L.E.L.: The Lost Life and Mysterious Death of the

L.E.L.: The Lost Life and Mysterious Death of the "Female Byron"

by Lucasta Miller


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A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography: the fascinating, rediscovered story of a writer who changed English poetry and explored the dark side of sexuality through a woman's voice.

On October 15, 1838, the body of a thirty-six-year-old woman was found in Cape Coast Castle, West Africa, a bottle of Prussic acid in her hand. She was one of the most famous English poets of her day: Letitia Elizabeth Landon, known as L.E.L. What was she doing in Africa? Was her death an accident, as the inquest claimed? Or had she committed suicide, or even been murdered? To her contemporaries, she was an icon, hailed as the “female Byron,” admired by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Brontës, and Edgar Allan Poe. However, she was also a woman with scandalous secrets, and her death prompted a cover-up that is only now unravelling. Lucasta Miller, acclaimed author of The Brontë Myth, meticulously pieces together L.E.L.’s lost career, revealing her as a brilliant woman who embodied a seismic cultural shift, the missing link between the Romantics and the Victorians. A triumph of original research and riveting storytelling, L.E.L. restores a fascinating figure to her place in history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593311158
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/20/2020
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 396,113
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

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. She was the founding editorial director of Notting Hill Editions and has been a visiting scholar at Wolfson College, Oxford, and a visiting fellow at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. She lives in London with her husband, the tenor Ian Bostridge, and their two children.

Read an Excerpt

Between 8 and 9 o’clock on the morning of Monday 15th October 1838, the body of a thirty-six-year-old Englishwoman, still in her nightclothes, was found on the floor of her dressing-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.
Cape Coast Castle was the largest trading fort on the western coast of Africa: a stark white complex bristling with cannon, perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in what is now Ghana. During the eighteenth century, it had been the “grand emporium” of the British slave trade. Countless captives had been held in its underground dungeons before precincts. Following the Abolition Act of 1807, the castle had remained under British command, its dungeons repurposed for housing local “prisoners.”
A soldier in the sentry box stood at the entrance to the governor’s quarters, which were decorated in the European style: prints on the walls, a shining mahogany dining table, impressive table silver. The room in which his wife’s body was found, painted a deep blue, featured a toilet table and the deceased’s own portable writing desk, one of those small wooden boxes, typical of the period, that opened to form a sloping writing surface.
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, 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”.
Later that very day, an inquest was held at the castle, the jury hastily convened from among the local merchant community. No autopsy was performed, but the empty bottle was produced in evidence and its label carefully transcribed: “Acid Hydrocianicum Delatum, Pharm. Lond. 1836, Medium Dose Five Minims, being about one-third the strength of that in former use, prepared by Scheele’s proof.” The deceased was said to have been in the habit of using the contents, prussic acid in everyday parlance, for medicinal reasons, and to have taken too much by mistake. A verdict of accidental death was recorded.
After the inquest, the corpse was hastily interred under the parade ground. During the burial, a tropical shower burst from the sky in such torrents that a tarpaulin had to be erected over the gravediggers. By the time the final paving stone was replaced it had grown dark. The workmen finished the job by torchlight.
West Africa was so remote from England that it was not until the morning of January 1, 1839, that a discreet death notice appeared in The Times:
At Cape Coast Castle, Africa, on Monday, the 15th of October last, suddenly, Mrs. L.E. Maclean, wife of George Maclean Esq., Governor of Cape Coast Castle.
But after the evening Courier revealed the woman’s maiden name later that day, the story became headline news. She was one of the most famous writers in England: Letitia Elizabeth Landon, better known by her initials, “L.E.L.”

Table of Contents

Preface xi

Prologue 1

Chapter 1 The Tangled Web 4

Chapter 2 The Three Magical Letters 13

Chapter 3 Keeping Up Appearances 33

Chapter 4 The Songbird and the Trainer 59

Chapter 5 Fame 83

Chapter 6 Shame 103

Chapter 7 Lyre Liar 123

Chapter 8 The Cash Nexus 147

Chapter 9 French Connections 169

Chapter 10 Vile Links 193

Chapter 11 The Governor 224

Chapter 12 Engagement 241

Chapter 13 Heart of Darkness 263

Chapter 14 Cover-up 283

Chapter 15 Hauntings 306

Acknowledgments 321

Notes 325

Bibliography 361

Index 379

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