STARRED REVIEW
March 05, 2019

L.E.L.

By Lucasta Miller
Review by

Most readers today have never heard of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, an English writer whose pen name was “L.E.L.” But in the 1820s and ’30s, she was an internationally admired “poetess.” As Lucasta Miller writes in her enjoyable biography-mystery tale, L.E.L.: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron”, she is “a poet who disappeared.”

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The Brontë sisters and Elizabeth Barrett Browning were among her fangirls. George Eliot and Charles Dickens knew her work well enough to make fun of it in their novels. Her contemporaries thought of her as a female Byron, but later generations dismissed her as an “insipid virgin” whose verse was repellently sentimental.

Most readers today have never heard of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, an English writer whose pen name was “L.E.L.” But in the 1820s and ’30s, she was an internationally admired “poetess.” As Lucasta Miller writes in her enjoyable biography-mystery tale, L.E.L.: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron”, she is “a poet who disappeared.”

It’s particularly ironic that the likes of the Bloomsbury Set disparaged Landon as an exemplar of Victorian sentimentality. Her real life was high melodrama, filled with illegitimacy, adultery, extortion, drugs and corruption. Landon’s cover-up was too good—after her death at 36 under ambiguous circumstances (murder? suicide?), her friends’ pretence that she was unblemished contributed to her later obscurity. Her new biographer had to dig deep to find the truth.

Early in the book, Miller reveals the secret uncovered by researchers only this century: Far from being a virgin, the unmarried Landon bore three children out of wedlock to her married editor/mentor. At a time of rigid public morality and ineffective birth control, an entire industry existed to hide illegitimate children. Much of Landon’s energy was spent combatting allegations of adultery, both real and spurious. Desperate for domestic respectability, she ultimately cajoled a semicrooked colonial governor to the altar. It didn’t end well.

Her sex life aside, Landon was a hardworking, prolific writer of real talent, cheated and undervalued by London’s male publishing establishment. In a sensitive analysis of her work, Miller sees her as a sophisticated pioneer. Landon’s poetry seems unlikely to come back into style, but her life—at turns funny and sad, but always spirited—has enduring relevance.

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L.E.L.

L.E.L.

By Lucasta Miller
Knopf
ISBN 9780375412783

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