Letitia Elizabeth Landon 1802-1838

Letitia Landon was born in Chelsea, the daughter of a senior clerk in a firm supplying the army during the wars against the French. One of her uncles was the Dean of Worcester College, Oxford and another the rector of Aberford in Yorkshire. She attended a highly-rated primary school in Knightsbridge and was later educated at home by an older cousin. In 1809 the family moved to the country to own a farm but moved back to London in 1815 because of the agricultural depression. She had a younger brother, Whittington Henry, whose fees at Worcester College she paid through her earnings as a poet, and a younger sister, Elizabeth who died aged thirteen. She dedicated her poem Captain Cook to her brother as a memento of their childhood days and it is thought that her poem The Forgotten one was in memory of her sister.

Letitia showed early promise as a poet and worked with William Jerdan, the editor of the Literary Gazette, who employed her as the magazine’s chief reviewer and published her poems. He was some twenty years her senior and married with several children. It later transpired that he was more than her literary mentor and at the time she became the victim of scandalous rumours which led to the cancellation of her marriage to John Forster, a biographer and literary critic ten years her junior. Subsequent research has revealed that the rumours were not unfounded, as she had three illegitimate children with Jerdan.

She published her first collection of poems, The Fate of Adelaide, in 1821 under her own name and later two poems under the initials L. E. L. which aroused a lot of interest. After the publication of her second volume, The Improvatrice (1824) she was described as the “female Byron” or “English Sappho”. She went on to publish four further volumes of poetry between then and 1835. She also wrote four novels. In 1938 she married George Maclean, the governor of Gold Coast (now Ghana) and moved out there with him in August of that year. Two months later she was found dead, a bottle of the poison, prussic acid, in her hand. There has been much speculation as to whether this was suicide, an accidental overdose, or even murder by her husband’s jealous native mistress.

Her death was greatly mourned and both Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rosetti wrote glowing poetic tributes to her. Her poetry, which was prolific, covered a wide range of themes and was widely admired in her day, although it is now considered by some to be overly simple and sentimental. There is no doubt, however, that it displays great intellectual power, emotional intensity, imagination and passion.

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