7 SEPTEMBER 1951, Page 22

“Nobody Remembers Her Nowadays ), Letty Landon. By Helen Ashton . . (Collins.

cos. 6d.) LErnrm ELIZABETH LANDON (1802-1838) earned during her short life a transient reputation as a poetess, novelist and marginal member of the sham-smart literary set of the eighteen-twenties. She came of good but impoverished stock, lost her father in early girlhood, and found herself, before the age of twenty, the breadwinner for a complaining mother and a feckless coxcomb of a younger brother. She was an omnivorous reader, had a retentive memory, and wrote facile tuneful verse exactly in the taste of the day. As a prolific contributor over the initials L.E.L. to the Literary Gazette and other reviews, as well as to then fashionable annuals, she earned .a decent competence ; but, after providing for her exigent "relatives, she had no reserve of money to enable her to keep up appearances in the extravagant, pseudo-bohemian circles to which she soon had the entrée and on which depended her. livelihood.

Consequently, she was always a solitary, diffident and vulnerable little figure—a young woman without anyone to protect or advise her, in days when such a young woman was a fair target for rakish insolence and scandal-mongering. She became the innocent victim of malicious whispering and poison-pen innuendo. An engagement to marry John Forster was broken by him on account of these cruel rumours, and the unfortunate L.E.L. suffered the miseries of any hunted creature. A dour Scot, Governor of Cape Coast Castle on the•West coast of Africa, offered her marriage. As Mrs George Maclean she sailed with him to Africa in July, 1838. Three months later she was found dead on the floor of her room, -a bottle labelled prussic acid by her side. "This dead- woman haunts me " writes Miss Helen Ashton at the beginning of her new book, and, with perceptive and tender pity, she seeks to lay the unhappy ghost. But unfortunately Letty Landon is not only an imaginative reconstruction by a novelist of great talent of a tormented and mysterious life. It also aspires to be a conversation piece presenting the intelligentsia of the day ; .and the two elements are imperfectly fused. When L.E.L. is in question the story is vital, interpretative and heart-rending. From a very minor figure Miss Ashton evokes a major pathos. But continually poor L:E.L. is crowded out by unneeded contemporaries or Sub- merged in period-decor, manipulated and .displayed in a knowing and jauntily familiar manner reminiscent of -the late Philip Guedalla, in his more flamboyant .mood.. So &direr. becomes " Ned " and Disraeli " Ben " and Maclise "Dan " (One dreads to meet Alf D'Orsay and. Jack Forster). Rosina Bulwer as a society hostess is blown up to the scale of Lady Holland or Lady Jersey, whereas she was little more than a tawdry meteor, flashing across a second-rate social firmament on her way to brandy and venom through the post. There is too much of everything, from celebrities to clothes, coiffures and furniture.

The pity of this over-loading is the greater because two or three of the-incidental poitraits show Miss Ashton at her- intuitive best. Lady Blessington is the woman to the life ; Bul‘ver'S' dual 'person- ality (all the " Ned " nonsense apart) is brilliantly implied ; Grantley Berkeley is labelled blackguard once for all ; Maclean (for the first time in my experience) comes grimly yet impressively alive. As for the heroine—courageous, lonely Lefty Landon, chattering bravely, choking down her terrors, cokuiting her meagre money before buying a new ribbon—she has found a champion at the last. May one appeal to libraries to list this book under " biography and literary history," as well as under " fiction "—if indeed it belongs under