Mary Leapor Criticism - Essay -

George Eland (essay date 1932)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2276

SOURCE: Eland, George. “Molly Leapor—Poetess.” Northhampton County Magazine 5 (1932): 116-19.

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[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). The site is a kind of peninsula, nearly surrounded by the infant Ouse, and is devoted to allotments to-day, though the mound on which was the keep can still be traced.

Philip Leapor's only child, Mary, or Molly, learned to write when about 10 or 11 years old, and from that time “she would often be scribbling, and sometimes in Rhyme.” (Introduction, vol. II., p. xxx). Later on “her thoughts seem to flow as fast as she could put them upon paper.” She was sent to work as a cook-maid “to a gentleman's family in the neighbourhood,” (Gentleman's Magazine, 1784), but her early attraction to poetry made her neglect her duties somewhat, and her parents had the sense to relieve her of this drudgery, and keep her at home. Even then the “quickness of her genius” was noticed “especially when it is consider'd how much she was engaged in her Father's affairs, and the Business of his House, in which she had nobody to assist her.” (Introduction, vol. II., xxii, xxix). This was because she lost her mother in 1742.

Her entire library “consisted of about sixteen or seventeen single volumes, among which were Part of Mr. Pope's Works, Dryden's Fables, some Volumes of plays, etc.” (xxxii). With such few opportunities for acquiring knowledge the wonder grows that she was able to gain so much culture and such power of expressing herself in the short time allowed her, for on November 14th, 1746, she died of measles and her burial “in woollen” is recorded in the Brackley register. According to Baker a stone formerly commemorated her in the churchyard: “In memory of Mary Leapor, daughter of Philip and Ann Leapor, who departed this life Novr ye 26th [sic] 1746. Aged 24.” This stone is either illegible now, or is one of those which, upside down, pave the churchyard walks.

Although the Introduction to the second volume of her poems invites “some ingenious gentleman to be so good as to write a few lines to put upon” the gravestone, this was not done—perhaps in accordance with the wish expressed by Molly herself in “The Consolation”:

Then some kind Friend (when they shall lay
This body in its destin'd clay)
Around my grave shall twist a Briar;
No lying Marble I desire.

The unfortunate rhyme of the last two lines will be noticed. A footnote by the editor notes that “Mrs. Leapor frequently writes the words Sire, Fire, Spire, Hour, & c., each as if two syllables.” (x). In some places he found imperfect rhymes of this kind marked in the MS. with a pin, and no doubt they would have disappeared if the poor girl has lived to correct them for the press. Apparently there was a question of publishing some of her poems shortly before her death, but the “Proposalls” (said to have been drafted by Garrick), bear the date January 1st, 1746-7. (Purefoy Letters, II., 279). That they were successful is proved by the fact that 645 copies are covered by the “List of Subscribers' Names”—amongst them one is glad to see that the Blencowes occur eight times. It is all the more strange, therefore, that it is a rare book, of which the British Museum appears to have no copy, though there is one in the Bodleian. The public library at Northampton has a nice copy.

It was offered as “a handsome volume in octavo” for five shillings. The editor is said to have been Isaac Hawkins Browne, the elder. The title was Poems upon Several Occasions. By Mrs. Leapor, of Brackley, in Northamptonshire. London. Printed: And sold by J. Roberts in Warwick-Lane. MDCCXLVIII.”

The “Second and Last Volume” appeared in 1751. The subscribers for this only account for 320 copies, and there are far fewer local names, though the Blencowes are still faithful.

Shortly before her death she alluded to the publication of her poems, for the benefit of her father who “is growing into years.” (xxviii). As a matter of fact he lived for another quarter of a century, the burgess roll of Brackley Corporation proves that he was admitted in 1753, and died in 1771.

Apparently Molly's appearance was not attractive. In “Mira's Picture” she gives an admitted caricature of herself. After declaring

                                                                      her Brows
                    So like a dry Furze-faggot; and, beside,
                    No quite so even as a Mouse's hide.
she goes on to describe her shape:
                                        where Mountains upon Mountains rise,
          And, as they fear'd some Treachery at hand,
          Behind her Ears her list'ning Shoulders stand.

A postscript to the Introduction thinks “it may give the Reader a worse Idea of her Person than it deserv'd, which was very far from being shocking; tho' there was nothing extraordinary in it” (xxxii); but an ungallant writer in the Gentleman's Magazine (1784) repeats the description of her given by her master when she was in service as “extremely swarthy,” “quite emaciated,” “with a long crane-neck and a short body.”

Coming to the poems themselves it must be owned that the “local colour” is scanty, as might be expected from one who sought to echo Pope, but one pastoral at least, “The Month of August,” betrays the gardener's daughter. Sylvanus, a courtier, says: (I., 35)

But see, to emulate those Cheeks of thine,
On yon fair Tree the blushing Nect'rins shine;
Beneath their Leaves the ruddy Peaches glow,
And the plump Figs compose a gallant show.
With gaudy Plumbs see yonder Boughs recline,
And ruddy Pears in yon Espalier twine.
There humble Dwarfs in pleasing Order stand,
Whose golden Product seems to court thy Hand.

The modest Phillis replies:

In vain you tempt me while our Orchard bears
Long-keeping Russets, lovely Cath'rine Pears,
Permains and Codlings, wheaten Plumbs enough,
And the black Damsons load the bending Bough.

In the poem “To Lucinda,” dated August, 1746, but a few months before her death, come the lines: (II., 59)

Whilst in laborious Toils I spent my Hours,
Employ'd to cultivate the springing Flow'rs.

Another part of her experience is used in one of the best descriptive poems, “Crumble Hall”: (II., 119)

For thee these Hands wind up the whirling Jack,
Or place the Spit across the sloping Rack—
I baste the Mutton with a chearful Heart,
Because I know my Roger will have Part.

The only topical allusion is to “The '45”; in an eclogue Cicely laments that her Colin has enlisted, and is comforted by Joan with the words:

They say the Duke is to his soldiers kind.

Another character enters with a quart of beer to celebrate a rumoured victory with the toast:

'Tis a brave Man, and has a lucky Hand,
The Duke of what d'ye call it—Cumberland.
Heav'n bless the Duke, and all his Train! say I.
Let's pledge thee, Cicely; for I'm deadly dry.

(II. 86).

The sentiment rises above the versification admittedly.

In view of Pope's often-quoted rhyme of “tea” and “obey,” it is interesting to notice lines which end with “tea—Bohea,” “play—tea,” “obey—tea,” and “pray—tea.” (II., 105-8).

At the end of the second volume are a few letters, without date or names; they show a curious command of the language even though their thoughts are trite. One is concerned with the dispatch of her verses to London and concludes thus: (II., 312)

“Yet, after all, Mira has her gay Intervals, and an excellent Knack at Castle-building. In short, if our Scheme succeeds, I intend to shew my Public Spirit; As, first, I shall open two or three more windows in the College-Chapel, and perhaps add another Isle to it. I shall erect a few Alms-houses; and have some Thoughts of founding an Hospital for indigent or distracted Poets. I presume this will take up as much of my superfluous Wealth as I can spare from the Extravagance of a gay Retine and splendid Equipage, in which I intend to abound. Amidst all this I shall not be ingrateful, tho' perhaps somewhat haughty. Yet my Chariot or Landau shall be ever at your Service, and ready to convey you to my Country-seat, or to my House in Hanover-square. But, till all this shall happen, I am proud to subscribe myself

Your humble Servant


The “College Chapel,” Brackley, was attached to a Hospital founded by Robert le Bossu, Earl of Leicester, about 1150. Since the Dissolution it has belonged to Magdalen College, Oxford, but the Chapel had fallen into disrepair until restored in 1740 by a Brackley lawyer, named Welchman, who is buried in the Chapel, which serves as the chapel of the school maintained by Magdalen on the site, and in one of the buildings, of the Hospital. It is, perhaps, as well that poor Molly was unable to carry out her scheme.

