Thursday, April 23, 2020

Letitia Elizabeth Landon—National Poetry Month 2020

English Romantic poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon was often compared to Lord Byron but his promiscuity was winked at or even admired while mere rumors of hers destroyed her.
Letitia Elizabeth Landon was once perhaps the most esteemed English Female Romantic Poet but even as her reputation soared she was beset with rumor and innuendo over alleged sexual dalliances and perhaps even a bastard child or aborted pregnancies.  The extent to which those rumors were true is still unclear and in debate.  What is true is that bubbling scandal ruined her promising life, led to an early and tragic death, and eventually caused later scandalized Victorians to erase her literary memory.  The charming roguery of a Lord Byron did not harm his public esteem, but even the hint of sexual adventures was fatal to the young woman.
Landon was born on August 14, 1802 in Chelsea, London to John Landon and his wife Catherine Jane.  A precocious child, Landon learned to read as a toddler.
At the age of five, Landon began attending Frances Arabella Rowden’s school in Knightsbridge.  Rowden was an engaging teacher, a poet, and had a particular enthusiasm for the theatre. According to Mary Russell Mitford, ‘she had a knack of making poetesses of her pupils” like Caroline Ponsonby, later Lady Caroline Lamb; Emma Roberts, the travel writer; Anna Maria Fielding, who published as Mrs. S. C. Hall; and Rosina Doyle Wheeler, who published her many novels as Rosina Bulwer Lytton.  Landon would surpass them all.
The Landons moved to the country in 1809, so that her could carry out a model farm project. Letitia was educated at home by her older cousin Elizabeth who quickly found her knowledge and abilities outstripped by those of her pupil.  During those years she was extremely close to her younger brother Whittington Henry, born in 1804 and the pair enjoyed many bucolic adventures together.
After an agricultural depression in 1815 forced the family to move back to London in reduced circumstances young Letitia began selling some of her poetry to help support the family.  She charmed and came under the tutelage of William Jerdan, editor of the Literary Gazette which first published one of her verses in 1820.  Jerdan thought of her ideas as “original and extraordinary.”  The following year grandmother underwrote her first book of poetry, The Fate of Adelaide, under her full name. The book met with little critical notice, but sold well.  The publisher soon failed and Landon received no profits.

Landon from the front piece of one of her books of poetry.

She was soon publishing more often in the Gazette signing her work L.E.L the byline with which she gained fame.  Landon went on to serve as the Gazette’s chief reviewer as she continued to write poetry.  Her second collection, The Improvisatrice, appeared in 1824 to some acclaim.  Her father died later that year, and she was forced to write as the sole support of her family.  Although literary work by gentlewomen was considered acceptable a woman writing professionally was a scandal some believed was little short of prostitution.
Her bother Whittington was the chief beneficiary of her labors.  She paid for his education at Worcester College, Oxford.  He went on to become a minister and was deeply embarrassed by his “scandalous” sister going so far as to later spread rumors about her marriage and death.

Writer John Forster was Landon's fiancé who demanded proof of her guiltlessness then jilted her anyway.
By 1826, Landon’s reputation began to suffer as rumors circulated that she had had affairs or secretly borne children. She continued to publish poetry, and in 1831 her first novel, Romance and Reality. She became engaged to John Forster who became aware of the gossip regarding Landon's sexual activity, and asked her to refute them. Landon responded that Forster should “make every inquiry in [his] power” which he Forster did.  Although he proclaimed her blameless he none-the-less broke off their engagement. To him, she wrote:
The more I think, the more I feel I ought not—I can not—allow you to unite yourself with one accused of—I can not write it. The mere suspicion is dreadful as death. Were it stated as a fact, that might be disproved. Were it a difficulty of any other kind, I might say, Look back at every action of my life, ask every friend I have. But what answer can I give ... ? I feel that to give up all idea of a near and dear connection is as much my duty to myself as to you…
Desperate to escape the lingering scandal Landon began seeking a marriage that would take her away from England and the gossip mongers.  There were candidates but her association with them only fed the fire. In October 1836, Landon met George Maclean, Governor of the Gold Coast (now Ghana) at a dinner party given by Matthew Forster, and the two began a relationship. Maclean, however, moved to Scotland early the following year, to the surprise and distress of Landon and her friends. After much prodding, Maclean returned to England and they were married shortly on June 7. 1838.  But to spare Maclean scandal the marriage was kept secret, and Landon spent the first month of it living with friends.

