The Paris Review

Who Was the “Female Byron”?

Artist, Henry William Pickersgill; Engraved by D. H. Robinson, L.E.L., 1852

Not many people know what happened to English literature between the end of the Romantics and the beginning of the Victorians. This troubling era in British cultural history has never been given a name; it’s been called a “strange pause” and an “indeterminate borderland,” and dismissed as a tedious “flat calm” during which nothing much happened.

It was certainly strange, and its literary voices were indeed indeterminate—often calculatedly so, making their tone hard for the modern reader to pin down. But the one thing British publishing culture was decidedly not during the 1820s and 1830s was calm, as is demonstrated in the rise and fall of the prolific poet and novelist Letitia Elizabeth Landon. Known by her initials “L.E.L.” and called the “female Byron” in her day, she was born in London in 1802, and found dead in 1838, a bottle of prussic acid in her hand, a few weeks after arriving at Cape Coast Castle in West Africa. It was a fittingly dramatic end to a short but tumultuous life as one of London’s most talked about literary phenomenons.

Her career coincided exactly was the new literary sensation, and the world of Regency rakes and Romantic rebels had been swept away by the new Victorian values. Symbolically enough, her last public appearance in London was on a balcony overlooking Queen Victoria’s coronation procession. It was as if she simply could not survive under the incoming regime.

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