There seems no evidence that Molly was ever away from Brackley in her life, and the London scenes in her narrative poem, “Mopsus,” are of a somewhat conventional kind. With her small opportunities for gaining experience, and without that insight which, in genius, seems to transcend experience, she had to echo the song of others. Occasionally the original note sounds like Swift's, as in “The Ten-Penny Nail”:

To Jeff'ry Bouze I next belong
Where sparkling Ale was clear and strong,
One Vault, more precious than the rest,
Was stor'd with Hogsheads of the best:
And having lately lost the Key
He fast'ned up the Door with me:
I stood a faithful Centry there,
To guard the choice inspiring Beer
From thirsty Bacchanalian Rage,
Till his son Guzzle was of Age.—etc., etc.

But Pope was Molly's chief model; as Leslie Stephen pointed out: “One ten-syllabled rhyming couplet, with the whole sense strictly confined within its limits, is undoubtedly very much like another. And, accordingly, one may read in any collection of British poets innumerable pages of versification which—if you do not look too close—are exactly like Pope.” (English Men of Letters, p198).

Molly's “Advice to Myrtillo” gives such an impression:

Do you the Levee of his Grace attend,
And (like most Poets) shou'd you want a Friend,
Make not his Worth the Measure of your Song;
But learn his Humour, and you can't be wrong;
Perhaps this Maxim may offend the wise,
But you must flatter if you mean to rise;
Observe what Passions in his Bosom roll,
And watch the Secret Motions of his Soul.

Some lines “To Lucinda” prove Molly's constancy to Pope:

'Tis not your Pomp, your Titles, or your State
That move my Envy, O ye Rich and Great!
The noblest gift God can on Man bestow
Is teaching him his sacred Will to know
The Almighty's sacred Will 's to you reveal'd
But from the Ignorant in Clouds conceal'd.

The workmanship in these lines, and there are hundreds of them, is very crude, and one is forced back on the verdict which called Pope's

                                                                                a mere mechanic art
And every warbler had his tune by heart.

There are few narrative poems, of which we would gladly have found more, containing what is obviously a first-hand picture. Of these “Crumble Hall” is the best:

See! yon brown Parlour on the Left appears
For nothing famous, but its leathern Chairs,
Whose shining Nails like polish'd Armour glow,
And the dull Clock beats audible and slow,
But on the right we spy a Room more fair;
The Form—'tis neither long, nor round, nor square;
The Walls how lofty and the Floor how wide,
We leave for learned Quadrus to decide.
Gay China bowls o'er the broad Chimney shine.—etc., etc.

The attics are described later:

Thro' yon dark Room—be careful how you tread
Up these steep Stairs—or you may break your Head.
These rooms are furnish'd amiably, and full:
Old Shoes, and Sheep-ticks bred in Stacks of Wool;
Grey Dobbin's Gears, and Drenching-Horns enow;
Wheel-spokes—the Irons of a tatter'd Plough

This strikes a note for which the world had three-score years to wait—until it could listen to Crabbe.

Although Brackley is at one end of a county which includes Helpstone at the other, Molly was not Clare, and he must retain the title of Northamptonshire peasant poet. It is only when one remembers all that Molly Leapor accomplished in spite of great difficulties and discouragement that one feels she well earned the small niche in the Temple of Fame afforded by some thirty lines in the Dictionary of National Biography.

Edmund Blunden (essay date 1936)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5471

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 she was cook-maid in a gentleman's family. Though she is described on the title-page of her book as “Mrs.” Mary Leapor, I take it that this was the old-fashioned style, and that she was unmarried. “Mrs. Leapor from her childhood delighted in reading, and particularly Poetry, but had few opportunities of procuring any books of that kind: her whole library consisted of sixteen or seventeen odd volumes, among which were part of the works of Mr. Pope, her greatest favourite, Dryden's Fables, some volumes of plays, etc.” In her day a certain uneducated poet, Stephen Duck the Wiltshire thresher, had found his verses the road to patronage and the company of distinguished people; but it appears unlikely that his example had anything to do with Mary Leapor's love and study of poetry. She was “taken from the World”—by measles, in 1746—“at the time when she first began to meet with encouragement to print” her poems, and “her dying Request” was that they should be “published for the Benefit of her Father.” The “Persons of Rank and of distinguished Taste and Judgement” to whom her papers had been submitted and who had begun “promoting a Subscription for their being printed,” carried their intention into effect. Garrick is credited with drawing up the Prospectus. One of her poems was written on the occasion of her being offered £10 for her collection. Probably the publication brought her father a still larger sum.

In 1748 there appeared Poems upon Several Occasions, by Mrs. Leapor of Brackley in Northamptonshire. London, Printed and Sold by J. Roberts in Warwick-Lane. Three years later the same publisher brought out “The Second and Last Volume.” The editor was Isaac Hawkins Browne the elder. In 1755 a selection of “Poems by Eminent Ladies” was published, in two volumes, the second of which contains a hundred and twenty pages of Mary Leapor's work. Dyce says that the editors who honoured her memory so handsomely were Colman and Bonnel Thornton,—men at that time prominent in journalism and the literary stage; and he notices a later edition of their book, about 1780, which I have not seen. “There is,” they said, “no good reason to be assigned why the poetical attempts of females should not be well received. … This collection is not inferior to any miscellany compiled from the works of men.” And almost one-fifth of it was the production of the young Northamptonshire girl, of whom perhaps they were particularly mindful in observing that “most of these Ladies (like many of our greatest men writers) were more indebted to nature for their success, than to education.”

One of the qualities of Mary Leapor's poetry is the ease and good humour of her self-portraiture, far removed from the querulous or savage tones of many writers in humble circumstances and equally free of stiffness, bowing and scraping. For poetical purposes she called herself, anagrammatically, Mira. Let me follow Mira without tears through her two volumes. She makes her Will in rhyme:—

                                                            . … and then
To the small poets I bequeath my pen.
Let a small sprig (true emblem of my rhyme)
Of blasted laurel on my hearse recline;
Let some grave wight, that struggles for renown
By chanting dirges through a market-town,
With gentle step precede the solemn train;
A broken flute upon his arm shall lean.
Six comic poets may the corse surround,
And all freeholders,—if they can be found …

She writes an “Epistle to a Lady,” in which with more of real foreboding she anticipates her early death. This will have been one of her latest compositions, for she mentions her age in it:—

'Tis twenty winters, (if it is no more)
To speak the truth it may be twenty-four;
As many springs their 'pointed space have run,
Since Mira's eyes first open'd on the sun.
'Twas when the flocks on slabby hillocks lie,
And the cold Fishes rule the wat'ry sky.

She speaks of her happy dreams, in which

          books and pictures in bright order rise,
And painted parlours swim before her eyes,


She wakes, alas! to business and to woes,
To sweep her kitchen, and to mend her clothes.

