Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Landon's Local Attachments: Urban Mobility, Literary Memory, and the Professional Woman Writer

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Landon's Local Attachments: Urban Mobility, Literary Memory, and the Professional Woman Writer

Article excerpt

"OH, LONDON!" LETITIA LANDON EFFUSES IN AN 1834 LETTER TO NOVelist Anna Maria Hall, "Mr. Leigh Hunt says prettily of some Italian name, that he cannot write it without pleasure. I say the same of London!" (1) Celebrity poet, enterprising editor and critic, and in the 1830s successful novelist as well, "L.E.L." operated at the forefront of London's literary world. From the start, her urban identifications have been understood as central to her sensibility: looking back, her friend William Howitt commented in his Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets (1847) that "city life was part and parcel of her being." (2) Despite renewed interest in Landon, however, recent scholarship often registers her "local attachments" (to borrow Charles Lamb's phrase) only in passing, if at all, emphasizing instead the self-exoticizing verse that brought her to notice in the 1820s--poetry conjuring the faraway, not the streets outside her door. (3)

Yet across Landon's writing of the 1830s--in fiction, essays, letters and poems--she articulates an intimate connection between the writer's imagination and the city's energies, often vaunting a privileged and knowing perspective on the streetscape she inhabits. She launches her 1834 New Monthly Magazine essay "Calendar of the London Seasons" (signed "L.E.L.") from the perspective of "a cockney, heart and soul" who, with typical Cockney chauvinism, declares she "never in my life looked over with any interest any map but the map of London" a striking comment from someone known for her verses about foreign places. "I never wish to go farther than a hackney-coach can take me; I desire nothing better than pavement beneath my feet," she explains. (4) Her 1831 silver-fork novel Romance and Reality attends to the rhythms and feel of contemporary metropolitan life, while her 1837 novel Ethel Churchill is set in the eighteenth-century city. Such poems as "The Factory" (1835) and her "Scenes in London" series (1836) take up urban life, but, as Margaret Linley points out, even gift-book poetry accompanying illustrations of rural sights, such as "Linmouth" (1833), become excuses for writing about the city. (5) After her death, moreover, Landon endures in Victorian cultural memory--in London guidebooks as well as for successive London writers--not only as the sentimental "poetess" with whom we are familiar, but also as a quintessential voice of the city.

This essay examines the complex exchanges with literary tradition through which Landon constructs a mode of literary authority tied to urban location as she aggressively makes the case, in both poetry and prose, for a specifically lyric mode of urban consciousness, not as a counterpoint to, but rather bound up with, the city's motion, crowds, and noise. Anne Janowitz identifies a form of mobile lyric identity connected to urban structures of experience and available, across the nineteenth century, to "persons whose identities, like the city itself, were being forged rather than inherited":

peculiarly urban voices ... who intuit a freedom which links them to a
whole patchwork of urban culture where they might grasp the freedom of
sublime experience. (6)

Though she goes unmentioned in Janowitz's account, I argue Landon articulates a version of this democratic identity, at once passionately attached to metropolitan experience and radically unmoored. Figures of urban mobility crowd into Landon's writing in the '30s--from solitary urban wanderers to the "most migratory multitude" of people and vehicles transiting in and out of London. (7) Landon uses these figures, and in particular the figure of the woman walker--mobile but also exposed, independent but also literally outside--in order to think through the contradictory and gendered conditions of authorship as well as her relation to the city as social and political community.

The woman walker is of course a charged figure in literature of the nineteenth-century city, frequently associated with sexual fallenness, the prostitute, and the urban underclass. …

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