Deviant Bodies, Deviant Books: Gender and Genre Bending in Letitia Elizabeth Landon's Monstrous Poem "The Fairy Of The Fountains"

Over a hundred years before The Origin of Species was published, Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, was already complicating the clear boundaries established by the Great Chain of Being. In Linnaeus's Systems of Nature, published in 1735, he divided Homo sapiens into two separate species: Homo sapiens and Homo monstrous. The latter taxon was reserved for “wild and monstrous humans, unknown groups, and more or less abnormal people;” Homo monstrous was, in sum, reserved for humanoids who did not fit into the four races that Linnaeus outlined under the taxon Homo Sapiens (Willoughby 33-34). Homo Monstrous were exempt from the Homo sapiens category because their “physical structures excluded them from being recognized scientifically as fully human” (Wilson 7). Thus, even if a person was born of human parents, that did not grant them exemption from being categorized as monstrous. Ambiguous figures, such as 'Hottentots' (as the Khoikhoi then were called), were also categorized under the taxon Homo Monstrous because of their fluid identities that resisted codification and induced anxiety.

During the Romantic period, mermaids were considered monstrous liminal creatures, interpreted as oddities that defied categorization—neither male nor female, human nor beast, real nor imaginary. They invoked anxiety, but they were also approached with enthusiastic fascination. Mass culture was captivated by mermaids and their “scientific and sexual significance as indeterminate beings, in terms of both sex and species” (Craciun 215). Throughout this paper I will be exploring Letitia Elizabeth Landon's appropriation of the Melusine myth in her poem “The Fairy of the Fountains.” I will first discuss the early nineteenth-century relationship between the public and mermaids, after which I will connect this fascination with mermaids to a cultural obsession with “missing links” that predated Darwin's theory of evolution by nearly half a century. I will then return to the poem “The Fairy of the Fountains,” which is a poem about the changeling Melusine who was cursed by her mother to turn into a reptilian, rather than Piscean, mermaid every Saturday. With a cultural backdrop that associated mermaids with the monstrous missing links, I will then turn to the poem and demonstrate how Landon utilizes the monstrous image of the mermaid to bring female essentialism into question and to divide the inner self from the externalized self, in an effort demonstrate that physical normalcy does not imply psychological virtue.

From the middle of the eighteenth century until the publication of The Origin of Species, liminal beings, more specifically missing links (both mythical and real, such as the platypus), consumed the attention of both the general public as well as taxonomists.The OED defines a missing link as “[s]omething lacking to complete a series or to form an intermediate between two things, esp. in an evolutionary process; a hypothetical animal assumed to be an evolutionary link between man and the anthropoid apes, esp. as sought by early evolutionary biologists”. During this the first half of the nineteenth century missing links referred to all liminal creatures that were seen as intersections between species, for example the platypus was seen as a connection between duck and seal, while the flying fish was seen as a connection between bird and fish; both of the former missing links are mentioned on a 1850 advertisement for the Feejee Mermaid and other liminal curiosities being displayed at the Boston Museum.

In The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea, Arthur Lovejoy writes “[n]o one was a better judge of what the public wanted than that eminent practical psychologist P.T. Barnum; and it appears that one of the things that the public wanted in the early eighteen- forties [...] was missing links” (236). Lovejoy refers to Barnum as a practical psychologist because of his uncanny ability to read the public and divine what would interest people and draw them to his museum. By displaying a curated selection of “freaks” and curiosities that piqued public fascination he was able to become a hugely successful businessman. One such oddity that Barnum profited greatly from was the Feejee Mermaid, which upon going on display in Barnum's American Museum, tripled the establishment's takings from what they had been previous to the mermaid's inclusion in the museum's menagerie of curiosities (Bondeson 53). The curiosity, billed as a “missing link” that connected man to fish, bore no semblance to the thick-locked, large-breasted sirens pictured on Barnum's Feejee Mermaid advertisements. It was nearly three feet in length and had the head of a monkey, the incisors of a canine, and the tail of a fish; all been woven seamlessly together into a single creature by an unknown taxidermist. The mermaid was in fact the very same specimen that had instigated a frenzy in London twenty years prior, writes Jan Bondeson in The Feejee Mermaid and Other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History. In 1822, Captain Eades's Mermaid was displayed on St. James street; three- to four-hundred people paid a shilling daily to see the creature, according to estimates made by the Mirror newspaper (Bondeson 41). In The Fatal Women of Romanticism, Adriana Craciun purports that Landon would have at least known about Captain Eades's mermaid, even if she had not gone to see it herself; for, one of her poems, “The Castillan Nuptials,” was printed directly next to an advertisement for Captain Eades's Mermaid in the Literary Gazette in September of 1822.

