Download high-resolution image
Listen to a clip from the audiobook
audio play button
0:00
0:00

L.E.L.

The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated "Female Byron"

Listen to a clip from the audiobook
audio play button
0:00
0:00
Audiobook Download
On sale Mar 05, 2019 | 14 Hours and 25 Minutes | 978-0-593-10358-6
A lost nineteenth-century literary life, brilliantly rediscovered--Letitia Elizabeth Landon, hailed as the female Byron; she changed English poetry; her novels, short stories, and criticism, like Byron though in a woman's voice, explored the dark side of sexuality--by the acclaimed author of The Brontë Myth ("wonderfully entertaining . . . spellbinding"--New York Times Book Review; "ingenious"--The New Yorker).

"None among us dares to say / What none will choose to hear"--L.E.L., "Lines of Life"
     Letitita Elizabeth Landon--pen name L.E.L.--dared to say it and made sure she was heard.
     Hers was a life lived in a blaze of scandal and worship, one of the most famous women of her time, the Romantic Age in London's 1820s, her life and writing on the ascendency as Byron's came to an end.
     Lucasta Miller tells the full story and re-creates the literary London of her time. She was born in 1802 and was shaped by the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, a time of conservatism when values were in flux. She began publishing poetry in her teens and came to be known as a daring poet of thwarted romantic love. We see L.E.L. as an emblematic figure who embodied a seismic cultural shift, the missing link between the age of Byron and the creation of Victorianism. Miller writes of Jane Eyre as the direct connection to L.E.L.--its first-person confessional voice, its Gothic extremes, its love triangle, and in its emphasis on sadomasochistic romantic passion.
Prologue
 
Between 8 and 9 o’clock on the morning of Monday 15th October 1838, the body of a thirty-six-year-old Englishwoman, still in her nightclothes, was found on the floor of her dressing-room in Cape Coast Castle, West Africa. She was the new wife of the British Governor, George Maclean, and had arrived there from England only eight weeks previously.
 
Cape Coast Castle was the largest trading fort on the western coast of Africa: a stark white complex bristling with cannon, perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in what is now Ghana. During the eighteenth century, it had been the “grand emporium” of the British slave trade. Countless captives had been held in its underground dungeons before precincts. Following the Abolition Act of 1807, the castle had remained under British command, its dungeons repurposed for housing local “prisoners.”
 
A soldier in the sentry box stood at the entrance to the governor’s quarters, which were decorated in the European style: prints on the walls, a shining mahogany dining table, impressive table silver. The room in which his wife’s body was found, painted a deep blue, featured a toilet table and the deceased’s own portable writing desk, one of those small wooden boxes, typical of the period, that opened to form a sloping writing surface.
 
Deaths from disease among Europeans in what was then known as the “white man’s grave” were not uncommon. Indeed, the fatality rate was so great that the local Methodist missionary was having difficulty recruiting volunteers. But this death was different. In the woman’s hand was a small empty bottle. Her eyes were open and abnormally dilated.
 
The last person to see the governor’s wife alive was her maid Emily Bailey, who had traveled out with her from England. She later testified that she had found Mrs Maclean “well” when she went in to see her earlier that morning. On her return half an hour later, Emily Bailey had had difficulty opening the door. It had been blocked by her mistress’s body.
 
Soon after Mrs Bailey raised the alarm, the castle surgeon arrived. He attempted to revive the patient, but in vain. Garbled news soon spread to the nearby hills. Brodie Cruickshank, a young Scottish merchants’ agent, arrived at the fort within the hour, mistakenly supposing that it was the governor himself who had perished. In his memoir Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast of Africa, he later recalled his shock on entering the room where Mrs. Maclean’s body had been laid out on a bed. He had dined with the Macleans only the evening before, when she had appeared to be in “perfect health”. The governor himself was in the room. He had slid down into a chair and was silently staring into space, his face “crushed”.
 
Later that very day, an inquest was held at the castle, the jury hastily convened from among the local merchant community. No autopsy was performed, but the empty bottle was produced in evidence and its label carefully transcribed: “Acid Hydrocianicum Delatum, Pharm. Lond. 1836, Medium Dose Five Minims, being about one-third the strength of that in former use, prepared by Scheele’s proof.” The deceased was said to have been in the habit of using the contents, prussic acid in everyday parlance, for medicinal reasons, and to have taken too much by mistake. A verdict of accidental death was recorded.
 
After the inquest, the corpse was hastily interred under the parade ground. During the burial, a tropical shower burst from the sky in such torrents that a tarpaulin had to be erected over the gravediggers. By the time the final paving stone was replaced it had grown dark. The workmen finished the job by torchlight.
 
West Africa was so remote from England that it was not until the morning of January 1, 1839, that a discreet death notice appeared in The Times:
 
At Cape Coast Castle, Africa, on Monday, the 15th of October last, suddenly, Mrs. L.E. Maclean, wife of George Maclean Esq., Governor of Cape Coast Castle.
 
But after the evening Courier revealed the woman’s maiden name later that day, the story became headline news. She was one of the most famous writers in England: Letitia Elizabeth Landon, better known by her initials, “L.E.L.”
  • FINALIST | 2019
    National Book Critics Circle Awards
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Dr. Lucasta Miller is a British critic and historian who has lectured and broadcast widely on 19th-century literature. Her influential afterlife study, The Bronte Myth, first published in 2001, was reissued in a new edition in 2020; her pioneering biography of the 'female Byron' Letitia Landon was shortlisted for the NBCC awards in 2019. She has worked as a profile-writer for the Guardian and contributed to the Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph and the BBC. A former visiting fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, she is currently Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the Courtauld Institute and reviews for The Spectator

View titles by Lucasta Miller

About

A lost nineteenth-century literary life, brilliantly rediscovered--Letitia Elizabeth Landon, hailed as the female Byron; she changed English poetry; her novels, short stories, and criticism, like Byron though in a woman's voice, explored the dark side of sexuality--by the acclaimed author of The Brontë Myth ("wonderfully entertaining . . . spellbinding"--New York Times Book Review; "ingenious"--The New Yorker).

