L.E.L. by Lucasta Miller


There are two things an author can do when writing a biography of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, a briefly popular and notorious poet of the early 19th century, a woman sometimes dubbed “the female Byron” by her more ardent devotees. The first of these things is to tackle the complicated and often elusive primary sources for Landon’s life and times and lay them out with vigor and clarity. This has scarcely been done with Landon (and still has yet to be done with the vast majority of literary figures in her day), and it’s the main worth of L.E.L., the new book by Lucasta Miller, the author of 2001’s invigorating The Brontë Myth. Miller’s L.E.L. is a terrifically detailed and, once again, invigorating account, a fittingly complex monument to a very complicated woman.

Landon was born in 1802 and was, according to rather predictably family lore, a supernaturally precocious child, lisping her letters practically before she could walk. When her family moved to London in 1815, she met William Jerdan, the sketchily disreputable “Svengali” (Miller’s apt term) figure who was the editor of the Literary Gazette, where Landon quickly became indispensable behind the scenes. At the front of the stage, she was likewise breaking into print, and Miller traces her literary life as no biographer has ever done, perfectly matching sympathy and inquiry (all of it wrapped, unfortunately, in a lamentable dust jacket, on which a cereal box-orange banner is callously slapped across half of the charming sketch of L.E.L.’s face).

In 1836 Landon met George Maclean, the dashing governor of the Gold Coast (today’s Ghana). They married, and it was on the Gold Coast, far from her lifelong haunts in London, that Landon died in 1838, under circumstances that involved a nearby bottle of prussic acid and that thereby sparked great amounts of contemporaneous gossip and has been a nub of her story ever since (she was probably self-medicating and miscalculated, but that’s not particularly gossip-worthy). Mercifully, Miller spends very little time on such sensationalism; she’s far more concerned with filling in the fine details of a woman working hard to make a living for herself and her dependents by her pen in an age that still tended to frown on such efforts.

In other words, Miller does that first thing superbly well: she marshals the raw materials of Letitia Landon’s life to a masterful extent and makes terrific reading out of it all. The only drawback to how well she does one of the two things a Landon biographer can do is how energetically she tries to do the other thing: somehow burnish or renovate Landon’s literary reputation. This is a thoroughly disastrous thing to attempt, and Miller, bless her, attempts it. For her, this effusive, slightly dotty sentimentalist was in reality a cagey crypto-allegorist, somebody whose “great paradox is that the clues she left about her private life are not to be found in diaries or letters but in her most public utterances, her poetry.”

“The relationship between the latter’s emotional content and her private, subjective feelings is the hardest aspect of her legacy to unravel,” Miller writes. “She brings into focus one of the knottiest philosophical problems in criticism: that of authorial intentionality.”

Well, unless she doesn’t. If you decide to ascribe to Landon all the hand-to-heart sincerity of her literary age, you have no choice but to see the vein of irony that, for most of her contemporaries, ran through that sobriquet of “the female Byron.” You have no choice but to see that Letitia Landon was a fairly wretched poet and an incalculably worse novelist, somebody whose literary reputation very much belongs in the dark eclipse that has overtaken it in the last century.

The only way around that is to assert, as Miller does with gamesome equivocation, that Landon can be absolved of syrupy mediocrity because, basically, she didn’t really mean it:

Later critics looked for eternal verities in L.E.L.’s poetry. Finding it wanting, they dismissed it as superficial and naïve. The real Letitia Landon had no faith in eternal verities. Knowingly mired in her own moment, she was less a winsome sentimentalist than a proto-postmodern. As one of her most perceptive contemporary critics put it, her true subject is not romance but “all is vanity”: what happens in a world emptied of intrinsic value.

The shame here isn’t the danger of convincing people. Hoo no. Letitia Landon’s poetry is readily available online, so any kind of literary defense is peremptorily doomed. “Proto-postmodern” is valiant, but it isn’t Superman.

No, the shame is that concentration on the wretched poetry and incalculably worse novels, attempts to retrieve them from the kitchen-slops bucket where they belong, inevitably draw attention away from Letitia Landon’s truly remarkable literary labors. Even so thorough and conscientious a biographer as Miller gives it short shrift in these pages. It’s of course that Literary Gazette business and all the other such stuff that Landon did tirelessly for twenty years at the very heart of London’s teeming literary world. She wrote innumerable book reviews, ghost-wrote many first drafts of books, fiction and nonfiction, all around her, and was known to everybody as being well-nigh omniscient in terms of books and belles lettres. What she really needs is not so much a “lost” life as a literary one.

—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.