The dreams and the disappointments alike are coming to an end:

But see pale sickness with her languid eyes,
At whose appearance all delusion flies:
The world recedes, its vanities decline,
Clorinda's features seem as faint as mine:
Gay robes no more the aking sight admires,
Wit grates the ear, and melting music tires:
Its wonted pleasures with each sense decay,
Books please no more, and paintings fade away;
The sliding joys in misty vapours end:
Yet let me still, ah! let me grasp a friend:
And when each joy, when each lov'd object flies,
Be you the last that leaves my closing eyes.

Her great desire had been to find friends who would understand her and indulge her in her literary and intellectual habits. In genial verses she hints that her village neighbours were not altogether satisfied with her goings on. One of her numerous Pastorals, for instance, entitled, “Corydon: Phillario; or, Mira's Picture,” seems to be derived from actualities. Corydon is a shepherd, Phillario a man of business taking his ease in the country; Mira approaches as they talk.

But who is she that walks on yonder hill,
With studious brows, and night-cap dishabille?
That looks a stranger to the beams of day,
And counts her steps, and mutters all the way?
'Tis Mira, daughter to a friend of mine;
'Tis she that makes your—what-d'ye call—your rhyme.
I own the girl is something out o' th' way:
But how d'ye like her? good Phillario, say!

Phillario is unimpressed, and Corydon has to admit something arguable in his opinion:

Her eyes are dim, you'll say: Why, that is true:
I've heard the reason, and I'll tell it you.
By a rush-candle (as her father says)
She sits whole evenings reading wicked plays.
She read!—She'd better milk her brindled cows.
I wish the candle does not singe her brows,
So like a dry furze-faggot; and, beside,
Not quite so even as a mouse's bide.
Come, come; you view her with malicious eyes:
Her shape—
—Where mountains upon mountains rise?
And, as they fear'd some treachery at hand,
Behind her ears her list'ning shoulders stand.

It is recorded that Mary Leapor was “indeed plain” in person, but that though in this poem “she has made very free with herself, yet her appearance was by no means disagreeable.”

She frequently addresses one of her friends of superior position under the name Artemisia; she invites her to tea,—

If Artemisia's Soul can dwell
Four hours in a tiny Cell,
(To give that Space of Bliss to me)
I wait my Happiness at three.
Our Tommy in a Jug shall bring
Clear Nectar from the bubbling Spring:
The Cups shall on the Table stand,
The Sugar and the Spoons at hand:
A skilful Hand shall likewise spread
Soft Butter on the yielding Bread;
And (as you eat but mighty little,
And seem an arrant Foe to Vittle)
You'll cry perhaps, One Bit may do,
But I'm resolv'd it shall be two:
With you and your Amanda blest,
Care flies away from Mira's Breast;
O'er stubborn Flax no more I grieve,
But stick the Needle in my Sleeve;
For let them work on Holiday
Who won't be idle when they may …
Now to the Company we fall,
'Tis Me and Mira that is all:
More wou'd you have—Dear Madam, then
Count me and Mira o'er agen.

It is to this Artemisia that Mary Leapor addresses one of the best of her longer poems, called “Crumble Hall”—perhaps someone in Northamptonshire knows the place she describes so well as it was in her day. Or has it gone the way of Charles Lamb's “Blakesmoor in H——shire”?

Of this rude palace might a poet sing
From cold December to returning Spring;
Tell how the building spreads on either hand,
And two grim giants o'er the portals stand;
Whose grisled beards are neither comb'd nor shorn,
But look severe, and horribly adorn.
Then step within—there stands a goodly row
Of oaken pillars—where a gallant show
Of mimic pears and carv'd pomgranates twine,
With the plump clusters of the spreading vine.
Strange forms above present themselves to view;
Some mouths that grin, some smile, and some that spew. …
Safely the mice thro' you dark passage run,
Where the dim windows ne'er admit the sun.
Along each wall the stranger blindly feels;
And trembling dreads a spectre at his heels. …
See! yon brown parlour on the left appears,
For nothing famous but its leathern chairs,
Whose shining nails like polish'd armour glow,
And the dull clock beats audible and slow.

And so she leads the way through the house, with a friendly joke on the tapestry here, the dusty books there,—on the lumber that has made its way in,

Grey Dobbin's gears, and drenching-horns enow;
Wheel-spokes—the irons of a tatter'd plough,—

and comes to the servants. It is still the age when the farm labourers take their meals in the great house,

O'er the warm kettles, and the sav'ry steams,
Grave Colinettus of his oxen dreams:
Then, starting, anxious for his new-mown hay,
Runs headlong out to view the doubtful day:
But dinner calls with more prevailing charms:
And surly Gruffo in his aukward arms
Bears the tall jug, and turns a glaring eye
As tho' he fear'd some insurrection nigh
From the fierce crew that gaping stand a-dry.

It has been claimed for our authoress that at a time when few of our poets had any sense of the countryside she wrote of it with particularity and love. I do not think the general statement about early eighteenth century poets will bear examination, though few of them went in strong chase “of Flora and the country green”; but among them certainly the gardener's daughter has a way with her flowers and fruit and trees and birds. In an eclogue called “The Month of August” she puts the case for the contented peasant and as she does so displays in warm colouring the little world she inherited. Sylvanus, “a Courtier,” invites Phillis “a Country Maid” into his gardens; but (the Squire generally loses on these occasions) Phillis declines. He describes his vines, his nectarines, peaches, figs, espaliers of pears—she retorts,

In vain you tempt me while our orchard bears
Long-keeping russets, lovely Cath'rine pears,
Pearmains and codlings, wheaten plums enow,
And the black damsons load the bending bough.
No pruning-knives our fertile branches teaze,
While your's must grow but as their masters please.
The grateful trees our mercy well repay,
And rain us bushels at the rising day.

Sylvanus changes his attack.

Fair are my gardens, yet you slight them all;
Then let us haste to you majestick hall;

he asks whether his drawing-room, cool fountain, orange-flowers and art collection are “not fairer than a thresher's barn”? Phillis thinks not:

Believe me, I can find no charms at all
In your fine carpets and your painted hall.
'Tis true our parlour has an earthen floor,
The sides of plaster and of elm the door;
Yet the rubb'd chest and table sweetly shines,
And the spread mint along the window climbs:
An aged laurel keeps away the sun,
And two cool streams across the garden run.

Sylvanus makes a final effort:—

Can feasts or musick win my lovely maid?—

he invites her to dinner, with orchestral accompaniment. No luck. The “simple maid” is already engaged.

Not this will lure me, for I'd have you know
This night to feast with Corydon I go:
To night his reapers bring the gather'd grain
Home to his barns, and leave the naked plain:
Then been and coleworts, beans and bacon too,
And the plum-pudding of delicious hue,
Sweet-spiced cake, and apple-pies good store
Deck the brown board; who can desire more?
His flute and tabor too Amyntor brings,
And while he plays soft Amaryllis sings.

At moments one might almost fancy Mary Leapor had read Theocritus, and indeed she may well have met with the hearty, homely translation by Creech. In her description of dawn she vies with Elizabethan dramatic poets:

Old night had more than half her progress run;
The stars grew paler at the distant sun;
The chearful east was streak'd with lighter grey;
And the shrill lark began to look for day.

