Life of Letitia Elizabeth Landon

Life of Letitia Elizabeth Landon

The principal biographical sources on L.E.L. do not always agree about the facts of her life, and the word "mystery" appears so often in them (with words like "must have" and "presumably") that readers are well advised to view the story of her life, in any published form, as at least partly a documentary figment.1 Consensus has it that Landon was born on 14 August 1802, daughter of a superior clerk and then partner in Adair and Co., a lucrative business operation that supplied the army during the war against France; when that war ended in 1815, Landon and his family entered genteel poverty. An uncle of L.E.L. was the Dean of Worcester College (mentioned sometimes by L.E.L.'s mother, in business correspondence, as an advantageous Oxford connection2). Another uncle was Rector of Aberford, and L.E.L.'s brother (two years younger than she) was Rev. Whittington Landon, who was educated at Worcester College. L.E.L.'s sister Elizabeth Jane was four years younger than she. L.E.L. was educated partly at home, by her cousin Elizabeth, and partly in residence for several months (according to McGann and Riess) or two years (according to Sypher) at a school run by Frances Rowden; previous pupils at this school included Mary Russell Mitford and Caroline Lamb. When she came to the attention of a neighbor, William Jerdan, who was the editor of the Literary Gazette, L.E.L. was 14 or 15 years old, "slightly proportioned" (anon., "Memoir," x) or "plump" (Jerdan, 3: 174), and already bookish, having heard, read, and written stories and poems from early childhood or (according to some admirers) from infancy. When L.E.L. was 17, her mother (according to Enfield) or her cousin (according to Sypher) showed some of her poems to Jerdan, who returned them with comments. L.E.L. or her relations subsequently returned them to him, revised; and her poem "Rome" appeared in The Literary Gazette,3 followed by others, though not until Jerdan had convinced himself "of their being in truth from the girlish L.E.L." This was his test:

In driving from town to Brompton immediately before dinner, on passing St. George's Hospital, it was suggested to be a good subject for verse, and Miss Landon was requested to adopt it. Dinner passed, and within an hour the ladies were joined at tea, by which time a most touching poem of 74 lines was completed on the given theme.4

L.E.L.'s poems that were contributed to the Gazette, whether on assignment or voluntarily, tended to be what McGann and Riess describe as "poems on the subject of paintings and mass-produced engravings of contemporary artists. These sentimental commodity-poems made ambiguous capital of a popular spectacle of beauty."5 L.E.L. wrote often and lengthily in that way, producing a second-order art--and by that phrase we do not refer to art that is derivative, or lesser in significance, but rather art that is about art, on the analogy of Bertrand Russell's concept of "second-order language," which is language that refers to other language.

L.E.L.'s poetry is characteristically about artifice and artificial narratives, and not about language per se. Though readers from her lifetime to now sometimes miss the point, her works are not about the experiences and feelings of the narrated characters; they are about the narration of those feelings and experiences. L.E.L. writes poems about tales of love, but she does not write tales of love.

For example, she wrote often in that way in her hundreds of contributions to gift books and annuals: besides contributing to many annuals, L.E.L. edited and wrote much or perhaps even all of Fishers' Drawing Room Scrapbook from 1832 to 1839, and also Heath's Book of Beauty for 1833. L.E.L.'s book The Easter Gift (1832) was composed and produced in the form of an annual. In her books of poetry--including a section of her book "The Troubador," Catalogue of Pictures and Historical Sketches6 and including numerous and lengthy descriptions of art in the title poem of her book The Improvisatrice7--L.E.L. makes a glittering show of her artificial preoccupation with the artificiality of art.

