On 5 March 1826 the Sunday Times, under the heading ‘Sapphics and Erotics’, announced:
A well known English Sappho…famous for the amorous glow of her fancy, has just been detected in a faux pas with a literary man, the father of several children. The discovery happened when the placens…and brats were sent off…last September to the waterside, and was effected by means of a charwoman…Observing, that as often as the youthful Sappho arrived at the embowered recess of Love and the Muses, the blinds on the ground-floor study were pulled down and shutters pulled up; and wondering how books could be read in the dark, this female busybody stationed herself so ingeniously…as to see the whole poetical mystery, by which ‘hearts throb with hearts,’ and ‘souls with souls unite.’ This she expounded to the wife…Other truths then came out, from which it appeared that the ‘virgin gentleness, the orphan muse’ had honoured her Benedict (though not Benedictus) Phaon with a young chubby Terpander, or son of a lyre, two years before, and at Canterbury of all places, whither the gay deceiver cantered with her (so he gave out) on his way to Margate for the purpose of seeing his better half and seven fractions, like a good spouse, back to London.
Unless Landon had another child after Ella’s birth in December 1823, the article surely refers to Ella’s own birth and the newspaper got both the date and the gender wrong. The reference to the “seven fractions” is correct, as Jerdan and Frances had seven children. It is likely though, that it was during the autumn of 1826 that Jerdan and Landon’s second child was born, a son they called Fred. Like his sister Ella, now about three years old, his surname was Stuart. Where he was born, and how he was fostered are, as yet, unsolved mysteries.
The satirical press had a field day. By this time L.E.L. was a celebrity, her face and figure well known in literary and artistic circles where she was often escorted by Jerdan, ostensibly in his professional capacity. The rumours turned to outright accusations, libellous had they not been true. The Wasp, whose twelve issues W. Jeffreys published by between 30 September and 16 December 1826, was one of the most outspoken and damaging. On 7 October 1826 The Wasp remarked that Landon “in the course of a few months acquired so perceptible a degree of embonpoint as to induce her kind friend Jerdan to recommend a change of air…strange to say, such was the effect of even two months’ absence from Brompton, that she returned as thin and poetical as ever” (Lawford, Diary). In case this barb had missed its target, they tried again the following week, charging “L.E.L. (alias Letitia Languish)…with having written a sentimental elegy on the Swellings of Jordan. She pleaded that the flood had gone off; but the plea was overruled; and she was ordered into the country to gather fruit, and to deliver an account thereof on her return” (emphasis in original).
Landon had indeed been out of London, letters between June and September being dated as from Aberford, Yorkshire, the home of her uncle, an Anglican vicar and his family. Fred Stuart may well have been born on her way to Yorkshire, and left with a wet nurse while his mother recuperated at her uncle’s house, her secret safe from her family. A close analysis of Landon’s letters at this time has suggested the possibility that she travelled in the mail coach for Aberford, stopping at Royston, near Biggleswade in Hertfordshire, remaining there until late December, some two months after The Wasp’s reference to her being seen in London (Lawford, “Thou shalt bid”). However, it is quite likely that Landon wrote about this to Katherine Thomson to cover her tracks, as a letter of early September to another friend said she would be staying in Aberford some more weeks. These anomalies will be resolved should a birth record for Fred Stuart ever be found, but this is unlikely as in those days no statutory registration was required.
