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Her life was tragic. But was she a great poet?

L.E.L.: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron”.?By Lucasta Miller.?Knopf; 416 pages; $30. Jonathan Cape; £25

LETITIA ELIZABETH LANDON was the Sappho of her age, a Scheherazade and a Becky Sharp. She wore many masks. Guileless ingénue. Poet of unspoken passions. Mistress to her editor. Wronged woman. A fly caught in gossip’s web. A prolific (but impoverished) author of verse, fiction and literary hackwork. She wrote under her initials—“L.E.L.”—with their echoes of “elle” and “hell”. The poet Robert Southey had called Byron and Shelley “the Satanic school”; the infernal L.E.L. was its first female member. She called her poems “songs” as if they were composed not on the page, but on the lyre. “I have sung passionate songs of beating hearts,” she wrote, “the fallen leaf, the faded flower, the broken heart, and the early grave.”

Hearts beat to her metre. The writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton rushed each week at Cambridge for the new Literary Gazette and “the three magical letters ‘L.E.L.’.” Elizabeth Barrett (not yet Browning) admired Landon’s “raw bare powers” and thought her the pre-eminent poetess. Barrett’s “Aurora Leigh” drew on Landon’s smash hit, “The Improvisatrice”. The Bront?s hung on her every restless word.

Who now reads L.E.L? asks Lucasta Miller, as she seeks to restore Landon to the temple of the muses. In life, Landon was wounded by gossip—“the spiders of society/ They weave their petty webs of lies and sneers”—and by the “cold mockery” of the critics. She has suffered worse in death. In “Middlemarch” George Eliot makes the silly, spendthrift Rosamond Vincy a fan. In Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando”, the hero-turned-heroine is aghast to find herself in the early 19th century with L.E.L.’s stanzas pouring from her pen, “the most insipid verse she had ever read in her life.” The charge sheet is grave: she was a peddler of “rubbishy sentimentality”, a poet of “pasteboard” passions, her “phantasies” no more sophisticated than a schoolgirl’s.

Born in 1802, she was indeed a schoolgirl when she began writing. She lived with her grandmother in the new London suburb of Brompton (later she reinvented her rackety upbringing). Across the way was William Jerdan, editor of the Literary Gazette, his wife and their young family. In 1820 Landon, aged 18, sent her governess to Jerdan with a note. A young lady unknown to him “ventures to intrude the enclosed lines”. He published them, made her famous and made her his mistress. Thomas Carlyle called Jerdan the “satyr-cannibal Literary Gazeteer”. He became Landon’s Svengali. He puffed and promoted his Infant Prodigy. They had three illegitimate children and she gave each one up in turn.

In Landon’s poems love is ever unrequited and power seldom in the woman’s hands: “The love which is as life to me/Is but a simple toy to you.” It could not last. The lustful, live-and-let-live Regency would become the laced and hypocritical age of Victoria. “Fame” and “shame” is a commonly recurring rhyme in Landon’s songs. The only hope for her almost-ruined reputation was to marry. George Maclean, British governor of Cape Coast Castle (in modern Ghana), obliged. In 1838 she sailed with her new husband to west Africa; eight weeks later she was found dead with a bottle of Prussic acid in her hand. She was 36. Self-destruction? Murder? Was there a female rival, asked the Weekly True Sun, in whose veins ran the “hot blood of Africa”?

Ms Miller is excellent on social and literary London: the Romantic rage for sex-and-suicide; the nabobs of Empire; the bluestocking ladies and Garrick Club gentlemen; the Grub Street scribblers and Punch magazine’s social-climbing Mr and Mrs Spangle Lacquer. Her reading of Landon’s poems is less convincing. When she writes that Landon’s “Flowers of Loveliness” is “not blandly shallow but deeply shallow”, or that what might first be read as “mawkishness” is really a “channel” for “suppressed personal rage”, or that her “naive sentimentalism” reveals “bitter and cynical depths when voiced”, the modern reader returns to the poems, reads them aloud and concludes: shallow, mawkish, sentimental. Nevertheless, this book is a fascinating portrait of a woman and her times and a heartbreaking song of the fickleness of love and fame.

This article appeared in the Books and arts section of the print edition under the headline "Spiders of society"
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