Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L.E.L.): Downfall of a Georgian Bard

by JoHarrington

L.E.L. was one of Georgian England's greatest stars. A female writer with an enigmatic life, whose mysterious end was allowed to eclipse her poetry.

'Downstairs I laugh, I sport and jest with all;
But in my solitary room above
I turn my face in silence to the wall;
My heart is breaking for a little love.'
- Christina Rossetti 'L.E.L.'

'Elizabeth it is in vain you say
“Love not” — thou sayest it in so sweet a way:
In vain those words from thee or L. E. L.'
- Edgar Allan Poe 'An Acrostic'

'And when the glory of her dream withdrew,
When knightly gestes and courtly pageantries
Were broken in her visionary eyes
By tears the solemn seas attested true,—
Forgetting that sweet lute beside her hand
She asked not,—Do you praise me, O my land?—
But,—“Think ye of me, friends, as I of you?”'
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning 'L.E.L.'s Last Question'

A Note Upon the Life Story of L.E.L.

I didn't mean this to be a trilogy, but apparently it had other ideas.

This is the third segment of L.E.L.'s biography here on Wizzley. It's been written in the assumption that you're already familiar with the early life of Letitia Elizabeth Landon. If not, then please do feel free to enter the loop via the links below.

Otherwise, read on, but with the knowledge that some events may require that contextualization, in order to fully appreciate their implications.

Letitia Elizabeth Landon (aka L or L.E.L.) was a major 19th century celebrity, who some - Germaine Greer amongst them - wish to see reinstated as one of Britain's Greats.
Letitia Elizabeth Landon (aka L or L.E.L.) was an influential Georgian poet and writer, whose fans and imitators included Tennyson, Christina Rossetti and Edgar Allan Poe.

Profitable Poetry, or How L.E.L. Should Have Been Rich

Lettie Landon earned an astronomical amount of money as a Georgian writer. She should have been independently wealthy, but she was not.

Image: L.E.L.There's no doubt that the Landon family was in financial difficulties, when Letitia began her writing career.  Her personal letters reveal an on-going drive to keep herself economically solvent throughout the next eighteen years.

Yet she was one of the most highly paid poets of the period, at a time when they were the foremost major celebrities. So what on Earth was happening to all of the money?

It's been estimated that L.E.L. earned around £2585 throughout her career.

That doesn't seem a lot for nearly two decades of churning out words in ceaseless working. But that's because it's not adjusted for the Georgian period.

In order to reach the equivalent amount in today's money, the figure needs to be multiplied by 250. Which means that L.E.L. actually earned approximately £646,250, or roughly £36,000 a year.

Suddenly not too shabby, is it?  Though please do note that it's notoriously difficult to compare wages and living costs across the centuries. The above should be considered approximate figures.

L.E.L. was in the perfect position to be independently wealthy. A Georgian woman able to keep her own house, providing for all of her own needs without resource to male relatives. To some extent, this was true.

Following her father's death in 1824, she moved out of her parents' home to live with her maternal Grandmother Bishop. That could well have been a comfortable situation, as Letitia Bishop lived on independent means of her own. (William Jerdan suspected that the Welsh lady was the 'natural' - i.e. illegitimate - daughter of an aristocrat, though that was never confirmed to him or anyone.)  Letitia and her namesake were extremely close, but the older lady could never quite get her head around the fact that L.E.L. shouldn't be disturbed while working.

In 1827, Letitia Landon returned once more to 22 Hans Square - now sadly devoid of Mrs Rowden, who'd gone to France to be Fanny Kemble's governess. This time, Lettie was not a student, but a boarder.  She rented her old bedroom, on the top floor, for the next decade.

But beyond that perceived - and by contemporary standards, scandalous - extravagance, L.E.L. seemed constantly impoverished.

As her fame hit the stratosphere, fashionable friends despaired of L.E.L.'s shabby dress. For much of her career, she only actually had one at a time, which had to be washed constantly in order to be fit to wear again.

She marked the moment when she owned TWO dresses simultaneously with utter glee. But that didn't come until the 1830s.

Friends assumed that it was because Lettie had no interest in fashion. She was often quite vocally disparaging of it. They harangued her to come shopping, tidy herself up, remember that she was always in the public eye. Lettie claimed that she didn't have the time to spare for such things.

But privately, her letters revealed her frustration at not being able to keep up with the fad for skirts 'as wide as Grosvenor Square'.

1820's Fashion Book

Her friend Annie Hall later recounted with shock bumping into Letitia, as the author emerged from Youngman's Shop, in Sloane Square. "I have been to buy a pair of gloves," Lettie told her, "the only money I spent on myself from the three hundred pounds I earned for Romance and Reality."

Annie finally realized that something else was happening to L.E.L.'s money. Those impassioned rants about poverty in her letters were not ironic. 

William Jerdan later claimed that Lettie lived on about £120 a year. Still an astronomical amount, when the average laborer took home £31 annually. But not for the circles in which she moved, which involved mixing with the higher echelons of society and its fashionable crowd too. Moreover, biographers have done the sums and think that Jerdan's claim was a gross over-estimation. That was more like what she should have been on.