Her “Winter” (another poem specially meant for Artemisia) is an imitation of an Epistle by Ambrose Philips from Copenhagen, a composition long famous among the connoisseurs—but the imitation glows into originality when she comes to close quarters with her subject.

The silent linnet views the gloomy sky,
Sculks to his hawthorn, nor attempts to fly:
Then heavy clouds send down the feather'd snow;
Through naked trees the hollow tempests blow;
The shepherd sighs, but not his sighs prevail;
To the soft snow succeeds the rushing hail;
And these white prospects soon resign their room
To melting showers or unpleasing gloom;
The nymphs and swains their aking fingers blow,
Shun the cold rains, and bless the kinder snow;
While the faint travellers around them see
Here seas of mud, and there a leafless tree;
No budding leaves, no honey-suckles gay,
No yellow crow-foots paint the dirty way;
The lark sits mournful as afraid to rise,
And the sad finch his softer song denies.
Poor daggled Urs'la stalks from cow to cow,
Who to her sighs return a mournful low;
While their full udders her broad hands assail,
And her sharp nose hangs dropping o'er the pail.
With garments trickling like a shallow spring,
And his wet locks all twisted in a string,
Afflicted Cymon waddles thro' the mire,
And rails at Win'fred creeping o'er the fire.

It is easy to see that Mary Leapor enjoyed writing about the people of her village as much as of the scenes and seasons round her; and she may have taken special pleasure in the impression she made on some of them—the mystery they found in her use of pen, ink and paper. One day she is using them for “The Epistle of Deborah Dough,” an amusing record of rustic outlook two hundred years ago.

Dearly beloved Cousin, These
Are sent to thank you for your Cheese:
The Price of Oats is greatly fell:
I hope your Children all are well,
(Likewise the Calf you take delight in)
As I am at this present writing.
But I've no News to send you now;
Only I've lost my brindled Cow;
And that has greatly sunk my Dairy:
But I forgot our Neighbour Mary;
Our Neighbour Mary,—who, they say,
Sits scribble—scribble all the Day,
And making—what—I can't remember,
But sure 'tis something like December;
A frosty Morning—Let me see—
O! now I have it to a T.
She throws away her precious Time
In scrawling nothing else but Rhyme;
Of which, they say, she's mighty proud,
And lifts her Nose above the Croud;
Tho' my young Daughter Cicely
Is taller by a Foot than she,
And better learnt (as People say)
Can knit a Stocken in a Day:
Can make a Pudden, plump and rare;
And boil her Bacon, to an Hair:
Will coddle Apples nice and green,
And fry her Pancakes—like a Queen.
But there's a Man that keeps a Dairy,
Will clip the Wings of Neighbour Mary:
Things wonderful they talk of him,
But I've a Notion 'tis a whim.
Howe'er, 'tis Certain he can make
Your Rhymes as thick as Plumb in Cake:
Nay more, they say, that from the Pot
He'll take his Porridge, scalding hot,
And drink 'em down;—and yet they tell ye
Those Porridge shall not burn his Belley:
A Cheese-cake o'er his Head he'll throw;
And when 'tis on the Stones below
It shan't be found so much as quaking,
Provided 'tis of his Wife's making:
From this some People would infer
That this good Man's a Conjurer.
But I believe it is a Lye;
I never thought him so; not I:
Tho' Win'fred Hobble, who, you know,
Is plagu'd with Corns on ev'ry Toe,
Sticks on his Verse with fast'ning spittle,
And says it helps her feet a little.
Old Frances too his paper tears,
And tucks it close behind her Ears;
And (as she told me t'other Day)
It charm'd her Tooth-ach quite away. …

Deborah Dough reappears in an eclogue, with Cicely and Joan—a poem well worth finding for the sake of its touch of history. Cicely is distressed because her sweetheart has enlisted. Joan comforts her by saying, “the Duke is to his Soldiers kind.” Deborah arrives with a quart of beer and reports the Duke's victory over the rebels.

We've kill'd two thousand of the Rogues (d'ye mind?)
Egad, their Gen'ral durst not look behind;
Tho' Gaffer Doubt-man (with the blinking eye)
Says 'tis but Fifty—and that's pretty nigh.

All drink the health of the Duke of Cumberland—

Hark, the Men shout, and Bonfires light the Plain:
Then shall we sit and lick our lips in vain?

The end is “Bring t'other Quart.” Such was the spirit of the country in the days of the Forty-Five.

But let me return to Mary Leapor herself, in her little room, studying Pope and Rowe and Prior, and finding her way in versification. She is witty and ingenious, and clearly does not intend to be confined in “this low pinfold” of the bucolic existence. She tries her skill in satires, moral essays, devotional odes—kinds of writing which the Town approves. She will not be considered deficient in the item of classical allusion,—and one of her cleverest improvisations transforms a ten-party into

                                                            a sacrifice
To the Pernassian deities,
Which I am ordered by Apollo
To shew you in the words that follow.

She loves her easy-seeming allusion to Jove and Cythera, to Homer, Virgil, Ovid; so writing, she seems to move among the British poets already, in “the gay busy town.”

Her being a poet is a fact which itself often impels her verses. “To Grammaticus” is a letter in rhyme “atoning” for her sending her verses to him and wounding his ear; she offers a cure,

For that Incisions made by Rhymes
Are worse than Ulcers fifty Times …
And give unutterable Pain
To the small Fibres of the Brain.

“An Epistle to Artemisia: on Fame” presently approaches

Ev'n Mira's Self, presuming on the Bays,

and provides some history of the reception of her poems in manuscript. “Once Delpho read,” but Delpho declined to give an opinion on their chances of success. Then

Cressida comes, the next unbidden Guest;
Small was her Top-knot, and her Judgment less:
A decent Virgin, blest with idle Time,
Now gingles Bobbins; and now ponders Rhime:
Not ponders—reads—Not reads—but looks 'em o'er
To little purpose, like a thousand more.
‘Your Servant, Molly.’ ‘I am yours the same’
‘I pay this Visit, Molly, to your Fame:
‘Twas that that brought me here; or let me die.’
‘My Fame's oblig'd: And truly so am I.’
‘Then fetch me something; for I must not stay,
Above four Hours.’ ‘But you'll drink some Tea?’
We sip and read; we laugh, and chat between,
The Air is pleasant, and the Fields are green.
‘Well, Molly, sure, there never was thy Fellow.
But don't my Ruffles look exceeding yellow?
My Apron's dirty—Mira, well, I vow,
That Thought of yours was very pretty now.
I've read the like, tho' I forget the Place:
But, Mrs. Mira, How d'ye like my Lace?’
Afflicted Mira, with a languid eye,
Now views the Clock, and now the Western Sky.
‘The Sun grows lower: Will you please to walk?’
‘No; read some more.’ ‘But I had rather talk.’
‘Perhaps you're tired.’ ‘Truly that may be.’
‘Or think me weak.’ ‘Why, Cressy, Thoughts are free.’
At last we part, with Congees at the Door:
‘I'd thank you, Mira; but my Thanks are poor.
I wish, alas! But Wishes are in vain.
I like your Garden; and I'll come again.
Dear, how I wish!—I do, or let me die
That we liv'd near’—Thinks Mira, ‘So don't I.’

After Gressida, there came Vido whose business was to commend; and Codrus, a rival poet

Who pour'd thick Sonnets like a troubled Spring;

and Parthenia, who didn't think much of women writers; and Sophronia, who thought still less and said still more of them; and at last the kind, the sensitive Artemisia.

