margaret cavendish and leticia landon

I recently read two biographies about interesting women writers of the past and thought I’d leave some notes about them here:

Pure Wit: The Revolutionary Life of Margaret Cavendish by Francesca Peacock 

L.E.L.: The Lost Life and Scandalous Death Leticia Elizabeth Landon, the Celebrated “Female Byron” by Lucasta Miller

The lives of Margaret Cavendish and Leticia Landon sparked new thoughts on two ideas that I return to often: the force of personal will and the development of intelligence. 

Margaret Cavendish was born in 1623, Leticia Landon in 1802. Both women encountered a socially powerful man at a young age. It’s fair to say that their relationships with these men set the course of their lives. 

Margaret managed to find a relationship that offered a high-status social position and intellectual stimulation. At 22, she married William Cavendish, who was thirty years her senior. The bulk of her scientific and literary education came from her husband and his brother.

There’s some discussion about how much influence William had over Margaret’s writing, whether he was in effect a coauthor. He provided her with books, unprecedented access to educated people, and of course his own opinions and experience. Peacock’s biography argues for Margaret’s individuality and impact, so William’s role is cast as an important, intellectually-close partner, but not usually a contributor to the work itself. 

Even adjusting for cultural differences of the time, it’s hard to imagine that their significant age difference didn’t create something of a mentor/mentee dynamic. Margaret said it herself: she described William as “her onely [sic] tutor.” (I found other essays analyzing Margaret’s view of marriage and her collaborations with William, which I’ve collected below for safe keeping. Unfortunately I can’t access most of them because they’re tied to scholarly journal or library subscriptions. Such is life.)  

I’d need to do more reading to get the full picture, but for the purposes of the blog, I’ll mention what stood out to me. One, the attainment of knowledge was a major interest for Margaret. She insisted throughout her life that her work would have been better if she had been educated at a school like her brothers. Some people think she downplayed the education she did have, but even if that’s true, the importance of intellectual development was a sticking point. Two, her work was often rife with mistakes. She obviously found these mistakes embarrassing—several of her pieces are padded with excuses about them (as well as pleas for praise and leniency). So why didn’t she ask William, or anyone else, to fix her errors? That seems like a strong will at work. 

Margaret Cavendish died suddenly at age 50 of an unknown illness. William Cavendish had a monument built, and was buried next to her three years later.


Leticia Landon’s story goes a different way. At age fourteen or fifteen, the adolescent Leticia was spotted through a window by William Jerdan, a friend of Leticia’s father and the editor of The Literary Gazette. Jerdan “encouraged” Leticia as a poet and began to publish her in the Gazette when she was 18. In the biography, Lucasta Miller minces no words: in her view, Leticia’s body was traded for Jerdan’s support of her literary career, possibly with complicity from Leticia’s mother. 

William Jerdan was twenty years older than Leticia. The dynamic was at best unbalanced and more likely exploitative. She was his mistress for over a decade—starting when she was about 20 years old—and had three children in secret. 

Jerdan and Leticia created the character of “L.E.L.” together, to sell in the Gazette. Miller makes a convincing argument that this early enmeshment had consequences for Leticia’s sense of self for the rest of her life. I sort of admire Leticia’s audacity under the circumstances. She was reckless about the scandalous rumors that followed her—scandal which would eventually be her downfall. Perhaps Jerdan lulled her into a false sense of security. She didn’t seem to think her suggestive poems would get her into trouble, and their provocativeness was certainly part of their popular appeal (Jerdan had an interest in her continuing to write that way). She also appeared in public with Jerdan all the time, sparking the initial rumors of an affair. But I also don’t like it when people strip a woman of her feelings, even when they’re trying to prove she was a victim of something. So I won’t take Leticia's poems away from her.

Miller suggests that Leticia’s identity was hidden and chameleon-like. It would have been hard to know much about her interior self. Her emphatic denials of the affair with Jerdan, even to her close friends, are sad to read now that history knows the rumors were true. Perhaps hiding—and shifting her personality to suit the environment—was a way of maintaining some form of autonomy in a life that she did not have entire control over.

Eventually, Jerdan discarded Leticia for another, even younger poet-mistress. Leticia entered into a disastrous marriage (which Miller casts as a last-ditch effort to achieve economic and social stability). Just two months after moving with her husband to South Africa, Landon died rather mysteriously of prussic acid poisoning. She was 36. It’s mostly accepted that she died by suicide, though whether or not she intentionally took the lethal dose is debated. 

Jerdan went on to take credit for Leticia’s poetry after her death, calling her in a letter the “songbird [he] taught to sing,” and claiming that he was the subject of all of her love poems. 


The evidence suggests that Margaret Cavendish’s marriage was a love match. By luck or by design, that match also gave her the education and social positioning to pursue her work to the full extent of her capabilities. If some derided her, she remained determined to write, and took pride in exaggerating her eccentricities. Leticia Landon, by contrast, was cruelly used. Her intelligence and will had to be directed toward, or deprioritized in favor of, social survival; her personality tailored and submerged. The circumstances did not allow her to realize whatever potential she may have had.

The objective quality of the work gets debated for both writers. But this seems less interesting to me than the constraints and opportunities that defined their development. I seem to care a lot about individualism and selfhood. Maybe that should have been obvious, but writing this piece brought it into focus. 

Further reading:

Danielle Dutton’s novel, Margaret the First 

Tags: women, history, writers, will, intelligence, learning, individualism

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