hat same year Landon published a book of children’s stories, Traits and Trials of Early Life. The Literary Gazette’s review on 30 July, (significantly, not on the usual front page position of Landon’s other works), compared the writer to an elephant, meant as a compliment — wise, strong, gentle. It was a charming book, thought the reviewer, addressed to younger readers in “an affecting tone of moral inculcation”. Written about the same time, another of Landon’s stories “First Love; or, Constancy in the Nineteenth Century” began by observing “Now, a love affair…is, of all others, a thing apart – an enchanted dream where ‘common griefs and cares come not’…it is a sweet and subtle language, ‘that none understand but the speakers;’ and yet this fine and delicate spirit is most especially the object of public curiosity” (quoted Lawford 332). Their affair had ever been “a thing apart”. Landon’s spirits improved, and in a letter 1 November 1836 she told Crofton Croker, “I have been fêted and carressed (sic) to the last degree, till, what with dinners, dances, praises and presents I begin to think life is, after all, not so bad” (Sharpe’s Magazine (April 1862): 189). In spite of this show of Landon’s bravado, Jerdan’s newest family could not but have been a source of envy and grief to one whose own three children were being brought up elsewhere, and with a recent very publicly failed engagement behind her.
These thoughts could have been in her mind when, in October, she accepted an invitation to visit the home of Matthew Forster, no relation to her ex-fiancé, but a partner in Forster and Smith, a shipping company importing goods from the Gold Coast. Before the dinner party, Forster gave Landon some papers to read to prepare her to meet one of the guests. This was a despatch about an expedition against the King of Nzema (Appollonia, to Europeans), an exciting read and just one of the brave exploits of the guest of honour, George Maclean. He had a career in the Colonial Service, having been sent to Africa when young. He had risen to become “Governor” of Cape Coast Castle, in what we now know as Ghana. “Governor” was the contemporary term often used for Maclean . After the British government withdrew from Cape Coast, British administration continued under a committee of merchants who had a government allowance for maintenance of Cape Coast and other ports. Maclean was the first President of the Council of government, appointed in 1830. He had fulfilled her childhood dream of travelling to Africa, and she was avid to hear about it. Landon’s biographer noted, “there was at least one subject of deep interest to both, one ready topic of delightful conversation – African habits, African horrors, and African wonders – the sea, the coast, the desert, the climate, and the people” (Blanchard 136). Maclean was Othello to Landon’s Desdemona: “She loved me for the dangers I had passed/ And I loved her that she did pity them.”
Landon no longer felt “independent”, recalled Katherine Thomson, “and hers was an independent mind. All these circumstances made her wish to have a claim, a home somewhere, and Mr Maclean soon offered to her these sighed-for objects of her heart” (300). Thomson did not approve of her friend’s choice. Apart from the “Scotch” speech, (which would have reminded her of her former lover’s Border accent) Maclean could not have been more different from the witty, sociable, and often foolish Jerdan, a difference which may, at this stage of her life, have appealed to Landon, who wanted a new start, in a new country. The pair met frequently and, astonishing her friends by the speed at which she made up her mind, an engagement was agreed. Blanchard thought that Landon at that point had no reason to think she would have to return with him to Africa, but once it was clear that was expected of her, she "courageously assented" to it.Now, according to Landon’s first biographer Laman Blanchard, the behaviour of Landon’s intended was giving cause for concern. In the summer of 1837, a few months after first meeting his betrothed, Maclean went up to see his family in Scotland. He appeared to be having second thoughts about the marriage, failed to write to Landon, or to respond to her letters. Blanchard did not know that at this time Maclean had been sent to Holland on a diplomatic mission, which would have absorbed his time and interest and possibly made corresponding with Landon more difficult (Watt, ch. 12). She fell ill under the strain, convinced that the old scandals had come to the notice of Maclean and his family. He was absent for six months, suddenly reappearing. Whatever explanations he gave to Landon were private, Maclean not being a man to take any notice of rumour and gossip, and the engagement was intact. Landon, however, had heard rumours about him, that he already had a native wife living in Cape Coast Castle. Shocked and alarmed, she confronted him, and after his explanation that no such person was at the Castle, that any such connection was long over, she agreed to continue with preparations for the marriage, and for her departure for Africa.
