L.E.L. — The Lost Life and Scandalous Death of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron”

Published by Knopf in New York on 7th March 2019, and by Jonathan Cape in London on 16th May 2019.

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Between eight and nine o’clock on the morning of Monday, October 15, 1838, the body of a thirty-six-year-old Englishwoman, wearing a lightweight dressing gown, was found on the floor of a room in Cape Coast Castle, West Africa. She was the new wife of the British governor, George Maclean, and had arrived there from England only eight weeks previously.

Deaths from disease among Europeans in what was then known as the “white man’s grave” were not uncommon. Indeed, the fatality rate was so great that the local Methodist missionary was having difficulty recruiting volunteers. But this death was different. In the woman’s hand was a small empty bottle. Her eyes were open and abnormally dilated.

The last person to see the governor’s wife alive was her maid, Emily Bailey, who had traveled out with her from England. She later testified that she had found Mrs. Maclean “well” when she went in to see her earlier that morning. On her return half an hour later, however, Emily Bailey had had difficulty opening the door. It had been blocked by her mistress’s body.

Soon after Mrs. Bailey raised the alarm, the castle surgeon arrived. He attempted to revive the patient, but in vain. Garbled news soon spread to the nearby hills. Brodie Cruickshank, a young Scottish merchants’ agent, arrived at the fort within the hour, mistakenly supposing that it was the governor himself who had perished. In his memoir Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast of Africa, he later recalled his shock on entering the room where Mrs. Maclean’s body had been laid out on a bed. He had dined with the Macleans only the evening before, when she had appeared to be in “perfect health.” The governor himself was in the room. He had slid down into a chair and was silently staring into space, his face “crushed.” 


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Reviews

“Lucasta Miller’s ... excellent book … should become required reading” — The Oldie

“A brilliant work of literary resuscitation” — Evening Standard

“Miller handles the complex story of Landon’s life with the pace and skill of a novelist, and her book should fascinate anyone” — BBC History Magazine

“A masterpiece of eloquent scholarship ... Miller's real genius lies in her forensic ability to disentangle reality from romance ... splendid" —Literary Review

“Lucasta Miller’s stellar research blows two centuries of accumulated dust off a phenomenon worth unearthing… This book takes biography to a new level… Detection of this order has a revelatory impact." —New Statesman

“This is biography as liberation, in which a woman's story is allowed to stand on its own terms. It its firmly in the within a tradition of seminal accounts of complex women - Claire Tomalin's The Invisible Woman, Claire Tomalin's The Invisible Woman, Amanda Foreman's Georgiana, Lucasta Miller's own Brontë Myth - in which the power of the genre to bear witness to the complexity of women's lives is everywhere apparent.”—TLS

“Definitive”—The Times

“Gripping”—The Sunday Times

“Boldly original … sharp-eyed”—The Spectator

“A compelling life … a rich mixture of literary criticism and impeccable research, which reads like a novel – you keep turning the pages”—Daily Telegraph

“Miller is a brilliant explicator of the troubled trail of fact and fiction that biography leaves in its wake … a fierce and enthralling book” – New York —Review of Books

“This infinitely rich literary biography” —Wall Street Journal

 “… scholarly, riveting … A thorough, engaging and even loving restoration of woman writer whose story needed to be told and whose works required fresh attentive eyes” —Kirkus Review

“Literary critic Lucasta Miller’s sleuthing delivers an unexpected result. The figure who emerges from her pages is not just a missing link in literary Romanticism, but a progenitor of something modern: Landon explored the art of performative self-creation in the commercial press—an art fated to become a habit in the social-media age—and she was one of the first to pay its costs. … Miller is a debunker by temperament, fascinated by the space between image and truth in cultural history. Compared with the anodyne picture of the culture industry in most scholarship, Miller’s portrait is detailed and tenaciously cynical—and truer.” —The Atlantic

“A scholarly and compelling examination of an unjustly marginalized literary life” —Booklist

“Critic Miller crafts a fascinating narrative … beautifully paying homage to L.E.L.’s literary contributions” —Library Journal

“A sirenic, ultramodern biography. Miller’s sleuth-scholar storytelling engages in inventive tone to unravel hidden, seismic-secrets of the nineteenth-century literary landscape” —Yvonne Conza, Electric Literature

"The life of Letitia Elizabeth Landon … should be studied at school. Because in the era of MeToo, social media, image and (yes, even today) lack of gender equality, what L.E.L. did in the 1800s, and the consequences of what she did, still have much to teach us." —Francesca Zottola, Elle

"L.E.L. is a luminous and engaging literary mystery supported by thoughtful and exhaustive research. It is also a necessary story about English literature, one that cannot be overlooked. As Miller writes, 'Without L.E.L., we cannot fully map the contours of 19th-century literature. She is the missing link.' "—Bustle

"A fascinating portrait of a woman and her times and a heartbreaking song of the fickleness of love and fame"—The Economist