Thus, while the Feejee Mermaid was undoubtedly the most famous of these publicly displayed missing links, they were not a new phenomenon. The public fascination with missing links was ripe was early as 1820 when Francis Lambert, whose body was covered with half- inch-long scales, was exhibited on Fleet Street. The bill that advertised his exhibition described him as “a new species of man” (Thomson 111). Missing links like Francis Lambert and Captain Eades's Mermaid inspired public fascination as well as public anxiety because “these liminal creatures, straddl[ed] [the] boundaries between categories ... and threw all conventional definitions into chaos” (Todd quoted in Wilson 7). The fluid identities of these “missing links” resisted codification and complicated the once clear divide between God, man, and the rest of the natural world. The protagonist of Landon's “The Fairy of the Fountains,” the changeling Melusine, would be the epitome of liminality, for she was born of a “mingled dower,/ Human passion—fairy power”; it is not that Melusine simply looked human from the waist up; she was half human (L141-142). To complicate matters, for six sevenths of the time Melusine was not a monster; she had a perfect human shape and it was only on Saturdays, when her curse transformed her into a mermaid, that she was monstrous. This complicates Linnaeus's concept of the Homo monstrous; unlike the Khoikhoi or Francis Lambert, who were defined by their “abnormal physiology,” Melusine induced a new kind of anxiety because she eschewed categorization even more readily due to her shifting bodily form that oscillated between normal and deviant.

Despite her relative contemporary obscurity, Letitia Elizabeth Landon, known to her public by the initials L.E.L., was one of the most famous poets of the 1820s and 1830s. Her position in her family placed her in a unique bind. Due to the early death of her father, Landon was “obliged [...] to dedicate her literary talents to the support of her mother and brother for the rest of her life”(Osman 150). From the age of twenty-three on, Landon was forced to assume the role of patriarch within her familial structure. She financed her brother's education and her mother's living expenses while simultaneously supporting herself in a small, but private, apartment. Unlike her married contemporaries such as Lydia Sigourney, Elizabeth Oakes-Smith, and Julia Ward Howe, who were scorned by their husbands when they sought to supplement their family incomes by publishing poems, and who faced violent reprimands should they not observe their subservient position within the familial hierarchy, Landon was free from these imminent patriarchal constraints (Walker 35). Until her late thirties Landon maintained her independence. This independence, however, came at a cost. Because of her patriarchal family position as provider, Landon was forced to pander to the masses, to over-feminize her works, or as Germaine Greer states, she was “forced to write puerile trash by the new, male-run print culture industry, who then trashed her for it” (Greer quoted in Armstrong 3). Landon lived a contradictory life. While being fiercely independent, she had to present a complementary image to the public that was the embodiment of feminine ideal in order to be successful as a commercial writer. Thus, much as mermaids symbolized a physical liminality that fascinated and simultaneously horrified the public, the social liminality of Landon's position, as an independent, unmarried woman who provided for her family, made her critics and readers uncomfortable. 

Landon began to write in the early nineteenth century. At this time, there were societal dictums entailing the very “themes, subjects, and even poetic forms” that were socially acceptable for female poets to write on (Behrendt 20). Women writing during this period were paralyzed by a double bind: if women attempted to appropriate the form or diction of a male poet, critics would argue that their verse was “unnatural” because of the notion that women occupied a “separate sphere” in the social schema (Behrendt 30). However, when female poets complied with the acceptable feminine forms, such as by writing lyric poems that dealt with themes that were in accord with Rousseau-Burkean concept of the Beautiful, writers like Wordsworth, Lamb, and Thackeray “regarded [their writings] as blatantly exploitative and lacking in both 'taste and artistic merit'” (Osman, 132).

