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.
Title page, Poems Upon Several Occasions (1748) by Mary Leapor
Marston St Lawrence, Northamptonshire, England
Brackley, Northamptonshire, England
Mary Leapor (1722–1746) was an English poet, born in Marston St. Lawrence, Northamptonshire, the only child of Anne Sharman (died 1741) and Philip Leapor (1693–1771), a gardener. Of the many labouring-class writers of the period, she was noticeably well received.
Partly self-educated, she probably received a rudimentary education at either a local dame school, or at the local free school in Brackley on the south side of the Chapel. According to her father she began writing "tolerably" at the age of 10. Her father recollected, "She would often be scribbling, and sometimes in Rhyme," but that her mother ended up discouraging the writing, requesting she find some "more profitable employment". She was fortunate enough to attain a position as kitchen maid with Susanna Jennens ("Parthenissa" in Leapor's poetry), who apparently encouraged her writing and allowed her the use of her library. Jennens wrote poetry herself and had connections to both Mary Astell and Mary Wortley Montagu. Not all employers were so accommodating and Leapor's devotion to writing led to her dismissal from a subsequent position with Sir Richard Chauncy's family, as she apparently would not stop writing even in the kitchen. In 1784 an account was published in The Gentleman's Magazine, possibly by Chauncy's son, allegedly describing Chauncy's remembrances of the poet. According to this piece, Leapor's
fondness for writing verses there displayed itself by her sometimes taking up her pen while the jack was standing still, and the meat scorching … He represented her as having been extremely swarthy, and quite emaciated, with a long crane-neck, and a short body, much resembling, in shape, a bass-viol.
She returned home to Brackley to care for her widowed father in 1744 or 1745, and despite many responsibilities, and not being in the best of health herself, she continued to write and her work circulated among the inhabitants of the town. As a consequence she met Bridget Freemantle (1698–1779), the daughter of a former rector, who became both her friend and mentor. This relationship seems to have marked a turning point for Leapor and she wrote the bulk of her oeuvre in a very short period. It was Freemantle who suggested that Leapor publish a volume of poetry by subscription, and she also attempted to have a play of hers, a blank-verse tragedy called The Unhappy Father, produced in London at the Covent Garden Theatre (a second play remains unfinished). Neither venture was immediately successful, Leapor died of measles at Brackley on 12 November 1746 at the age of 24.
Bridget Freemantle continued her quest to publish Leapor's work. In 1748 she arranged the posthumous publication of Poems upon Several Occasions with approximately six hundred subscribers for the benefit of Philip Leapor. A second volume of poetry and drama was published three years later by Samuel Richardson and edited by Isaac Hawkins Browne. Mary Delany, Stephen Duck, Elizabeth Montagu, and Sarah Scott were among the subscribers. These volumes secured Leapor's reputation as "one of the most interesting of the natural poets."John Duncombe praised her in The Feminead (1754), and Bonnell Thornton and George Colman included her in their Poems by Eminent Ladies (1755). Leapor herself would not seem to have embraced her status as a "natural" poet, "untainted" by artifice; she worked hard to acquire a literary education as best she could and embraced the neoclassical ideals of her period. At the time of her death she had accumulated seventeen volumes and several volumes of plays: a considerable library for someone with such a limited income. There are many grammatical errors in Leapor's work, which Freemantle apologises for in the Preface to the "Poems Upon Several Occasions" and assures readers that, had Leapor lived to edit them, the poems would have been flawless. She continues that they are, nevertheless, entertaining.
Like many writers of the period, Leapor used a pastoral-sounding pen name; hers was "Mira." Much of her work is modelled on that of Alexander Pope, whose work she intensely admired. Jonathan Swift, particularly his anti-blason poetry (the de-emphasis on the female physical body in relation to nature), was also a model. At times Leapor's writing reflects her own pessimistic views on life as a woman who was described as being witty, poor, infirm, and unattractive. She writes "much of and to women, of the discrepancy of her sex and class with her poetic urge." Her work clearly focuses on debunking romantic myths and reiterating the importance of education for women, the latter which she understood all too well.
From Leapor's "strongly feminist" "An Essay on Woman,":
WOMAN-a pleasing but a short-lived flower,
Too soft for business and too weak for power:
A wife in bondage, or neglected maid;
Despised if ugly; if she's fair-betrayed.
In "An Essay on Woman," Leapor describes the certain downfall women face when they get old. She is highly critical of women being judged solely on their appearance, and deplores the limited choices open to them. Like Alexander Pope, Leapor saw “the general condition of women as a series of contradictions”; though unlike Pope or Jonathan Swift, they weren't “follies to be satirized,” but rather “injustices to be protested against”. Both of the poets deeply influenced Leapor's work; however, she counters their interpretations and understanding of women's general unhappiness. Drawing from her personal experience as a woman, she saw injustice in the social order rather than in women themselves. This is reflected in the representation of her views on beauty, the female body, marriage, family and female friendship in her work.