Which brings us neatly to what actually happened to L.E.L.'s wealth. In truth, no-one can say for certain. But there are some facets of high probability:

  • Catherine Landon was able to retain her home and run it, even after the death of her husband. That money was coming from somewhere, though she had no obvious source of income.
  • Whittington Henry Landon - Lettie's brother - was matriculated at Oxford University in 1823. His father died the following year, yet he was still able to afford his fees and living costs. He went on to achieve his BA in 1827, then his Master's in 1830, before training to become a reverend. Who precisely paid for that?

Then there are the speculations. Some biographers claim that Lettie was also paying for Letitia Bishop's household - though I doubt it, as she appears to have had funds of her own; while others ponder upon the fact that John Landon may have left a lot of debts upon his demise. That seems much more likely.

Finally, there are statements made, in a letter from Letitia to her friend Katherine Thompson, implying that William Jerdan managed all of her accounts:

'I have no had a friend in the world but (William Jerdan) to manage anything but business, whether literary or pecuniary... after success had procured money, what was I to do with it? Though ignorant of business, I must know that I could not lock it up in a box.'

For those who would position L.E.L. as an exploited work-horse, it's been tempting to speculate that Jerdan kept her deliberately impoverished, in order to keep her dependent upon him. Though again, there is no actual proof of this.

The Novels of L.E.L.

Letitia realised quite early on that poetry was going to go out of fashion. She immediately switched to writing novels instead.

Dark Secrets: L.E.L.'s Love Affair with William Jerdan

There may have been another demand - or three - upon L.E.L.'s pocket...

In 1999, a New Zealand man named Michael Gorman bought a computer. Like every person ever with sudden access to the accumulated knowledge of the world, he began surfing the net, looking up random stuff.

Eventually, this led him to looking up the woman in the oval portrait, that had hung in his home since childhood. It had been inherited from his great-great-grandmother, Ella Stuart, who'd emigrated to Australia in 1910. Passed down through her daughter Jessie Gregson, grandson Gordon Stuart Sleight, great-granddaughter Shirley Stuart Sleight, and finally to Shirley's son Michael Stuart Frederick Gorman.

The dated portrait showed Ella's English mother, whom the stern Victorian matriarch really had not enjoyed discussing. Bitterness edged her every tone at the mere mention of her name. But the name had nevertheless been supplied. It was Letitia Elizabeth Landon.

Image: L.E.L. Author of 'Romance and Reality'
Image: L.E.L. Author of 'Romance and Reality'

Michael hadn't expected to find much, if anything, about his 3x great-grandmother. Why should he? Her fame didn't make it past the Victorian backlash, so she has never taken her place in the anthologies, alongside the like of Wordsworth, Byron and Tennyson. Therefore he stared at his computer screen in a fair bit of shock, as her name most definitely tumbled out, caught in the world wide web.

He learned that for 170 years, gossip and conjecture had spread about the affair between L.E.L. and her publisher William Jerdan.

Michael blinked, because that name had also been passed down through family lore. It was his great-great-great-grandfather, whom Ella had apparently disliked with an absolute passion. Michael realized that his family held the key that L.E.L.'s biographers had been seeking for nearly two centuries. He could categorically confirm that they had been together.

He contacted a scholar, who he discovered was writing Letitia's life story. Cynthia Lawford became the lucky recipient of that final confirmation.

She ran with it, searching the archives and cross-referencing between times when L.E.L. had been missing from London. It turned out that Ella wasn't alone. Two more children were the likely results of Letitia and William's relationship. It should be noted that William's grandmother was named Agnes Stuart, hence it was a good family name to bestow upon the children.

All told, they were:

  • Ella Stuart, born 1823 (probably in Letitia Bishop's home); baptized in Paddington, London, on April 4th 1824. Raised in a well placed family - she had the manner and bearing to pass as a governess in France in 1848 - highly educated too. She visited William Jerdan at home as a child and played with his children, though he never called her 'daughter' in anything committed to writing. When she was leaving for Australia, Jerdan gave her a copy of his autobiography (in which she is not mentioned), in which he had written: 'A prosperous and happy journey in the distant world to which she is now going.'
Image: Ella Stuart's Baptism Entry Paddington St James
Image: Ella Stuart's Baptism Entry Paddington St James
  • Fred Stuart, born 1825 (either in Bigglewade, Bedfordshire or Aberford, Yorkshire). Emigrated to Trinidad as an adult, and was supposed to have married the daughter of its governor. His daughter may be called Emily Ella Landon. Fred suffered from 'a bad West Indian fever' (possibly consumption) and was very close to his sister Ella, though also in touch with Laura. He was mentioned in a letter sent from William Jerdan to his friend Frances Bennoch. Discussed in familiar enough tones that Bennoch must have been in on the relationship.
  • Laura Landon, born March 29th 1829. Raised by silk merchants Theophilus and Mary Goodwin, at their home at Alford Cottage, then 63 Graham Road, both in Hackney, London. They listed her as their niece on the censuses. She later married William Charlton Bartholomew and lived out her years with him, still in London.
Image: Laura Landon in the 1861 Census
Image: Laura Landon in the 1861 Census
Image: Laura Landon in the 1871 Census
Image: Laura Landon in the 1871 Census

Not every biographer accepts that Letitia Landon was the mother of these three, or any other, children. But Ella Stuart's descendants were raised in the knowledge that she and William Jerdan were their forebears. Moreover, Ella certainly knew and remained in touch with Fred and Laura.