Another satirical journal of the gutter-press, the Ass cruelly parodied Landon’s own poetry, “False love, that like a mutton chop/Is flung aside when cold”. In two other issues the Ass named Landon and Jerdan directly. The following day the accusation was picked up by the Sunday Times of April 2nd: “The new publication called The Ass, in a letter to Mr William Jerdan of the Literary Gazette, says, he has…‘given the finishing stroke of inspiration to Miss Landon’. Is this banter or compliment?” Certainly, the Sunday Times did not mean it as a compliment, to reprint this tawdry accusation. Jerdan’s response was mild in the extreme: The Literary Gazette of 2 May noted “A new periodical called The Ass has been going on these three weeks; it is seldom that proper names are so properly bestowed, by writers who are their own godfathers. There is, nevertheless, some humour in The Ass but if it wishes to succeed it must avoid indecency.” Jerdan was more hurt than this indicated. He kept copies of all these scurrilous periodicals for many years, “cherished by my vanity”, although “they tickled me heinously at the time, and make me quite as sore now as they did then,” a quarter of a century earlier. Landon, on the other hand, most definitely knew about these too-pointed references. Writing in June to her friend Katherine Thomson, wife of her Doctor, Landon informed her “I have taken some steps towards change”, presumably concerning her change of residence, and then protested plaintively
To the end of her days Thomson either truly did not believe, or did not put her suspicions on paper, that Landon had been having an affair with Jerdan. If Dr Thomson had attended Landon for any of her several chronic ailments during any of her pregnancies, he could not have failed to take notice of her condition, and if he did so, then it is hard to believe he did not share his knowledge with his wife. Both of them, according to Blanchard, rarely let her out of their sight. Landon’s concern seemed more about the taint to her work than about her personal reputation, and also that those who criticised her had never had to work for their living, as she did. Putting her works, and thus herself, on a high moral plane, Landon was both deceiving her friend, and attempting to divert her from the nub of the accusations centring on her relationship with Jerdan. Landon, in this letter at least, seemed to have no regard for telling the truth, nor any idea that this deception could undermine the trust her friend had in her. She continued this long complaint shamelessly seeking some sympathy: “The more I think of my past life, and of my future prospects, the more dreary do they seem. I have known little else than privation, disappointment, unkindness and harassment; from the time I was fifteen, my life has been one continual struggle in some shape or another against absolute poverty, and I must say not a tithe of my profits have I ever expended on myself.” Much of this is patently untrue: she lived at home until she was twenty and although financially her family was not well off, she certainly never starved or lacked a roof over her head. Her grandmother showed her nothing but kindness, as did Jerdan who in one of his writings about her, corroborated that she did not spend much money on herself or her dress. Much of her income was still going towards the support of her mother, and her brother Whittington and likely, although we have nothing to evidence this supposition, upkeep of her children. Landon was, in fact, satisfied with her financial situation, telling Alaric Watts, “I think myself so rich I am delighted. First and last I have received between £900 and £1000, so I have full reason to be content.”
Landon hazarded disclosure about relationship with Jerdan in her fourth book, The Venetian Bracelet, which Longmans again published. She received one hundred and fifty pounds for this work. 1500 copies were printed, and a further 500 were published in 1844. This collection included “Lines of Life,” which, read with the knowledge of the gossip gathering around the poet, sounds like a cry from her heart:
I live among the cold, the false,
And I must seem like them;
And such I am, for I am false
As those I most condemn.
I teach my lip its sweetest smile,
My tongue its softest tone;
I borrow others’ likeness, till
Almost I lose my own.
I pass through flattery’s gilded sieve,
Whatever I would say;
In social life, all, like the blind,
Must learn to feel their way.
and so on for another twenty-two verses. She is saying here what her own friends remember clearly about her in their memoirs, that she wore a different face in society from her poetical self. In the same volume, “A Summer Evening’s Tale” asks, “Am I not better by my love for you?/At least I am less selfish.” Having had an affair with Jerdan for around five years, borne him two children with another on the way, one can but marvel at her question, as if adultery were something virtuous.
The splits between Landon’s private life with Jerdan, her own sparse domestic life, the social face for parties, and her poetic persona were all there in her poetry, but general enough – like horoscopes – for her readers to see in them anything they wanted to see. James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, commented in Noctes Ambrosianae, that Landon in society was
a brilliant creature… none of your lachrymose muses…that’s the character o’ real geniuses, baith males and females. They’re ae thing wi’ a pen in their haun, at a green desk, wi’ only an ink bottle on’t and a sheet o’ paper – and anither thing entirely at a white table a’ covered wi’ plates and trenchers, soup in the middle, sawmon at the head. [Quoted Lawford 351]
On Christmas Day 1831, the Satirist, or Censor of the Times printed a squib with a title which would have made Jerdan and Landon very nervous indeed, “The Baby: A Dialogue between W. Jerdan Esq. and L.E.L.” The scene was set in a Back Parlour in Colburn’s shop.