Towards the end of the Epistle “On Fame,” unkind mention is made of “soft Pappilia” who, finding time hang on her hands through the wet weather, tells someone to “run to Leapor's, fetch that idle Play.” This Play, which may have been the tragedy in blank verse entitled “The Unhappy Father,” was a conspicuous part of the authoress's later life. She sends it in manuscript “To a Gentleman,” and a careful rhyming letter with it, comparing herself to a country matron anxiously witnessing her child's departure for service in London—

On the pure ghost of Win'fred then she calls
To guard her child within its guilty walls.
So this rude babe I to your mercy yield,
Rough as the soil of some untillag'd field:
Can nature please?—

She modestly asks, with her customary jest, that at least her play may be lodged in “some little corner” in A Gentleman's house.

Where the fierce rat (all dreadful) never climbs,
Nor the sleek mouse, sad foe to Mira's rhymes.

But other perils awaited her bantling—at least, we know of no other travels except to A Gentleman, and from such a visit one manuscript reappeared a trifle altered. This is shown by the delightful stanzas “Upon Her Play Being Returned to Her, Stained with Claret.” It would be sacrilege to abbreviate this clever and yet pathetic little poem.

Welcome, dear wanderer, once more!
          Thrice welcome to thy native cell!
Within this peaceful humble door
          Let thou and I contented dwell!
But say, O whither hast thou rang'd?
          Why dost thou blush a crimson hue?
Thy fair complexion's greatly chang'd:
          Why, I can scarce believe 'tis you.
Then tell, my son, O tell me, where
          Didst thou contract this sottish dye?
You kept ill company, I fear,
          When distant from your parent's eye.
Was it for this, O graceless child!
          Was it for this you learn'd to spell?
Thy face and credit both are spoil'd:
          Go drown thyself in yonder well.
I wonder how thy time was spent:
          No news (alas!) hast thou to bring?
Hast thou not climb'd the Monument?
          Nor seen the Lions, nor the King?
But now I'll keep you here secure:
          No more you view the smoaky sky:
The Court was never made (I'm sure)
          For idiots, like thee and I.

Born into a period which favoured philosophic and moral discussion in the works of its poets, the period of the “Essay on Man” and “Night Thoughts on Life, Death and Immortality,” Mary Leapor naturally devoted some of her notebooks to her serious speculation and belief. The compositions thus produced, with Pope's method and manner very much in her view, do not at the present moment give the liveliest proofs of her original vein. She opens her reflections “On Mr. Pope's Universal Prayer” with these couplets:

Ah thou! whom nature and thy stars design'd
At once the joy and envy of mankind,
To thy lov'd memory this sigh I send,
To thee a stranger, to thy lines a friend:
How blest the Muse cou'd she like thine aspire,
So smooth her accent, and sublime her fire;
With bright description make the bosom glow,
Charm like thy sense, and like thy numbers flow:
O teach my soul to reach the seats divine,
And praise her Maker in a strain like thine.

The numbers indeed flow, the sentiments pass by in a creditable imitation of the man whom they commemorate; but one might expect anyone's signature, Mary Leapor's or five hundred others.

Still, she is able to be herself even under the burden of this ethical and metrical convention; in “The Question, occasion'd by a serious Admonition,” she examines her case directly and with warmth of feeling. “Is Mirth a Crime?”

If (like the most) my undistinguish'd Days
Deserve not much of Censure or of Praise:
If my still Life, like subterraneous Streams,
Glides unobserv'd, nor tainted by Extremes,
Nor dreadful Crime has stain'd its early Page,
To hoard up Terrors for reflecting Age;
Let me enjoy the sweet suspense of Woe,
When Heaven strikes me, I shall own the Blow:
Till then let me indulge one simple Hour,
Like the pleas'd Infant o'er a painted Flower;
Idly, 'tis true, but guiltlessly the Time
Is spent in trifling with a harmless Rhyme.
Heroick Virtue asks a noble Mind,
A Judgment strong, and Passions well refin'd:
But if that Virtue's measur'd by the Will,
'Tis surely something to abstain from Ill.

What occupies her in another poem called “The Enquiry” is not so personal, yet she contrives to give it her own touches. Finding people inclined to “let Nature rest” as inscrutable, and disdain the astronomers, she enquires why? Why were we given eyes to see the stars, “a thinking Soul” to meditate on their motions and their atmospheres or even their populations? She passes like Pope and Thomson (but I am not clear from her style that she had met with “The Seasons”) to adoration of creative omnipotence, and the gradation of living beings. It is not the train of thought but the naive and genuine approach which makes her freshly readable here:

And there are Creatures which no Eye can see,
That for a Moment live and breathe like me:
Whom a small Fly in bulk as far exceeds
As you tall Cedar does the waving reeds.

The possibilities of “Worlds in Miniature” particularly lure on her young fancy

Where little Forests on a Leaf appear
And drops of Dew are mighty Oceans there:
These may have Whales that in their Waters play,
And wanton out their Age of half a Day:
In these small Groves the smaller Birds may sing,
And share like us their Winter and their Spring.
Pluck off you Acorn from its Parent Bough,
Divide that Acorn in the midst—and now
In its firm Kernel a fair Oak is seen
With spreading Branches of a sprightly Green:
From this young Tree a Kernel might we rend,
There would another its small Boughs extend.
All Matter lives, and shews its Maker's Power;
There's not a Seed but what contains a Flower:
Tho' unobserv'd its secret Beauty lies
Till we are blest with Microscopick Eyes.
When for blue Plumbs our longing Palate calls,
Or scarlet Cherries that adorn the Walls,
With each plump Fruit we swallow down a Tree,
And so destroy whole Groves that else would be
As large and perfect as those Shades we see.

Lingering over Mary Leapor's poems, I cannot evade the revisitings of another Northamptonshire poet, born perhaps with even fewer prospects of worldly fortune than she. To compare her broadly with John Clare would be an error. She died young; he, as he said, “having lived too long.” She spent her life, so far as I can discern, in circumstances of regularity and security (though far from affluence); he, in early manhood, partly through labour troubles and partly through his own recklessness, saw more of the frowning aspects of existence. But there is a deeper difference between these two extraordinary persons. Mary Leapor is eagerly concerned with the human comedy, with men and women in their wisdom or their folly, with the tricks of the world (little as she has had of the world), with paradox and satire, with herself as a luckless but merry adventurer among the figures and passions of life. Of what is called “nature” she is a simple lover—she has known it from the first—without much profundity of insight. She does not write poems to evening primroses, or morning stars, or dormice, or ancient oaks, or rivers, though all those are saluted as part of the frame of the circling year she loves. In short, her strongest characteristic appears to me that of the potential novelist or dramatist; and I half or almost half claim that the play which went to town and came home splashed with claret was a comedy.

Now Clare, by contrast, was destined for nature poetry; he had an inexhaustible and thrilling curiosity for “animated nature,” and though he was not without his shrewdness in the affairs of human society he was instinctively led away into

                                                                                                    a lonely place,
And chanted a melody loud and sweet

in delight at the “blue hawk” or the fairy ring. Mankind for him were like antkind, or mousekind—part of the larger world of nature's ways and the song of eternity.