A striking example of this characteristic genre of L.E.L.'s poetry is the series Medallion Wafers, which appeared in the Literary Gazette for 25 January, 8 February, and 1 March. An earlier issue of that periodical (4 January) had included a description, in prose, of several sealing wafers, each of which bore an engraved reproduction of a contemporary painting. L.E.L.'s poems then imagine their imagery as a narrative (of love), and repudiate the falseness of love in presence of the reality of sorrow.8 Similarly, L.E.L.'s poem "The Hall of Statues" (published in the Literary Gazette 25 June 1831 and reprinted in Selected Writings, 46-50) begins by observing that art (in the form here of crimson Tyrian curtains, ornamented with gold) casts a false light on grim actualities. L.E.L. wrote hundreds of poems about art. Most often, each such poem is literally about a picture or statue (though her descriptions sometimes contradict the pictures), while more trenchantly the poems make an issue of the artificiality of art. One of the last books to bear Landon's name, published in her lifetime, was The Pictorial Album; or, Cabinet of Painting, for the Year 1837. Containing eleven designs, executed in oil colours . . . from the original pictures, with illustrations in verse and prose [1837]: the paintings reproduced in this volume are by George Baxter; the illustrations in prose are by James Ollier, and the illustrations in verse are by L.E.L. This genre characterizes her early work, however, as well her later: this genre and this style were established long before she wrote "Verses" in 1828 for the Keepsake for 1829.

An issue on which most (but not all) memoirists and commentators agree is the literariness (i.e., the artificiality) of L.E.L.'s professionally adopted themes. This feature of her work elicits negative judgments from critics in the romantic school of thought, habituated to valuing what they believe to be true personal feeling, or sincerity, or authenticity in an individualistic mode. Art that is about art, or poetry that makes its own artifice into a theme, will not gratify the expectations of such readers unless they mistake its second-order ironies for more innocent pretense of true (personal) feeling. In an anonymous review of "The Improvisatrice" and Other Poems [probably written by Jerdan, and appearing in The Literary Gazette 389 (3 July 1824)], one of the rare voices of admiration for the artistry of L.E.L.'s poetry reduces the concept of artistry to true personal feeling in the romantic school of art:

If true poetry consist in originality of conception, fineness of imagination, beautiful fitness and glow of expression, genuine feeling, and the outpourings of fresh and natural thoughts in all the force of fresh and natural language, it is pre-eminently conspicuous in the writings of L.E.L. (rpt. in McGann and Riess, 292)

More typically, early reviewers presumed L.E.L.'s immersion in true personal feeling and faulted her art, as, for example, the anonymous review of The Troubadour and The Golden Violet, probably written by John Arthur Roebuck and published in The Westminster Review, 7 (January 1827): 50-67:

L.E.L.'s poems are, for the most part, metrical romances; generally sentimental descriptions of sentimental loves: it is nothing wonderful, therefore, that they have attracted the admiration of her female readers. Love is the great business of a woman's life; and any one who discourses with but ordinary ability on this all-important topic, finds in a woman a ready, patient, and admiring listener. . . . L.E.L. has acquired a degree of fame by writing on love, which she by no means deserves. (rpt. in McGann and Riess, 304-305)

More typically still, reviewers, memoirists, critics, and biographers preserve the expectation that poetry does and should voice true and personal feelings, whether they find such a thing in L.E.L.'s poetry or not; and when they do not, its absence is treated as reason for disapproval. Thus, for example, Enfield represents a widely held view (and a correlative negative judgment) that dates from L.E.L.'s lifetime and which reappears even now when works like L.E.L.'s contributions to the literary annuals are discussed:9 Landon, Enfield writes,

wrote to order, for the annuals, Heath's Book of Beauty, the Forget-Me-Nots, the Keepsake, Friendship's Offering, Fisher's Drawing Room Scrap Book, and others. The whole of this extinct species is described by Thackeray in the Spring Annual by which young Pendennis earned his first guineas in London. "That eminent publisher Mr. Bacon . . . used to present to the world every year a beautiful gilt volume called the Spring Annual, edited by Lady Violet Lebas, and numbering among its contributors not only the most eminent but the most fashionable poets of our time. Young Lord Dodo's poems first appeared in this miscellany. The Honourable Percy Popjoy, whose chivalrous ballads have obtained him such a reputation; Bedwin Sand's Eastern Ghazuls, and many more of the works of our young nobles were first given to the world in the Spring Annual, which has since shared the fate of other vernal blossoms and perished out of the world. The book was daintily illustrated with pictures of reigning beauties, or other prints of a tender and voluptuous character, and as these plates were prepared long beforehand, requiring much time in engraving, it was the eminent poets who had to write for the plates, and not the painters who illustrated the poems." (Enfield, 86-87)

That passage appears in Enfield's chapter entitled "Hack Work." But the artifice and artificiality that are there faulted might, if understood more adequately, be perceived to constitute the excellence and achievement of poetry like L.E.L.'s, though that perception requires some historical vantage.