For those who do see credence in the claims, then an uncomfortable picture is painted.

There is no way that a single woman, in the 1820s, could have openly raised her illegitimate children without the castigation of society. As a writer in the public eye, Letitia had no option but to give up her daughters and son, and to maintain strict secrecy in all matters surrounding them. She would have had to disguise her pregnancies, spirit them away from view as soon as they were born, then ensure that the funds kept coming in for their upkeep.

All while being a famous personality, constantly recognized across the country and subject to gossip in parlors and press.

Moreover, regardless of her feelings for their father, he was also her boss. With so many demands upon her earnings, The Literary Gazette was her bread and butter gig. What precisely would have happened, if Letitia had stopped sleeping with William Jerdan?  We have no idea, and there are plenty of commentators who believe she never was.

Yet even at the time the rumors were rife, and they were highly dangerous for a female writer whose fame and income relied very heavily upon her continued popularity.

Books about Women and Children in Georgian England

Discover more about what was expected of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, as a late Georgian woman and mother. So you can see how far she broke the mould.

The Backlash Against L.E.L.

Any powerful and/or popular personality will attract adverse criticism, but when they're bucking the norm AND employed in judging others, then it's all so much worse.

Letty Landon was someone who attracted attention and ruffled feathers.

Her mere celebrity would have rendered her subject to scrutiny in the gutter press. In precisely the same way that stars today can't nip to the shop for a loaf of bread, without it being deemed newsworthy, so early 19th century editors too sought even the flimsiest reports to fill their column inches.

L.E.L. was interesting to her fans. She sold papers. Those who detested her wished to read disparaging gossip. She still sold papers.

But she was more than simply famous.

She was a successful female writer, who lived as a single woman, renting rooms outside her family home. For that alone, some wanted to bring her down.

Notwithstanding that she was a powerfully influential reviewer, who could make or break literary reputations. Those on the losing end of her scathing pen hated her with a passion.

There was disdain even at the outset of her career, but that tended to be directed at William Jerdan.

He fell into the habit of introducing L.E.L.'s poetry, in the London Literary Gazette, in gushing, over-the-top terms regarding her talent. This was during a climate of criticism about 'puffery' - i.e. magazines elevating authors and their works, which were being published by sister companies.

Jerdan and his Gazette were viewed as the worst offenders. It didn't stop him, but it did mean that anyone he praised was automatically put down by those leading the 'anti-puffery' backlash, regardless of the actual merits of the source. L.E.L. got that in spades.

Fortunately, the popularity of her poems produced a legion of fans ready to defend her. The Literary Chronicle issued an apology, when they realized that the 'puffery' was at least partially justified in this case and attacking L.E.L. wasn't going to sell their papers.

After 1824, L.E.L. began to draw criticism from some quarters because she was evidently writing for money.

Before this date, her position at the Literary Gazette, and as a poetess, could be viewed as father humoring his beloved daughter by calling upon his old friend Jerdan to facilitate her hobby.

Upon John Landon's death, it became more obvious that L.E.L. was her family's major breadwinner and that didn't mesh too well upon some sensibilities. Moreover, the onus upon that wage meant that her work wasn't always up to standard.

These tones are evident in her friend Katherine Thomson's The Queens of Society, written forty years later:

'But, from henceforth, after the first blithesome period of her songful youth, poetry became unhappily her profession. Never did any writer more wonderfully rise above the effects of task-writing than L.E.L., but that it crippled her genius there can be no doubt.'

It was a public relations hiccup, putting off those who preferred to place themselves as witnesses to a dream come true, than consider that they were also potential cash-cows. Nevertheless they still read her poetry.

Critics and reviewers also expressed distaste as they perceived L.E.L.'s choosing to write on subjects that would sell well.

In 1825, The Westminster Review allowed grudging praise for The Improvisatrice and Other Poems, but noted that 'nearly all her poetry relates to love.'  

Her reviewer recognized that writing about romance, weddings/engagements and other affairs of the heart were surefire money-spinners, which was why so many would-be poets focused heavily upon such topics. The plethora of lesser poems swamping that market meant that it was a mistake to rely upon love poetry to make anyone's name.

In short, L.E.L. needed to switch rapidly to any other subject whatsoever, if she hoped to attain lasting fame and respect for her obvious talents.

