The following interview with Lucasta Miller, a 2020 finalist in biography, is part of a series of NBCC interviews conducted by New School creative writing students.
Lucasta Miller, author of The Bronte Myth, returns to the world of 19th century female authors with L.E.L., an extensively researched recasting of the life and career of Letitia Elizabeth Landon. Long ignored and dismissed by critics, recently unearthed information has shed light on Landon’s personal life and by extension offered a new perspective on her work. Subtitled, “The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated ‘Female Byron,’” the story more than lives up to the hype. Landon’s personal life, long obscured by Victorian squeamishness, her own dissimulation, and the obfuscation of her biographers, is as dramatic and intriguing as any Hollywood scandal. Miller underpins this narrative with rich historical context, granting intimate access to a period in literary history that readers may not be familiar with.
The story Miller tells is possessed by its dualities: the life and death of L.E.L.; her public verses her private life; the sanitized biographies versus the story told by public records. Miller describes it as “…an experiment — not a traditional “life and times” but a hybrid between life-writing and cultural history.” It opens with a quote from St Aubyn: “Forget heroin. Just try giving up irony, the deep-down need to mean two things at once, to be in two places at once, not to be there for the catastrophe of a fixed meaning.” Though the preface describes the process of uncovering Landon’s true history as, “troublesome and troubling,” by embracing its contradictions, Miller conjures Landon in all her larger than life complexities and gives a voice to a writer who was not silenced so much as buried.
Kate Tooley [KT]: You mentioned in the acknowledgements that you initially thought L.E.L. would be a quick subject, and in an interview with Garage you mention that you weren’t particularly interested in her to begin with. What finally hooked you?
Lucasta Miller [LM]: Having written The Brontë Myth, I had a longstanding interest in 19th-century women writers, but it was the mystery that truly hooked me — or, rather, mysteries in the plural: not just to do with the personal story of her buried life and unexplained death but with her underexplored context. Her forgotten literary era — the “strange pause” between the Romantics and the Victorians — was itself something of an enigma. Towards the end of her life, when she gets to Africa, a whole new mystery arose concerning colonial corruption, which also needed to be unraveled. And then, of course, there was the mystery of her infinitely tricky poetic voice…”
KT: In the chapter “The Songbird and the Trainer,” you bring up the question of authorial intentionality — since much of the book hinges on the idea that we should reconsider her work now that the truth about her relationship with Jerdan has come to light, I’m curious to hear your perspective.
LM: The issue of authorial intentionality is something L.E.L. herself plays on all the time, as when she teasingly tells her readers that she herself is uncertain as to the meaning of her own poetry. Knowing the truth about her private life re-sets how we interpret the way in which she deploys her culture’s sentimental tropes of femininity and romantic love. I was surprised at the extent to which the work encodes the factual circumstances her life, but wary of reading the poetry’s first-person emotional language as the naked, uncomplicated expression of her own true feelings.
KT: You engage with the various ways Jerdan exploited Letitia and track some of his history with other young female poets. Given the shift in the cultural conversation started by #MeToo, I’m curious to hear your thoughts about powerful, predatory men like Jerdan and their impact on literary history.
LM: I think there are probably a lot more stories like L.E.L.’s to be disinterred among the lesser-known female writers of her period, often economically disempowered women trying to make a living by their pens. As a young woman, even George Eliot had to contend with the sexual advances of the Jerdan-like John Chapman and worked for free on his magazine, though she later found the perfect supportive partner in G.H. Lewes.
L.E.L.’s story shows that predatory men like Jerdan do not act in a vacuum but in a wider environment that enables them. Behind her public image as a celebrity “poetess”, she was a hard working professional – an editor and content provider in a male-dominated industry. The misogynistic trolling to which she was generally subjected by male colleagues was appalling. Thankfully history also offers examples of supportive male publishers – Joseph Johnson, say, who published Mary Wollstonecraft.
KT: Following up on that, what was it like to engage with a figure like Jerdan as a female writer and how did you approach your portrayal of him?
LM: Jerdan is a grotesque figure, almost comical at times in his breezy self-indulgence, if it weren’t for the effects of his behavior on L.E.L. and others. It was tempting to paint him as a pantomime villain, but I wanted to understand him as a human being. He was a monstrously selfish moral pygmy with zero self-control and little conscience but he was not a coldly calculating psychopath. It’s interesting, for example, that he kept in touch with all the twenty-two (!) children he is known to have fathered by three women, L.E.L. included.
KT: Throughout L.E.L ., you bring up the way Landon was attacked by later female writers from her immediate contemporaries right up until the 90’s. Why do you think she drew such pointed criticism from other women?
LM: I’m not sure I do. Elizabeth Barrett Browning rated L.E.L.’s “raw bare powers” higher than that of any other female poet and wrote a compassionate elegy to her. Christina Rossetti also wrote a poem in her memory in which she pitied her as a lost soul, but it’s not an attack. You must be thinking of Virginia Woolf making her character Orlando recoil with physical disgust from the “insipidity” of L.E.L.’s lyric “Lines of Life” — a violent reaction that’s oddly out of proportion with the idea of mere “insipidity.” Woolf — who knew nothing of L.E.L.’s private life or hardnosed professionalism in the bear-pit of commercial literature — was registering her disquiet at what is a genuinely disturbing poem about a female writer being muzzled and acting out her own abjection.
KT: An article in the Guardian posited that you want “us to see LEL less as a great poet (she really wasn’t) and more as an interesting ‘foremother’ of today’s performative culture.” Would you say that accurately represents your feelings about her poetry?
LM: I didn’t see my job as a cultural historian as being to give marks out of ten for greatness! My aim was to unearth an individual woman, once regarded as an icon, who had been deleted by history — and to recreate the texture of the whole forgotten culture in which she was a central figure. Her life story was quite literally suppressed by a hypocritical and male-dominated society… So it was in that sense an act of restitution. It’s those historical suppressions that fascinate me. I wanted to bring to the surface the stuff that no one at the time wanted in plain sight, and was therefore hidden from later historians, whether it was L.E.L.’s private life or illegal slave trading by British big business in the 1830s. As L.E.L. put it in “Lines of Life,” “none among us dares to say/ What none will choose to hear.”
KT: Do you think there’s a way for a modern reader to appreciate L.E.L.’s work without having the full context of the time period?
LM: No, I don’t think it’s that easy for modern readers to appreciate L.E.L.’s work outside its context, any more than artworks or other utterances posted on social media today would make sense to future generations who encountered them with no knowledge of the internet and its culture. The woman who wrote “I lived only in others’ breath” is her context, and also comments on it. That’s what makes her such a fascinating historical figure.
KT: By the end of L.E.L . it is difficult not to share Miller’s fascination with the “poetess” and the “strange pause” of the 1820’s that shaped her. The story told is deeply personal, but the way Miller weaves it into the larger social context makes it easy to draw parallels to current events. In the age of “fake news,” social media, and reality TV, attempting to examine how we create artists and public figures in our own image is both relevant and essential. It helps us to better understand the way we react to works that we may lack a personal or cultural context for, and allows us to look critically at ideas of “universal” art. And perhaps even more, it offers us the opportunity to engage with the ways we become participatory in any kind of art simply by consuming it.
Lucasta Miller is a British literary critic who has worked for the Independent and the Guardian, and contributed to the Economist, the Times (London), the New Statesman , and the BBC.
Kate Tooley is a writer living in Brooklyn with her wife, cat, and a collection of dying houseplants; she is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at The New School. @kate_tooley
This interview was first published on February 24, 2020 at the Creative Writing at The New School blog, thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School.