Blanchard judged that her terror of breaking off a second engagement would unleash upon her head the judgment that all the slanders must have been correct, and “this old familiar thought occasioned far more pain than any fear of consequences likely to ensue from the bygone domestic arrangement of her intended husband” (142). Much of Blanchard’s information in his Life of L.E.L. was given to him by Landon herself for an article in the New Monthly Magazine, for which they both worked from time to time; he knew her well, and his view on this emotional matter may well be accurate. In Lady Blessington’s recent epistolary novel Victims of Society, she wrote “In London, any woman in a brilliant position may lose her reputation in a week, without even having imagined a dereliction from honour” (quoted Rosa 170). She would have been painfully conscious of the scandals that had earlier surrounded her friend, Landon.
Landon’s health improved, and she became much happier. She published another historical novel, Ethel Churchill or The Two Brides which was well received, and later translated into Dutch and German. Restoring Landon to its front page, the Literary Gazette of 7 October 1837 noted that the book was the result of moral investigation. Landon’s poetry was luxuriant in imagery, impassioned, but her prose was “marked by analysis and purpose”. Ethel Churchill was “far superior to any of Miss Landon’s former works.” The absence of Jerdan’s usual over-exuberant praise of her work is striking, but Jerdan’s feelings must have been torn between losing Landon, the demands and needs of his wife Frances and her grown children, and his new family with Mary Maxwell.p> What Jerdan said or thought about Landon’s imminent marriage can only be imagined as he did not write about it in any known document. What Landon privately thought about leaving him, and their children when she moved to another continent can also only be the subject of speculation. Whether he or she made the necessary arrangements to take care of their offspring, to house, feed, clothe and educate them, cannot be known, but she must have been prepared to face the fact that as her new life was in Africa, she might never see them again.
Landon’s choice of future husband was not universally welcomed by her friends or even by her enemies. The Age of 6 April 1838 noted, “Alas! ‘tis true Miss Landon is about to be married to Mr Maclean, the governor of the British settlements on the Gold Coast, whither they sail in three or four weeks. To think of “L’Improvisatrice” amongst the negroes!! ‘It’s too bad’.” Like Katherine Thomson, who disliked Maclean’s dourness, Hall also had strong misgivings. He believed that Maclean “neither knew, felt, nor estimated her value: He wedded her, I am sure, only because he was vain of her celebrity…There was, in this case, no love, no esteem, no respect and there could have been no discharge of duty that was not thankless and irksome” (276). In fairness, he admitted that Bulwer Lytton did not agree with him about Maclean’s character; he wrote to Hall about the bridegroom “in terms of consideration and respect”.
On 7 June 1838, in a strictly private ceremony, Landon and Maclean were married in St Mary’s, Bryanston Square, London. Whittington Landon officiated, and after the ceremony there was no celebration of any sort. In Queens of Society Katharine Thomson related that the newly weds went to the Sackville Street Hotel for one night, after which Landon returned to her friends the Liddiards at Hyde Park Street, kept her maiden name, and went on with her life as usual. One reason for this secrecy was posited by Thomson who suspected it was to avoid news of the marriage reaching Cape Coast Castle before Maclean could give instructions for his ‘other wife’ to be moved out. Maclean's reason was that he was very busy at the Colonial Office, and did not like celebrations and festivities (304).
Three weeks later, on 28 June, Queen Victoria was crowned. Landon watched the Coronation procession, but suddenly, she stepped back and was gone from sight. This was the last day on which the famous poet was seen in public. That evening all of London was ablaze with lights, bells were ringing and the streets were full of happy crowds. There was a farewell party for the newly-weds but Jerdan did not come to say a last goodbye to his erstwhile dearly loved L.E.L. Hall was naturally emotional, knowing it was unlikely he would ever see his friend again. He made a warm speech, referring to Landon as his wife’s valued friend, and spoke of the affection and respect of her many other friends. His evident strength of feelings drew tears from some of the company present. What happened next was unexpected and painful: “The reader may imagine the chill which came over that party when McLean had risen to ‘return thanks’. He merely said, ‘If Mrs. McLean has as many friends as Mr Hall says she has, I only wonder they allow her to leave them.’ That was all: it was more than a chill – it was a blight. A gloomy foreboding as to the future of that doomed woman came to all the guests, as one by one they rose and departed, with a brief and mournful farewell” (279). Sypher suggests that Maclean’s words were ironic, to counter Hall’s implied hostility to him (213).
The following morning Whittington, who escorted the couple to Portsmouth and on to the ship, asked his sister how she would manage without her friends to talk to. “I shall talk to them through my books”, she replied.
Landon’s Mysterious Death — Murder, Suicide, or Accident?
On 5 July 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