L.E.L. answered such criticism in the preface of her next book. She framed her focus on love and romance not as economic necessity, but due to her gender. The public, she felt, would not take kindly to females waxing lyrical on 'serious' topics.

Only matters of the heart were generally accepted as the province of women. Hence she was being a good and virtuous Georgian lady by keeping to a subject fit for her gender. (She didn't really mention that it was also the profitable one.)

Something much more damaging to L.E.L.'s public reputation was to just around the corner.

It's difficult to pin-point the moment when gossip began to focus upon the relationship between William Jerdan and Letitia Landon.

Some biographers believe it was as early as 1821-22, but if so then it was easily brushed aside and didn't really take hold.

The same could not be said for 1826.

On March 5th, The Sunday Times cryptically included a comment about 'a well-known English Sappho' who had been 'detected in a faux pas with a literary man', and had given birth to his child.

No names were mentioned, but contemporary readers would have easily been able to put two and two together from those clues.

In autumn 1826, a satirical magazine sprang up. The writers of The Wasp were anonymous, but they patently did not like L.E.L..

The Wasp's October 7th edition ran with a conjecture laden story, which noted that Letitia had recently been 'as thin and aerial as one of her own sylphs', then suddenly became so plump that her good boss Jerdan sent her away on a holiday.

'She followed his advice, and strange to say, such was the effect of even two months absence from Brompton, that she returned as thin and poetical as ever'.

The implication was clear. L.E.L. had been pregnant, and disappeared to secretly give birth, then came back without the baby.

Things were rendered even more blatant in the next issue of The Wasp. Printed within its columns was a parody poem, framed as an elegy in the Sentimental style, where the author was listed as Letitia Languish. Called The Swellings of Jordan, the sexual innuendo was laid on thick. Thereupon, the heroine was ordered by Jordan to leave for the country. Once there, she gathered her 'fruit'.

Picking up the theme was a secondary publication, newly launched, and also dealing in potentially slanderous claims about thinly disguised celebrities. The Ass wrote that William Jerdan had 'given the finishing stroke of inspiration to Miss Landon.' In context, it was clear what was meant by 'finishing stroke'.

From this moment on, L.E.L.'s love life was not only linked with William Jerdan, but a procession of other men too. It's a progress which continues to this day, as modern commentators look for potential beaus amongst her peers.

The bubble had not quite burst on her supposed innocence and purity, but a new avenue had opened up in which L.E.L. could be seen as a fallen woman. This was an obvious boon to those always ready to tarnish her reputation, but it was also a way for single men to boost their own lack-luster careers through possible association.

Everyone, of course, being careful not to stray too far over the line for fear of being sued. It didn't matter. The suggestion was usually enough.

The Later Works of L.E.L.

Throughout the 1830s too, Letitia was churning out poems, novels, reviews, annuals, editorials and critiques like they were all going out of fashion.

Thwarted Engagement: Letitia Elizabeth Landon and John Forster

Georgian society could have been expected to breathe a sigh of relief that someone was making an honest woman of L.E.L. It didn't.

Accusations concerning L.E.L.'s sexual immorality reached a peak in 1831. When Letitia became engaged to biographer and journalist John Forster, the rumor mill apparently ran into overtime.

He arrived in front of his fiancee demanding that she refute gossip that she'd been sleeping around. Lettie sent him away again, suggesting that he used his manifold contacts to see if he could find a shred of evidence that blackened her name.

Forster returned at some later junction to admit that he'd found absolutely no substantive proof at all. He'd determined that she was in the clear. L.E.L. promptly dumped him.

Friends and family said that she wasn't good at verbal communication, being prone to shyness and becoming tongue-tied. Even old school-friends noted that Letitia had a tendency to panic in class, upon being called to speak up. She knew the answers to any question posed, but worried about phrasing it incorrectly or saying the wrong thing, if asked to verbalize her thoughts.

Lettie had no such compulsions when it came to presenting anything in written form, at school, home, work or anywhere else. Which is probably why she followed up her dismissal of John Forster with a letter.

'The more I think, the more I feel I ought not - I can not - allow you to unite yourself with one accused of - I can not write it. The mere suspicion is dreadful as death. Were it stated as a fact, that might be disproved. Were it a difficulty of any other kind, I might say, Look back at every action of my life, ask every friend I have. But what answer can I give ... ? I feel that to give up all idea of a near and dear connection is as much my duty to myself as to you...'

When she reported the incident in a letter to her friend Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the gloves were totally off. 'I cannot get over the entire want of delicacy to me which could repeat such slander to myself,' she raged, compounding her earlier resolution, '...if his future protection is to harass and humiliate me as much as his present - God keep me from it.'

The taint of gossip peaked again in the mid-1830s, when anonymous letters were circulated throughout high society and its literary circles. They accused L.E.L. of pursuing an adulterous relationship with the letter writer's husband, thus wrecking their home.

She never did find out who had sent them, though no doubt John Forster felt suddenly like he'd dodged a bullet.

