Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay


LANDON, LETITIA ELIZABETH (1802-1838), English poet and novelist, better known by her initials L. E. L. than as Miss Landon or Mrs Maclean, was descended from an old Herefordshire family, and was born at Chelsea on the 14th of August 1802. She went to a school in Chelsea where Miss Mitford also received her education. Her father, an army agent, amassed a large property, which he lost by speculation shortly before his death. About 1815 the Landons made the acquaintance of William Jerdan, and Letitia began her contributions to the Literary Gazette and to various Christmas annuals. She also published some volumes of verse, which soon won for her a wide literary fame. The gentle melancholy and romantic sentiment her writings embodied suited the taste of the period, and would in any case have secured her the sympathy and approval of a wide class of readers. She displays richness of fancy and aptness of language, but her work suffered from hasty production, and has not stood the test of time. The large sums she earned by her literary labours were expended on the support of her family. An engagement to John Forster, it is said, was broken off through the intervention of scandalmongers. In June 1838 she married George Maclean, governor of the Gold Coast, but she only survived her marriage, which proved to be very unhappy, by a few months. She died on the 15th of October 1838 at Cape Coast from an overdose of prussic acid, which, it is supposed, was taken accidentally.

For some time L. E. L. was joint editor of the Literary Gazette. Her first volume of poetry appeared in 1820 under the title The Fate of Adelaide, and was followed by other collections of verses with similar titles. She also wrote several novels, of which the best is Ethel Churchill (1837). Various editions of her Poetical Works have been published since her death, one in 1880 with an introductory memoir by W. B. Scott. The Life and Literary Remains of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, by Laman Blanchard, appeared in 1841, and a second edition in 1855.

& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

LANDON, Letitia Elizabeth [L.E.L.] (1802-1838) by Jerome McGann

The entry on Letitia Elizabeth Landon—L.E.L.—in the 1910-1911 Encyclopædia Britannica provides a brief, unsigned, and perfunctory sketch of the life and writings of an English poet and novelist whose gentle melancholy and romantic works have not stood the test of time. The entry was evidently called for only because for some two decades, 1820-1838, Landon and her work gained such a spectacular success (a wide literary fame, the entry coolly observes, that suited a period of factitious taste). While Landon’s life and work remained important for many distinguished nineteenth-century writers, the Britannica entry sees her as inconsequential as the Christmas annuals where so much of her work appeared.

Letitia Elizabeth Landon
Maclise, Daniel. Letitia Elizabeth Landon (Mrs Maclean). c. 1830-1835, © National Portrait Gallery, London Original image

But remarkably, All changed, changed utterly for L.E.L. beginning in the 1990s when the terrible beauty of her work began to be reborn in the fresh responses of scholars like Germaine Greer, Isobel Armstrong, Jerome McGann, Glennis Stevenson, F. J. Sypher, and Glenn Dibert-Himes.[1] From that decade emerged a remarkable body of scholarship that drastically reshapes our views of Landon and her work and, even more, of how we study and assess the literature and culture of the period tout court, from the Biedermeier emergence of Victorian gift books and annuals—Landon’s desmesne—to the aesthetic and decadent 90s.

Perhaps the most consequential of those investigations is Cynthia Lawford’s deceptively modest essay of 2000, On Letitia Elizabeth Landon.[2] Although it pivots around a startling revelation—that Landon had three illegitimate children by her mentor William Jerden—its significance goes far beyond Landon’s biography. Lawford reminds us that Landon’s secret life was an index of a crass celebrity culture entangled in Thomas Carlyle’s cash nexus and committed to the media illusions of her double-crossed works. It was a contemporary commitment cynically made by those who cherished scandal as celebrity gossip and naively made by those who invested in the cultural bubble that Landon learned to ride and master. Her work was a theatre of bad faith consciously executed for an audience that Baudelaire would soon label the hypocrite reader.