In the case of Landon, “The Fairy of the Fountains” appears in the annually published gift-book The Fisher’s Drawing-Room Scrapbook; annuals were deemed “most appropriate for women writers because it placed so much more emphasis on the image than the word” (Osman, 136). And while annuals were more appropriate for women writers, they were also intended primarily for a primarily female readership. Much of Landon's popularity was derived from her association with the annuals, which dominated the literary market from the 1820s until the 1840s. Annuals were gift books that were published each autumn and were intended to be given as Christmas presents. Landon contributed to three of the most commercially successful English annuals: The Keepsake, Heath's Book of Beauty and the Fisher’s Drawing Room Scrap Book, which she edited and wrote exclusively from 1832 until her death in 1838. The Fisher’s Drawing-Room Scrapbook was typical of annuals: it contained preselected engravings, complemented on an opposing page by a short poem, or “poetical illustration” that would echo that preselected engraving. In the preface of the first edition of The Fisher’s Drawing-Room Scrapbook, published in 1832, Landon expresses the difficulty of her creatively limiting task stating that “[i]t is not an easy thing to write illustrations to prints, selected rather for their pictorial excellence than their poetic capabilities” (3). In the fourth edition of The Fisher’s Drawing-Room Scrapbook published in 1835, she deviates from the conventional annual format, which she found so constrictive. This edition ends with the inclusion of “The Fairy of The Fountains,” an eight page, 600-line poem that echoes no image, and would have startled many readers who typically bought the annuals for the expensive engravings and not for their poems. Here, there is a parallel between Melusine and the poem “The Fairy of the Fountains”: as Melusine is a categorical error, whose variable identity defines her monstrousness, the poem's inclusion within the annual genre is also an aberration of categorization. Not only is the poem's protagonist a liminal being, but the poem is also composed in a hybrid diction that blends modern English with Middle English. Furthermore, most poems in annuals were lyrics, which was perceived as an acceptable verse form for women to write in, however, “The Fairy of the Fountains,” is a long verse narrative, which was one of the very few poetic forms that was not considered more or less appropriate for a certain gender. While poetic forms were not pristinely divided into gendered genres, there were certain forms, such as the ode and the epic, that were reserved for male writers, while women were expected to write primarily in the lyric form (Behrendt 17). Thus, not only does the poem's protagonist exist between the delineation of clear categorizations, but the poem as a whole rejects codification on the level of its diction, its protagonist, and its form.

“The Fairy of the Fountains” begins with an epigraph that is not a selection quoted from another author's text, like a typical epigraph, but a short paragraph which states that “[t]he legend, on which this story is founded, is immediately taken from Mr. Thom's most interesting collection” (57). The year prior to the publication of the fourth edition of The Fisher’s Drawing- Room Scrapbook, thus the year that Landon was composing the poems for said annual, William Thom published Lays and Legends, which related myths and legends from Germany, Spain, Ireland and France. The “Story of Melusine” is found under the “Legends of France” section of the book. Thom primarily bases the legend on the Chronique de Melusine, a 1393 prose account of the myth as written by the French author Jean D'Arras, although Thom also references other authors who have written about the Melusine myth, including the French historian and biographer Pierre de Bourdeille. After Thom summarizes the myth of Melusine, he includes long tracts of text from original documents about Melusine; he keeps them in the original French “believing that the raciness of the Old French will prove delightful to our readers” (Thomas 89). The fact that Thom assumes his British readers read French (which Landon did fluently), let alone Old French, is indicative of the upper-class readership that Thom intended for his folkloric compendium. It is no surprise that such a book would have piqued Landon's interest. She was living in Paris for much of 1834, when Lays and Legends was published (Sypher 148). In 1826, rumors that Landon had mothered three illegitimate children by the Scottish journalist William Jerdan were published in the periodical press. These rumors circulated vehemently for almost a decade, and were no doubt exacerbated by Landon's familial status as provider. The real reason behind Landon's trip to Paris was not pure pleasure, nor was it solely to research her in-progress novel about the French revolution, but to recover from her recently broken engagement to John Forster, who had fallen prey to the rumors about Landon's tarnished integrity (Sypher 155). In her essay “Receiving the Legend, Rethinking the Writer” Tricia Lootens writes that “[n]ineteenth-century critics could never entirely agree” about whether or not Landon's “writing was to be read as confessional;” however, there is an uncanny parallel between Landon's poetic fall from public grace—which came to a climax when she left for her year abroad in Paris—and her many famous poems that “elaborate upon a tragic romance of literary reception: an account of the fall of a female poet who is flattered, seduced, and ultimately betrayed by her public” (243). “The Fairy of the Fountains” follows the same narrative structure of a woman who is flattered, seduced, and ultimately betrayed.