L.E.L. Quotation T-Shirts | Letitia Elizabeth Landon T-Shirts

'Glaring like red insanity' and 'Sleep, like wrecks in the unfathom'd main' are both quotations lifted from L.E.L.'s poetry.

The Final Mystery of L.E.L.'s Marriage to George Maclean

George Maclean seemed to appear from nowhere to suddenly wed L.E.L., nor is that nearly the major riddle here. What happened next defined EVERYTHING.

Forget the years of writing, the poetry and the possibility of illegitimate children. If anyone commented upon L.E.L.'s life in the centuries that followed, then the likelihood is that they're discussing these four months.

The inconclusive questions eclipse everything.

For those watching on - and later biographers - there seems to be a sense that George Maclean came from left field to take over L.E.L.'s life. But she had met him two years before their wedding.

In October 1836, Letitia attended a dinner party at the home of mutual friends in Hampstead, London. Here she met George Maclean. He was the Governor of the Cape Coast (now Ghana), after previously being the Governor of Sierra. The couple hit it off immediately, discussing Africa.

It seemed that romance had sparked, but Maclean disappeared home to Scotland and that appeared to be that.

But letters were flying back and forth between L.E.L. and George Maclean throughout the next year. He finally returned to London in the spring of 1838, where the two renewed their acquaintance face to face.

On April 7th 1838, The Scotsman broke the news of their engagement, though in terms which seem horrifically racist to modern eyes:

'Alas! ‘tis true. Miss Landon is to be married to Mr Maclean, the governor of the British settlements on the Gold Coast, whither they sail in three or four weeks. To think of ‘L’Improvisatrice' amongst the negroes! It’s too bad.'

Yet when George and L.E.L.'s wedding took place, on June 7th 1838, it seems to have initially been kept secret. Letitia remained living alone in her room at 22 Hans Square. George Maclean kept his own lodgings.

But some people certainly knew about it.  Letitia Elizabeth Landon married George Maclean at St. Mary's Church, Bryanston Square, London - hardly a secret location - with her brother Reverend Whittington Henry Landon officiating. Her friend Edward Bulwar-Lytton stood in for her father to give her away.

By June 28th, Letitia had finished packing up her things. She lingered in London long enough to watch Queen Victoria's coronation procession, then took a train to Portsmouth. It was her first and last railway journey. There she met up with her husband and, on July 5th 1838, they set sail for the Cape Coast.

Their new home was Cape Coast Castle. Until 1807, it had been one of the three main slave castles in Ghana, as evidenced by the size of its expansive dungeons.

Mr and Mrs Maclean arrived in Cape Coast on August 15th 1838.  As Governor, George Maclean had been in residence (with some aforementioned breaks) since 1830, but this was Letitia's first sight of her new home - Cape Coast Castle.

In addition to housing the British colonial administration, the castle was a center for merchants throughout the region and beyond. Now this largely revolved around spices and silk, but the slave trade had been the reason for the construction of the fortress.

Human trafficking had existed on this spot, in epic proportions, from 1653 until just three decades before L.E.L. arrived. Its reputation as a place of terror has not been shaken to this day, and there were people in Cape Coast Castle then who retained a living memory of its former use.

Still a prolific writer, Letitia spent a great deal of time writing letters home to her friends and family from Cape Coast. They appear uniformly joyful.

On the morning of October 15th 1838, two months to the day that she arrived, L.E.L. awoke early and wrote more letters. All lively and full of happy sentiments. They included one to Mary Mitford Russell, containing seeds for Ghanian flowers that Letitia particularly admired. Russell later shared them with Elizabeth Barrett Browning, thus proving once more that Mrs Rowden's circle of female writers held fast.

Then L.E.L. picked up a vial of Prussic Acid (better known to history as the base of Zyklon B, used to gas people in the Holocaust) and swallowed it.

A servant found her later in the morning, when she attempted to open the door in order to ask her mistress if she required anything. Letitia's body partially blocked it, causing the panicked woman to have to summon urgent assistance in forcing entrance into the room.

Cape Coast Castle's resident doctor conducted a postmortem examination and concluded that poison was the cause of death. It was hardly rocket science. The phial was apparently in her hand.

Letitia Elizabeth Landon Maclean was buried the same day, in the grounds of Cape Coast Castle.

The Grave of L.E.L. in Cape Coast Castle (1873 Print)

The Strange Death of L.E.L. - Suicide, Murder or Accident?

Long after everyone stopped giving a damn about Letitia Elizabeth Landon's poetry, they were still speculating about her demise.

Image: Letitia Elizabeth Landon MacleanOnce news of the death of L.E.L. reached London, the gossip mills practically exploded under the frenzy of speculation.

It's hardly abated in the interim for those who care enough to chart her life history and poetic influence.

This, more than anything else, helped to divert attention from her highly successful writing career into her biography. It's been analyzed to the hilt, used as evidence that women shouldn't be allowed to write because the pressure will undo their pretty, little heads; and/or that L.E.L. was fundamentally unstable.

