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.
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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 proposed that they should retire a nonagenarian retainer at his full wage of 8d. a day, because he could not even break stones properly, the Judge said: “No, no, let him spoil on; he has a pleasure in thinking he earns his bread at four score years and ten; but if you turn him off he will soon die of grief.” (Baker, “Northamptonshire,” II., 639.)
The Judge himself was called to a higher tribunal in 1726. Perhaps his son and successor proved less kind a master, for Leapor left Marston next year and went to live at Brackley, working as a jobbing gardener and carrying on what we should call a market-garden on the spot where the Castle (which had disappeared wholly in Leland's day) stood. (Purefoy Letters, I., 92)....
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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 Biography. Some of the most discerning anthologists—Robert Southey, Alexander Dyce, and in our own day Sir John Squire selecting his “Women Poets”—have gladly revived a few poems of hers. But Professor Nichol Smith missed or rejected her in compiling his Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse—and if the following paragraphs should bring him to repentance another part of my purpose will be achieved.
Mary Leapor “was born at Marston St. Lawrence, in Northamptonshire, in the year 1722;” her father was gardener to Judge Blencowe. Her mother died early. She removed with him “to Brackley in the same county, where she resided the remainder of her life.” It is stated that for part of it...
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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
(Ann Yearsley, ms. note in a copy of Poems, on Several Occasions )
Mary Leapor's texts have evidently appealed to a predominantly male literary establishment, for various critics and editors seem to have taken a peculiar pleasure in discovering them, only to have them be forgotten and subsequently rediscovered again and again. Under the auspices of John Watts, Samuel Richardson, and Isaac Hawkins Browne, her works were collected and published posthumously by subscription in 1748 and 1751.1 There follows notice or selected republication of her poems by Christopher Smart in The Midwife (1750), by the Monthly Review (1749 and 1751), by John Duncombe in The Feminead (1754), by George...
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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 uneducated woman, a member of the servant class, born with literary talent, she must attract the interest of literary scholars, critics, and historians, of feminists, of social historians. Again, her story provides an interesting contribution to a study of eighteenth-century patronage, for despite the presence in her village of several people capable of recognizing and sympathizing with her struggle, without the help first of an unliterary and unusually determined country gentlewoman and then of Samuel Richardson she would have remained unnoted. But finally her career and her poetry are importantly representative of the careers and poetry of all those natural poets so much in vogue in her time.
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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 was a special mode of communication it did not exempt him from all the normal usages of polite society. If you invited him to make one at a dinner-party, you expected him to talk intelligibly; if he published a volume of poems you expected him to write the sort of thing that the average well-educated man could understand because it came within the orbit of his own experience. If he had (as we all have) some purely private thoughts and feelings and relationships and experiences, you expected him to keep those to himself, and not embarrass your dinner-party with them, or even bring them into his poems.1
James Sutherland's description of eighteenth-century poetry as a dinner-party to which only men are...
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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 not about houses: a better label is “estate poems”’; for ‘Crumble Hall’ appears to be very much about a house.2 Yet Fowler's definition is useful precisely for underlining a reversal of expected procedure on Leapor's part which goes along with her sharing of some of the tradition's major concerns: while a typical estate poem would begin with the grounds and estate, moving only later, and perhaps relatively cursorily, into the house, ‘Crumble Hall’ begins by taking its addressee on a guided tour of the house, and only later—and briefly—turns to the grounds (Fowler, pp.1-8). This turn, moreover, is executed in a manner little short of surreal, with ‘the Muse’ being ‘hurled precipitant’ from the leads of...
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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?
Come, come; you view her with malicious Eyes:
—Where Mountains upon Mountains rise!
And, as [if] they fear'd some Treachery at hand,
Behind her Ears her list'ning Shoulders stand.
But she has Teeth—
—Considering how they grow,
'Tis no great matter if she has or no:
They look decay'd with Posset, and with Plumbs,
And seem prepar'd to quit her swelling Gums.
(Mary Leapor, from a poem upon herself called “Mira's Picture,” in Poems Upon Several Occasions, Vol. II,...
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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, run by the London bookseller William Owen (d. 1793), devoted three pages to Mary Leapor in its issue of April 1751 (Number 10, the fourth of the second volume, 369-71).2 The ‘Short Account of Mrs. Leapor’ followed by ‘two of her Poetical Pieces’ and a ‘Sonnet on the late Mrs. Leapor’ was probably occasioned by the advertisement in the same issue of ‘the second and last volume of Mrs. Leapor's poems, sold for the benefit of her father’ in the Magazine of Magazines's index of ‘Books published in March and April’ (380). The section about Leapor follows a short review of Gilbert West's recently published first canto of Education, a Poem: In Two Cantos. Written in Imitation of the Style and Manner of...
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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.
Comprehensive biographical and critical study.
Harris, Jocelyn. “Sappho, Souls, and the Salic Law of Wit.” In Anticipations of the Enlightenment in England, France, and Germany, edited by Alan C. Kors and Paul J. Korshin, pp. 232-58. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987.
Shows how the writers featured in John Dunscombe's 1751 Female Genius, which included a consideration of Leapor's poetry, were forced to defend the possession and use of their literary gifts.
Lilley, Kate. “Homosocial Women: Martha Samson, Constantia Grierson, Mary Leapor and Georgic Verse Epistle.” In Women's Poetry in the Enlightenment: The Making of a Canon, 1730-1820, edited by...
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