n 5 July 1838 the newlyweds sailed for Africa on the brig ‘Maclean’, fitted up especially for the comfort of the new Mrs. Maclean. On 15 August, the day after her 36th birthday, they arrived at Cape Coast Castle. On 15 October Landon was found dead, holding an empty vial of prussic acid. The circumstances surrounding this untoward death were reported, skewed, twisted, gossiped over and analysed immediately the news reached England, and again more recently as interest in Landon’s poetry has revived. There were conflicting reports from those at the Castle, unreliable as they were frequently influenced by personal and business grudges against Maclean. The talk centered around whether she had taken her own life, been poisoned, or had become ill and collapsed. Hall, for instance, who was certain he knew, did change his mind when he reviewed Landon’s death many years later: “Her marriage wrecked her life…For my part, that unhappy L.E.L. was murdered, I never had a doubt” (2.159). Because of the extreme heat Maclean had her buried immediately, which precluded any medical examination that might have determined the cause of death.
Sypher’s 2009 biography discusses many possibilities of the cause of Landon’s death. Recent research on Landon’s death has pointed to the possibility that the cause was Stokes-Adams Syndrome, a chronic condition only then recently identified, in which the patient suffers a series of collapses due to a stoppage of the heart, likely to be the cause of symptoms which Landon had displayed for years – spasms, migraines, fainting fits and other complaints (Watt ch. 10). In all probability the truth will never be known, but the suddenness and the circumstances surrounding her death gave rise to a contemporary small industry of memoirs of the poet, both biographical and fictional. Even in 1928 D. E. Enfield’s romanticised biography, L.E.L.: A Mystery of the Thirties, stated unequivocally that “There can be little doubt that Letitia remained to the day of her marriage, a stainless virgin” (96). In Rebellious Fraser’s Thrall claimed that between Jerdan and Maginn was “uninterrupted kindliness and understanding [which] becomes in a way a surety for the right relations between Maginn and L.E.L. Both men professed the deepest attachment for L.E.L…she presumably treated them as good companions, granting no undue favours to either” (226). Thrall also decried the treatment of Landon and Maginn in Sadleir’s Bulwer and His Wife published around the same time. Many factual errors in two other semi-fictional biographies have been pointed out in some detail by Duncan (92n). Such blatant errors illuminate the many misunderstandings that crept into all the so-called biographies of L.E.L. and highlights the caution necessary in using them as sources. Interpretations of interpretations rolled on and on for years after Landon’s death. The Murder of L.E.L. (2009) by M. Gorman, the great-great-great-grandson of L.E.L. and William Jerdan, is the latest of these fictionalised biographies.
News of Landon’s death was first published in The Courier on 1 January 1839, and followed by other newspapers in the ensuing days. One of the earliest notices was, of course, in the Literary Gazette of 5 January 1839, where Jerdan observed: “Whether after ages look at the glowing purity and nature of her first poems, or the more sustained thoughtfulness and vigour of her later works, in prose or in verse, they will cherish her memory as that of one of the most beloved female authors, the pride and glory of our country while she lived, and the undying delight of succeeding generations.
When Jerdan came to write his Autobiography in 1852-53, he left any mention of Landon’s death until almost the last page of the final volume, as if he could not bear to put it into words. All that he said then was, “Of the shock received by the death of L.E.L. I dare not trust my pen to write. The news stunned me at the time it was told – I fell down insensate – and the memory is too painful for even a line to bewail the sacrifice. No more” (4.378). His pain is palpable, even fourteen years after the event. The only other record of his feelings immediately after hearing of her death is the eloquent emotional letter, in which he included a lock of Landon’s hair, that he sent to the always sympathetic Lady Blessington.
The report of her burial place, given by Dr Madden, who visited Cape Coast in 1841, caused grief to her friends at home. Madden was no friend of Maclean, and probably relished the opportunity of painting him as black as possible. Appalled by his account of Landon’s burial place under the feet of drilling soldiers, Lady Blessington told Madden to have erected, at her cost, a suitable monument over the grave. According to Sadleir’s Blessington D’Orsay, she was immediately bombarded with begging letters from Whittington Landon (280). Maclean told Madden this was unnecessary as he had already ordered a mural slab with a suitable inscription to be erected, which was done shortly afterwards. Landon’s friends thought to make a subscription for a tablet to be erected to the memory of “L.E.L.” in Holy Trinity, Brompton, where her grandmother was buried, and of which she had written a poem, The First Grave. However, it quickly became clear that Landon’s death had left her mother even more poverty-stricken, and the subscription that was collected went instead for her support. Maclean had offered to double the fifty pounds a year which his wife had given to her mother. Mrs Landon replied that if her daughter had been happy with him, she would accept it. No more was ever said, neither did Maclean send back to England any of Landon’s possessions. He does appear to have sent her manuscripts to Laman Blanchard whom Landon had appointed as her literary executor. Bulwer-Lytton paid Mrs Landon a generous annual amount until her death in 1854 and in a letter of February 1840 asked Macready to contribute too. She was also awarded a small pension of fifteen pounds from a fund by Sir Robert Peel. Whittington helped as much as he could, which was not much. Katherine Thomson told Jerdan in 1846 that Mrs Landon had a government annuity of fifteen pounds, twenty pounds from the N. Benevolent, twenty-five pounds from Whittington, ten pounds from Mrs. [illegible], fifteen pounds from herself and sundry contributions from friends of L.E.L. bringing a total of eighty-five pounds. Her own contribution had dwindled from thirty pounds to fifteen pounds and was still not very secure (letter Thomson to Jerdan, n.d., Bodleian Library MS. Eng. lett. d. 114, f258).
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Last modified 16 July 2020