Letitia Landon (1802-38)
Emily Arndt, Class of ’13, Dickinson College
I teach my lip its sweetest smile,
My tongue its softest tone;
I borrow others’ likeness, till
Almost I lose my own.
(“Lines of Life,” The Venetian Bracelet)
Letitia Elizabeth Landon was one of the most active and most ambitious woman writers of her time. Better known by her initials “L. E. L.,” Landon had her literary start when her poems were printed in the Literary Gazette at the age of eighteen. Her first poems were primarily about paintings and sculptures by contemporary artists. She wrote hundreds of poems about art, and she sometimes described works through a Romantic narrative about love, betrayal, and loss. By practicing her literary art through the visual arts, Landon began to develop her unique writing style, one that was deeply emotional and introspective, yet did not reflect her own feelings.
Once her father passed away, Landon wrote primarily to support her family. Writing was first and foremost her profession, and she wrote what she knew would appeal to young women. Because she pandered to the public, some contemporary critics consider her later work to be less authentic and skillful. However, the most interesting aspect of Landon’s writing is not what she wrote, but how she wrote it. She nearly always wrote on the subject of love and the troubles it brings to young women; the moments of joy, affection, nervousness, rejection, grief, and madness. As a young, female writer, she knew what was expected of her writing, and wrote exactly that, though she did not necessarily believe in what she was writing. In reality, her poetry often exposed how the “true love” she described was merely an illusion. Furthermore, many readers and critics assumed that because she was a woman, her poems were about autobiographical or reflected her true feelings. Yet, Landon did not write about herself, and she was not a sentimental, romantic, emotional woman as her poems may make her appear. She preferred to write from a distanced perspective of one who observed love happening, but did not participate in it. This disappointed some male readers and critics, who fancied that Landon was a traditional, conservative woman who dreamed of love.
However, it is wrong to say that Landon wrote only on the subject of love. Though she most frequently wrote on love and works of art, many of Landon’s poems also considered the nature and role of the poet. Landon wrote about nature as well, and used her mastery of human emotions to describe how she felt about the natural world. An example of this can be found in one of her early poems, “The Oak”:
…It is the last survivor of a race
Strong in their forest pride when I was young.
I can remember when, for miles around,
In place of those smooth meadows and corn-fields,
There stood ten thousand stately trees,
Such as had braved the winds of March, the bolt
Sent by the summer lightning, and the snow
Heaping for weeks their boughs. Even in the depth
Of hot July the glades were cool; the grass,
Yellow and parched elsewhere, grew long and fresh,
Shading wild strawberries and violets,
Or the lark’s nest; and overhead the dove
Had her lone dwelling, paying for her home
With melancholy songs; and scarce a beech
Was there without a honeysuckle linked
Around, with its red tendrils and pink flowers;
Or girdled by a brier-rose, whose buds
Yield fragrant harvest for the honey bee
There dwelt the last red deer, those antlered kings…
But this is a dream, — the plough has passed
Where the stag bounded, and the day has looked
On the green twilight of the forest trees.
This oak has no companion!…
(The Improvisatrice 282-83)
The disappearance of the forest that Landon describes has just as strong of an emotional impact on her as her romantic narratives, if not stronger. When she had the freedom to choose her subjects, Landon’s true emotions could emerge.
Landon was always expanding her writing career, producing poems, short stories, novels, and literary criticism, as well as serving as an editor for various works. Her first book of poetry was entitled The Fate of Adelaide, and though it did not sell many copies, literary critics praised her elegant style. After this collection was released, she became a book reviewer and article writer for the Literary Gazette, the same magazine that was publishing her poems. The Gazette had a readership of over sixteen thousand, and twenty-year-old Landon’s criticism greatly influenced sales of books. Her second collection of poetry was called The Improvisatrice, and was printed not only in England, but in the United States and Germany as well. This collection was followed by The Troubadour, The Golden Violet, The Venetian Bracelet, and The Vow of the Peacock. In addition, she contributed to and edited many popular annuals such The Keepsake and Forget Me Not, and Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap Book. When Landon felt pressured to try a new style, she tried her hand at novel-writing, first publishing Romance and Reality, and then Francesca Carrara and Ethel Churchill. Though she found prose to be much more difficult to write than poetry, her novels were very successful. She even published several stories for children.
Much like Ann Radcliffe (and many other female writers of the time), Landon’s private life remains largely a mystery. Landon’s tales of love earned her many fans, male and female, and a number of marriage proposals. However, her success also made her the subject of many rumors, some suggesting she was having affairs and secret children with married men. These rumors were all too believable considering that Landon wrote on the woes of forbidden love, and she despised the reputation she was gaining. In 1838, Landon married the governor of Cape Coast (in present-day Ghana) and moved with him to Africa. She continued to write critical essays that were published in England, but a mere two months later, she died. Her cause of death remains unclear: she either was intentionally poisoned, committed suicide, or accidentally overdosed on her medication. Her writing style fell out of favor for a time after her death, but Landon’s poetry soon resurfaced and influenced writers such as Alfred, Lord Tennyson and Edgar Allan Poe. Also, like Felicia Hemans, Landon’s work was a precursor to Victorian women’s writing. Though Landon did not denounce social conventions in her work, or advocate openly for women’s rights, she did pioneer a new type of Romantic writing for women, one that was less concerned with personal emotions and more concerned with literary beauty.