Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

No Taste for Innocent Pleasures: L. E. L. and the Nineteenth Century

November 15th, 2012

Student Manuscripts Processor and Museum Studies Graduate Student Sarah Adams revises her ideas about the nineteenth century after working on the collection of British poet L. E. L.

When we think of English society in the nineteenth century, we often associate it with what we’ve read in classic novels. British literature and culture of that era seemed to me to lean heavily on polite social decorum and chaste modesty. With such stringent moral codes, people from these periods can at times appear dull compared to modern society. However, after working on a certain nineteenth-century collection in the processing department, I have a hard time believing this to be the case.

Image of Portrait of L. E. L. (1)  Image of portrait of L. E. L. with text

Two portraits of Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L. E. L.). Left: by S. Wright del; S. Freeman sc.; Right: by D. Maclise ; J. Thomson. Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L. E. L.) Collection. Call Numbers: MS 223 E1 (left) and MS 223 E2 (right). Click images to enlarge.

Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802-1838), or L.E.L., was an English poet and novelist in the early nineteenth century.  She was controversial in her time due to rumored inappropriate relations with a man, a broken engagement, and her suspicious death (perhaps by suicide). Her small collection at the Spencer Research Library (MS 223) includes some of her poetry as well as personal correspondence. In her letters, L.E.L. displays a certain frankness that I was surprised to see in that time period. She could be quite harsh on those she felt were unexciting or uninspired.

In one passage from a letter to Mrs. E. Lytton Bulwer [1834?], she said this of her cousin Caroline:
“My cousins have all good constitutions, complexions, and tempers. They have always lived surrounded with every comfort and have ideas as regular as the lines in a copy book. They hold rouge to be endangering your immortal soul, the opera as sinful, and theaters the downright profession of the devil. In short, Caroline’s idea of London, where she spent a few weeks after their bridal excursion, is that of the whole set, my that ‘it is a great, wicked, expensive place.’”

In another passage, she writes regarding her cousins’ ideas of recreation:
“I have no taste for innocent pleasures.”

Image of a detail from the first page a letter from L. E. L. to Mrs. Bulwer.

 Detail from the first page a letter from L. E. L. to Mrs. Bulwer.  Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L. E. L.) Collection.
Call Number: MS 223 Bc2.  Click image to enlarge

And further:
“One of my little cousins has a gold chain to which she attached at least as much the idea of dignity as of vanity. Her younger sister first implored her to give it – no – then to lend it. The negative nod even more decided. At last the petition became a ‘farther looking hope’ and she exclaimed, ‘Will you Annie leave it me in your will?’ ‘No,’ replied the cautious Miss Annie, ‘I shall want it to wear in Heaven.’”

This attitude toward her cousins likens L.E.L. to one of the many “villains” of Victorian literature. Perhaps, though, there was another side to nineteenth-century English society that some modern readers choose to ignore in the interest of romantic ideals we’ve grown to love in our favorite classics.  I, for one, find it much more exciting to imagine this slightly wicked side in our beloved heroes and heroines.

Curious about L.E.L.’s work? Click here for a link to one of her poems, “Revenge.”

To read the entirety of the letter from  L. E. L. to Mrs. E. Lytton Bulwer discussed in this post (MS 223: Bc.2), please click on the thumbnails below.

Image of Letter from L. E. L. to Mrs. Bulwer, page 1  Image of Letter from L. E. L. to Mrs. Bulwer, pages 2-3.  Image of Letter from L. E. L.  to Mrs. Bulwer, page 4

Sarah Adams
Student Manuscripts Processor and Museum Studies Graduate Student

Editor’s Note: An online finding aid for the Spencer Library’s Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L. E. L.) Collection will be available through our finding aids search portal in the coming weeks.

Going Cross-Eyed: We Dare You to Read This!

September 28th, 2012

[…] I really must, in justice to Jane, apologise for her writing so short a letter—only two pages you see—hardly two—and in general she fills the whole paper and crosses half. My mother often wonders that I can make it out so well. She often says, when the letter is first opened, ‘Well, Hetty, now I think you will be put to it to make out all that chequer-work’ […]

-Miss Bates to Emma in Jane Austen’s Emma (1815)

In an earlier post about the visit of the NEH Seminar “Jane Austen and Her Contemporaries” to the Spencer Research Library, I mentioned a manuscript format that would have been familiar to early 19th-century eyes, but which is likely quite alien to modern readers:  the crossed letter.  It is this type of letter that Jane Austen is alluding to in the above passage from Emma (1815).  A crossed letter is a letter in which the correspondent saved both stationary and postage by writing not only in one direction, but by turning the letter 90 degrees and then writing across the page perpendicularly.  The result is a letter that can be quite a challenge to read.  Just take a look at the letter below from Robert Ker Porter, a painter and diplomat, to his sister, the novelist Anna Maria Porter (click images to enlarge):

Image of the first page of a crossed letter (from Robert Ker Porter to Anna Maria Porter)  Image of a Crossed Letter from Robert Ker Porter to Anna Maria Porter, p. 2

The uncrossed portion of a letter from Robert Ker Porter to Anna Maria Porter
Read if you dare:  A crossed letter from Robert Ker Porter to Anna Maria Porter.
4 April 1806. Porter Family Collection. MS 28, Box 1, Folder 27.  Click images to enlarge.

Crossed letters began to decline in use after 1840 when the “Uniform Penny Post” was established in England, allowing letter-writers to send domestic mail at a rate of a penny per 1/2 once (thus the name “penny post”), regardless of distance, payable in advance by the sender.

An English etiquette book from 1901 warned sternly against the habit of crossing one’s letters, but recognized that in the past (as in the example from Jane Austen above), a crossed letter could be a sign of friendship and intimacy:

Crossing a letter is quite unpardonable. Stationery is cheap, postage is cheap; there is no reason for crossing lines.  There was a time when both postage and stationery were very expensive, and in those old days a crossed letter was actually regarded as a mark of friendship.

Some of them were crossed and recrossed! Dear friends filled every corner of the paper, and resented it if the replies were not equally indicative of regard.  But nowadays a crossed letter is by no means a mark of friendship. Very much the reverse!

-from Manners for Girls by Mrs. Humphry. London: T.F. Unwin, 1901, p. 61.

The anonymous author of Hints on Letter-Writing (1841), which came out roughly a year after the launch of the Uniform Penny Post,  advises readers,  “Should you ever be compelled thus to disfigure a letter [by crossing it], in mercy to your correspondent vary the colour of the ink.”

Below is the first page of a letter from Robert Ker Porter to his sister and mother. It is interesting to see that, in this case, he uses the black ink to write to his sister, the novelist Jane Porter, and red ink to write (on the same sheet) to his mother.

Image of the first page of a crossed Letter from Robert Ker Porter to his sister Jane and his Mother, June 1821  Image of the first page of a crossed Letter from Robert Ker Porter to his sister Jane and his Mother, June 14, 15, 26, 1821. Rotated 90 degrees to facilitate reading the portion of the letter in red ink.

First page of a crossed letter from Robert Ker Porter to his sister Jane Porter (in black) and his mother, Jane Blenkinsop Porter, (in red).  June 14, 15, 26th, 1821. Porter Family Collection. MS 28, Box 2, Folder 2.  The second image is rotated 90 degrees to enable reading the portion of the letter written in red ink. Click images to enlarge.

Click on the images above to enlarge them and see whether you think the contrast in the color of the inks makes the letter easier to read.

Elspeth Healey
Special Collections Librarian