Who Was the “Female Byron”?


Arts & Culture

Artist, Henry William Pickersgill; Engraved by D. H. Robinson, L.E.L., 1852

Not many people know what happened to English literature between the end of the Romantics and the beginning of the Victorians. This troubling era in British cultural history has never been given a name; it’s been called a “strange pause” and an “indeterminate borderland,” and dismissed as a tedious “flat calm” during which nothing much happened.

It was certainly strange, and its literary voices were indeed indeterminate—often calculatedly so, making their tone hard for the modern reader to pin down. But the one thing British publishing culture was decidedly not during the 1820s and 1830s was calm, as is demonstrated in the rise and fall of the prolific poet and novelist Letitia Elizabeth Landon. Known by her initials “L.E.L.” and called the “female Byron” in her day, she was born in London in 1802, and found dead in 1838, a bottle of prussic acid in her hand, a few weeks after arriving at Cape Coast Castle in West Africa. It was a fittingly dramatic end to a short but tumultuous life as one of London’s most talked about literary phenomenons.

Her career coincided exactly with the strange pause. When she published her first poem as a teenager, the second generation of Romantics were still alive: Keats (died 1821), Shelley (1822), and Byron (1824). But by the end of her life, Dickens’s Oliver Twist was the new literary sensation, and the world of Regency rakes and Romantic rebels had been swept away by the new Victorian values. Symbolically enough, her last public appearance in London was on a balcony overlooking Queen Victoria’s coronation procession. It was as if she simply could not survive under the incoming regime.

Her death left a nasty taste in the mouth of the literary industry, and her reputation soon declined in this new Victorian climate. Although her contemporary admirers included Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Heinrich Heine, Edgar Allan Poe, and the young Brontës, by the twentieth century, if she was remembered at all, her work was dismissed as insipid: the incontinent outpourings of a virgin fantasist who penned vapid sentimental verses about flowers, birds, and lovelorn ladies.

In reality, both her poetry and her life were rather more complex. The lovelorn ladies she ventriloquized spoke in voices that were far from bland, and the flowers and birds were often metaphors for the unmentionable topics of sex and suicide. Moreover, she was far from being a virgin. Over the course of her high-profile career, she gave birth in secret to three illegitimate babies, products of a long-standing relationship with an older, married man. The truth about her private life was airbrushed out of history by her contemporary memoirists and, incredibly, only came to light within the past twenty years.

We tend to think of nineteenth-century women poets as unworldly, spiritual figures. Emily Dickinson and Emily Brontë, both celibate recluses, dressed like nuns, ran away at the sight of strangers, and did not write verse for money or even publication. But L.E.L., who belonged to the preceding generation, was a canny self-publicist. She danced until 3 AM in low-cut black velvet, pink satin, or scarlet cashmere, and rubbed shoulders with men in the industry. She forged her career in the hypercommercial literary marketplace of the day, a Darwinian battlefield in which the term “free lance” retained its martial and mercenary implications.

By 1820, the publishing sector was expanding at great speed, fueled by a rise in the number of aspirational literate consumers and by new technology (developed in 1814) that meant The Times could be printed at 1,100 sheets per hour. The rise of newspapers, periodicals, and annuals offers a clue as to why so few voices from the strange pause have survived. Market conditions meant that many of the most talented writers of the day worked in ephemeral media. Letitia Landon, who first made her name in the pages of The Literary Gazette, was no exception.

Landon was raised in the materially comfortable world of clergyman uncles and feminine accomplishments familiar to us from the novels of Jane Austen. As a child she showed precocious talent as a poet and was something of a rebel. But, after her father went bankrupt following the crash of 1816, she was first propelled into print out of economic necessity.

Her entrée into publishing came through a London neighbor William Jerdan, editor of The Literary Gazette, which had been founded in 1817 as the first cultural weekly in the history of British publishing. By 1822 he had given her a poetry column—and seduced her. Their backstage, casting-couch deal, that has shades of Willy and Colette, turned into a long-term and emotionally addictive affair in which he played impresario to her talent and sired her three children.

By 1822 she had created L.E.L., not just a pen name but a persona and a poetic brand. No one knew who lied behind the enigmatic initials, though Jerdan made it known that she was a “lady yet in her teens.” The calculated mystery of her identity soon made L.E.L. a minor cult figure, and helped build the circulation of the magazine. Her poems included first-person love confessions, written in calculatedly ambiguous language that occluded as much as revealed her.

Today, no one with money troubles would become a poet to support themselves and their family. But at the time L.E.L. started her career, the genre had something of the cultural capital that pop music had in the sixties—both in terms of its commercial potential and its identification with youthful rebellion. The public was still in the grip of the poetry craze that had begun with Sir Walter Scott’s Lady of the Lake (which sold 25,000 copies in eight months in 1810) and had then exploded into Byronmania following the publication of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1812. In 1816, the poet Thomas Moore had secured an exorbitant £3,000 for his Orientalist fantasia Lalla-Rookh. However, at the time of L.E.L.’s inception, the literary landscape, like her own poetic voice, had become febrile and uncertain.