Moreover, whatever the explanation may have been, the Northamptonshire Peasant possessed that gift without which no poetry can ever truly thrive. He was capable of infinite melodiousness. If he fell into some monotony of form and metre at certain periods, nevertheless, one may find in him a great variety of song. Not without justice and larger significance has Professor Lascelles Abercrombie pointed out the exquisite newness of one of his Asylum poems in its metrical effect. Mary Leapor, on the evidence of the verse we have of hers, was without that inner fountain of cadences. Her measures are simpler and she appears not to think of anything more audacious than writing a few forms skilfully and with point. The iambic was Pope's mainstay and it was good enough for her. But Pope, now and then at least, deserted his couplets for stanzas with another movement, and so does she; and when she does her instinct for a completeness of design is notable. To take an instance, and one which attests not merely her power of rounding off a poem and drawing a general richness of sound from her words but also her charm of lively humour, here shall be given her “Song to Cloe, playing on her Spinet.”

When Cloe strikes the trembling Strings,
Applauding Cupids round her fly;
Exulting clap their little Wings,
Bask'd in the Sun-shine of her Eye.
                    The Graces too,
                    As others do,
In Raptures stand to hear,
Time stays his flagging Wings, and adds
One Hour to the rolling Year:
          Keep off, ye Beaus,
          For who but knows
That Cloe's Eyes can wound?
If those you miss—yet pray avoid
The Danger of enchanting Sound.
          Amphion led the ravish'd Stones
(They say)—and as he'd rise or fall,
Bricks, Pebbles, Slats, and Marrow-Bones
Wou'd form a Steeple or a Wall:
                    But this, you know,
                    Is long ago:
We fancy 'tis a Whim:
O had they charming Cloe heard,
They'd surely not have stir'd for him.
                    The Thracian Bard,
                    Whose Fate was hard,
(And Proserpine severe)
Had brought Eurydice back—alas!
But Cloe was not there.

Fungar inani munere. Memorials such as the present tiny sprig of laurel (Mary would have said elder) leave their maker lamenting. It should have been one day in 1746, at Brackley, when she was well and looking with some hopefulness on the future of herself among the authors, that these words should have been spoken on the subject of her poems. But probably she would only have added one more quick sketch to the gallery of interruptors in her “Epistle to Artemisia.”

Donna Landry (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 19461

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 [1785])

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 Colman and Bonnell Thornton in Poems by Eminent Ladies (1755), by The Lady's Poetical Magazine (1782), by the Gentleman's Magazine (1784), by Alexander Dyce in Specimens of British Poetesses (1827), by Blackwood's Magazine (1837), by Frederic Rowton in The Female Poets of Great Britain (1848), and, most recently, by Roger Lonsdale in The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse (1984) and Eighteenth Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology (1989). The writer in Blackwood's comments:

Mary Barber was the wife of a shopkeeper in Dublin, and Mary Leapor a cook, but neither of them had so much of the mens divinior as might have been expected from their occupation. Molly makes Phillis, a country maid, reject the addresses of Sylvanus, a courtier, in favour of Corydon, on the ground of good eating. The lines are savoury.

          “Not this will lure me, for I'd have you know,
This night to feast with Corydon I go;
Then beef and colewarts, beans and bacon too,
And the plum-pudding of delicious hue,
Sweet-spiced cakes, and apple-pies good store,
Deck the brown board—and who can wish for more?”(2)

Thus is Leapor claimed for the province of wholesome sentiments and homely virtues, at the same time that she is cleared of any imputation of zealous religiosity—by 1837, the distinguishing mark, it would seem, of a lower-class imagination. Collier's mens divinior, and not her protofeminist polemic or laboring-class testimony, has survived as the chief feature of plebeian verse, after those intervening decades of working-class evangelicalism characterized by Thompson as a displacement of utopian political desires: the chiliasm of despair. Blackwood's Leapor is homely, virtuous, and yet capable of arousing a gustatory pleasure that generates poetical excitement. About this poetical excitement, all her discoverers seem to agree. But not all would stress a homely domesticity as the source of that excitement.

Mary Leapor was born on February 26, 1722 at Marston St. Lawrence in Northamptonshire while her father, Philip Leapor, was gardener to Sir John Blencowe (1642-1726), former Member of Parliament for Brackley, Baron of the Exchequer, Justice of Common Pleas, and Justice of the King's Bench. Five years later, after Blencowe's death, Philip Leapor moved to nearby Brackley with his wife and only daughter and established a nursery. Leapor may have attended the village school or she may have learned to read and write at home, taught by her father and mother who appear to have been literate; her verses were at least initially encouraged by her mother, who was at first pleased with her ten- or eleven-year-old daughter's rhymes, but tried to urge her towards some more profitable employment as she grew older. We know from a copy of the first volume of Leapor's poems, still in the library at Weston and inscribed “Once Kitchen maid at Weston,” that Leapor went into service as a cookmaid at Weston Hall, not far from Brackley, the house of Susannah Jennens, daughter of Sir John Blencowe. Her poetry arguably bears traces of an embarrassing dismissal from service, followed by a return to Brackley to keep house for her widowed father. Leapor's mother was buried about five years before the poet's burial on November 14, 1746.3 Only her father lived to see the publication of her work and gain something from the subscriptions.

Daughter of a nurseryman, Leapor employs precise and evocative language to describe rural plenitude in terms of its horticultural specificity. One of her most often anthologized poems, “The Month of August,” makes good use of her father's fruit trees:

          In vain you tempt me while our Orchard bears
Long-keeping Russets, lovely Cath'rine Pears,
Pearmains and Codlings, wheaten Plumbs enough,
And the black Damsons loading the bending Bough.


In this pastoral dialogue between Sylvanus, a courtier, and Phillis, a country maid, Phillis rejects Sylvanus's offer of rank and genteel comforts in favor of the rustic tastes her father's farm and the swain Corydon can satisfy. Few pastoral females answer back their elevated suitors as confidently and richly as Phillis: Leapor's language constructs for both farmers and plants a relatively democratic freedom to be found in agricultural gardening, gardening for use, and in so doing, Phillis's replies give working farm life a definite edge over the constraints of aristocratic ornamentation, gardening for show, with its implications of feudal mastery and subjugation:

No Pruning-knives our fertile Branches teaze,
While yours must grow but as their Masters please.
The grateful Trees our Mercy well repay,
And rain us Bushels at the rising Day.


For Leapor's characters here, Edenic plenitude outdoes mere wealth and rank. Sylvanus is silenced by Phillis's refusal of his desire to provide handsomely for her, and Phillis has the last word:

Let Phillis ne'er, ah never let her rove
From her first Virtue and her humble Grove.
Go seek some Nymph that equals your Degree,
And leave Content and Corydon for me.


This may seem a quintessentially “pastoral” move in one sense, in that country life represents a “simple” contentment not to be found at court, but the idiom of class serves to aestheticize a life of humble tenantry in its difference from the courtly and its continued resistance to it, not in the end to elevate it by absorbing it into upper-class gentility through the discovery of high birth or the making of an elevating marriage.