L.E.L. cultivated the double art of a poetry that is a critique of the very illusions that it permits its readers to perceive, if they prefer. As Kathryn Ledbetter has written elsewhere, "the guiding aesthetic in annual literature was that literature gives voice to desires of the heart"11 -- To use Schiller's distinction, this poetry is a sentimental critique which permits its own confusion with the naive. For understanding L.E.L.'s development of such an art, it helps to recall the actual circumstances of her work and her working. After the death of her father, L.E.L. assumed financial obligations for her surviving relations, and she earned money by her prolific writing, on assignment and independently, always with an ability to judge what stylistic, generic, and thematic features were popular at the time. Increasingly, as she grew older, L.E.L. lifted into the explicit surface of her writings a critique of the illusions (foremost among them the conventional story of true love) featured in popular literature and art, but that critique was present (though not always noticed) from the beginning. For example, in "The Hall of Statues" L.E.L. writes of Lawrence Macdonald's sculpture, "Supplicating Virgin," suggesting that the sculpture's fictitious subject woke from "a gentle dream" to learn that "Every thing is false below." In "A Child Screening a Dove from a Hawk, by [Thomas] Stewardson," published in The Troubadour (1825), L.E.L.'s persona says that "Ever amid the sweets of life / Some evil thing must be"--and the "evil thing" is "love." In another poem of meta-art, "Lines Written under a Picture of a Girl Burning a Love-Letter" (published in "The Improvisatrice" and Other Poems, 1824), L.E.L. adopts the voice of the pictured girl, saying "So bright at first, so dark at last, / I feared it was love's history." In her preface to her book The Venetian Bracelet (1828), she mentions--but only to dismiss--

the frequent applications of my works to myself, considering that I sometimes portrayed love unrequited, then betrayed, and again destroyed by death--may I hint the conclusions are not quite logically drawn, as assuredly the same mind cannot have suffered such varied modes of misery. However, if I must have an unhappy passion, I can only console myself with my own perfect unconsciousness of so great a misfortune.

In the same preface, L.E.L. writes that her aspirations involve not love but fame; but already "Erinna" in The Golden Violet (1826) had voiced a loss of that llusion, too: "O dream of fame, what hast thou been to me / But the destroyer of life's calm content!" (ll. 215-16). L.E.L.'s poetry invokes illusions as its materials; disillusion is then its plot:10 "day by day / Some new illusion is destroyed, and life / Gets cold and colder on towards its close" (ll. 264-66). The second-order status of such poetry--not its derivative character, but its ability to make its own illusionary status into its subject-matter--is its achievement. Her work amounts to a trenchant critique of the (commercial and conventional) lies about life that reappeared, then as now, in popular entertainments--especially the sexualized story of true personal love and the correlative reduction of art to an illusion of passionate (and true, and personal) feeling. As a professional manufacturer of such products, L.E.L. had a workaday acquaintance with their fictitious and fabricated nature. She was able to manufacture examples (by the hundreds) that satisfied precisely the expectations of which they were most harshly critical.

That dual theme, more than any other issue, is characteristic of L.E.L.'s writings: her poetry enables its conventional readership to (mis)recognize the artificial conventions of sentimentality, even to enjoy those conventions, and certainly to buy them, while her poetry simultaneously mocks, parodies, and bitterly criticizes those sentimental illusions--first by making them visible as constructed illusions, and secondly by emplotting disillusionment. In connection with this dual theme The Keepsake is an important and especially meaningful venue for L.E.L.'s poetry. To quote one important recent commentator on the annuals,

