( A proposal I wrote many years ago for a biography that never got written)
Who – or what – is L.E.L? If you’d put the question in the 1820s, the answer would come readily -’L.E.L’ – or Laetitia Landon, who signed herself thus – was the most glittering of literary stars. Week after week, poems signed with those mysterious,liquid initials appeared in the Literary Gazette, sad poems of love and death, rich with dazzling romantic imagery. To many young poets, such as the two Rossettis, L.E.L was the role model of what a poet should be. L.E.L was a star.
She was born in 1803 to the usual family fallen-on-hard-times, a dreamy, romantic child, who was regarded, perhaps rather uncritically by her family, as a learned paragon. But she attracted the attention of the editor of the Literary Gazette when she was still in her teens, and those prolific, much published verses are very much those of a young girl. Fame followed; fame in the literary London of the 1820s and 1830s. Now we see this as something of a dull period in English letters – after the Romantics and before the Victorians – but of course it did not seem so at the time. Literary life fermented away as it always does, with its full quota of dramas and scandals. Bulwer Lytton – whom we now remember as the author of excruciatingly dull novels – was then a dazzling dandy with auburn ringlets,married scandalously to the equally dazzling Rosina. Caroline Norton, Sheridan’s granddaughter was there, with her heartbreaking attempts to gain custody of her children. Lady Caroline Lamb still gave off a fitful and dangerous glow, and Lady Blessington, confidante of Byron was feared and admired. Dumpy Miss Spence held a Salon at what she insisted on calling her ‘humble abode’ – Leigh Hunt, Disraeli, the young Carlyle, Haydon, Harriet Martineau, Miss Mitford, all flit in and out of the scene.
In person, Laetitia was much unlike her melancholy poetic persona. She was plump, warm-hearted, plain and talkative. She could be indiscreet too, in the days when a false step could lose a woman her reputation for ever. Rumours – and at one point anonymous letters – circulated about her indiscretions, and society which had so lionised her was quick to disclaim her. ‘She is Fallen!’ exclaimed Macready melodramatically, though most likely, she was foolish, rather than fallen. At any rate she indignantly denied the rumours. But as the 1820s became the 1830s, L.E.L’s star began to wane. Now she was viewed, not as a precocious, mysterious maiden but a foolish, chattering spinster. Her poems began to go out of fashion.
But throughout the twenty years of her writing life, she was anything but silly. Family circumstances meant that very early in her twenties, she became the breadwinner of her family. Numerous hangers-on clustered around her and demanded a share of her earnings. So whilst others could afford to sleep off the bright evenings of the salon, L.E.L sat working far into the small hours, turning out poems, criticism, novels and anything else that would bring in the money. To her, writing was a lonely, determined and not at all romantic way of earning a living. You soon sense a strain of real melancholy behind the cheerful front, and the easy fashionable gloom of her poems.
But stranger than anything was the manner of her death. To everyone’s surprise, in her late thirties, she became engaged to Governor Maclean of the Gold Coast, a taciturn and rather solitary Scotsman, quite the antithesis of her warm friendliness. She insisted on going back with him to Africa, despite his uncertain temper, the uncongenial climate, and rumours about a black princess whom he kept as a wife there. Africa had always been a romantic dream to her, ever since a favourite childhood book, The Travels of Sylvester Tramper. But there is something darkly ominous about this period, her friends’ forebodings, the unknown nature of what awaited her, the incompatabilty of temperament. Though she wrote cheerful and brave letters about how well she was adapting, one gets the sense of a woman frightened and alone.
My friends, my absent friends,
Do you think of me as I think of you?
she wrote, on the boat to Cape Coast Castle, in a poem that is still genuinely moving, and that drew answering poems from both Elizabeth Barratt Browning and Christina Rossetti.
Cape Coast Castle proved to be as uncomfortable and as lonely as she feared, and she walked through echoing empty rooms, where ants swarmed everywhere, and books perished of mildew. But her possible futures, happy or unhappy, were suddenly curtailed, by the discovery of her body, two months after she’d arrived, on her bedroom floor, apparently clutching a bottle of prussic acid. Murder, said some of her friends, natural death, said others, suicide, others said. Her husband buried the body hastily that same day without a post-mortem and with only a cursory inquest, so the rumours multiplied as quickly as the West African ants.
After the brief frisson of her death, poor Laetitia was quickly forgotten, or remembered only in the memoirs her circle wrote in their old age.
This story, read glancingly, as I researched the life of Christina Rossetti, fascinated me, and the fascination did not go away. I was moved by Laetitia Landon’s determined, dedicated professionalism, and the seriousness that underlay the cheerful, inconsequential manner. I saw her as in many ways adrift, and unprotected, in the cruel, backbiting literary world of her day; and like stars of our own day, those who adulated her one minute were only too happy to snigger at her downfall the next. Her mistakes seem to have been caused simply by a lack of judgement and discretion; in an age where women were supposed to tread carefully and veil their feelings, she was impetuous and impulsive. She wanted to give and take friendship freely, as men could do, without looking over her shoulder or calculating the risks. She seems to me an honest and brave person. Later, she was self-critical of her early and easy fame, and aware of the negative effects of adulation:
Alas! that ever
Praise should have been what it is to me-
The opiate of my heart.
