. A conventional tone pierces through the sweetness.
Unwilling to dwell on the possibility that the scandalous rumours were true – ‘I had heard some of the Jerdan murmurs, & hoped them into slanders,’ she wrote in 1840 – Barrett Browning could find no grounds for her earlier feeling that L.E.L.’s sad love had been ‘felt deeply & truly’. In another letter of 1841 she concluded that Landon would ‘never have been tragic’ because ‘she believed that great lie, that poetry was fiction … It is a creed desecrative of the soul, & of nature, & of “supernal spirits”.’ We now know that Barrett Browning was wrong.