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Jerome McGann and Daniel Riess, eds. Letitia Elizabeth Landon: Selected Writings. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 1997. ISBN: 1-55111-135-7. Price: £9.95 (US$13.95)

  • Fiona Price

…plus d’informations

  • Fiona Price
    University of Durham

While the last two decades have seen an increase in the literary status of both Letitia Elizabeth Landon and Hemans, study of the former has been hampered by the lack of a suitable edition. The circumstances in which L.E.L.'s poetry was published and the quality of the editions hastily compiled after her death has hampered appreciation of her work for much of the twentieth century. The problem of suitable editions has been exacerbated by an unwillingness to examine the conditions of the bourgeois periodical and anthology market for which L.E.L. wrote and by an absence of any familiarity with the pieces of art L.E.L. often made the subject of her work. These are all gaps which the Broadview Press edition, Letitia Elizabeth Landon: Selected Writings, edited by Jerome McGann and Daniel Riess, goes some way towards filling.

The editors begin with a standard biographical sketch, neatly introduced with a swift reference to the myths of the female poet which surrounded Landon and which seem to be invited by her works and ultimately, by her life. Landon's heroines had a tendency to end tragically, and the sensational news of L.E.L.'s death on the 15th October 1838 only five months after her marriage with George Maclean and only two after her arrival in Africa, generated an unusual degree of speculation. McGann and Riess offset this sensationalism with a reference to Anne Ethel Wyly's 1942 study, in which she concludes Landon's death was due not to an overdose of prussic acid but to a fatal epileptic seizure. Through biographical detail and an account of the reaction to her death McGann and Riess give a sense of Landon's literary importance and celebrity. They then move on to discuss the broader literary context of her work. After presenting Byron and Barbauld as the 'dark interpreters' of England's success over France, they provide an outline of the changing literary scene faced by Landon, and the problems its interpretation has caused in recent years (p. 17). 'Landon's is a fast world dominated by a self-conscious trade in art and a studious pursuit of cultural fashion in every sense. In the face of it twentieth-century readers have learned to avert their eyes and await the coming of the authoritative poetical voices of Tennyson and Browning' (pp. 19-20). The commerce of letters, however, is a subject for poetical reflection from Byron to Tennyson and in this respect Landon's work can 'deepen our understanding of romanticism' [their italics] (p. 20).

McGann and Riess use the usual contrast with Hemans to emphasise the presence of erotic rather than maternal love in Landon's poetry. Comments here about Landon's poetry as often 'oblique, or held in reserve, or self-censored' suggest the way in which Landon has taken the complexities of tone and obliqueness of some of the women's poetry of the 1790s and added a new polish and a defiant and deliberate artificiality (p. 23). As the editors remark, 'In Landon there is little new under the sun, although there is much that is novel. Her poetry recreates a factitious world and she is shrewd enough, and cursed enough, to see that her own perceptions are part of that world, as is the language in which she speaks of it' (p. 23).

Riess and McGann's drive to contextualise Landon's work, does not end with the introduction. Landon's poetry often replied to specific cultural events and objects, and the Selected Writings suggests this by including several illustrations, among them Landseer's portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Bedford which faces "Lady, thy face is very beautiful" from verses from The Keepsake for 1829 (pp. 134-35). The example demonstrates the enriched understanding that can follow such contextualisation of L.E.L.'s work. Her lines:

If thou hadst lived in that old haunted time,
When sovereign Beauty was a thing sublime,
For which knights went to battle, and her glove
Had even more of glory than of love; -

are given a particular resonance when viewed alongside the Duchess's commanding countenance. Such a woman would be interested by the political potential of chivalry as much as by its adoration, yet L.E.L comments:

But thou art of the Present—there is nought
About thee for the dreaming minstrel's thought

Her suggestion that the Duchess's powerful character can be seen but not heard becomes more direct as a result of the inclusion of the portrait. Similarly helpful to interpretation where it has not been possible to include illustrations are the comprehensive notes, which give information on the literary and artistic context of the poems, as, for example, for those taken from 'Medallion Wafers'. There, the note contains 'a complementary account of the wafers' found in 'the Fine Arts column of the L[iterary] G[azette] for 4 January 1823' (p. 271).

While such information grants L.E.L.'s work a greater degree of accessibility than it has before enjoyed, its sentimentality, obliqueness and, occasionally, its contentious frankness have proved barriers to twentieth-century readers. To ameliorate this difficulty, the editors have included a selection of reviews and comments on Landon's poetry, fascinating for the light they shed on the poetic conventions and the literary marketplace of the time.

The teaching value and the convenience of the edition are also considerably enhanced by a second appendix, 'Poems Written for and about "L.E.L."', an unusual addition, which reflects the particular importance of Landon as poet and myth to her fellow poets. In addition, for the diligent researcher a fourth appendix by Glenn Dibert-Himes and Cynthia Lawford provides an index to the poetry of L.E.L. The scattered way in which L.E.L's work was published and republished, and the alterations made to them in posthumous editions have made this a difficult task. Thus the painstaking work of Dibert-Himes and Lawford represents a valuable scholarly resource. This is a truly useful edition. Its accessible and readable introduction, along with its selection of poetry and use of illustrations, makes it an excellent starting point for the student new to the works of L.E.L., while the copious appendices provide tools for the more experienced researcher.