The earlier revolutionary period of the 1790s had seen a relatively open attitude to free love. The Victorians who succeeded them would bury unconventional sexual relationships in deep denial. But the intervening period—L.E.L.’s era—was marked by a strange culture of knowing hypocrisy. As Letitia Landon herself put it in one of her most coruscating later poems “None among us dares to say / What none will chose to hear.”

The poets whom history canonized as the Romantics were on their way out. Keats had died the previous year. Shelley and Byron were in exile in Italy, and under attack back home as sexual reprobates. The poet laureate Robert Southey labelled them “the Satanic School” and declared them a danger to society. The publisher of Shelley’s Queen Mab, a transcendental paean to free love, was imprisoned after being prosecuted by the Society for the Suppression of Vice.

The voice Letitia Landon created as L.E.L. was a response to this labile cultural context and to her private, personal situation as the mistress of a married man. Some readers at the time imagined that the “lady yet in her teens” was an innocent ingenue. But others picked up on her buried allusions to the poetry of the “Satanic School” and interpreted her pretty flower metaphors as a confession that she herself was a “fallen woman.” She became a mistress of manipulative doublespeak and ambiguity. Her I was the ultimate slippery subject, the lacunae as telling as her actual words.

In 1824, she abandoned her veil of anonymity and stepped out in public as the star author of a new bestselling book, The Improvisatrice. The title was an indication as to how much she was improvising her own identity. Hyped by Jerdan as the new Byron—who had died earlier that year—she became a celebrity and a fixture on the party circuit, her portrait displayed in the Royal Academy, her name in all the papers. Already the mother of one secret love child, she was treading a perilous tightrope between “fame” and “shame,” words which both feature frequently in her work. Moral attitudes were hardening against fallen women, and she was at risk of social death if her private life were ever exposed.

Her social persona was as unpredictable as her writing. At soirees she played the ingenue one moment, and a sophisticated woman of the world the next. Whether in print or at parties she was always performing for more than one audience.

To understand the culture of the strange pause, you have to jettison any idea of authenticity as a literary gold standard. This was a performative culture of masks and masquerade. In the post-Byronic period, every hack wanted a cult of personality just like Byron. The Romantic ego was repackaged as the knowing commodification of the self.

Few poets have ever written of fame so acutely as L.E.L. “I lived only in others’ breath,” she wrote in the voice of one of her many alter egos, Erinna, an ancient Greek poetess (she could only ever comment on her own situation at a remove). The print culture of the 1820s and 1830s was not unlike today’s culture of social media with regards to image and privacy. In 1826, the Sunday Times published an exposé courtesy of a cleaner who had looked in through the study blinds and seen Landon and her lover in flagrante delicto. Landon denied it, of course, but from then on she was playing a defensive hand.

L.E.L. soon found herself slut-shamed by the men who were supposed to be her friends and colleagues, especially at Fraser’s Magazine, a hard-hitting literary-satiric publication given to personal invective. Their parodic allusions were never fully explicit, and so she attempted to change her once-Byronic image while living in fear of a final, full exposure. When she wrote “my power is but a woman’s power” she was not simpering—she was bitterly and fatalistically regretting the misogyny endemic to her world.

The cruelty underlying the literary culture of the strange pause finally came to the surface in 1835 when Letitia Landon became indirectly caught up in an act of actual violence. An irate novelist, victim of a mocking review, turned up in the offices of Fraser’s Magazine and assaulted the managing editor at his desk so badly that he later died as a result of his injuries. The novelist went on to fight a pistol duel with the reviewer, in which neither party was hit; the novelist later claimed he had fought it to defend the honor of L.E.L. But by then the anarchic carnival of the strange pause literary culture was nearly over.

By 1837, L.E.L. was in serious trouble. Jerdan had gone bankrupt and had turned his sexual attentions to a younger woman, and Landon’s literary brand was on the slides. She was addicted to drugs and writing desperately to stave off poverty. An escape route emerged in what was effectively an arranged marriage to the Governor of Cape Coast Castle, in “the white man’s grave” of West Africa. Eight weeks after arriving there, she was found dead, a bottle of prussic acid in her hand. Once the tragic news reached London, the literary establishment went into overdrive to bury the truth about her life. In the age of Byron, the image of the writer was associated with transgression. But now Dickens, who redefined it in the image of family values, was the up-and-coming man. L.E.L. was the scapegoat, and her memory was expunged so that the publishing industry could reinvent itself as a respectable Victorian profession.


Lucasta Miller is the author of L.E.L.: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron,” published by Knopf.