She isn’t – and I wouldn’t claim it – a great poet. But she isn’t a negligible one, either. Having to churn poetry out as she did meant that a lot of it is weak. But at its best, it is charming and poignant. She wrote in the 1820s, so she is nearly contemporary with Keats, and earlier than Tennyson. At her best, she creates evocative and closely-textured word pictures, and vividly beautiful worlds. You can see why the young Rossettis loved her; she was a poet for young ardent Romantic poets, who loved her colours and music, without being too aware of her clichés.
Was now beneath the forest dome;-
A hundred knights had watch’d her hall,
Her guards were now the pine-trees tall:
For harps waked with the minstrel tale,
Sang her to sleep the nightingale:
For silver vases where were blent
Rich perfumes from Arabia sent,
Were odours when the wild thyme flower
Wafted its sweets on gale and shower:
For carpets of the purple loom
The violets spread their cloud of bloom,
Starr’d with primroses; and around
Boughs like green tapestry swept the ground.
Heady stuff, page upon page of it. It is easy to see why she became so fashionable, and just as easy to see why she fell out of fashion. And yet she’s one of those, like Sir Walter Scott, who influence the imagery of a generation to come. Much of Victorian art – especially Pre-Raphaelitism – would not have looked as it did were it not for L.E.L
But there’s another theme winding insistently through her works – the consciousness of being a poet, and how the dreams of being a poet seduce, irradiate and finally deceive their possessor.There are few other poets with so strong an awareness of the power of poetry, and its effect on a woman:
I had no hope that dwelt not with my lyre,
No bliss whose being grew not from my lyre,
No energy undevoted to my lyre.
It was my other self that had a power;
Mine, but o’er which I had not a control.
At times it was not with me, and I felt
A wonder how it ever had been mine:
And then a word, a look of loveliness,
A tone of music called it into life…
Part of my story will be of the literary world of her day and the figures who pass through it; often more interesting in their stories than in their literature. I hope to evoke a picture of those days, a period suspended between the plain spoken, often crude wit of the eighteenth century, and the the stuffier politeness of the Victorians. It’s a period – just- before the effects of industrialization were widely felt; those who lived through it and into the end of the century wrote about the days of their youth as of a vanished epoch – they recalled link-boys, stage-coaches, public floggings, wives sold at auction, and the country-side soon to be obliterated beneath the inexorable march of London streets. It was a period that was hugely obsolete before it was even over – never did old-fashion seem so old-fashioned as the 1830s seemed to the 1860s and 70s.
I want to see how L.E.L fits into her background, and about the scandals that plagued her. Did she, or didn’t she? And if she didn’t, why was her circle so willing to believe she did?
There’s a deeper mystery too – just what did happen in West Africa? How much sense can we make of the events of her death? Was it an unlucky, but entirely natural death? Was it suicide, brought on by loneliness and neglect? Was it even, as some of her friends believed, murder, by the supplanted mistress, perhaps even condoned by her husband? I have my own theory, but I am interested to know if that theory will be the same after studying all the evidence. I am fortunate to be married to a historian of West Africa, and thus am well placed to find out as much as I can that will fill in the background, of this strange junction where glittering and frivolous salon society encounters the grimmer realities of African colonialism.
But I think the main reason why a biography of L.E.L will be interesting is because of the renewed interest we are taking in the women writers of the nineteenth century. We’re no longer so inclined to dismiss them with a sneer as ‘poetesses’ or to scorn their feelings as so much over-sensitivity. Suddenly the voices of these women, silent for so long, are being heard again. We can respect them for their professionalism, we’re no longer going to despise the unmarried ones – as many of them were – for being spinsters. We can teach ourselves to listen to what they are saying, to hear their voices. It doesn’t matter if L.E.L is not a ‘great’ poet – we can accept the interesting minor tone of a woman, just as we can accept it in a male poet.
My plan for a biography of Christina Rossetti was rejected by many publishers, because they thought she was dull and out of fashion. But I’m glad to say that there has been a huge interest in her since it came out. Now it seems that there will be an interest in her fellow-writers of the day. Isobel Armstrong is editing an Oxford anthology of women’s nineteenth century poetry, and there are several studies of their work. Apart from two fictionalised accounts of Laetitia Landon’s life – in 1928 and 1951, she has been almost forgotten in this century. Much remains to be found out about her background – her grandmother was a friend of Mrs Siddons, for example, and many of her poems have never been studied in the periodicals in which she wrote so copiously.