After Lawford, scholars could clearly see that when Landon rang her interminable poetic changes on the broken heart, the wasted bloom, / The spirit blighted, and the early tomb (Love Nursed by Solitude), she was managing a discursive code unusually apt for unlocking certain important cultural Lines of Life running through Great Britain’s imperial vision. In her lively biography of 2019, Lucasta Miller sums up the key turn that begins in the 1990s: Letitia’s writings are remarkable for the profound but subtle way in which they expose and surreptitiously subvert the commercial conditions of their own production [and] the mutually assured destruction encoded in her paradoxes.[3]

Other scholars in the Landon revival would probably have written works rather than writings and exploit rather than subvert because they take a more positive view of the expressive opportunities latent in those commercial resources that Landon worked with. Some of the best new work on Landon, as well as some of the most innovative practices in scholarly theory and method in general, focuses on the unusual ways Landon manipulated her material media, repurposing texts and images in different publishing contexts and forcing multi-media materials—texts, typefaces, page and book design, and graphics—into provocative relationships. The condescension that once dominated the critical assessment of early Victorian print culture, and of the gift book genre in particular (Thomas Carlyle called it a dog’s meat bazaar) made Landon’s work terra incognita for nearly a century. But things are different now. Today few doubt that an extensive acquaintance with [Landon’s] textual history promises rich scholarly rewards.[4]

Nowhere might that be more true than in the case of Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap Book, which Landon edited for six years, from 1832 until she left for Africa in 1838, aged thirty-six, and where, just a few months later, she died of prussic acid poisoning under mysterious circumstances. Accidentally, by suicide, even perhaps murdered? An inquest found her death was accidental but the event caused a sensation and the question has never been—and likely never will be—settled.

Arguably Landon’s chef d’oeuvre, the Fisher’s volumes, make a rich display of the unnerving aesthetic practices that recent scholars have been tracing across all of Landon’s editorial and compositional designs. One of the most important of those studies, focused on the first volume in the series, is exemplary for its investigation of the strategic inconsistencies that Landon puts into play.[5] Her unusual method of juxtaposition does not produce ambiguity or even critique, but the jolt of unease when both images, both poems, either share the strain of a false position or disconnect in unexpected contradiction. So do those contradictions become nervous and tortured (The condition of England is inextricably the condition of the colonial space, and vice versa; and, She frequently produces a poetry that at once exposes and colludes with colonial power).[6] Beyond that and even more telling, if Explor[ing] the bad faith of her culture. . .meant exploring her own, it also meant drawing her readers into an unusual theatre of cruelty. With a full exposure of the global imperium, Landon lets her readers see that that that world is all before [you], where to choose. Landon’s work invites her readers to take their solitary way through a maze of difficult but consequential interpretive choices. It is a license for a deeply pertinent form of subjective interpretation that, especially today, makes (dangerous) sense.

1. In perfect truth, Germaine Greer forecast the change that was coming in her 1982 essay that launched her newly founded journal Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature (The Tulsa Center for the Study of Women’s Literature: What We Are Doing and Why We Are Doing It, TSWL 1.1: 5-26).

2. It appears in the Diary section of the London Review of Books (September 21, 2000).

3. Lucasta Miller, L.E.L. The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon the Celebrated Female Byron (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019), 147.

4.Sarah Ann Storti, The Remaking of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, Studies in Romanticism 60. 4 (2021): 487 (487-502); see also Storti, Letitia Landon: Still a Problem. Victorian Poetry 57.4 (2019: 533-556); Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Poetry, Pictures and Popular Publishing. The Illustrated Gift Book and Victorian Visual Culture, 1855-1875 (Athens: Ohio UP, 2011); Katherine D. Harris, Forget Me Not: The Rise of the British Literary Annual, 1823-1835 (Athens: Ohio UP, 2015); Jonas Cope, Scrapped Sentiment: Letitia Landon and Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap-Book, 1832-1837, Romanticism, 25.2 (2019), 190-124; Clara Dawson, Mechanical Reproduction, Commodity, and the Gift-Annual Aesthetic, Studies in Romanticism, 60.3, 2021, 247-275.

5. Hilary Fraser, Poetics of the Steel Plate Engraving: Letitia Landon and Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap Book, 1832, 19. Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, forthcoming 2023.

6. Nowhere is Landon’s reputation as the female Byron more apparent in this quality of her work. Writing as poète maudit, Landon includes her own verse and her readers at the heart of the contradictions her work is representing.

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