Mary Leapor 1722-1746
English poet and playwright.
A kitchen maid and the daughter of a gardener, Leapor produced a substantial body of poetry that was published only after her death. As the achievement of a poet who was both a woman and member of the working class, her writing stands outside the traditional canon of eighteenth-century literature and offers readers a new perspective on British life and ideas during the Augustan age. Some of the major concerns evident in Leapor's poetry are the injustices suffered by women and the poor, marriage and domestic life, friendship among women, standards of beauty, and male violence and paternalism. Leapor's poetry was briefly renowned in the years following her death, but she remained an obscure literary figure outside her native Northamptonshire until her rediscovery by feminist critics during the late twentieth century.
Leapor was born in Marston St. Lawrence, Northamptonshire, to working-class parents. The facts of her life are not well known, but she most likely attended the Free School in nearby Brackley, where she lived most of her life. At some point in her adolescence, Leapor became a kitchen maid. Her first employer, Susanna Jennens, was a woman with an interest in literature who encouraged Leapor's verse writing and is thought to have critiqued her work. After leaving Jennen's employ, Leapor may have worked for several other households. After being dismissed by her last employer in 1745, possibly because of her practice of writing poetry when she was supposed to be doing housework, Leapor returned to Brackley to keep house for her father. She may have enjoyed some local celebrity as her plays and poems were circulated in manuscript around Brackely. Around this time, Leapor became friends with Bridget Freemantle, an educated and unmarried woman of some means who lived in nearby Hinton. Freemantle actively promoted Leapor's writing and attempted to have her play The Unhappy Father (1751) produced. When she received news that the play would not be staged, Leapor lamented this rejection in her poem “Upon her Play being returned to her, stained with Claret.” Leapor died soon after contracting the measles, two months before her first published poem, “The Rural Maid's Reflexions,” appeared in the London Magazine under the byline “a gardener's daughter.”
While Leapor's poems display a wide range of subjects, they consistently reflect her working-class background and the region of England where she was born and lived her entire life. Her most frequently anthologized work, “The Month of August”—a pastoral poem in the form of a dialogue between a courtier and a country maid—describes the rural setting around her family home. Other poems that especially betray their autobiographical origins are those in which the poet assumes the persona of “Mira,” a loose anagram for “Mary”. In “Corydon. Phillario. Or, Mira's Picture,” Leapor presents a caricature of herself (she was thought to be, or certainly thought herself, unattractive), and in “Mira to Octavia” the poet advises a young woman who has fallen in love with an unsuitable man. Another recurring figure in Leapor's poems is that of Artemisa, who apparently represents a friend belonging to a higher social class, presumably Bridget Freemantle. In “An Epistle to Artemisa. On Fame,” Mira recounts to her friend her dismissal from Edgcote House (where Leapor last held a position as a servant) and her literary ambitions. A number of Leapor's poems show the influence of Alexander Pope, particularly those works that satirize Pope's condescending attitude toward women. These include “An Essay on Woman,” “An Essay on Friendship,” and “Dorinda at her Glass.” Leapor's view of male attitudes toward women is also seen in “Man the Monarch” and “An Hymn to the Morning.” Leapor's most ambitious work is “Crumble Hall,” a lengthy “country house” poem. Unlike similar poems of the time, “Crumble Hall” satirizes and demystifies the social power and values of the gentry by offering a servant's perspective on the upper-class institution of the country household. In addition to her poetry, Leapor wrote a play, The Unhappy Father, which she described as the work she most valued. The drama, which depicts the conflicts within a country-house family, treats a myriad of issues relating to marriage and familial relationships. Leapor also left an unfinished play about the Saxon king Edwy.
Leapor's two collections were published by subscription, and there were over six hundred subscribers for the first volume of Poems Upon Several Occasions (1748). The work was well received, and several poems were reprinted in The Monthly Review. The second volume, published in 1751, did not fare as well, with only half the number of subscribers as the first. Scholars suggest that the diminished number of subscribers to this collection may be attributed to the novelty of a “kitchen-maid poet” having worn thin five years after Leapor's death. Nevertheless, in 1755 Leapor's work was included in the anthology Poems by Eminent Ladies. During the nineteenth century, however, Leapor's poems only occasionally appeared in anthologies, and for the most part her reputation was that of an all but forgotten poet. In the early twentieth century, there were isolated expressions of interest in her work, first with Edmund Blunden's biographical and critical essay on Leapor, then later with her inclusion in a handful of anthologies of eighteenth-century verse. It was not until the 1980s and 1990s, with the proliferation of feminist criticism, that Leapor began to receive serious critical attention. Scholars have been particularly interested in the alternative perspective she represented as a working-class woman among eighteenth-century writers. Furthermore, Leapor's work is admired for its forceful language, range of feeling, individual tone of voice, and poetic subtlety.
Poems Upon Several Occasions, by Mrs. Leapor of Brackley in Northamptonshire, Volume 1 (poetry) 1748
*Poems Upon Several Occasions, by the late Mrs. Leapor of Brackley in Northamptonshire, the Second and Last Volume (poetry, drama, and letters) 1751
*This volume includes Leapor's drama The Unhappy Father.
SOURCE: Eland, George. “Molly Leapor—Poetess.” Northhampton County Magazine 5 (1932): 116-19.
