Landon, Letitia Elizabeth (DNB00)
LANDON, LETITIA ELIZABETH, afterwards Mrs. MacLean (1802–1888), poetess, and famous in her day under the initials 'L.E.L.,’ was born in Hans Place, Chelsea, on 14 Aug. 1802. She was descended from a family once posseseed of considerable landed property at Crednall in Herefordshire, which was lost in the South Sea bubble. The descendants took to the church, and Letitia’s great-grandfather is recorded on his monument to have employed his pen ‘to the utter confutation of all dissenters.' Her grandfather was rector of Tedstone Delamere, Herefordshire. Her uncle, Dr. Whittinton Landon, who died on 29 Dec. 1838, held at the time the deanery of Exeter, to which he was a pointed in 1818, and the provostship of Worcester College, Oxford, to which he had been nominated in 1796 (cf. Gent. Mag. 1889, i. 212). Her father, John Landon, who in his youth had voyaged to Africa and Jamaica, was at the time of her birth a partner in Adair's army agency in Pall Mall. Her mother, whose maiden name was Bishop, was of Welsh extraction; her maternal grand-mother, an intimate friend of Mrs. Siddons, was thought to be the natural child of persons of rank. An only brother, Whittington Henry Landon (1804–1883), was a graduate of Worcester College, Oxford, and vicar of Slebech, Pembrokeshire, from 1851 to 1877 (Foster, Alumni Oxon.; Robinson, Merchant Taylors' School Reg.) Letitia received her first education at a school in Chelsea, where Miss Mitford and Lady Caroline Lamb were likewise educated, and was afterwards taught by masters. She very early exhibited an omnivorous appetite for reading, and was ready in acquiring all branches of knowledge except music and calligraphy. About 1815 her family removed to Old Brompton, and there made the acquaintance of William Jerdan [q. v.], who exercised the most decisive influence on the future of the young poetess. 'My first recollection,' he says, 'is that of a plump girl bowling a hoop round the walks, with the hoop-stick in one hand and a book in other, reading as she ran. The exercise was prescribed; the book was choice.' Upon further acquaintance he thought her 'a creature of another sphere, though with every fascination which could render her loveable in our everyday world.' Inferior poetry to 'L. E. L.'s' would have found easy entrance to the 'Literary Gazette' under such favourable prepossessions, and as her verse was not only good, but perfectly adapted to the taste of the day, she soon became a leading support of the periodical. Her first poem, 'Rome,' appeared on 11 March 1820, under the signature of 'L.' Before long 'she began to exercise her talents upon publications in general literature,' that is to review, and soon 'did little less for the "Gazette" than I did myself,' an assertion the more probable as Jerdan was an indolent editor. Her labour as a reviewer were far from checking the facile flow of her fugitive verse, and she soon attempted poems of considerable compass. 'The Fate of Adelaide' was published in 1821, 'The Improvisatrice' in 1824 (6th edit. 1835), 'The Troubadour,' with other poems (three editions), in 1825, 'The Golden Violet' in 1827, 'The Venetian Bracelet,' with other poems, in 1829. She was also an incessant contributor to albums and other annuals, editing the 'Drawing Scrap Book' from 1832. By the advice, it is said, of her friend, Mrs. S. C. Hall, she first attempted fiction in 'Romance and Reality,' 1831, and 'Francesca Carrara,' 1834.