Everything in and about the Keepsake is false. The illustrations were not engraved, but mostly etched. The ones by Heath were not by Heath but by a group of engravers in his shop that worked on individual parts of any illustration. The edges were not gold. It was not "great" literature but marketed itself so. The readers were not upper class but were "wanna bes" who gazed at images of beauty that weren't the original images, but "engraved" replications of the original paintings that were copies of the original model. And to go even further, the books were not handcrafted as advertising marketing implies, but were made in an assembly line at a book factory. Its binding is fancy dress material pasted on boards, imitating feminine fashion--fashion is not a book but a book is fashion. And the Keepsake longed for the past but had little to do with the past; all is fake. The only ingredient that isn't false is the sentiment attached to the product by the individual reader, which we can't measure and doesn't exist anymore. Its only evidence of desire is the signature plate or inscription on the inner leaf . . . traces.12

To make visible that extreme degree of artificiality, and to clarify the fact that such fakery is the normal condition of poetry that masquerades as personal feeling, is an intellectual accomplishment of some magnitude. If whole generations--whole cultures--were enabled, by such artistry, to see their own illusions as artifacts in vellum (or celluloid, or CRT), much would have been accomplished. Toward that accomplishment, the gilt and silk and vellum of the Keepsake, and even its bribery, its advertising, its marketing, and its questionable business practices, contribute meaningfully. With or without the editors' and authors' intentions, the Keepsake volumes make that condition of artificiality, manipulation, and deceit more clearly visible than most (perhaps any) other volumes of the 1820s.13 The presence in these volumes of work by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott, Mary Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and L.E.L. might make available a more totally critical vision of the period's literary illusions, and the period's own canny comprehension of its artifice, than what has been traditionally supposed.

Two of the most ordinary forms of gossip dominate the remainder of L.E.L.'s recorded life: gossip about her supposed love life, and gossip about her supposedly exotic death. Enfield writes that "about 1830 onwards, she herself, her friends, and acquaintances began to be deluged with anonymous letters accusing L.E.L. of immoral conduct generally, and in particular of being the mistress of a married man" (93). In contrast, Renalds writes that "malicious rumors . . . began to be circulated about her in the mid-1820s" (225). The date and the locus of such slander are matters on which no consensus has been reached: McGann and Riess report that Stephenson "argues that a series of anonymous articles published in the Wasp in 1826 were the first public slander of Landon's reputation (35-36)" (30), whereas "Grace and Philip Wharton" (i.e., Katherine and John C. Thomson or Antony Todd Thomson) "claim that 'the first attempt to injure her character was made in the 'Sun' newspaper' about the time of the publication of The Troubadour (174)" (31). Stephenson terms the public venues of the slander "the gutter press" (36), and dates the earliest examples in October and November of 1826, but she also shows that such gossip had been circulated even earlier--"at least by June of 1826" (37). The gossip concerned L.E.L.'s supposedly scandalous behavior involving men, some of whom were married, and the rumor that such scandals ruined or threatened marriage arrangements that L.E.L. had made. (For details of the gossip, see the biographical sources listed in note 1, below).

As Garnett has said, "no circumstance respecting 'L.E.L.' has occasioned so much discussion as her sudden and mysterious death at Cape Coast Castle on 15 Oct. 1838" (494). L.E.L. had married George Maclean, governor of Cape Coast Castle, in June 1838; in July they sailed for Africa, and three months later she died there. Reportedly, she was found with a medicine bottle in her hand (she had been taking prussic acid for an ailment). The coroner's inquest did not satisfy some of her friends or many among the inquiring public, and rumors have circulated from 1838 to now about her husband's supposedly vengeful African mistress, a possibility of L.E.L.'s suicide, and the supposedly interesting "mystery" (a word that appears in most biographies as well as Enfield's subtitle) of her death. Personalistic sentimentality is understood to be a favorable marketing condition for writings that are believed to be about personal sentiment; such marketing conditions promote the circulation of rumors, the enjoyment of gossip, and the hedonistic substitution of personal feelings for the harder-edged meanings of L.E.L.'s professionally manufactured verbal art.