In Thom's version of the tale, the fairy Pressine marries Elinas, the king of Albania, who has given his oath never to look upon her while she birthed or bathed her children. Elinas has three daughters by Pressine—Melusine, Melior and Palatyne—but upon hearing that Pressine had given birth, he forgets his oath. As a repercussion Pressine must leave her husband to live with her daughters in seclusion. At fifteen, Melusine pioneers a plan to kill her father. For the murder of the king, the three sisters are punished by their mother. As Melusine's guilt was of the highest degree—it was her idea to kill their father—she receives the greatest punishment; she is cursed to spend every Saturday as a creature that is half serpent from the waist downwards “till she should meet a man who would marry her under the condition of never seeing her on a Saturday” (Thom 85). According to Thom, this man would “deliver” Melusine from the curse on the condition that he not break his oath for the first seven years of their marriage (85). In a meeting that parallels the meeting of Pressine and Elinas, Melusine meets her future husband Raymond as she stands naked in a fountain. Raymond has just accidentally killed his uncle with his boar-spear during a hunt. Melusine agrees to conceal the murder. The two marry and Melusine then bears Raymond ten children, all of whom are horribly deformed. The ten deformed children, compounded by Raymond's cajoling cousin, convince him that he must be a cuckold. Melusine is betrayed by her husband, just as her mother was betrayed by her father, for they both break their oaths to their wives by intruding on their privacy. In Thom's version, Raymond does not let his wife know he has seen her monstrous Saturday form; however, upon hearing that his son Geoffroi (who had a “boar's tusk projected from his mouth”) has burned down an entire abbey that housed the abbot, a hundred monks, and his brother Freimund, Raymond is driven into a frenzied fury. He tells Melusine that she is a “pernicious snake and odious serpent [...] contaminator of my race” (86). After which, the curse forces Melusine to become a banshee and Raymond, in his grief, retreats to the wilderness where he lives out the remainder of his life as a hermit.

Landon takes Thom’s tale of the abandoned woman and changes it. In the epigraph to the poem, Landon writes “I have allowed myself some license,” but then quickly exonerates her changes to the myth by stating that “fairy tales have an old-established privilege of change; at least, if we judge by the various shapes which they assume in the progress of time and by the process of translation” (57). Landon is therefore drawing the reader's attention to both her poem’s source and that she has made purposeful, strategic changes to the original in order to suit her purposes. The two most evident changes to the original narrative, as penned by Thom, are how Landon prunes the myth by strategically omitting Melusine's two sisters and her ten deformed children. Landon also places a greater emphasis on the complicated mother-daughter relationship between Pressine and Melusine. The erasure of Melusine's two sisters, Melior and Palatyne reinforces the narrative's uncanny doubling—two fairies, two unfaithful knights, and two stories of love, betrayal, and exile. The speaker in the poem often describes Pressine in death-related and inanimate terms, and as the narrative progresses the very same adjectives are transferred to Melusine. Melusine is born not as a copy of her mother, but becomes her through socialization. The omission of Melusine's ten deformed children also paints Raymond's jealousy as unprovoked and illustrative of his distrust of his wife. The deformities of the children would have implied unfaithfulness, for it was a common belief throughout the Middle Ages (when Jean D'arras wrote the Chronique de Melusine) that a woman's sin would manifest itself on the body of her unborn child. According to Merry Wiesner-Hanks, monstrous births “were sometimes interpreted as signs of God's wrath against the individual sinners, often the parents or the mother” (161). With no cousin to tempt Raymond to break his oath, and with no deformed children to suggest infidelity, Raymond's breaking of the curse becomes a horrific act of distrust that paints him as a monster despite his normal human form.

