Secrets, Lies, and Floral Innuendos: Lucasta Miller on the Life of Poetess L.E.L.
Miller's new biography of L.E.L. comes out today.
Photo courtesy of Lucasta Miller.
George Eliot did not like the poetry of L.E.L. She devotes half a scene in Middlemarch to satirizing the late Romantic poetess: she has a character describe an anthology containing her work as “silly” and has her defended by a chinless, moronic member of the status-conscious middle class. Later, Virginia Woolf described her as “insipid,” and Woolf’s friend Doris Enfield concluded in her 1928 biography that L.E.L. had been a schoolgirl virgin who spun hollow fantasies devoid of insight.
We are lucky that the story of L.E.L.—the nom de plume of Letitia Elizabeth Langdon—does not end there. In her biography L.E.L.: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron,” Lucasta Miller reckons with the disappearance from the canon of a woman who was, during the early 19th century, one of England’s early celebrity poets. Known for tales of passionate, destructive love laden, depending on the reader, with either schlock or sexual innuendo, L.E.L. at first cultivated her transgressive reputation and, later, found herself unable to escape it. She died in 1838, soon after moving to West Africa with her husband.
The competing images of L.E.L. the fallen woman and L.E.L. the insipid virgin found a definitive answer in 2000, when Cynthia Lawford published in the London Review of Books the discovery that L.E.L. had secret children—three, in fact. The father was William Jerdan, a married man twenty years her senior and the editor of The Literary Gazette, the first magazine to publish her poetry. Miller retraces Landon’s career with this knowledge in mind—that she was involved in an illicit long-term relationship with her editor, and that it became one of literary London’s worst-kept secrets. The result is a portrait of a fierce, prolific artist constrained by gender and social attitudes, and a poetic voice both confessional and oblique.
GARAGE: When did you first hear about L.E.L., and when did you decide to write her biography?
Lucasta Miller: I first heard of her when I was working on the Brontë sisters, years ago. At that time, I wasn’t really interested in her. I was almost embarrassed that the Brontë sisters, even when young, had read something like this—because my attitude, the very vague knowledge I had at the back of my mind, was determined by the image that [L.E.L.] had since not long after her death, when you get George Elliot attacking her for being commercial and shallow.
Then another literary scholar who I know mentioned to me that he’d read an article that said that somebody had come forward saying that they were a direct descendant of L.E.L. and it seemed to be showing that she must have had children. By this stage, I’d talked a bit more about her with other scholars in the field of romanticism, I knew that there’d been these rumors about her. I read her biography, the one published in 1845…I realized that there was something really odd going on in this book, that it just wasn’t really telling you very much. I didn’t quite realize at that stage the full extent to which there was a cover-up.
I'd found out that she’d had these illegitimate children, but there were all sorts of other aspects of her life that were equally mysterious: things to do with her family background and details about whether she had this affair [with William Jerdan]—how did it happen, when did it happen.
I hadn’t anticipated the difficulties I’d have with the evidence. So many lies were told, so many things were occluded or obfuscated, and also her poetic voice itself is so—having originally assumed, to a certain extent, it was going to be relatively simple, I began to read it and realized that actually this stuff is slippery as hell. She’s quite calculatedly making it slippery because she doesn’t actually want you to be able to pin her down.
GARAGE: How did you attempt to read these slippery passages?
LM: What I ended up having to do was to research not just her, but the wider literary culture of her day, which has been surprisingly under-explored by literary historians and critics. People don’t quite know what to make of it, this “strange pause” in between the Romantics and the Victorians. I don’t think she’s alone in having a slippery voice at that period, and I think that there are all sorts of reasons, some of them to do with the economics of the literary marketplace that mean writers are writing very allusively.
[The allusions] become a sort of code: readers in the know will know how to read the code, but other readers may just simply think it’s about flowers and birds. She very carefully walked that tightrope, and it was something that was picked up on by some contemporary critics. There was always one group of people who would defend her against the allegations that she was a fallen woman and had this private life that was out of bounds; who would talk about her as if she was this young ingenue who wrote these innocent poems.
The level of selective myopia is absolutely extraordinary. It’s a really strange case of hiding in plain sight.
