Finding the female Byron | Daily News

Finding the female Byron

In Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons has a sex-obsessed biographer called Mr Mybug corner the heroine Flora Poste in a teashop and proceed to bore her with his theories about Branwell Brontë. Mr Mybug has mined the Brontë archive and, on the basis of three letters, has proved to his own satisfaction that Branwell was the repressed genius responsible for Wuthering Heights. Flora, who is attempting to steer the conversation away from Mr Mybug’s own passions, enquires politely whether the letters make any reference to the composition of a novel:

“Of course not”, retorted Mr Mybug. “Look at the question as a psychologist would. Here is a man working fifteen hours a day on a stupendous masterpiece which absorbs almost all his energy. He will scarcely spare the time to eat or sleep. He’s like a dynamo driving itself on his own demoniac vitality. Every scrap of his being is concentrated on finishing Wuthering Heights. With what little energy he has left he writes to an old aunt in Ireland. Now, I ask you, would you expect him to mention that he was working on Wuthering Heights?”

“Yes”, said Flora.

Erotic fantasies

Lucasta Miller gave Mr Mybug a cameo in The Brontë Myth (reviewed in the TLS, January 19, 2001), making him stand for the legions of cod-psychoanalytic biographers of the twentieth century. Gibbons’s caricature, Miller suggested, speaks to a larger truth about life-writing. “The urge to get into the subject’s bedroom, or failing that into his or her erotic fantasies, remains central to literary biography to this day.” In The Brontë Myth, a “metabiography” of the long afterlives of Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Miller anatomized this impulse brilliantly. After surveying 150 years of Brontë mythmaking, her conclusion was uncompromising. “We have to decide”, she insisted, “where the cultural value of these artists lies. It is time to turn the tables and put the writings first.”

On early inspection, Miller’s repudiation of gossipy biographical sensation sits oddly alongside the subject and approach of her new work. The subtitle of L.E.L. makes its preoccupations explicit: The lost life and scandalous death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the celebrated “Female Byron”. Accompanying publicity material promises an investigation into the “mystery” of L.E.L.’s life and presents the poet as a “woman with secrets”. Sex is at the heart of this telling of L.E.L.’s story. An unkind reader might look at the outline of the volume and wonder whether the extraordinary twists and turns of L.E.L.’s history have led her biographer to succumb to her inner Mr Mybug, falling for the irresistible thrill of the biographical chase in spite of herself.

That reader would be unwise as well as unkind. Miller is far too scrupulous and interesting a writer to be seduced by the salaciousness of her own discoveries. 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. L.E.L.’s “lost life” recovers the rakish oddity of a neglected period in literary history; the result is a compelling and moving narrative of a woman and her world.

Napoleonic Wars

Letitia Elizabeth Landon was born in London in 1802, to John Landon and Catherine Bishop. Her father was an army agent whose income was seriously affected by the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and in 1816 he moved his family to Brompton in order to save money. In 1820 he left his wife and children to fend for themselves and slipped away from London to avoid his creditors. Left to ensure her family’s survival on her own, Catherine responded by advertising the talents of her precocious eldest daughter to her neighbour, William Jerdan, editor of the Literary Gazette.

Jerdan was then in the process of turning the paper into a cultural powerhouse to rival the major literary quarterlies. The Literary Gazette was aimed at a younger, less staid audience than the Quarterly or Edinburgh Review: the poem that L.E.L.’s mother submitted via the family governess promised to set the cat among the literary pigeons. It was a celebration of republican liberty entitled “Rome”, written within a year of Peterloo by an eighteen-year-old of whom Jerdan knew little.

More poetry followed – some of it ephemeral and polite, some of it surprisingly bold in its representation of female passion. Jerdan reinvented his neighbour’s daughter as “L.E.L.”, the mysterious songstress of his own discovery. Her work appeared in stand-alone volumes as well as in the pages of the Gazette and other periodicals; for a brief period, in the 1820s, she rode a wave of popularity. Jerdan installed her as the Gazette’s chief reviewer and later estimated that she earned more than £2,500 over the course of her career. The financial arrangements between them were complex, though: much of the income that did reach her went on the support of her mother and siblings.

Literary circles

From the mid-1820s on, speculation about the precise nature of the relationship between L.E.L. and Jerdan surfaced periodically in London literary circles. Her first biographer felt compelled to defend her from “slander”, and the most recent version of her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography makes reference to the harm done to her by gutter-press “gossip”.

Miller has carefully followed the threads of family history to establish that L.E.L. had three children by Jerdan, all of whom were given away shortly after birth. The middle child, Ella, maintained an epistolary relationship with Jerdan; but when, in adulthood, she emigrated to Australia, she did so with the strong sense that her continued presence in Britain was unwelcome to him. Against the odds, Ella thrived (her family later recalled that she had unusually strict standards of morality). Her siblings were not so lucky. After their births, L.E.L. never saw her children again.

- Times Literary Supplement


 

Add new comment