Leapor is a poet worthy of critical attention for aesthetic reasons that go beyond the interesting ways in which her texts are marked by considerations of class and gender. The beauty of Leapor's verse lies often in its rich linguistic textures, its lively rhythms, and its specificity of natural detail. Though she sometimes sounds like Pope, Swift, Gay, and other eighteenth-century poets in her descriptions, she often slips in words from quite different idioms and notices things that they do not. “On Winter,” for example, contains both a vivid evocation of the physical sensations of outdoor labor in cold weather and some arch reflection on the relation between neoclassical concepts of poetic inspiration and the realities of the English climate to which they remain somewhat alien even after generations of “domestication”:

          Poor daggled Urs'la stalks from Cow to Cow,
Who to her Sighs return a mournful Low;
While their full Udders her broad Hands assail,
And her sharp Nose hangs dropping o'er the Pail.
With Garments trickling like a shallow Spring,
And his wet Locks all twisted in a String,
Afflicted Cymon waddles through the Mire,
And rails at Win'fred creeping o'er the Fire.
          Say gentle Muses, say, is this a Time
To sport with Poesy and laugh in Rhyme;
While the chill'd Blood, that hath forgot to glide,
Steals through its Channels in a lazy Tide:
And how can Phoebus, who the Muse refines,
Smooth the dull Numbers when he seldom shines.


Ironically, it is the same “unrefined” muse of the rural plebeian poet who gives us such a fresh portrait of “daggled” Ursula, muck-spattered among her cows. Thus Leapor, writing as “Mira,” her usual persona, makes skillful aesthetic use of her vantage-point rather closer to the mire of georgic and pastoral materials than most eighteenth-century poets were accustomed to getting.

Although readers of Leapor may tend to agree that she succeeds most brilliantly in aesthetic terms by challenging some of the traditional assumptions of such popular eighteenth-century genres as the pastoral dialogue and the country-house poem—as in “The Month of August” and Crumble-Hall, respectively—there may be little consensus when Leapor's protofeminism and the possibility of what I will call her sapphic textuality are broached. More sharply and thoroughly than any other plebeian poet of the period, Leapor mounts a critique of the manifold injustices perpetuated by men against women. Filial and familial affections seem strained to their utmost in such texts as The Cruel Parent and The Unhappy Father.4 In “An Essay on Woman” from her second volume, Leapor borrows Popean cadences, parallelism, and antithesis in the interests of a very un-Popean demystification of what it means to be Pope's idealized “softer man”:

Woman—a pleasing, but a short-liv'd Flow'r,
Too soft for Business, and too weak for Pow'r:
A Wife in Bondage, or neglected Maid;
Despis'd, if ugly; if she's fair—betray'd.
'Tis Wealth alone inspires ev'ry Grace,
And calls the Raptures to her plenteous Face.
What Numbers for those charming Features pine,
If blooming Acres round her Temples twine?
Tho' Nature arm'd us for the growing Ill,
With fraudful Cunning, and a headstrong Will;
Yet, with ten thousand Follies to her Charge,
Unhappy Woman's but a Slave at large.


Abruptly, Belinda's dressing-table from the first canto of the Rape of the Lock is stripped of its glamor and mystery, and the crude material base of Belinda's power of attraction is exposed: the “magic” wrought by the sylphs is merely the desirability of wealth, politely disguised. An heiress's plenty will be read in her face; indeed, lovers may not be able to see her features for the superimposed topographical map of her estates she carries there. In “An Essay on Woman,” if not for the first time in English literature—we may think of Farquhar's use of the topos in The Beaux Stratagem, for instance—but with peculiar effectiveness, the feminized landscape of so much English verse literally becomes the beauty in question.

In Leapor's work, not only does marriage begin to seem an impossible institution from a woman's point of view, but women's historical situation is regretted so roundly that the bounds of good-humoured satire seem stretched, to say the least. The poems of Leapor's most often anthologized, poems such as “The Month of August,” quoted by the Blackwood's writer, come from her first volume; the poems most energetically critical of contemporary sexual relations appear in her second, from which few poems have been reprinted. And those few do not include the second “Mira to Octavia,” more obviously hostile towards marriage than the first volume's poem of that title; the proudly separatist Complaining Daphne. A Pastoral; or such acerbic ripostes to the whole tradition of misogynist verse as the “Essay on Woman,” cited above, and “Man the Monarch.”

By sapphic textuality I mean to designate both a critical and an affirmative poetic movement within Leapor's texts. From the critique of contemporary sexual relations, of the heterosexual contract and the institutions of marriage and the family as oppressive to women, an alternative green world of female affection is generated. As we have seen, such alternatives to heterosexual obligation, particularly when they involve literary production, are in this period frequently written under the sign of Sappho. Sappho is synonymous with transgressive female erotic and literary exchange. And the oppressiveness of heterosexual institutions in Leapor's verse necessitates some imaginary alternative or release, generates a powerful investment in “sapphic” relations between women: transgressive of patriarchal authority and heterosexual obligation, highly charged in terms of affect, constituted through writing despite the criticism or indifference of the male literary establishment. Leapor's poetry lends itself to, even invites, a reading sensitive to the possibility of a sapphic or lesbian alternative to heterosexual hegemony. To inhabit imaginatively her pastoral green world of female outlaws, escapees from heterosexuality, we must in some sense become “sapphic” readers, alert to erotic possibilities unthinkable within the heterosexual contract and its endless replication of binary sexual difference, with “men” and “women” the only conceivable sexual agents, forever coupled in relations of dominance and subjection.5 If the study of the socially marginal in terms of class supplements our traditionally restrictd versions of history as written from above, from within a hegemonic framework, it is also the case that:

the deviant, whilst being socially marginal, is culturally central: that in studying the deviant, we are studying the dominant order itself, approaching it through its worst fears and nightmares, approaching it through that which it has to outlaw.6

In order to do justice to the specificities of Leapor's œuvre, then, we should address the question of her relation to Sappho and to a sapphic tradition of transgressive textuality as well as her innovations within traditional poetic genres. And in so doing, we will come to read the dominant culture of Leapor's historical moment in new ways, by reading against the grain of its surfaces, looking for what it has suppressed.


Leapor's most obvious poetical debt is to Pope, but in a poem from her first volume, “An Hymn to the Morning,” she also compares her verse with Sappho's and finds it wanting:


Mira to Aurora sings,
While the Lark exulting springs
High in Air—and tunes her Throat
To a soft and merry Note;
The Goldfinch and the Linnet join:
Hail Aurora, Nymph divine.


May this artless Praise be thine,
Soft Clione half divine.
See her snowy Hand she waves,
Silent stand her waiting Slaves;
And while they guard the Silver Reins,
She wanders lonely o'er the Plains.


See those Cheeks of beauteous Dye,
Lovely as the dawning Sky,
Innocence that ne'er beguiles
Lips that wear eternal Smiles:
Beauties to the rest unknown,
Shine in her and her alone.


Now the Rivers smoother flow,
Now the op'ning Roses glow,
The Woodbine twines her odorous Charms
Round the Oaks supporting Arms:
Lilies paint the dewy Ground,
And Ambrosia breathes around.


Come, ye Gales that fan the Spring;
Zephyr, with thy downy Wing,
Gently waft to Mira's Breast
Health, Content, and balmy Rest.
Far, O far from hence remain
Sorrow, Care, and sickly Pain.


Thus sung Mira to her Lyre,
Till the idle Numbers tire:
Ah! Sappho sweeter sings, I cry,
And the Spiteful Rocks reply,
(Responsive to the jarring Strings)
Sweeter—Sappho sweeter sings.