Leapor lived in a culture where women were expected to value themselves by their beauty. A great deal of money would have been needed to achieve perfection in beauty, which required creating an artificial appearance: “hardware” was fastened about the bodies of women to straighten posture, stays squeezed their waists, and faces were “caked and heavily coloured” with cosmetics. Leapor “attempts to see beyond artificial appearance to what she believes is more authentic femininity”. Her poem "Dorinda at her Glass" exemplifies this as she describes a woman who has valued herself by the image she sees in the mirror, only to be devastated when she loses her youthful beauty with age:
To her lov'd Glass repair'd the weeping Maid,
And with a Sigh address'd the alter'd Shade.And Lips that with no gay Vermilion glow?
Say, what art thou, that wear'st a gloomy Form,
With low'ring Forehead, like a norther Storm;
Cheeks pale and hollow, as the Face of Woe,
Through the poem Leapor advises and warns women that beauty does not last and to improve themselves intrinsically.
“In ‘Dorinda at her Glass’, ‘Advice to Sophronia’, and other poems, Leapor asserts that women should preserve their dignity by accepting the loss of beauty”. Leapor herself is affected by standards of beauty, and wishes to escape her “plainness” and the vulgar comments on her appearance, and dreams of being beautiful. This wistfulness for mainstream acceptance and admiration is illustrated in her poems “The Visit” and “The Disappointment.”
Leapor’s most extensive examination of standards of beauty is “Corydon. Phillario. Or, Mira’s Picture.” In this “self-portrait,” Leapor attempts to break every contemporary standard of beauty. She picks apart her every bodily flaw openly, posing a challenge to a society which expected women to tuck away their defects:
But she has teeth --And seem prepar'd to quit her swelling Gums.
--Consid'ring how they grow,
'Tis no great matter if she has or no:
They look decay'd with Posset, and with Plumbs,
Leapor also turned her attention to the marriage market:
(From Strephon to Celia) Now, madam, as the chat goes round,
I hear you have ten thousand pound:
But that as I a trifle hold,
Give me your person, dem your gold;
Yet for your own sake 'tis secured,
I hope – your houses too insured
Celia has admitted her love and admiration for Strephon and this is his businesslike reply. He goes on to practically count all of Celia's assets on his fingers. He assures her of his admiration, briefly and in highly conventional terms, then returns to the subject that really interests him: her fortune. Leapor ironically exposes the reality of the marriage market and how women are reduced to their financial worth, despite the veneer of sentiment.
Today Leapor's work is celebrated for its sharp observations about life as a woman in the eighteenth century. She remains one of the few female labouring-class writers of the period, along with Ann Yearsley and Elizabeth Bentley.
- Poems Upon Several Occasions. Vol. I. London: J. Roberts, 1748.
- Poems Upon Several Occasions. Vol. II. London: J. Roberts, 1751.
- ^Stephen Van-Hagen, "Mary Leapor," The Literary Encyclopedia (3 Mar. 2007).
- ^ Lee, Elizabeth (1892). "Leapor, Mary". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography. 32. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
- ^Janet Todd, ed. "Leapor, Mary (Molly)." British Women Writers: a critical reference guide. London: Routledge, 1989. 402.
- ^Todd, 402.
- ^Virginia Blain, et al., eds, "Leapor, Mary," The Feminist Companion to Literature in English (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1990. 640).
- ^Blain, et al., 640.
- ^ abcdeRichard Greene, Mary Leapor: A Study in Eighteenth-Century Women's Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
- Blain, Virginia, et al., eds. "Leapor, Mary." The Feminist Companion to Literature in English. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1990. 640.
- Gillespie, Stuart. "Leapor, Mary (1722–1746)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/16246. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
- Greene, Richard. Mary Leapor: A Study in Eighteenth-Century Women's Poetry. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford UP, 1993.
- Griffin, Dustin. "Mary Leapor and Charlotte Lennox." Literary Patronage in England, 1650–1800. Cambridge UP, 1996. ISBN 978-0-521-56085-6; ISBN 0-521-56085-3
- Todd, Janet, ed. "Leapor, Mary (Molly)." British Women Writers: a critical reference guide. London: Routledge, 1989. 401–403.
- Van-Hagen, Stephen. "Mary Leapor." The Literary Encyclopedia. 3 March 2007. Accessed 2 May 2007.