L.E.L.

Henry Howard, “Sarah Trimmer”, 1798

Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L.EL.) (1802 – 1838) is another example of what distinguishes 19th century women poets from their predecessors. Those in the 17th and 18th centuries had been the precocious, the upstarts, the smart individuals with open-minded fathers or uncles. Instead, we find many of the women of the 19th century turning their talents to money-making needs early on. Landon’s father had been wealthy until some unwise decisions on the stock market, and her family were attempting to restore their former glory. Landon’s brother went to Oxford, while she began publishing poems as a teenager. After her father’s death in 1825, Landon pursued a career releasing numerous volumes of poetry, as well as writing pieces for a variety of journals and annuals. After her death, the young L.E.L. was remembered by a childhood neighbour as:

…a plump girl, grown enough to be almost mistaken for a woman, bowling a hoop round the walks, with the hoop-stick in one hand and a book in the other, reading as she ran, and as well as she could manage both exercise and instruction at the same time. The exercise was prescribed and insisted upon; the book was her own irrepressible choice.

By 1830, Landon – publishing under the intriguing, gender-neutral name of “L.E.L.” – rented a room in London, writing independently and sometimes defiantly. She was a free woman, one might say. L.E.L. is not a moralist or a didactic poet like her contemporary, Felicia Hemans. Instead, her female voices are those of independent, creative, or passionate women, women who are interacting with the world on their own terms – and often being punished for doing so, but unfairly.

Befriending poets of both genders, L.E.L. faced allegations of scandal from various men she was said to have degraded herself with, including Edward Bulwer-Lytton, MP and author of The Last Days of Pompeii. Perhaps some of her female idols from the continent could get away with this behaviour but 19th century England was not the place for it. Landon seems to have been conflicted in her role as a poet; writing for money often meant catering to the market, but she was someone who wished to tell her own stories, to question society, and those acts couldn’t always go together.

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Thomas Miller and Edgar Allan Poe

Théodore Géricault, “Alfred Dedreux (1810–1860) as a Child”

Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849), the American writer, is famous for his short stories and poetry, most notably The Raven, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Purloined Letter and The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s somewhat odd because – frankly – Poe was never a very good writer. His influence and imagery, however, loom large in the American consciousness. His contributions to the embryonic detective fiction genre are pivotal. Perhaps he appeals more to Americans than those of us overseas, but regardless of my opinion, Poe mania lives on! The City in the Sea is one of his more succcessful pieces, imaging a Biblical city – relocated into the South of American Gothic style – ruled by a kind of Death.

Thomas Miller (1807 – 1874) was born in Lincolnshire, and worked as a shoemaker’s apprentice before developing his own basket-making business. Miller took to poetry as a side-business, moving to London in the late 1830s to start a family. He attempted to make some money as a professional author but unfortunately was unable to get past writing “penny dreadfuls”, the cheap, tawdry thrillers available for sale on the street. (Charles Dickens, among others, was not impressed).

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Women Poets of History, Part VIII

Hello, friends! This is the penultimate piece in a series of nine posts exploring some female poets from around the world who were writing before the year 1800. Of course, now that we’re barrelling through the 19th century, we’re meeting many great poets of all genders, but we know that history wasn’t always kind to women who desired to express themselves, let alone if it was for a career in the arts! These voices – most of them, by nature of the time period, being in languages other than English – can easily be lost to us. Unlike their male counterparts, many female poets were not able to leave behind much written information about them, and this poverty of biography also helps to push them into the background.

The reality is, given that women were often denied an education and an outlet for any artistic thoughts, and were often actively discouraged from learning about things outside their sphere (and even if they mentioned to do all of the above, their works were less likely to be copied and published enough times to survive down through the centuries), we are never going to find as many great female poets from early eras than we do men. But it’s enlightening to hear the thoughts of this array of female voices, some existing within the intricate customs of their culture, others asking questions of it.

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The death of Shelley

From E.J. Trelawny, Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron (1858):

ON Monday, the 8th of July, 1822, went with Shelley to his bankers, and then to a store. It was past one p.m. when we went on board our respective boats—Shelley and Williams to return to their home in the Gulf of Spezia; I in the Bolivar, to accompany them into the offing…

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Mrs Hemans

Henry Raeburn, Portrait of writer Elizabeth Hamilton, 1812

Felicia Dorothea Hemans (1793 – 1835) began publishing poems at age fourteen in the north of Wales, encouraged by her mother, and around the time that her father abandoned the family. Five years later, Felicia Browne married Captain Alfred Hemans, giving birth to five children… until her husband likewise abandoned the family. Caring for her family (and mother), Hemans released volume after volume of verse, becoming a true poetic superstar – although not, admittedly, of the Byronic variety. Byron, was unkind to Mrs Hemans’ work, but Wordsworth was a fan – although he wrote disdainfully of her cleanliness and abilities outside of the written word. Apparently, the poetess  – although she tried to care for the family – was not a natural homemaker!

Hemans was not much of a believer in the “modern woman” She was happy to be a housewife and mother, and this was one of the key drivers of both her popularity in the years following her death, and her rapidly sinking public reputation by the end of the 19th century. She fits comfortably into the “sentimental” mould which we associate with writers of the time, up to Dickens’ Little Nell. Hemans writes of sorrow and suffering, of people finding their place in the world, but also, interestingly, of heroic women throughout the ages, as in her 1828 Records of Women.

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Shortlist: 1800 – 1825

Jean-Baptiste Geruze, “The Milkmaid”, c. 1760s

At various points in our journey, I’ll be pausing to list some other works that I love, think are interesting, or just want to point out. These will just be lists, unless I feel like commentary, but they will point the way to yet more reading pleasure. There’s a lifetime of books out there, so why waste it?

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