[In the following essay, Eland evaluates Leapor's accomplishments as a poet and notes her indebtedness to her male contemporaries, especially Alexander Pope.]
In spinning the thread of Molly Leapor's life, the Fates by no means used their softest and their whitest wool; but they allowed her to be born at a pleasant spot, Marston St. Lawrence, Northamptonshire, on February 26th, 1724, daughter of Philip Leapor, the gardener to Sir John Blencowe, who had retired from the Bench two years before, aged 82. Beside being a sound judge he was a kind master, for when his wife...
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SOURCE: Blunden, Edmund. “A Northamptonshire Poetess: Glimpses of an Eighteenth-Century Prodigy.” Journal of the Northamptonshire Natural History Society XXVII, no. 215 (June 1936): 59-74.
[In the following essay, Blunden offers an appreciation of Leapor's poetry.]
Of the agreeable writer whom I am now to discuss, I cannot pretend to offer a sufficient biographical account; and indeed part of my purpose is to encourage some other enthusiast forward with his or her fuller knowledge. Mary Leapor (for that is the name of the poetess) has never been quite forgotten since her death. William Cowper liked her work. She has her little nook in the Dictionary of National...
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SOURCE: Landry, Donna. “An English Sappho brilliant, young and dead? Mary Leapor laughs at the fathers.” In Muses of Resistance: Labouring-Class Women's Poetry in Britain, 1739-1796, pp. 78-119. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Landry discusses Leapor as a more radically feminist poet than earlier critics have recognized.]
But no Englishwoman ever wrote verses worthy of being twice read, who had deviated from virtue.
(Blackwood's Magazine [March, 1837], p. 408)
Sappho, Justified, either way
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SOURCE: Rizzo, Betty. “Molly Leapor: An Anxiety for Influence.” The Age of Johnson: A Scholarly Annual, edited by Paul J. Korshin, pp. 313-43. New York: AMS Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Rizzo offers an overview of Leapor's life and writings.]
Molly Leapor was one of the eighteenth-century natural poets—sometimes called peasant poets, or primitives—whose work was taken to be illustrative of the genius provided by nature unassisted by art. Well known in her own time, she was forgotten until recently when there have again been stirrings of interest in her work and her career.1 To what purpose might we investigate them now? As a virtually...
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SOURCE: Greene, Richard. “Problems of the Woman Poet,” and “Primitivism and Education.” In Mary Leapor: A Study in Eighteenth-Century Women's Poetry, pp. 38-97; 157-85. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.
[In the first excerpt which follows, Greene analyzes Leapor's attitudes towards issues of gender and domesticity, female friendship, and standards of feminine beauty. In the second excerpt, Greene examines Leapor's poetry in the context of the vogue for the works of “natural poets” during her time.]
PROBLEMS OF THE WOMAN POET
The poet was a member of polite society addressing himself to his equals, and though poetry...
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SOURCE: Rumbold, Valerie. “The Alienated Insider: Mary Leapor in ‘Crumble Hall.’” British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 19, no. 1 (spring 1996): 63-76.
[In the following essay, Rumbold regards Leapor's “Crumble Hall” to be a work of dissent that uses the traditional “country house” poem to convey the perspective of a working-class woman.]
Mary Leapor's ‘Crumble Hall’ constitutes an obviously unusual contribution to the tradition of the country house poem in England.1 It may even seem not to belong to the tradition at all, if we take seriously the definition proposed by Alastair Fowler: ‘“Country house poems”, so called, are...
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SOURCE: Mandell, Laura. “Demystifying (with) the Repugnant Female Body: Mary Leapor and Feminist Literary History.” Criticism 38, no. 4 (fall 1996): 551-82.
[In the following essay, Mandell examines Leapor's poem “Mira's Picture.”]
'Tis true, her Linen may be something soil'd.
Her Linen, Corydon!—Herself, you mean.
Are such the Dryads of thy smiling Plain?
Why, I could swear it, if it were no Sin,
That yon lean Rook can shew a fairer Skin.
What tho' some Freckles in her Face appear?
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SOURCE: Van de Veire, Heidi. “A Note on Mary Leapor's Reputation.” Notes and Queries 44, no. 2 (June 1997): 205-06.
[In the following essay, Van de Veire points out a 1751 notice of Leapor's work in The Magazine of Magazines that had not been described by previous critics.]
Roger Lonsdale, Betty Rizzo, Richard Greene, and Donna Landry have all drawn attention to various notices of the contemporary reception and reputation of the poet Mary Leapor (1722-46).1 In addition to these it may be worthwhile to point out a notice of Mary Leapor's work which, to my knowledge, has not been described before.
The Magazine of Magazines,...
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Doody, Margaret Anne. “Sensuousness in the Poetry of Eighteenth-Century Women Poets.” In Women's Poetry in the Enlightenment: The Making of a Canon, 1730-1820, edited by Isobel Armstrong and Virginia Blain, pp. 3-32. New York: Macmillan/St. Martin's Press, 1999.
Uses the poetry of Leapor and her contemporaries Mary Yearsley, Mary Robinson, Anna Seward, and Anna Laetitia Barbauld to illustrate that female poets in the eighteenth century expressed an empathy with animals.
Greene, Richard. Mary Leapor: A Study in Eighteenth-Century Women's Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993, 243 p.
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