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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.