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Poisoned Lives

The Regency Poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L.E.L.) and British Gold Coast Administrator George Maclean

Julie Watt was, until retirement, Head of Arts & Media at Stevenson College, Edinburgh. She continues to work part-time for the SQA as a Principal Assessor in Media Studies, and for the OU on the reading experience of Robert Louis Stevenson. Her OU doctorate is in TV drama, a subject on which she has written, broadcast and lectured internationally. Her interest in Letitia Landon stems from a family connection.

Poisoned Lives is a double biography of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, best-selling Regency poet known to her contemporaries as the female Byron’, and her husband George Maclean, British administrator on the Gold Coast, known as the Father of Modern Ghana. L.E.L.’s reading public adored her writing and poetry and made her the best-selling female author of her time. As an early media celebrity her life was the subject of society gossip, so her sudden death in Africa shocked the nation (a ‘melancholy catastrophe’ ran one headline) and led to rumours of suicide or murder. Her husband’s name was henceforth blackened by London society, which unwittingly superimposed the plots of L.E.L.’s fictions upon the circumstances of her death.

Despite the fact that Maclean cleared 200 miles of Western African coast of British slave trading, made peace with the warlike Asante, instituted a judicial system still in use in many African democracies, and encouraged successful and fair trading, the scandal unjustly ruined his career. According to the inquest L.E.L.’s death was caused by her improper use of a prescribed medicine, but the rumour mongers discounted the difficult circumstances of life on the Gold Coast in the mid 1800s, and hinted that ‘Mrs Maclean, only recently married, owed her death to the revengeful passions of the natives, who poisoned the wife in order to have vengeance on the husband’.

Among those who enjoyed her work or recognised her influence were Mary Shelley, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti and her brother, Dante Gabriel. It might be said that, to reflect fully the aesthetics of early nineteenth-century poetry, one has to consider, together, the works of William Wordsworth, Felicia Hemans, and Letitia Elizabeth Landon.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-420-8
Hardback Price: £55.00 / $74.95
Release Date: November 2010
Page Extent / Format: 272 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: Yes


List of Illustrations


1 The End

2 Letty: Childhood

3 George: Childhood

4 Letitia: Starting Out

5 George: Starting Out

6 Letitia: Making a Name

7 George: Making a Name

8 Letitia: Changing Tack

9 George: Changing Tack

10 Letitia: Coming Together

11 George: Coming Together

12 Together

13 Death at the Castle

14 The Inquest

15 The Affair of the Dos Amigos

16 The Commission of Inquiry



Watt renders [the lives and tumultuous love of Letitia Elizabeth Landon and George Maclean] with the brio of a skillful storyteller with a keen eye for local detail, the wit of a well informed, casually deployed knowledge, and the authority of an intrepid scholar-researcher. The research is considerable, drawn from wide reading in the history and culture of a half century of British and West African colonial worlds, from the literary world, as well as archives in England and Scotland, the Maclean family papers, the faculty of medical colleges, the records of life in Cape Coast Africa, and personal travel to this site. Poisoned Lives is capably animated with an array of histories, local lore, cultural anecdote, and inset biographies (Bulwer Lytton, John Foster, Daniel Maclise, Rosina Wheeler, Lady Blessington, William Maginn). It is not only the most important publication on L.E.L. since Cynthia Lawford’s news [about LEL’s illegitimate children], but also a tour de force on the cultural turmoils of Great Britain – from the Highland Clearances and forced emigrations from Scotland in transatlantic conditions rivalled only by the slave-ships, sans manacles; Church politics (High and Low); the adventures of post-Waterloo military life, especially in foreign lands essential to British commercial hegemony; Paris in the mid-1830s; the currents of gossip, slander, and jealous rivalries amid the variety, freedom, perpetual novelty and cultural excitement of ever-modern London; silver-fork novels, annuals, and the late-Georgian beau monde; the puffery and put-downs of magazine and gazette reviewing; the fashioning and fracturing of celebrity; the promises and perils of aspirational female authorship in pre-Victorian Romanticism; and the force-fields of gender and class. Watt threads her biographies with rich research in to the homes and haunts, scenes and cultures, poetry and politics, in which these dynamically memorable lives arose, took shape, met challenges, prospered, joined and divided. A storehouse of valuable research and superbly coordinated information, Poisoned Lives is also a lively, literate, engaging g story, rendered with the craft and flair of an artful novelist.
From a review by Susan Wolfson, Princeton University, in The Wordsworth Circle, Volume XLII, Number 4, Autumn 2011

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