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LEL by Lucasta Miller review – the scandalous death of a popular poet


Did a love affair lead to the demise of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, one of the most famous and most exploited poets in early 19th-century Britain ?

In 1838 the newly married wife of the governor of Cape Coast Castle in West Africa was found dead in her room, having apparently poisoned herself. You can see why she might have been feeling defeated. George Maclean, responsible for keeping the peace in a large stretch of what is modern-day Ghana, had turned out to be a dour bully with a “country wife” and family already in residence. Then there was the melancholy discovery that, despite slavery being illegal, the fortress over which the new Mrs Maclean was expected to preside was kept shipshape by black “prisoners” guarded by soldiers with bayonets. Finally, there was the tropical climate, which spoiled everything: “Keys, scissors, everything rusts,” the 36-year-old bride wrote home miserably to her mother.

In the normal run of events the sad news of Mrs Maclean’s death would have warranted a short paragraph in the Times and a tactful side-stepping of whether this was actually suicide or an accidental overdose. But Mrs Maclean was not simply a disillusioned last-chance bride abandoned in a rotten corner of the burgeoning British empire. In her former life, as Letitia Landon, or rather LEL, she had been the most famous poet in Britain. For almost two decades she had spewed out – and sometimes it really did feel like an involuntary hurl – poetry that managed to be mawkish and sensational, coy and fruity. In poems – or songs as she liked to call them – with such titles as “The Fate of Adelaide” and “Romance and Reality”, LEL gushed tales of female passion and social ruin, all sufficiently coded so that nice girls could get away with reading them.

Landon’s life, for all its surface sheen, is actually a story about the bleakest kinds of female vulnerability

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