At the beginning of the poem a young Melusine witnesses her mother's betrayal by her father. Unlike like the Thom or D'Arras versions of the tale where the King Elinas breaks his oath due to an overzealous happiness upon hearing that his wife has give birth to triplets, Landon's Elinas is driven to break his oath due to “suspicion's vain endeavor” (36). Not only does Landon's adaptation of the Melusine myth reinforce the doubling, but there is also a suggestion of predestined ending. The second stanza of the poem describes a “voice on the gale” that sounds like a “lost soul's heavenward cry” that foreshadows Melusine's banshee fate (10). The rhyme scheme even more tightly ties Melusine to the voice on the gale. There are only two instances where the rhyme scheme is broken, and both times it is the same couplet of “cry” and “agony” that break the scheme. That couplet is first used to describe the “voice [that] is on the gale,” which sounds “[l]ike a lost soul's heavenward cry,/ [h]opeless in its agony” (9-10) and is later used to describe the cry that Melusine produces when her mother curses her: “Sudden with a fearful cry/ Writhes she in her agony” (277-278). Throughout the poem, the similes used to describe Pressine all compare her to death. Her dark eyes burn with a “funeral flame,” her cheeks are as “pale as death,” her breath is “cold” and her black hair is “like a shroud” (90- 91;253). But interestingly, she is not necrotic like a corpse, but is perhaps more similar to a statue. The speaker describes her brow as “marble” (255). Melusine's in her youth is described as a “child as fair/ As the opening blossoms are” (19-20), but as the narrative progresses towards its tragic ending Melusine description begins to mirror her mothers:

Like a statue, pale and fair; From her cheek the rose has fled,

Leaving deeper charms instead. 
On that marble brow are wrought
Traces of impassioned thought (369-372)

Melusine's transition from a brimming-with-life girl into a marble statue, that is drained of vitality, is representative of the socialization process which demanded that women abide by very strict social edicts. These social pressures imprinted essentialism on the individual, stripping them of their multi-dimensionality and rendering them two-dimensional. Female poets, especially Landon who's familial position of patriarch forced her to over-feminize her work in order to cater public favour, were coerced by public tastes to write doggerel lyrics that dealt with concepts that were in accord with the Rousseau-Burkean concept of the Beautiful (acceptable topics included domesticity, love and motherhood). Thus, although Melusine is not born a statue-like individual like her mother, she becomes one as she grows up and is forced to marry, should she wish to be “delivered” from her curse.

The    pseudonymous    Aristotle’ s    Master-piece    (a    popular    four-part compendium    of domestic medical knowledge) popularized the concept of the power of “maternal imagination” for three consecutive centuries. The text claimed that women who were frightened during pregnancy would transmit their fright in the form of a physical marking onto their unborn child. During the nineteenth century these “maternal marks came to be read as indelible marks of moral character [...] monstrosity was written both upon the physical body and within the moral fabric” (Wilson 7). Throughout “The Fairy of the Fountains” Melusine, who wears her deformity visually in the form of a serpent tail, is juxtaposed against her husband and father who bear no scars of external deformity, but whose virtue is questionable. In “The Fairy of the Fountains” Melusine does not give birth to the ten monstrous children that lead Raymond to believe he is a cuckold; her adultery would have been a probable cause for the deformities according to maternal imagination logic. In Landon's adaptation of the story it is Raymond's “jealous fancies” that inspire the “dark inquiring thought,” which leads to his transgression (580-456). Landon's Raymond has no justification for his evil, save the distrust of his wife. While Melusine is the one that visibly wears the tail of a serpent, it is Raymond whose mind is marked by the “fire within the brain” sparked by the ember of jealousy (467). Thus, while Melusine looks the role of the snake, the “serpents skill,” which is associated with sin in Judeo- Christian mythology, is equally marked upon Raymond's mind, if not on his physical body (456).

In the penultimate stanza, the reader is privy to a description of Melusine's monstrous Saturday form, but despite the disgusted “mute despair” of Raymond (L560), Melusine is not described as cold monster, but an enchanting creature with “glittering scales” that begin “[d]ownwards form [her] slender waist” (L548;556). In the second stanza, when King Elinas breaks his oath to Pressine, he is described by the speaker in the following manner:

Curiously inlaid, each scale Shone upon his glittering mail;
His high brow was cold and dim,
And she felt she hated him. (L25-28)