1. Principal sources include the following, listed in chronological order: Laman Blanchard, "Memoir of L.E.L.," New Monthly Magazine 50 (May 1837): 78-82; Emma Roberts, "Memoir of L.E.L.," in "The Zenana" and Minor Poems of L.E.L. (London: Fisher, 1839; Blanchard, Life and Literary Remains of L.E.L. , 2 vols. (London: Colburn, 1841); Mrs. A. K. Elwood, "Mrs. Maclean," in Memoirs of Literary Ladies of England, 2 vols. (London: Henry Colburn, 1843); anon., but evidently William Jerdan, "Memoir," in Romance and Reality. By L.E.L. . . . With a Memoir (London: Bentley, 1848); William Jerdan, The Autobiography of William Jerdan, 4 vols. (London: Hall, 1852-54); Grace and Philip Wharton [pseudonyms of Katherine B. and John C. Thomson or Antony Todd Thomson], The Queens of Society (London: Hogg, 1860; New York: Harper and Brothers, 1860; Philadelphia: James Hogg, n.d.); S. C. Hall, A Book of Memories of Great Men and Women of the Age (London: Virtue, 1871); D. E. Enfield, L.E.L.: A Mystery of the Thirties (London: The Hogarth Press, 1928); Richard Garnett, "Letitia Elizabeth Landon," in DNB (1937); Anne Ethel Wyly, Letitia Elizabeth Landon: Her Career, Her "Mysterious" Death, and Her Poetry (unpublished thesis, Duke University, 1942); F. J. Sypher, Introduction to Landon's "The Fate of Adelaide" (Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1990); Brenda H. Renalds, "Letitia Elizabeth Landon," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 96 (1990); William B. Scott, "Preliminary Memoir" of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, in The Poetical Works of Letitia Elizabeth Landon (London: George Routledge and Sons, n.d. [1873]), rpt. with intro. by F. J. Sypher (Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles, 1990); Glennis Stephenson, Letitia Landon: The Woman Behind L.E.L. (New York: Manchester University Press, 1995). Several but not all of these important sources are cited in the excellent introductory essay in Letitia Elizabeth Landon: Selected Writings, ed. Jerome McGann and Daniel Riess (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1997); this volume is especially useful not only for its texts but also for its appendix, "Index to the Poetry of Letitia Elizabeth Landon," ed. Glenn Dilbert-Himes and Cynthia Gay Lawford. Return to Essay

2. In Sypher's introduction to The Fate of Adelaide, Sypher quotes a letter from L.E.L.'s mother to the editor William Jerdan, 27 November 1820: "Mrs. Siddons is shortly going to Oxford, and as we have connections there, and Mrs. S. is taking it up very warmly , we have hope that something may be done for our poetic sketches" (22). Return to Essay

3. L., "Rome," The Literary Gazette 164 [11 March 1820]: 173. At first, Landon published her poems with only the initial L. for a signature; soon she adopted the signature L.E.L. Return to Essay

4. Anon. (evidently Jerdan), "Memoir," p. xi. Return to Essay

5. McGann and Riess, Introduction, p. 12. Return to Essay

6. L.E.L., The Troubadour, Catalogue of Pictures, and Historical Sketches (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1827). Return to Essay

7. L.E.L., "The Improvisatrice" and Other Poems (London: Hurst and Robinson, 1824). Return to Essay

8. Two poems from this series, Medallion Wafers, are reprinted in Letitia Elizabeth Landon: Selected Writings, ed. McGann and Riess, 43-45. For a discussion of the poems, see Daniel Riess, "Letitia Landon and the Dawn of English Post-Romanticism," Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 36 (Autumn 1996): 807-827. Return to Essay

9. See, for example Peter J. Manning's "Wordsworth in the Keepsake, 1829," in Literature in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century British Publishing and Reading Practices, ed. John O. Jordan and Robert L. Patten (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 44-73, which combines factual information about the production of the Keepsake with a negative judgment of its literary worth. Return to Essay

10. Ledbetter, "'Begemmed and beAmuletted": Tennyson and Those 'vapid' Gift Books," Victorian Poetry 34: 2 (Summer 1996): 235-45. Return to Essay

11. On disillusion as the theme of L.E.L.'s poetry quite generally, see McGann's chaper on L.E.L., "Waking from Adam's Dream: L.E.L.'s Art of Disillusion," in his The Poetics of Sensibility (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 143-49. Return to Essay

