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L.E.L. Reviews

L.E.L. by Lucasta Miller


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

Lucasta Miller

4.30 out of 5

10 reviews

Imprint: Jonathan Cape Ltd
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publication date: 16 May 2019
ISBN: 9780224079396

On 15 October 1838, the body of a thirty-six-year-old woman was found in Cape Coast Castle, West Africa, a bottle of Prussic acid in her hand. She was one of the most famous English poets of her day: Letitia Elizabeth Landon, known by her initials `L.E.L.' What was she doing in Africa?

  • The Sunday TimesBooks of the Year
4 stars out of 5
John Carey
12 May 2019

"a gripping piece of detective work"

Miller applies her investigative skills to the Regency literary culture that made and destroyed Landon, and finds it brutally misogynistic and riven by envy, spite and mischief-making. For those who believe in the civilising power of literature, it is a dismal spectacle, and Miller argues persuasively that one reason Landon was so quickly forgotten is that the Victorians wished to draw a veil over “the literary industry’s sleazy past”... Her most gripping section concerns Landon’s death. A hastily convened court of inquiry in Cape Coast Castle had pronounced it accidental... Miller cuts through the tangle with meticulous, precise research.


5 stars out of 5
Kathryn Hughes
24 May 2019

"(readers) will come away from Miller’s excellent biography understanding why she matters"

Miller wants us to see LEL less as a great poet (she really wasn’t) and more as an interesting “foremother” of today’s performative culture. In this reading, her first-person voice, which often seems provisional or about to be overwritten by the next thought or a new poem, becomes akin to the serial self-staging that you see on Twitter and Instagram. Under the particular pressure of the age, which languished somewhere between Romanticism and Victorianism, Landon threw together an identity for herself that spoke to the commercial demands of mass market publishing, but also answered the decree that authenticity was everything. Although it is hard to imagine readers scurrying to rediscover LEL’s verse, they will come away from Miller’s excellent biography understanding why she matters.

5 stars out of 5
Catherine Taylor
24 May 2019

"an energetic, fascinating and deeply researched book"

The result is an energetic, fascinating and deeply researched book which is as much about the “strange pause” — the slippery, ambiguous hinterland in literature and history between the end of the Romantic era of Shelley, Byron and Keats, and the beginning of the Victorian age — as it is about Letitia Landon herself... For Miller, Landon is predominantly a “post-modern” character and “a textual construct”; the success of this vastly intriguing book is that by its end the reader is of the same conviction.

5 stars out of 5
22 May 2019

"a rich mix of literary criticism and impeccable research"

This is a compelling life of the victim of a misogynist celebrity culture, a rich mix of literary criticism and impeccable research, which reads like a novel – you keep turning the pages to discover whatever will happen next to the unfortunate L.E.L.

4 stars out of 5

"sharp-eyed as an analysis of the myths that grow up around some writers and the motives behind them"

Miller’s previous book The Brontë Myth traced the stories and traditions that gradually adhered to the Brontës like barnacles, especially once they were dead and unable to answer back. Her new book is equally sharp-eyed as an analysis of the myths that grow up around some writers and the motives behind them. Its greatest achievement is to show that Landon’s scandalous life was far more than just the context for her poetry. To a large extent it also shaped how she wrote, producing verses that were playful and performative, full of stylistic dodges and disguises, and told her readers as much about themselves as they did about the mysterious ‘L.E.L.’ whose signature appeared beneath each poem.

4 stars out of 5
16 May 2019

"a brilliant work of literary resuscitation"

In a brilliant work of literary resuscitation, Lucasta Miller explores Landon’s forgotten poetry and vigorously challenges the legacy of “lies and evasions” surrounding her... Miller’s reconstruction of life at Cape Coast (modern-day Ghana) in the years following the supposed abolition of slave trading is brilliantly informative.

4 stars out of 5
9 May 2019

"How Letitia Elizabeth Landon sold her image and bought poetic fame."

Deftly and surely, Miller peels away the extravagant melancholy of the poet’s lovelorn mask to reveal a sexual bargain: Landon’s long affair with William Jerdan, the rather beefy, middle-aged editor of the Literary Gazette. He published Landon’s poems, promoting her as a girl prodigy, a “Female Byron”. By 1825 she was the superstar of poetry, filling the supposed “pause” in literary history after the early deaths of Keats, Shelley and Byron. Jerdan prided himself as mentor, but he was also grooming his protégée. A “Svengali”, Miller says, and all the more sinister because he believed himself benevolent, encouraging Landon, yet all the while edging her into his clutches.

  • The TimesBook of the Year
4 stars out of 5
4 May 2019

"The poet’s success was blighted by dark secrets"

Miller’s definitive biography restores to life a poet who influenced writers such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti and Charlotte Brontë. It cannot be said that the samples of her poetry included here will make one rush to find the complete works, but that is a matter of changing taste. As one of her female supporters remarked: “She is a genius and she must be excused.”

4 stars out of 5
Miranda Seymour
1 May 2019

"Compelling as a detective story"

Compelling as a detective story, Miller’s revelatory life of Landon is a masterpiece of eloquent scholarship. Her exploration of a long-neglected literary figure also sheds new light upon the misogyny and grubby hypocrisy of journalism in the era during which Landon achieved precarious stardom.

4 stars out of 5
30 Apr 2019

"a triumphant case for literary biography"

Her account of L.E.L.’s troubled life instead makes a triumphant case for literary biography: that, when it is done well, it can shine a light on a writer’s work. In its own way, L.E.L. is as interested in the processes and implications of biography as The Brontë Myth, but here Miller makes her own project, rather than those of others, the test case for an exploration of the limits and possibilities of life-writing. “All life-writing is a paradoxical process whereby the fragmentary business of lived experience is moulded into a formal literary structure, and given an artificial sense of direction”, she wrote in The Brontë Myth. In L.E.L. the story of lived experience paves the way for a story about creativity, women’s lives and the liminal literary interregnum of the 1820s and 30s.