Jerdan: O wondrous woman, pretty L.E.L!
To meet you gives me infinite delight.
My baby you’ve not seen, you’d like it well:
Lo! I’ll produce it, little darling wight!
L.E.L. O Jer! Your works, they say, do equal Brougham,
But think how all our enemies would sneer,
Should we be overheard in this back room
Talking about a little baby dear.
Jerdan: Charming L.E.L! Be not so coy;
My baby’s in the Keepsake, splendid book!
And not a word of either girl or boy –
You’ll nurse it now? I read it in that look.
L.E.L. Your baby I’ll not own; and, in addition,
I’ll tell you truly what I told A-ram
Bulwer, that, if writing’s your ambition,
Nothing you’ve ever penned is worth a d—n!
The following week, as a New Year Wish another verse appeared. Buried amongst other stanzas it said:
To Jerdan the ability
A ‘baby’ to produce
That LEL deign to own And nurse would not refuse.
Finding that the ‘Baby’ referred to was Jerdan’s contribution to The Keepsake for 1832, published in November or December 1831, rather than one of their flesh and blood babies, would have come as a huge relief to the secret parents of Ella, Fred and Laura.
Landon and Jerdan were seen together so often, and worked together so much on the Literary Gazette, it was inevitable that their names should be linked in print. A small thirty-two page booklet appeared in 1832, published by James Gilbert. It was called The Poetical March of Humbug! By the Great Unmentionable, being burlesque imitations of the principal poets of the day after the manner of ‘Rejected Addresses’ . Amongst those it made fun of were Jerdan and the poetess. “Well, reader, what do you think of Jerdan and his ‘own delightful minstrel L.E.L?” it asked. Accompanying this was a sketch of Jerdan in his armchair, puffing a cigar, a pile of books at his side, at his side a roaring fire, above which is a framed picture at which he gazes, of a muse holding a lyre. The title of the sketch is ‘The Editor of the Literary Gazette and L.E.L. or, “Puff” and his protégée.’
The identity of the author, “The Great Unmentionable” has not been revealed, but it has been suggested that Hook is the likeliest candidate, as he was in the habit of sketching in pen and ink on his letters and would have relished the discomfiture such a sketch would have caused Jerdan and L.E.L. who were in no position to sue over the innuendo implicit in this sketch. Beneath the sketch are supposed signatures, reading “Yours ever feesable (sic) W. Jerdan” and “Literally yours L.E.L.”, the latter a daring and blatant statement. The text explained, “The room before you is the Editor’s study, where he is generally to be found puffing morning and evening at a rapid and voluminous rate. His breathings of course, occasionally end in smoke, and such is the force of example, that several of L.E.L’s late effusions have terminated their career in a similar manner, by being thrown into the fire after a first perusal…” A narrative verse called The False Hussar and purporting to be “by L.E.L” followed – the tale of a young woman dazzled by the hussar, sitting on his knee and allowing him to kiss her; she later sees news of his marriage and dies of a broken heart.
Jerdan and L.E.L.’s descendant, Michael Gorman, reads much into this sketch, interpreting the lyre as liar; the position of L.E.L.’s head indicating that the burning fire would be around her loins, the cat (pussy) having obvious sexual connotations as well as the ‘cat being out of the bag’ as stand-in for a baby, the cup (Circean) on the mantelpiece with a spoon suggesting it is not fresh, the three objects alongside, possibly buns (bairns) referring to the three children, Jerdan’s position being a reverse of the famous Maclise portrait, possibly alluding to LEL’s rumoured affair with Maclise, L.E.L. is wearing a loose chemise similar to night attire and other indications that this cartoon was a smear against which they could not dare to take legal action.