There’s that one line in her poem “Lines of Life,” which is: “None among us dares to say what none will choose to hear”" That really sums up this culture where things could be tacitly ignored if they weren’t broadcast in the wrong way to the wrong people at the wrong time.
G: One thing that feels familiar today is the relationship between Letitia Landon and William Jerdan—this kind of exploitative dynamic between men with institutional power and young women at the beginnings of their careers is still happening. Were you thinking about that as you worked on the book?
LM: I thought about it more as I was coming to the end of it, or afterwards especially, with a lot of the #MeToo stuff. She is such an irreducibly ambiguous figure; she’s not a simple victim, and to an extent, she colluded in this situation and did so with her eyes open because she couldn’t see any alternative. On the other hand, yes, there’s absolutely no doubt that he was her boss, twenty years older. You could easily imagine something similar happening today.
There’s a line of hers that the first time I read it, before I got to really know her, I’d think, “Oh god, that’s just the most awful, awful line.” It was: “My power is but a woman’s power.” How can you be so weak and feeble? But if you think of that line being said in a really bitter, knowing way, I think she was quite right. Her power as a woman in the publishing industry of that period was incredibly constrained compared to what a man could have.
G: Were you surprised to find how entangled Letitia’s finances were with Jerdan’s?
LM: Yes. When I first found the surviving accounts of the Literary Gazette, which only cover a few years—this was very near the beginning of my research, and I found them in the British Library—I was looking down and looking down, through all this old 19th-century handwriting, and I just couldn’t find her name anywhere. Where the hell is Miss Landon? I was really disappointed. And only later did the penny drop that actually that absence was dynamite because it shows that he wasn’t paying her. Although she did secure fees for her books; this was in the magazine.
When I first started working on her after I discovered that she must have had a sex life because she had these children, I was hoping that I’d find this incredibly liberated woman who had a career and a sex life and was independent. And what I found was really quite depressing.
G: Specifically that she was the butt of a joke toward the end of her career?
LM: Yes, and also that she couldn’t really free herself from Jerdan, not just because he was her business manager but because she was so emotionally involved. But also, I don’t know how many other writers in that periodical culture—because of her personal situation and her gender, it’s more exaggerated, possibly, but I think that there were other writers who felt at the mercy of the market. Some of those slippery voices and masquerade-play and taking on different identities, it’s partly because everyone feels that identity is very uncertain. It’s all up for grabs. Who are you, when you put something out there in print?
There are parallels to social media today. The whole discourse of confession and authenticity undermines itself through the medium in which it’s being put out.
G: It’s like the character of L.E.L. provides an integral piece of context for the poems, which would sound different if they weren’t written by a celebrity with some intimation of scandal.
LM: Exactly. You’ve got to read the poems in the context of all the other texts that are being written about her at the same time, whether it’s the scandal sheets and the gossip columns. The poem, the artwork, cannot exist independently as this transcendent object.
G: What should someone who reads her poetry understand about the economic reality she was living in?
LM: She is responding to and trying to manipulate demand. The fact that she writes poetry that’s so much about romantic love, there’s a great parallel between seduction and marketing. She herself did not believe in the transcendent power of her own poetry. Many people who were working at that period saw themselves as belonging to a silver and not a golden age; they saw themselves as trapped in their historical moment. I think she felt very much like that.
One thing about L.E.L.’s poetry that is extraordinary is that if you read it out loud, the tone is so shifting. A line might look very bland on the page, but if you suddenly read it out loud with some inflection of sarcasm or bitterness, it suddenly becomes abrasive. It’s so fluid.
Our idea that great poetry is all about eternal verities and that it will be morally uplifting and put you in touch with something totally timeless and transcendent—L.E.L.’s poetry doesn’t do that. It doesn’t pretend to do that. One of the things I found really interesting about reading it was charting the ways in which it almost self-destructs once you start to analyze it.
G: In a way, that’s very masterful, but it’s not what you’d normally think about with literary criticism from that time.
LM: That’s why I find her weirdly sort of postmodern. Reader response theory or the death of the author or intertextuality: all these ideas really fit her strange lack of boundaries. The first-person pronoun is repeated again and again and again in her work, as a sort of strange lacuna without ego. It's flipping between larger than life and disappearing.
It’s almost as if L.E.L. is a textual construct, and she is colluding in that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.