Or that Africa is dangerous. Or that her husband was suspect. Or that her marriage was loveless. In fact, pick your theory to match your interpretation of her life, apply it in a way that backs up your agenda in discussing her, and someone is bound to have already commented along those lines.

There are three main theories about what precisely happened in L.E.L.'s Cape Coast Castle chamber that morning. They are:

  • Accident. She had a heart condition and had been prescribed Prussic Acid to alleviate the effect of an arrhythmic heartbeat and/or palpitations. She patently overdosed in the midst of an attack. This was the thrust of the coroner's report, and that repeated by friends back home. Though L.E.L. certainly had Prussic Acid in her possession, I've hunted high and low for evidence of heart trouble before this moment. If evidence exists of that, I've not yet found it.
  • Murder.  A major proponent of this one is her descendent Michael Gorman, who retained the story as family lore passed down from Letitia's daughter Ella Stuart. In this version, L.E.L. arrived in Cape Coast to discover that her husband already had a lover amongst the native ladies there. In a fit of jealous rage, the woman - who worked as a servant at the castle - broke into Letitia's chamber and forced the Prussic Acid down her neck. If so, then there's no evidence that George Maclean pursued the murderess and brought her to trial.
  • Suicide. This has been a favorite of many commentators and biographers, because it chimes with so many theories about L.E.L. being exploited, insane or simply manically depressed. Or else so passionate about her art that she'd ape in reality the Fate of one of her own tragic heroines. (It was a bit of a recurring theme in her work that young ladies would literally die from the power of their love.)

    This theory was the most current at the time, forcing George Maclean to issue a statement to the London press in the aftermath of his wife's death. He assured readers that Dr Thomson had advised Scheele's Mixture (i.e. Prussic Acid) be kept at hand to deal with his wife's 'complaint'. His testimony seems to have been largely dismissed as irrelevant.

    L.E.L.'s suicide was pretty much taken as fact by 1847, when William Howitt published "L.E.L." Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets. In it he included an anecdote dating from the time when the gossip was all about Letitia's affair with William Jerdan.
    During the agonies of mind which Miss Landon suffered, at a time when calumny was dealing very freely with her name, her old friend, and, for a long time, co-inmate, Miss Roberts, came in one day, and found her very much agitated. "Have those horrible reports," she eagerly inquired, "got into the papers, Miss Roberts?" Miss Roberts assured her they had not. "If they do," she exclaimed, opening a drawer in the table, and taking out a vial, "I am resolved — here is my remedy!" The vial was a vial of prussic acid. This fact I have on the authority of the late Emma Roberts herself.
    This despite the fact that Letitia's friend Emma - during her own lifetime - had steadfastly maintained the public belief that L.E.L.'s death had been a terrible accident.

Whatever the truth of the death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, all this speculation and focus upon it earned her the unshakeable epitaph of 'Poor L.E.L.'. The tragedy became all that mattered.  By the end of the century, if anyone recalled anything of the woman who had once shone so brightly, it was only in terms that it had all gone wrong.

Poor L.E.L. outlived the poet, and the tragedy became the poetry.

Of the verses, little remained in print, but the story of her end went on and on and on; speculated upon ad infinitem by people who'd never read a word that she wrote, yet were nonetheless convinced that it was crap.

Thus let me leave the (nearly) final word to L.E.L. and her last poem, along with its response from her old friend Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

L.E.L.'s Last Question by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Stanzas from Barrett Browning's response, written in the aftermath of L.E.L.'s death:

Hers was the hand that played for many a year
Love’s silver phrase for England,—smooth and well.
Would God, her heart’s more inward oracle
In that lone moment might confirm her dear!
For when her questioned friends in agony
Made passionate response, “We think of thee,”
Her place was in the dust, too deep to hear.

Could she not wait to catch their answering breath?
Was she content, content, with ocean’s sound,
Which dashed its mocking infinite around
One thirsty for a little love?—beneath
Those stars content, where last her song had gone,—
They mute and cold in radiant life,—as soon
Their singer was to be, in darksome death?

Night at Sea by L.E.L. - Letitia Elizabeth Landon Maclean

Stanzas taken from L.E.L.'s last poem, written whilst sailing to Ghana:

By each dark wave around the vessel sweeping,   
  Farther am I from old dear friends removed;   
Till the lone vigil that I now am keeping,   
  I did not know how much you were beloved.   
How many acts of kindness little heeded,     
  Kind looks, kind words, rise half reproachful now!   
Hurried and anxious, my vexed life has speeded,   
  And memory wears a soft accusing brow.   
    My friends, my absent friends!   
    Do you think of me, as I think of you?           

The very stars are strangers, as I catch them   
  Athwart the shadowy sails that swell above;   
I cannot hope that other eyes will watch them   
  At the same moment with a mutual love.   
They shine not there, as here they now are shining;           
  The very hours are changed.—Ah, do ye sleep?   
O’er each home pillow midnight is declining—   
  May some kind dream at least my image keep!   
    My friends, my absent friends!   
    Do you think of me, as I think of you?