The juxtaposed descriptions mirror each other in terms Elinas’s gold, scaled armor which is similar Melusine's scaly gold tail. There is also a parallel in their humoral description, which describes the king as “cold and dim”, and while the text does not expressly verbalize that Melusine was cold, it would have been implied by her sex (27). According to Aristotelian humoral theory “humors varied from person to person, but were sex-related, with men generally believed to be hotter and drier and women colder and wetter”; heat was viewed as the most positive humoral quality because “it rose naturally towards the heavens and towards the brain which explained why men, being hot and dry, were more rational and creative; women being cold and wet were more like the earth” (Weisner 32). Interestingly, while the poem's speaker projects Melusine's description onto her father, the speaker does not try to completely masculinize the heroine by describing her as hot and dry. There is an under current of a proto- existenialism here that rejects the notion that the body defines the person. By emphasizing the liminal rather rather than the unambiguous, the poem suggests that the body and the self are not sutured together. An individual born into a particular sex, or into an abnormal body, does not have their life's trajectory defined by these external, predetermined forces.

The sibilance of “the subtle serpent's shape” puts a serpent's tongue into the reader's mouth rendering them serpentine as well (L551). The serpent imagery is leaving its mark on Raymond, Elinas, and on the reader. It is not until the end of the poem that the speaker describes Melusine's monstrous Saturday form. Her “subtle serpent's shape” is “[b]right with many- coloured dyes” that “colour the waves below” with a “red and purple glow” (L551-555). It is almost as if the red and purple scales that make up her tail are bleeding out like unfixed dyes into a pool of water. Visually she is diffusing into the water, becoming an indefinite object that rejects definition both literally and figuratively. It is perhaps her liminality that imparts anxiety and leaves its mark on all those that come in contact with it. Like the dye that disperses in the water in all directions, the anxiety that Melusine induces is spreading throughout the narrative onto the male protagonists and onto the reader's lips.

The descriptive connection between Melusine, Elinas and Raymond can perhaps also be read as dispelling the binary that has been in place since before the Judeo-Christian fall from grace, the binary that positions women as less than and irrational, and men as more than and rational. The speaker is perhaps projecting the negative, sin-infused connotations of the serpent onto both sexes; both men and women, including the readers, who would have been predominantly women, since this was published in an annual, need to stop perpetuating the cycle of essentialism. It is not a simple equation of male oppressors and female oppressed; for, both parties reinforce these hegemonic norms that outline what is and is not natural, which is why “the serpents skill/ [i]s amid our gardens still” ( L556-557). “The Fairy of the Fountains” iterates refutes this kind of logic, which positions women as lesser; it challenges the notion that women are lesser, and equally challenged notions of categories and induced anxiety.

“The Fairy of the Fountains” would have resonated with a nineteenth-century readership obsessed with liminality and the monstrous. Landon would have been aware of the public's simultaneous abhorrence and fascination with missing links. “The Fairy of the Fountains” exploits the liminal status of mermaids in an effort to throw off the millennia-old Judeo- Christian notion that women are inherently born sinful and less rational than men. The poem's focus on the liminal Melusine, whose shifting body defies the label Homo monstrous, the poem's hybrid diction that combines Middle English and modern English, the poem's long verse narrative form (which not associated with either sex) and the poem's place of publication all defy clear codification. Nothing about this poem is easily categorizable, even the narrative of the poem is both faithful to, and subverts the William Thom version of the Melusine myth published in Lays and Legends. Adriana Craciun in the Fatal Women of Romanticism and Anne K. Mellor in Romanticism and Gender are the two predominant critics that write about Letitia Elizabeth Landon's often neglected poem “The Fairy of the Fountains”. And while Craciun does speak about nineteenth-century annuals, she never delves into the annual format's relationship to the poem itself. When approaching an analysis of “The Fairy of the Fountains” it is imperative to keep the poem's publishing context in mind. A 600-line poem sans engraving would have startled the predominantly female readership that encountered it. The fact that this poem resists clear categorization on so many levels—structural, linguistic, thematic—and was published in an annual, a publication format that demanded a derivative lyric poem based on “illustrations to prints, selected rather for their pictorial excellence than their poetic capabilities,” seems to be a battle cry to the female readership of the annuals (Landon 3). A battle cry to those women unaware that they were socially situated into the constricting category of woman. A battle cry that says “our bodies do not define us, our socialization does.”

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