Gorman suggests Hook as the author, basing his attributiom on S. C. Hall’s Book of Memories, which mentions Hook’s artistic habits. Hook was well known for hoaxes and satire, and Gorman’s suggestion might well be accurate. Despite considerable searching, no other possible author has been revealed.
Undeterred by being the butt of such a prank, Landon was as busy as ever. She believed some of her finest work appeared in the annuals, especially in Fisher’s Drawing-Room Scrap Book. In her letter to Croker, dated 10 October 1831, she told him that the work came at a good time for her: “a week ago Messrs. Fisher’s (sic) proposal would have been a matter of comparative indifference, but from some recent family events it is a perfect fairy-gift” (quoted Sharpe’s Magazine, February 1862 p. 64). The ‘family events’ may have been demands on her purse from her mother, brother, or upkeep for her children. She edited the Drawing-Room Scrap Book from 1832 until 1839, the final issue appearing after her death. It was distributed not only in London, but also in New York, Paris, Berlin and St. Petersburg. She was much more than editor: she was almost the sole author of all eight volumes of what has been termed “one of the most impressive annuals” (Sypher 1999). Jerdan remembered that “she had no assistance from any hand”, but contrary to this accepted view Maginn “used to repeat those poems which he had given to the fair editress, laughing heartily all the time at the little hoax they were playing off on the public” (Mackenzie 5.lxxxvi). From 1825 until the end of her life Landon wrote poems for many other annuals, including the Forget Me Not and its Juvenile version, Friendship’s Offering, Literary Souvenir, the Amulet, Pledge of Friendship, the Bijou, and The Keepsake. In 1833 she contributed all the articles and verse to the first volume of Heath’s Book of Beauty. Some writers and reviewers derided the annuals. When Thackeray wrote Pendennis in 1850 he satirised them quite savagely, but by that time, their day had long since ended. However, they were a welcome source of income for Landon, as well as providing her with many outlets for her particular brand of poetry. Jerdan reported that she received thirty pounds for The Easter Gift, which was in the form of an annual. About this time, Landon proposed a plan for a new type of annual, describing it in detail to Jerdan, and suggesting it be called The Choice. She left the scheme in his hands “as you know far better than I do what publishers might be likely to act upon the scheme” (Sypher, Letters 100). No such annual appeared.
Rumours abounded about Landon, many suggesting a liaison with Jerdan, with Maginn, and Maclise. The possibility has also been discussed that Landon was being blackmailed which would account for her shortage of money. Who the blackmailer was, or what hold he had over her, is not certain, but it has been suggested that the motive for sending anonymous accusatory letters to Forster was to prevent Landon entering into marriage and thus possibly cease being susceptible to the blackmail. The secret may have had to do with disclosure of Landon’s and Jerdan’s three children, although there is no evidence that Jerdan himself was subjected to blackmail, or it may have been related to a suggestion that Landon herself was illegitimate. F. J. Sypher’s Biography, which provides a detailed discussion of contemporary sources, especially Berkeley, supports the idea of blackmail.
Dibert-Himes, Glenn T. “Introductory Essay to The Comprehensive Index and Bibliography to the Collected Works of Letitia Elizabeth Landon.” Ph.D. Dissertation. Ann Arbor, Michigan. UMI 1997.
Howitt, William. Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets. London & New York: Routledge Warne & Routledge, 1847.
Howitt, Margaret, ed. Mary Howitt. An Autobiography. London: Isbister, 1891.
Jerdan, William. Autobiography. 4 vols. London: Arthur Hall, Virtue & Co., 1852-53.
Jerdan, William. Men I Have Known. London: Routledge & Co., 1866.
The Letters of Letitia Elizabeth Landon. Ed. F. J. Sypher, Delmar, New York: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 2001.
Landon, L. E. Romance and Reality. London: Richard Bentley, 1848.
Landon, L. E. Letitia Elizabeth Landon: Selected Writings. Ed. Jerome J. McGann and D. Reiss. Broadview Literary Texts, 1997.
Madoff, Susan. Conflicted Life: William Jerdan (1782-1869). London Editor, Critic, and Author. [Complete text in the Victorian Web]
Last modified 16 July 2020