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Fictionalized Stories based on the Life of Letitia Elizabeth Landon

Novels dramatizing L.E.L.'s life have been produced over the years too. In addition there's 'Eight Weeks: A Novel' by Clyde Chantler, now out of print.

Interesting Family Tree for Letitia Elizabeth Landon

Did no-one wonder why I knew so much about L.E.L.'s genealogy? It's mine too.
Image: Harrington and Landon Genealogy
Image: Harrington and Landon Genealogy

Four year old James would still have been in Yarpole, when Letitia visited in 1820. The village isn't very big, so she may well have bumped into her little cousin.

After all, the eighteen year old poet, on the brink of stardom, was lodging with relatives. James's father Thomas Silvanus Landon was the kid brother of John, Letitia's dad. Between them was another brother, the famous cleric Whittington Landon. He was the one who did alright for himself.

L.E.L. must have been back in Yarpole in 1824 too, as this was where her father's funeral and burial was held. Eight year old James possibly attended, or was at least running around playing in the vicinity.

However, this is making a huge presumption, as little James and his twin sister Elizabeth - along with their two known siblings - were illegitimate. That's why their surnames are Lane. Thomas Landon didn't marry Ann Lane until October 6th 1836, not least because he was already married to Ann Jones at the time.

But Ann Lane was certainly making a huge statement, when she named her eldest boy James Sylvanus Landon Lane. Plus every one of the children name him as their father on all of their records.

In fact, 'James' might well be the name by which their son was known, as his official registrations - baptism, marriage and death - all list him solely as Sylvanus Landon Lane. It's only the census records that go waffling on about James, then later Joseph. In addition, his children's wedding lines all name their father as Sylvanus, without the James.

It's intriguing to wonder if the illustrious, but falling, Landon family kicked up at the notion of a bastard boy publicly bearing one of their old, traditional Christian names, in their small community. Hence the belated addition of 'James'.

Towards the late 1830s, when Letitia was reaching the zenith of her fame, then leaving on her tragic last voyage to Ghana, her cousin James moved to Wolverhampton.

It wasn't a bad choice for a young man seeking his fortune. Then a boom town, rather than a city, Wolverhampton lay at the heart of the Industrial Revolution.

Heavy industry and coal fields called thousands from the Welsh mountains and marches, creating a landscape that was 'black by day and red by night.'

James didn't find material wealth here. He lived out the rest of his days in a poor part of town, working as a laborer.

But he did meet a nice Salopian woman named Sarah Clayton. He married her, in St James's Church, Wolverhampton, in 1840. Two years after the death of his poet cousin L.E.L.

While L.E.L.'s children were forging respectable positions for themselves in Australia, Trinidad and London, James's daughter Sarah married a water gypsy.

It was a tough life being a bargee. William Ayres died within a couple of years, leaving his wife with a small baby. But Sarah Landon Ayres (nee Lane) hooked up with another boatman named Levi Cartwright. Their children would be born up and down the canal system.

Thomas Silvanus Ayres grew up on those narrowboats. As far as I was convinced, my family heritage had always been bargee along that branch. We only came off them when my grandmother's boat sank, and the family couldn't afford to replace it.

(She also lost her Singer sewing machine - which for a while was at the bottom of Wolverhampton's Canal Street lock - and Grandma Harrington was distressed about this for decades to come.)

Her son, my uncle John, always said that our family was once titled. We came from a massive mansion, where one of the lords had gambled and drunk away all the wealth.

But then he always seemed to want our family to appear more elevated. Thus I was sent on many genealogical wild goose-chases due to his stories.

Nor had I connected this story with the Ayres/Lane/Landon branch. I'd had them charted for years, but assumed that Tedstone Court was a council estate.

I only learned the truth last weekend, when a random trip to Croft Castle brought me into its Medieval church. There was a huge marble memorial to Whittington Landon, and I asked the question, 'Why would a water gypsy be buried in such a posh chancel, across the way from a knighted hero of the Wars of the Roses?'

The answer to that question lay just a few internet searches away, with the fine detail procured through much hunting through archives and old testimonies. Uncle John had been right all along, insofar as his story went. But the 'gamble' had been the South Sea Bubble, and the title had not been hereditary.

And along the way, I discovered my six times cousin Letitia Elizabeth Landon. I hope I did justice to her memory, as I recounted her tale.

Portrait of Letitia Elizabeth Landon by Daniel Maclise

Portrait of Letitia Elizabeth Landon

Who Will be Found in your Family Tree?

I've written a series of articles on Wizzley about genealogy. It's always an adventure exploring your roots!
Enter a world where the true life stories read like the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster. This is the saga of your own family's roots.
Placing your genealogy online allows other researchers to find you. It also helps you keep your records in order.
A century ago the majority of people could not read or write. Your surname changed often, as clerks wrote phonetically what they thought they heard.
Thousands of websites exist to help you trace your family history on-line. Soon your family tree will be bursting with new leaves.
Updated: 05/12/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 05/07/2014

I was so hoping that you'd run with the medical side of this, as I know you have much more insight into it than me.

