Saturday, August 14, 2010

Heroine of the Weekend

This weekend's Heroine is English author Letitia Landon, born on August 14 in 1802! Though she was well-known in her time, she's unfairly overlooked today....

Landon was born in London to John and Catherine Landon, and was soon found to be a most precocious child who learned to read as a toddler. At age 5 she was sent to Mrs. Rowden's School, whose other attendees included Caroline Lamb and Mary Russell Mitford, but after 1809 her family moved to the country and she was taught at home by her mother and her cousin Elizabeth (who, though older, soon found herself outdone in learning by her pupil!). In 1815 the family moved back to London when her father's model farm failed, and the family became friends with William Jerdan who was editor of the Literary Gazette. He encouraged Letitia's writing, and her first poem was published in the Gazette when she was 18 (under the initial "L").

The next year she published a volume of poetry, The Fate of Adelaide, under her real name. It sold well, though the critics were not as kind, and Letitia never got much money since the publisher soon after went out of business. But she went on to publish poems in the Gazette and other magazines using the initials "LEL", which attracted a great deal of speculation and even fame. Edward Bulwer Lytton later wrote that as a student he and his friends would run out every week for the Gazette "to hasten at once to that corner of the sheet which contained the three magical letters LEL....We soon learned it was a female, and our admiration was doubled, and our conjectures tripled." Letitia also worked as reviewer at the publication and her second volume of poems, The Improvistrace, came out in 1824.

Soon after this her father died and she became the chief money-earner for the family, forced to write faster. By 1826 she was victim to rumors that she had affairs and had secret children, but the success of her poems didn't suffer, and in 1831 she published a novel, Romance and Reality. She was engaged to a man named John Forster for a brief while, until he pressed her about the old rumors. She broke it off, writing to him, "I feel that to give up all idea of a near and dear connection is as much my duty to myself as to you," and insisted he could not marry a woman under such suspicion. But to friends she stated she really couldn't marry someone who distrusted her, writing to a friend "I cannot get over the entire want of delicacy to me which could repeat such slander to myself." She began to talk of somehow getting away from England and the old stories.

In October 1836 Letitia met George Maclean, governor of the British colony at Ghana (then the Gold Coast) and the two fell into a whirlwind romance. Despite some separations and misunderstandings, they were married June 7, 1838, though the marriage was at first kept secret. In July they sailed to Maclean's post in Ghana, where Letitia was found dead on October 15 of that year with a bottle of prussic acid in her hand. Later poets including Elizabeth Barrett Browning (with her poem LEL's Last Question) and Christina Rossetti (who also wrote a poem titled LEL) cited her as a great influence.

For more information on her life and work, this is a great website

A few sources:
Isobel Armstrong and Joseph Bristow, eds., 19th Century Women Poets, Oxford 1998
Duncan Wu, ed., Romanticism: An Anthology, 2006
And a book to be published in November is Julie Watt's Poisoned Lives: The Regency Poet Letitia Landon (LEL) and British God Coast Administrator George Maclean (can't wait to read it!)

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