Portrait of a cad--George Maclean, Governor of the Gold Coast.
Maclean was entirely unsuited for Landon having felt trapped into the marriage.  He treated her curtly and coldly while himself indulging in affairs.  In early July, the couple sailed for Cape Coast, arrived on 16 August 16 1838.  MacLean has to scurry of the ship ahead of his wife to make sure a long-time local Black mistress and their children had left town.
Landon was in despair.  She was also ill with a critical heart condition for which she was prescribed prussic acid, a deadly poison in all but the smallest doses. On October 15, 1838, Landon was found dead with a bottle prussic acid in her hand.  She was hastily buried in the courtyard of Cape Coast Castle.   Rumors swirled that Maclean or his former mistress poisoned her or that she committed suicide upon discovery of the relationship.  Others think that the overdose was accidental.   Whatever, she was dead at only 36 years old.
The immediate effect of the news of her death was an outpouring of support and admiration by some of England’s most admired literary figures including Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who wrote L.E.L.’s Last Question in homage; and Christina Rossetti, who published a tribute poem L.E.L in her 1866 volume The Prince's Progress and Other Poems.  Landon’s poetry was initially re-printed and anthologized.
But Victorians of the later years of the 19th Century took a much dimmer view and soon Landon was nearly a literary unperson.  In the next century her dated Romantic style was an excuse to ignore her, although far less adept Romantics—safely male—did not suffer.  

Lucasta Millers recent biography examines the double standard that destroyed Landon personally and as a literary figure.
Of late feminist scholars have revived interest in Landon and she was recently the subject of a new biography L.E.L.: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron” by Lucasta Miller.  
Lines of Life
Orphan in my first years, I early learnt
To make my heart suffice itself, and seek
Support and sympathy in its own depths.

Well, read my cheek, and watch my eye, —
    Too strictly school’d are they
One secret of my soul to show,
    One hidden thought betray.

I never knew the time my heart
    Look’d freely from my brow;
It once was check’d by timidness,
     ‘Tis taught by caution now.

I live among the cold, the false,
    And I must seem like them;
And such I am, for I am false
   As those I most condemn.

I teach my lip its sweetest smile,
    My tongue its softest tone;
I borrow others’ likeness, till
    Almost I lose my own.

I pass through flattery’s gilded sieve,
    Whatever I would say;
In social life, all, like the blind,
    Must learn to feel their way.

I check my thoughts like curbed steeds
    That struggle with the rein;
I bid my feelings sleep, like wrecks
    In the unfathom’d main.

I hear them speak of love, the deep.
    The true, and mock the name;
Mock at all high and early truth,
    And I too do the same.

I hear them tell some touching tale,
    I swallow down the tear;
I hear them name some generous deed,
    And I have learnt to sneer.

I hear the spiritual, the kind,
    The pure, but named in mirth;
Till all of good, ay, even hope,
    Seems exiled from our earth.

And one fear, withering ridicule,
    Is all that I can dread;
A sword hung by a single hair
    For ever o’er the head.

We bow to a most servile faith,
    In a most servile fear;
While none among us dares to say
    What none will choose to hear.

And if we dream of loftier thoughts,
    In weakness they are gone;
And indolence and vanity
    Rivet our fetters on.

Surely I was not born for this!
    I feel a loftier mood
Of generous impulse, high resolve,
    Steal o'er my solitude!

I gaze upon the thousand stars
    That fill the midnight sky;
And wish, so passionately wish,
    A light like theirs on high.

I have such eagerness of hope
    To benefit my kind;
And feel as if immortal power
    Were given to my mind.

I think on that eternal fame,
    The sun of earthly gloom.
Which makes the gloriousness of death,
    The future of the tomb —

That earthly future, the faint sign
    Of a more heavenly one;
— A step, a word, a voice, a look, —
    Alas! my dream is done!

And earth, and earth's debasing stain,
    Again is on my soul;
And I am but a nameless part
    Of a most worthless whole.

Why write I this? because my heart
    Towards the future springs,
That future where it loves to soar
    On more than eagle wings.

The present, it is but a speck
    In that eternal time,
In which my lost hopes find a home,
    My spirit knows its clime.

Oh! not myself, — for what am I? —
    The worthless and the weak,
Whose every thought of self should rais
    A blush to burn my cheek.

But song has touch’d my lips with fire.
    And made my heart a shrine;
For what, although alloy’d, debased,
    Is in itself divine.
I am myself but a vile link
    Amid life's weary chain;
But I have spoken hallow’d words,
    O do not say in vain!

My first, my last, my only wish,
    Say will my charmed chords
Wake to the morning light of fame,
    And breathe again my words?

Will the young maiden, when her tears
    Alone in moonlight shine —
Tears for the absent and the loved —
    Murmur some song of mine?

Will the pale youth by his dim lamp,
    Himself a dying flame,
From many an antique scroll beside,
    Choose that which bears my name?

Let music make less terrible
    The silence of the dead;
I care not, so my spirit last
    Long after life has fled.

Letitia Elizabeth Landon

No comments:

Post a Comment