Though it’s likely you have never heard of her, at one time Letitia Elizabeth Landon was the most famous poet in England. Born into poverty in 1802, she was writing scads of romantic, confessional poetry while still in her teens.
Published under her initials, her poems were coy and titillating, and she became an enormous hit. The young Brontë sisters gobbled down everything she wrote. Young men such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton wondered lasciviously about her identity and romantic life.
Letitia’s mentor was William Jerden, editor of the Literary Gazette, which published her poems weekly for years. In “L.E.L.: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated ‘Female Byron,’ ” biographer Lucasta Miller refers to him more than once as “Svengali,” and that is not a stretch. Jerden was twice Letitia’s age, married, and sexually attracted to young girls. Before he became her editor, he spied on little Letitia as she played in her garden.
Her tragic fate was as old as humanity: Jerden seduced her, bound her to him professionally, stole most of her earnings, and — after they had baby after baby after baby (all of whom were born in secret and given away) — turned away from her for a much younger woman.
There is much that feels contemporary about Letitia’s life — her almost Twitter-like poetic confessions, the importance of her brand — but she was, alas, a century or two ahead of her time. Young English women were not permitted the sexual freedom that young men were, and her bold romantic life proved her ruin.
Throughout Miller’s fascinating recounting of increasingly tragic events (L.E.L. died by suicide at age 36), the reader — much as Letitia herself did — cannot escape a growing sense of doom.