It’s easy to find fame these days, in this era of social media. That isn’t a criticism – the very nature of what I do for a living makes me a social media advocate – but I do sometimes wonder where we’re all headed in our pursuit of the most likes, shares and attention.
Letitia Elizabeth Landon achieved that most rare of things: a lifetime of celebrity followed by almost instantaneous anonymity. And yet, the Londoner who died in West Africa with an empty bottle of prussic acid in her hand, blazed a trail through Georgian London, delighting young and old alike with her poetry.
I confess, I had never heard of L.E.L., as she was known, and to whom Lucasta Miller, the author of ‘The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated Female Byron’, has dedicated many years of research. It was at a talk by Ms Miller that I learned more about this intriguing personality, beloved by the Brontës, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti.
Letitia was born in London in 1802 into an upper middle class family, who lived in comfort in Knightsbridge. Her father, John, worked in finance and Letitia’s was a comfortable childhood, during which the family moved to a country mansion. This was the era of poets like Walter Scott and George Byron, the latter the 19th century equivalent of a rock star. Coming from a family of poetry lovers, Letitia read all the poetry she could get her hands on and was expected to learn chunks of it off by heart – not what you might expect from the daughter of an uneducated and illegitimate mother, albeit one who was a close friend of the legendary actress Sarah Siddon.
During the financial crisis of 1816 Letitia’s father lost all his money and the family returned to London. Soon after, John Landon was declared bankrupt – and disappeared, leaving Letitia, her sister, mother and governess to fend for themselves.
After Letitia’s governess submitted some of her pupil’s poems to the Literary Gazette, that publication offered Letitia her own column. Cannily, the magazine’s Literary Editor, William Jerdan, kept the column anonymous, dropping just the odd clue as to who its author might be. ‘L.E.L.’ was a huge and instantaneous success.
Poetry, then, was popular with both young women and young men and Letitia’s poetry rapidly became a craze among undergraduates who believed that, with her copious references to nature she was actually referencing sex and suicide.
Would you be surprised to hear that Letitia and William Jerdan had a lengthy affair? In 2000, an Australian art dealer got in touch with a literary editor, claiming that Letitia was his great grandmother. It turns out that Letitia had three children by Jerdan, although that was not widely known at the time. This made her poetry all the more daring, says Miller: L.E.L. trod a fine line between her public image and her subject matter.
1824 proved a landmark year. Letitia’s and Jerdan’s first child had been sent away and, as with her future children, Letitia never saw him again. Byron died – and accordingly, Jerdan decided to introduce Letitia to the world as the “New Byron”. Letitia also published her first book – a massive bestseller across the globe.
However, in 1826 the Sunday Times ran an exposé of Letitia’s and Jerdan’s affair after a cleaner caught them in flagrante and the newspaper also revealed the existence of their first child. Letitia’s reaction was to lie, deny and lie again – even to her closest friends. She managed to maintain her reputation in some circles but the gossip worsened, rather than going away.
By now, Letitia was acting as deputy editor for the Literary Gazette, but receiving no payment and Lucasta Miller found no mention of her in the magazine’s records. She was making money from her books, but receiving merely hand-outs; the rest, Jerdan siphoned off. That gentleman was notoriously bad with money and eventually went bankrupt, just like Letitia’s father.
The constant stream of innuendo about Letitia continued, much of it published by her own colleagues. Powerless to stop it, she could only watch as Jerdan began an affair with an 18 year old poet, with whom he shacked up in Lambeth after his bankruptcy, leaving behind his wife and five children – and Letitia, who had endured so much vitriol because of their relationship.
In 1835 came a glimmer of hope: Letitia became engaged to John Forster, known to us now as a great friend of Charles Dickens. Ten years younger than her, he was unaware of the rumours swirling around. However, after John received anonymous letters about her sexuality, Letitia broke off the engagement.
Poor Letitia. Increasingly isolated, with her female friends abandoning her or trying desperately to find her a husband, she was up to her eyeballs in debt. When, in 1838, George Maclean, governor of the Gold Coast (now Ghana) proposed marriage, she must have believed that, finally, life was going to become a little easier.
The couple set sail for Cape Coast in July of that year, arriving in August. Alas for Letitia, she was about to be drawn into a whole new web of lies: British involvement in slavery, even after its abolition. Cape Coast Castle was a former slaving post and Lucasta Miller described to us in graphic detail the “appalling” underground dungeons, which she saw with her own eyes, where slaves were kept before being shipped overseas – a practice that was supposedly over when Letitia arrived.
You need to read Lucasta Miller’s book to fully understand how harrowing the two months leading up to Letitia’s death were. Her husband believed himself to have been manoeuvred into marrying her – and Letitia herself described him as a “disciplinarian”; hardly the stuff of romance.
We also know that Letitia had been a drug addict for some time; she was addicted to laudanum, like Coleridge and so many of their contemporaries – and prussic acid was frequently the next step. Whether or not she used it to commit suicide, or whether she simply misjudged what was a safe amount, continues to be debated. Murder, suicide and accidental suicide have all been mooted.
What is certain is that, on the morning of her death, Letitia gave two letters to her maid – and that her maid passed them to George Maclean after Letitia died. Those letters disappeared – and their contents remain unknown. Were they suicide notes? We can only conjecture. George Maclean argued ferociously against the idea of his wife having committed suicide – but then, the last thing he needed was a public spotlight shone upon him, a corrupt individual involved in many bad practices.
There is little doubt that Letitia was unhappy; thousands of miles from her friends and family, the two English servants who’d sailed out with her about to return home. And George Maclean had discovered a letter written to Letitia which he believed alluded to her having had a child by another man.
Letitia’s London doctor denied having sent her any bottles of prussic acid, despite the fact that, in his weekly column for Literary Gazette, he regularly recommended prussic acid for all manner of ailments. Rumours of murder abounded. After all, George had a “local” wife, Ellen – with whom he’d had several children – and the idea that Ellen had murdered Letitia with a local poison was an appealing one, albeit one supported by no evidence whatsoever.
The inquest into Letitia’s death, held on the day that she died, concluded that her death was an accident and that she had overdosed on the prussic acid prescribed by her doctor for medical use. For her part, and after years of “extremely hard” research, Lucasta Miller believes that Letitia probably did commit suicide – with the proviso that it is very hard to gauge a drug addict’s intentions.
I was captivated by this tale of literary brilliance and Georgian hypocrisy. Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s untimely death, aged 36, left many unanswered questions – and her literary legacy deserves to be remembered. Hopefully, Lucasta Miller’s book will go some way to addressing that.