The 'Female Byron': The celebrity poet who mesmerized a 19th-century public with hints of dark secrets

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tags: books, poetry, English literature

The story ended in October 1838 in modern-day Ghana, at Cape Coast Castle, a British commercial garrison and a former slave-trading post. There, the recently married 36-year-old wife of the chief British official, George Maclean, was found by her maid dead on the floor of her dressing room, an empty prescription bottle of highly toxic prussic acid in her hand. Nearby, probably in Accra, were the governor’s “country wife” and her several children; upon the new wife’s arrival from the literary precincts of London, they had been discreetly removed from the castle. Rumors would soon circulate in Britain that the governor’s previous consort was the murderer, though no evidence emerged to support those suspicions. On the desk was an unsent letter, banal and cheerful, rather than a suicide note.

The enigmatic celebrity death was of a piece with the life. Under the pen name “L.E.L.,” Letitia Elizabeth Landon had been one of the most famous literary women of her brief pre-Victorian moment, her poetry a staple of the popular literary press for well over a decade. A child of bourgeois-bohemian London, she had earned fame early on for her canny way of promising confessions that never quite materialized, lamenting all that she could not tell. She was a performer whose alluring mystery—constant hints and half-revelations—was her calling card. Was she the lovelorn maiden, virginal and yearning? The betrayed woman, experienced too soon? Was she sinner, victim, or the cynic playing at both poses? Even her several portraits look like different women.

Read entire article at The Atlantic

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