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.