Lead book review

The celebrated poet who’s been erased from English literature

18 May 2019

9:00 AM

18 May 2019

9:00 AM

Biographers are a shady lot. For all their claims about immortalising someone in print, as if their ink were a kind of embalming fluid, it has long been suspected that they enjoy wielding their pens more like a cosh or a scalpel. Victorian writers were especially nervous about the prospect of a biographer prodding and slashing away at their reputations. Tennyson worried that he would be ‘ripped up like a pig’ after his death, and many of his contemporaries did all they could to present their best face to posterity: hand-picking an authorised biographer; making a bonfire out of any embarrassing letters; discreetly muzzling friends who might be tempted into unflattering reminiscences. Inevitably, the results were full of gaps: when William Gladstone read the biography of George Eliot written by her husband John Cross, which had been carefully filleted to remove anything shocking or sexy, he complained: ‘It is not a Life at all’ but ‘a reticence in three volumes’.

In the case of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, a poet who published in the 1820s and 1830s under her initials L.E.L., not all of this reticence can be put down to her modesty. As Lucasta Miller points out in this densely researched and boldly original biography, far more depends upon a kind of posthumous neglect. At the height of her fame L.E.L. was one of the leading stars in a glittering literary firmament: her portrait was exhibited at the Royal Academy and Edgar Allan Poe thought her ‘genius’ so self-evident it was ‘almost unnecessary to speak’ of it.

Yet by the time Virginia Woolf published Orlando in 1928, Landon’s reputation was so low that Woolf’s hero/ine is physically nauseated by the appearance of some ‘revolting’ lines from one of her poems. (The joke is that ‘Orlando’ only needs one extra letter to spell ‘Or Landon’.) Of course few writers have the kind of reputation that isn’t dented or eroded over time; in the literary stock market, shares in some writers go down while others go up. Yet Miller makes a strong case for thinking that Landon’s fall from grace wasn’t an accident. It was the result of a deliberate strategy.

When she died in 1838, aged just 36, Landon had recently moved with her new husband to a remote fort on the coast of what is now Ghana; after nearly two decades at the centre of the literary world, a period which saw the publication of six poetry collections, three novels and a collection of short stories, she had been shunted out to the margins. And that is precisely where some of her contemporaries wanted to keep her.

Over the following years, the most shocking details of her life would gradually be smoothed away. As the title of Miller’s biography suggests, although Landon ‘lost’ her life when she drank from a bottle of prussic acid (rumours of suicide and murder swirled around but were never proven), that life was also lost more slowly in the cracks of the historical record. ‘I lived/Only in others’ breath,’ Landon wrote in the voice of one of her many fictional alter egos; but eventually that too was taken away from her, as her poetry was relegated to anthologies and then left to gather dust on the shelves. Once the bestselling poet of the age, L.E.L. became the invisible woman of English literature, detectable only by her influence on later writers.

The reason for this neglect turns out to be a predictable mixture of sex and misogyny. Landon’s early life was hardly the stuff of a rackety Regency romance: although ‘attention starved and preciously driven’, she was brought up in the sort of ‘comfortable, polite, bourgeois world recognisable from Jane Austen’s fiction’. Yet by the time she was in her twenties, she was leading the sort of private life that would make a Jeremy Kyle guest blush. Her married publisher William Jerdan not only encouraged her to write more and better poems; he also groomed her, and then impregnated her with three children.

Although these births were covered up, the fact that for many years Landon and Jerdan were lovers appears to have been an open secret in literary London. It meant that when Landon rhymed ‘fame’ and ‘shame’ — which she did from her first printed poem ‘Rome’ onwards — she was gesturing towards the tightrope she would spend the rest of her career negotiating. ‘A hint of scandal could boost celebrity and sales,’ Miller points out, but ‘too much could kill them’.

The result was a set of poems that poured out of her in a never-ending stream. On the surface they appeared straight-forward, even childishly simple, but dig a little deeper and it quickly became clear that they were riddled with ambiguity and paradox of every kind. Reading a poem by L.E.L. meant entering a hall of mirrors in which nothing was quite what it seemed. Her voice appeared to be confessional (many of her poems are written in the first person) while keeping all its most important secrets to itself. It was the perfect vehicle for a writer who was herself a puzzling set of contradictions: while most people thought her short and dumpy, her first biographer described her as ‘sylph-like’; as a woman she oozed sex appeal, yet she wore dresses and ribbons that made her look like a little girl who had been left to rummage around in her mother’s wardrobe.

As Miller’s subtitle makes clear, for a time Landon was known as the ‘female Byron’, another poet who enjoyed playing with what the narrator of Don Juan describes as ‘the truth in masquerade’. The key difference, however, is that while Byron died a hero at the height of his popularity, Landon outlived her fame. She was abandoned not only by Jerdan but also by her readers; and while the historical record starts to thin out, the final chapters of Miller’s biography contain some poignant glimpses of a life that was increasingly being led in the shadows, as the party invitations dried up and Landon spent her evenings wandering the streets and looking in the shop windows.

Miller’s previous book The Brontë Myth traced the stories and traditions that gradually adhered to the Brontës like barnacles, especially once they were dead and unable to answer back. Her new book is equally sharp-eyed as an analysis of the myths that grow up around some writers and the motives behind them. Its greatest achievement is to show that Landon’s scandalous life was far more than just the context for her poetry. To a large extent it also shaped how she wrote, producing verses that were playful and performative, full of stylistic dodges and disguises, and told her readers as much about themselves as they did about the mysterious ‘L.E.L.’ whose signature appeared beneath each poem.

Miller pushes some of the contemporary parallels a bit far — her claims that Schubert’s ‘wine, women, and song’ was ‘the sex, drugs, and rock and roll of the day’, or that laudanum was ‘the Ritalin of the day’, are strained — but she undoubtedly makes a compelling case for Landon as the sort of poet who invites us to draw firm conclusions and then laughs at us for getting ahead of ourselves. For ‘L.E.L.’ read ‘LOL’.

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