The Reading Room

Romantic Women Writers

Biography can be an excellent introduction to writers who have fallen into obscurity, and whose work is difficult to obtain or too slight to be a collected body of work. Kudos to Lucasta Miller and Frances Wilson for reconstructing the lives and careers of two women who deserve a place within the landscape of the Romantics.
The titles of biographies generally include the name of their subjects – after all, how else would you know who the book is about? Yet Miller's book is titled L.E.L.: The Lost Life and Mysterious Death of the 'Female Byron' (2019). It's true that Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802-1838) wrote under the disguise of her initials, and also true that few people, apart from scholars of the “great pause” between the later Romantics and early Victorians, would recognize her name. However, this creates a paradox – she's deemed worthy of a full modern biography, but not viewed as significant enough to allow her name to stand on its own. It's unknown whether the choice was made by Miller herself or the marketing department at Vintage, but the result is that Landon is subjugated to a far better known (male) poet of her age. This only underscores the opinion that she's worth plucking from obscurity because of her associations, rather than her work. Even more unfortunately, the title produces confused images to anyone who knows about Byron – presumably the reader is supposed to equate Landon with Byron's notoriety and flamboyance, rather than his club foot or impassioned support of Catholic emancipation.
Unlike George Sand, another woman writer who hid behind a pseudonym, Landon failed to sustain her success as a writer. In large part this was because her personal life fell afoul of codes of female respectability. Rumours of impropriety haunted her throughout her career. Having three secret children with her Svengali of an editor was far more than a casual mishap, though some loyal friends swore to her good character. The conflicts of Landon's life pushed her to literary success with her emotive poetry, and she toyed openly and dangerously with the duality of innocence and experience.
However, this style of writing fell out of favour in the mid-1820s, as brooding Romanticism gave way to the mannered “silver fork” novel. Buttoned-up middle class morality came to the forefront of society, a movement crowned by young Queen Victoria's ascension to the throne in 1837. Landon attempted to evolve alongside these literary and economic changes, writing doggerel for ladies' annuals and catty novels about her own literary circles, but never achieved anything close to her earlier success. Her death by Prussic acid in modern-day Ghana remains obscure – was this a planned suicide, an accidental overdose, or an addict's inability to correctly gauge the amount she could tolerate? The uncertainty provides a poignant coda to a life and career spent skirting the edges of respectability.
Landon's is a familiar narrative. In contrast, the reputation of Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855), wavering between the prudishness of a maiden aunt and a suppressed passion towards an inappropriate subject, is much more tangled. Biographer Frances Wilson, in a talk at Edinburgh University in February 2023, described Dorothy as having “a screamingly anxious, unhappy voice,” which jars against the serene title The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (2008). According to Wilson, Dorothy was a brilliant nature writer whose observations were used by both William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge; there is evidence that famed opium-eater Thomas De Quincey found her “noble” and loved her “in [her] fervid prime.” Was Dorothy satisfied with the life she depicted in the Grasmere Journals (kept between May 1800 and January 1803), “a routine of [...] pie-baking and poem-making”? Did she want publication and accolades? What in the world was really going on with William's wedding ring, which Dorothy seems to have worn the night before his wedding, and returned to him with a blessing before he left for the church? Why exactly does everyone keep hinting at incest? How can journals – seemingly the most intimate form of writing – keep Dorothy so maddeningly opaque?
In her talk at Edinburgh, Wilson provided an intriguing personal connection to the Wordsworth family: she wasn't close to her own mother, so wanted Ann Wordsworth (an influential tutor at St. Hugh's College, Oxford, described by Harold Bloom as “a wise woman and a profound student of the great poets”) as a mother. Wilson then married one of Ann's sons, thereby becoming a Wordsworth herself. Wilson didn't go into details, indicating that her own life history wasn't anything she wanted to write about. This is a shame, as it sounds as fascinating and complicated as Dorothy Wordsworth's own.