2015 Volume 39and40 Pages 133-149
The legendary leap of Sappho because of unrequited love for Phaon has inspired various fictional accounts from ancient times to the present. In this essay, I consider the early nineteenth-century fiction of Sappho through a focus upon the poems of Letitia Elizabeth Landon. Landon, who achieved commercial success in the 1820s and 1830s, was presented as the “English Sappho” by William Jerdan, the editor of the Literary Gazette and Landon’s publisher. Moreover, he was the father of Landon’s three illegitimate children and their relationship lasted from 1822 to at least 1834. Although the rumor concerning these two individuals circulated in 1826, Landon publicly denied the relationship during her lifetime, and it was not until Cynthia Lawford discovered hard evidence in 2000 that the affair turned out to be true. I pay attention therefore to the way Landon weaved her affair with the married editor twenty years her senior into her story of Sappho in “Sappho” (1822) and “Sappho’s Song” in The Improvisatrice (1824), which were published before the rumor began. Transforming her real passion to fictional passion, Landon creates a Sappho who is, unlike Ovid’s, always heterosexual and modest, therefore blameless, and who always laments the loss of love, considering love more important than fame. No doubt Landon knew that her Sappho conformed to the time’s tastes. Even after the rumor, Landon kept publishing many poems on the same theme of unrequited love and death in her volumes and literary annuals. Thus she succeeded in turning her own and Sappho’s love into a commodity to satisfy readers’ demands.