12. Letter from Kathryn Ledbetter to Terence Hoagwood, 22 October 1997.Return to Essay

13. The best account of the production of the Keepsake, and the extent to which manipulation of imagery controlled that production, is Kathryn Ledbetter, "White Vellum and Gilt Edges: Imaging The Keepsake." Studies in the Literary Imagination 30: 1 (Spring 1997): 35-50. See also Ledbetter's Ph.D. dissertation (University of South Carolina, 1995), "A Woman's Book: The Keepsake Literary Annual." Return to Essay

Bibliography: Books by L.E.L.

Note: This list is limited to works published initially as separate volumes. See also the "Index to the Poetry of Letitia Elizabeth Landon," ed. Glenn Dilbert-Himes and Cynthia Lawford, in Selected Writings, ed. McGann and Riess.

"The Fate of Adelaide: A Swiss Romantic Tale"; and Other Poems. London: John Warren, 1821.

"The Improvisatrice" and Other Poems. London: Hurst, Robinson; Edinburgh: Constable, 1824.

"The Troubadour," Catalogue of Pictures, and Historical Sketches. London: Hurst, Robinson; Edinburgh: Constable, 1825.

"The Golden Violet, With Its Tales of Romance and Chivalry"; and Other Poems. London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1827.

"The Venetian Bracelet," "The Lost Pleiad," "A History of the Lyre," and Other Poems. London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1829.

Romance and Reality. 3 vols. London: H. Colburn and R. Bentley, 1831. [A novel.]

The Easter Gift: A Religious Offering. London: Fisher, 1832.

Fisher's Drawing Room Scrap-Book. London and Paris : Fisher, Son, & Co., 1832-38 [according to Renalds] or 1832-39 [according to Stephenson, Letitia Landon.]

Heath's Book of Beauty ... : With Nineteen Beautifully Finished Engravings From Drawings by the First Artists . London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, and Longman, 1833.

Francesca Carrara. 3 vols. London: Richard Bentley, 1834. [A novel.]

"The Vow of the Peacock" and Other Poems. (London: Saunders and Otley, 1835. [Rpt. in a facsimile edition with intro. by F. J. Sypher (Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1997).]

The Miscellaneous Poetical Works of L.E.L., Author of "The Improvisatrice," "The Golden Violet," &c. London : Saunders and Otley, 1835.

Traits and Trials of Early Life. London: H. Colburn, 1836. [Stories for children.]

Ethel Churchill, or The Two Brides. London: H. Colburn, 1837.

Flowers of Loveliness: Thirty-six Groups of Female Figures, Emblematic of Flowers, Beautifully Coloured. London : Ackermann, 1837. [This short book (containing only 47pp.) includes thirty-six leaves of color plates and thirty poems by L.E.L.]

The Pictorial Album; or, Cabinet of Painting, for the Year 1837. Containing eleven designs, executed in oil colours . . . from the original pictures, with illustrations in verse and prose. London: Chapman and Hall, 1837. [The paintings reproduced in this volume are by George Baxter; the illustrations in prose are by James Ollier, and the illustrations in verse are by L.E.L.]

"The Zenana" and Minor Poems of L.E.L. London: Fisher, 1839.

Laman Blanchard, Life and Literary Remains of L.E.L., 2 vols. London: Colburn, 1841. [Includes in volume 2 a tragedy by L.E.L. entitled Castruccio Castrucani; or, The Triumph of Lucca; 16pp. of poetry entitled "The Female Picture Gallery"; 41pp. of poetry entitled "Subjects for Pictures"; 20pp. of "Miscellaneous Poems"; 42pp. of "Fragments"; and and 12pp. of "Fugitive Poems."]

Lady Anne Granard, or, Keeping Up Appearances. 3 vols. London: H. Colburn, 1842 . [In Letitia Landon (202), Stephenson reports that Landon wrote only part of this novel.]

Critical Writings. Ed. F. J. Sypher. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles, 1996. [Reprints reviews and arcticles by L.E.L.]