"None among us dares to say / What none will choose to hear"--L.E.L., "Lines of Life"
     Letitita Elizabeth Landon--pen name L.E.L.--dared to say it and made sure she was heard.
     Hers was a life lived in a blaze of scandal and worship, one of the most famous women of her time, the Romantic Age in London's 1820s, her life and writing on the ascendency as Byron's came to an end.
     Lucasta Miller tells the full story and re-creates the literary London of her time. She was born in 1802 and was shaped by the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, a time of conservatism when values were in flux. She began publishing poetry in her teens and came to be known as a daring poet of thwarted romantic love. We see L.E.L. as an emblematic figure who embodied a seismic cultural shift, the missing link between the age of Byron and the creation of Victorianism. Miller writes of Jane Eyre as the direct connection to L.E.L.--its first-person confessional voice, its Gothic extremes, its love triangle, and in its emphasis on sadomasochistic romantic passion.

Excerpt

Prologue
 
Between 8 and 9 o’clock on the morning of Monday 15th October 1838, the body of a thirty-six-year-old Englishwoman, still in her nightclothes, was found on the floor of her dressing-room in Cape Coast Castle, West Africa. She was the new wife of the British Governor, George Maclean, and had arrived there from England only eight weeks previously.
 
Cape Coast Castle was the largest trading fort on the western coast of Africa: a stark white complex bristling with cannon, perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in what is now Ghana. During the eighteenth century, it had been the “grand emporium” of the British slave trade. Countless captives had been held in its underground dungeons before precincts. Following the Abolition Act of 1807, the castle had remained under British command, its dungeons repurposed for housing local “prisoners.”
 
A soldier in the sentry box stood at the entrance to the governor’s quarters, which were decorated in the European style: prints on the walls, a shining mahogany dining table, impressive table silver. The room in which his wife’s body was found, painted a deep blue, featured a toilet table and the deceased’s own portable writing desk, one of those small wooden boxes, typical of the period, that opened to form a sloping writing surface.
 
Deaths from disease among Europeans in what was then known as the “white man’s grave” were not uncommon. Indeed, the fatality rate was so great that the local Methodist missionary was having difficulty recruiting volunteers. But this death was different. In the woman’s hand was a small empty bottle. Her eyes were open and abnormally dilated.
 
The last person to see the governor’s wife alive was her maid Emily Bailey, who had traveled out with her from England. She later testified that she had found Mrs Maclean “well” when she went in to see her earlier that morning. On her return half an hour later, Emily Bailey had had difficulty opening the door. It had been blocked by her mistress’s body.
 
Soon after Mrs Bailey raised the alarm, the castle surgeon arrived. He attempted to revive the patient, but in vain. Garbled news soon spread to the nearby hills. Brodie Cruickshank, a young Scottish merchants’ agent, arrived at the fort within the hour, mistakenly supposing that it was the governor himself who had perished. In his memoir Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast of Africa, he later recalled his shock on entering the room where Mrs. Maclean’s body had been laid out on a bed. He had dined with the Macleans only the evening before, when she had appeared to be in “perfect health”. The governor himself was in the room. He had slid down into a chair and was silently staring into space, his face “crushed”.
 
Later that very day, an inquest was held at the castle, the jury hastily convened from among the local merchant community. No autopsy was performed, but the empty bottle was produced in evidence and its label carefully transcribed: “Acid Hydrocianicum Delatum, Pharm. Lond. 1836, Medium Dose Five Minims, being about one-third the strength of that in former use, prepared by Scheele’s proof.” The deceased was said to have been in the habit of using the contents, prussic acid in everyday parlance, for medicinal reasons, and to have taken too much by mistake. A verdict of accidental death was recorded.
 
After the inquest, the corpse was hastily interred under the parade ground. During the burial, a tropical shower burst from the sky in such torrents that a tarpaulin had to be erected over the gravediggers. By the time the final paving stone was replaced it had grown dark. The workmen finished the job by torchlight.
 
West Africa was so remote from England that it was not until the morning of January 1, 1839, that a discreet death notice appeared in The Times:
 
At Cape Coast Castle, Africa, on Monday, the 15th of October last, suddenly, Mrs. L.E. Maclean, wife of George Maclean Esq., Governor of Cape Coast Castle.
 
But after the evening Courier revealed the woman’s maiden name later that day, the story became headline news. She was one of the most famous writers in England: Letitia Elizabeth Landon, better known by her initials, “L.E.L.”

Awards

  • FINALIST | 2019
    National Book Critics Circle Awards

Author

© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Dr. Lucasta Miller is a British critic and historian who has lectured and broadcast widely on 19th-century literature. Her influential afterlife study, The Bronte Myth, first published in 2001, was reissued in a new edition in 2020; her pioneering biography of the 'female Byron' Letitia Landon was shortlisted for the NBCC awards in 2019. She has worked as a profile-writer for the Guardian and contributed to the Financial Times, the Daily Telegraph and the BBC. A former visiting fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, she is currently Royal Literary Fund Fellow at the Courtauld Institute and reviews for The Spectator

View titles by Lucasta Miller