RogerBW's Blog

L.E.L., Lucasta Miller 24 June 2020

2019 non-fiction, examining the life and work of Letitia Landon.

This is another Book of the Week condensation, and once more the work has been downplayed in favour of the life.

The life is scandalous enough, but essentially routine: taken up by William Jerdan of the Literary Gazette, who apparently conceived a passion for the thirteen-year-old Letitia and took over her life for the next fifteen years, during which she gave birth to three of his children. (Or so it appears; this biography states it as fact, but I gather this is a fairly recent reconstruction and there's at least some uncertainty.) In return, he made sure her poetry was promoted.

Which would be better if there were anything here about the poetry, other than the most basic treatment of themes (Landon was as overtly erotic as it was possible to be). As it stands, there's no particular reason within this condensation to regard Landon as interesting enough to be the subject of a biography: her primary career was being the poetry-writing mistress of a married man, and when that ended (both the affair and most of the literary fame) she cast about for someone to give her respectability by marriage. She found someone, though he had grave doubts the more he knew her; and a few months after the marriage she died.

(That death is something that Miller regards as unambiguously suicide, presumably because that supports her theories as to Landon's state of mind even though everyone reported her as being cheerful the night before her death; others mention the possibility of accidental overdose or even a fatal complication of Adams-Stokes Syndrome.)

But why was L.E.L.'s poetry largely forgotten by a few decades after her death? Because fashions had changed? And in turn why was it felt worthy of rediscovery – just because Germaine Greer was looking for neglected female poets in the 1970s, or does it have distinctive virtues beyond that? There's none of that here.

The book itself, I gather, goes into much greater length about Landon's poetry and its literary influence, and while I can see that getting a bit crunchy for five 13-minute narrations that's still what I'd rather have read about.

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