You'd also be amazed at what you could buy over the counter back then. As late as the early 20th century, no-one blinked at people walking into a Chemists (Drug Store in your 'hood) and buying quantities of arsenic or cyanide. Prussic Acid really does appear to have been readily available in 1838; moreover, it was part of a remedy for heart palpitations.

You might find Julie Watt's take on the death of L.E.L. quite informative: http://www.academia.edu/4127697/Letit... It begins with a look at how L.E.L. describes her exact death in her final novel, then goes onto the chemistry side of things.

Ember on 05/06/2014

It was just a thought I had.

Another thing, you mentioned that she would've had the prussic acid for a heart problems, but couldn't find info on that anywhere. Even if it wasn't an accident, I do think the prussic acid had to have come from somewhere, right? Unless it was a thing otherwise easily obtained. If it was murder, then perhaps the murderer had some on hand, but if it wasn't something she already had on hand, wouldn't it have stood out to her husband or at least the doctor as odd that she had the prussic acid if they hadn't already known it was something she had, right?

JoHarrington on 05/06/2014

Oh! You've commented again while I was responding to the other one. :)

So you're going with suicide then? It is the top theory amongst those looking at the story. I'd like to get my hands on Michael Gorman's book, as the murder one is the only theory I haven't fully explored yet. Personally the jury is out here.

Your take on the suicide personality was interesting. I didn't know that. I was just reporting the facts, as they we reported at the time. Elizabeth seemed in some shock about how jolly those letters were, but her response to L.E.L.'s poem makes it clear what she privately thought happened.

JoHarrington on 05/06/2014

She really was quite influential. The further I dug, the more I'd find where she'd inspired a much more famous later poet. I kept stopping, re-evaluating - am I projecting this onto her, because I want her to be that influential? Then I'd catch an obviously derivative line in Poe, or read a critic telling the young Tennyson to stop copying L.E.L. wholesale, and I had to stop being so hard on her.

You've just hit the nail on the head as to one of the major reasons that I found Letitia so fascinating. Soooo much information, and so few definitive conclusions. It's obvious why.

Here's a lady who often had to live a lie in order to retain her position in the public eye. If she wasn't popular - and therefore remained the picture of someone who could be popular - then the bills weren't being paid. She must have muddied a lot of waters to keep that one up. In addition, here is a lady whom a lot of people had a stake in presenting a certain way. Often the true facts were mere suggestions amongst a raft of options in telling her life story, at least for the contemporary biographers.

Which all leaves us with a bit of a mess. I do enjoy sifting through a cascading jumble of facts, in order to find those things which can be verified and put together to tell a story, as close to the truth as we can get.


I haven't fully looked into the three children yet. Cynthia Lawford's work is stuck in the University of NY, so I haven't been able to read it. I'm planning to recreate it though, to see what I think. But first I'm sorting out her cousin's family. I spent hours last night, following a major break-through in finding both Thomas Silvanus Landon AND Anne Lane in the 1841 census - different houses, loads more kids than I knew about before.

Ember on 05/06/2014

I will say I didn't expect that her life ended in any sort of tragedy. But when I was reading and you kept repeating how happy she said she was I knew something was coming. It reminded me of my first year of high school. There were actually a lot of suicides, there was one, then another with a note saying the first inspired it, and then two more which were not technically related to the first two but the school said they were. The school was scared, obviously, and we had several school wide and smaller meetings about suicide, in which we learned the warning signs and a lot of other info. I think the one 'warning sign' that has always stood out to me the most was described as perhaps the most dangerous, for multiple reasons. It was sort of described as 'you may notice your friend has stopped worrying about things, big things, little things, especially things that maybe always bugged them in the past that just don't anymore. They may described to you feeling a sense of peace or new found happiness.' I remember they explained it as dangerous because you may be thinking, look here my normally quite shy, or anxious, or depressed etc. friend is so happy, I'm happy for them. Like, your first thought isn't, my not-normally happy friend is happy, they're probably suicidal, but it is also considered dangerous because that stage hits when the decision is made, and the planning is done. They know they're going to kill themselves, they know how, and when, and they're completely at peace with it.

So it stood out to me when you talked about her writing home and being happy, sharing a gift with a friend, something like that doesn't normally come across quite so forebodingly as it did here, I suppose.

Ember on 05/06/2014

I loved the intro, she seems to have been mentioned by a lot of famous poets.

Honestly, this part of the three was very fascinating. The big theme in all of them is just how much speculation there is about her life--all the way up until the end of it, I really didn't expect that bit. I don't know why it is so weird to me that we know so much yet so little about her. It is, in a way, really quite amusing, that's a bit of what you were getting at with all of the varied accounts of her biography isn't it? I'm guessing there are theories which you favor in each case.

And, of course you are related to a famous Welsh writer! :O

What are your thoughts, as a genealogist, re the bit with her potential offspring?

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