During this period she resided for the most part with elderly ladies, the Misses Lance and Mrs. Sheldon, both in Hans Place. The fascination of her appearance and conversation at the time is described by Mr. S. C. Hall; the other side of the picture is given in Chorley's 'Memoirs,' where she is represented as a naturraly gifted person, spoiled by flattery, and associated with a very undesirable literary set, and, though earning large sums by her pen, estimated by Jerdan at not less than 2,500l. altogether, harassed and worn by a continual struggle to support her family, who had become impoverished. The substantial truth of this picture is indubitable, and is sufficiently evinced by the cruel scandals which in her latter years became associated with 'L. E. L.'s' name, and, destitute as they were of the least groundwork in fact, beyond some expressions of hers whose tenor is only known from the admission of her friends that they were imprudent, occasioned her acute misery. They were, says Mr. S. C. Hall, employed in a letter to 'that very worthless person Maginn,' and 'sufficed to arouse the ire of a jealous woman. To have seen, much more to have known Maginn, would have been to refute the calumny.' It occasioned, nevertheless, the breaking off of an engagement between Miss Landon and an unnamed gentleman, said to be John Forster [q. v.] (cf Bates, Maclise Gallery), and seems to have driven her in mere despair into an engagement with another gentleman of distinguished public service and position, but with whom she can have had little sympathy, George Maclean [q. v.], governor of Cape Coast Castle. The marriage, delayed for a time by the rumour that Maclean had a wife living in Africa, took place in June 1838. Lytton Bulwer gave the bride away. On 5 July the wedded pair sailed for Cape Coast, and arrived on 16 Aug.
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. That she died of taking prussic acid can hardly be disputed, though the surgeon's neglect to institute a post-mortem examination left an opening for doubt. That she was found lying in her room with an empty bottle, which had contained a preparation of prussic acid, in her hand seems equally certain, and the circumstance, if proved, negatives the not unnatural suspicion that her death was the effect of the vengeance of her husband's discarded mistress, while there is no ground in any case for suspecting him. There remain, therefore, only the hypotheses of suicide and of accident; and the general tone of her letters to England, even though betraying some disappointment with her husband, is so cheerful, and the fact of her having been accustomed to administer a most dangerous medicine to herself is so well established, this accident must be regarded as the more probable supposition.
'L.E.L.'s' literary work had of late years less copious than formerly, but included an unacted tragedy, ‘Castruccio Castracani,’ 1837, ‘The Vow of the Peacock,’ 1835, ‘Traits and Trials of Early Life’ (supposed to be in part autobiographical), 1836, and ‘Ethel Churchill,’ the best of her novels, 1837. ‘The Zenana, and other Poems,’ chiefly made up from contributions to annuals, appeared in 1839, immediately after her death, and a posthumous novel, ‘Lady Granard,’ was published in 1842. Collected editions of ‘L. E. L.'s’ verse appeared in 1838 at Philadelphia, in 1850 and 1873 in London, the last edited by W. Bell Scott.
As a poetess Letitia Elizabeth Landon can only rank as a gifted improvisatrice. She had too little culture, too little discipline, too low an ideal of her art, to produce anything of very great value. All this she might and probably would have acquired under happier circumstances. She had genuine feeling, rich fancy, considerable descriptive power, great fluency of language, and, as Mr. Mackenzie Bell points out, a real dramatic instinct when dealing with incident. Her diffuseness is the common fault of poetesses, and in this and in other respects her latest productions manifest considerable improvement. If not entitled to a high place in literature upon her own merits, she will nevertheless occupy a permanent one as a characteristic representative of her own time, and will always interest by her truth of emotion, no less than by the tragedy and mystery of her death.
A portrait of Miss Landon by Maclise was engraved by Edward Finden for her ‘Traits and Trials.’ Another portrait by Maclise is in the ‘Maclise Portrait Gallery’ (ed. Bates). An engraving by Wright appeared in the ‘New Monthly Magazine’ for May 1837.
[Blanchard's Life and Remains of L. E. L., 1841; Jerdan's Autobiog.; Chorley's Memoirs; S. C. Hall's Book of Memories; Grantley Berkeley's Recollections; Madden's Memoirs of Lady Blessington; Mackenzie Bell in Miles's Poets and Poetry of the Century; Gent. Mag. 1839, pt. i. pp. 150, 212; L'Estrange's Friendships of Mary Russell Mitford, i. 126, 169, 231, ii. 48, 50; and his Life of Miss Mitford, iii. 93, 119; Father Prout's Reliques, i. 214, ii. 189.]