These verses are hardly sapphic in any technical sense. Indeed the reference to Sappho in the last stanza may seem to come out of nowhere. But there is a clear, anguished interplay between Leapor's usual figuring of herself as “Mira” and the direct intrusion of the poetical “I” who cries out that she has failed to equal Sappho; there is a difference between the explicitly poeticized persona and the more autobiographical, though still highly conventional “I” that the relation to Sappho crystallizes. Leapor's poetry is marked not only by a self-conscious difference from the productions of the literary establishment: the difference that renders “Mira” both “merely” a humble, rustic versifier and someone “mired” in the mud and hardships of a laboring life—the muses' “mirror” on what cannot be seen from the usual literary vantage-point of leisured comfort and urbanity. There is also a difference within Leapor's texts that we could identify as a quandary over the “sapphic question” posed for the reader by this invocation of Sappho: the extent to which Leapor's writing represents female eroticism as transgressive, situates it in relation to sapphic textuality, and exposes the necessary construction of such alternative desires within as well as against the very terms of heterosexual propriety from which they are generated.

“An Hymn to the Morning” is in one sense a poem about thwarted poetic ambition. Singing the beauties of the morning offers keen poetic pleasure, but that pleasure dissipates with the recognition that Mira's performance is merely “idle,” a form of amusement and of summoning the muse, that cannot hope to measure up to any tradition of poetic greatness, even a female one, and that in any case constitutes an “idle” passing of time bound to be found reprehensible in a world of labor. Sappho may represent no more than a superior female poet, an obvious point of comparison for an aspiring woman of letters, but, as we have seen, Sappho's name also functions in this period as a sign of transgressive female desire. If we read “An Hymn to the Morning” in the light of Mira's yearning to match Sappho in poetical sweetness, her technical rivalry with the Lesbian muse—and, more contentiously, her rivalry with Sappho as a wooer of women, her technical rivalry with the lesbian lover—the eroticism of Leapor's textuality becomes distinctly noticeable, though it remains safely mediated by conventional landscape cathexis. The female personifications of neoclassical verse take on a certain aura as objects of desire: Aurora herself, the goddess of the morning; Clione, a descendant of Clio, the muse of history, or human action in time, here rendered only half divine in the person of a local nymph whose beauty replicates, in a way that can be desired, the aesthetic beauties of the morning. To write a hymn to the morning allows one to praise the “snowy Hands,” “Cheeks … Lovely as the dawning Sky,” “Lips that wear eternal Smiles,” and “Beauties to the rest unknown”—an explicitly erotic blazon—while remaining within the boundaries of neoclassical natural description. The woodbine may twine herself round the supporting oak in what seems a traditional topos for heterosexual union, but the only pronouns or other gendered parts of speech in the text are feminine. In this largely feminized landscape, Mira feels inspired and safe; she asks only that the elements sustain her there by bringing continued “Health, Content, and balmy Rest,” that she may never return to the “Sorrow, Care, and sickly Pain” from which she has (poetically) escaped.

What Leapor would have known of Sappho's verse and reputation can only be conjectured. She may well have known Pope's version of Ovid's Sapho to Phaon—Sappho the passionate but tormented lover, once a lover of women but now rejected by a young man—for her library contained among its “sixteen or seventeen single Volumes” “Part of Mr. Pope's Works, Dryden's Fables,” and “Some Volumes of Plays, & c.”7 The recovery of Sappho for eighteenth-century audiences8 depended heavily on translations of Longinus and of Boileau's Traité du Sublime as well as translations of Sappho's odes and fragments from the Greek.9 The most widely disseminated view of Sappho was probably Addison's in the Spectator, and it encapsulates both tendencies towards which Leapor's invocation of Sappho points: towards poetical and aesthetic excitement and towards something so erotic, or erotic in such a way, as to be “dangerous,” though the precise dangers thus engendered must of course not be articulated in order to protect the susceptible reader:

She is called by Ancient Authors the Tenth Muse; and by Plutarch is compared to Cacus the Son of Vulcan, who breathed out nothing but Flame. I do not know, by the Character that is given of her Works, whether it is not for the Benefit of Mankind that they are lost. They were filled with such bewitching Tenderness and Rapture that it might have been dangerous to have given them a Reading.10

The premise of “An Hymn to the Morning” is that Mira has not only “read” Sappho but internalized the sweetness of her lyre as a haunting standard of comparison. “Mira”'s decorum guards against Leapor's “I” breaking into a fully-fledged sapphic discourse—except for that “cry,” which signals implicit failure as well as comparison: the poetry of Mira would be a sapphic production, but it is doomed never to equal the dangerous rupture with mid-eighteenth-century English propriety that such explicitly feminized “Tenderness and Rapture” would constitute. The fragmentary status of Sappho's texts, forever suggestive, never to be exhausted of possible meanings, does not diminish, but rather heightens her symbolic power as a “dangerous” muse. And although there is no direct acknowledgment within Leapor's œuvre of an engagement with the work of Katherine Philips, one of a number of poets described as the “English Sappho,”11 we can trace within their texts similar preoccupations, especially the connection between criticism of the institution of marriage and the cultivation of erotically charged female friendships.

Leapor grounds her critique of heterosexuality in the predatory and tyrannical nature of men's desire for and subjugation of women. Unlike Collier, who attributes “female slavery” to a general degenerative tendency in history, to which both men and women are subject, and which oppresses both sexes though not symmetrically or equally, Leapor attributes it to men's desire for power. Because Man was “greedy of Pow'r,” he envied the greater sexual asymmetry in other, “lesser” species, which seemed to him to bespeak an unqualified male dominance. Happy in his tyranny over the animal kingdom, he could not bear to share power with Woman, and so seized it by ridiculing her into insignificance. Woman's Edenic body was her downfall, for it made her both powerless to resist Man's oppression and threatening to his precarious sense of superiority, which was put in jeopardy when he noticed that male birds had more splendid plumage than females:

          When our Grandsire nam'd the feather'd Kind,
Pond'ring their Natures in his careful Mind,
'Twas then, if on our Author we rely,
He view'd his Consort with an envious Eye;
Greedy of Pow'r, he hugg'd the tott'ring Throne;
Pleased with Homage, and would reign alone;
And, better to secure his doubtful Rule,
Roll'd his wise Eye-balls, and pronounc'd her Fool.
The regal Blood to distant Ages runs:
Sires, Brothers, Husbands, and commanding Sons,
The Sceptre claim; and ev'ry Cottage brings
A long Succession of Domestic Kings.

(“Man the Monarch,” 54-65)

For Leapor, this history of domestic despotism is the empirical proof that romantic myths of heterosexual love are insidiously deceptive. “The Temple of Love,” a parody of the dream vision of classical and medieval poetry—a topos which Leapor may have known best through Pope's Temple of Fame—represents heterosexual attraction as a promise of future bliss bleakly dismantled within the text. As an implied narrative of ruined maidenhood, with the “wealthy Swain” taking advantage of the “blooming Damsel” (36) by ceremoniously giving her gifts but not marrying her, the poem adheres to official eighteenth-century precepts. But nowhere in the text are we reassured that a mere wedding ceremony would avert the catastrophe that ensues after the feast of love; and Leapor's poems on marriage itself are no less disaffected than this exposure of the ruined maiden's fate:

Then rush'd Suspicion through the lofty Gate,
With heart-sick Loathing led by ghastly Hate;
And foaming Rage, to close the horrid Band,
With a drawn Poniard in her shaking Hand.
Now like an Earthquake shook the reeling Frame,
The Lamps extinguish in a purple Flame:
One universal Groan was heard, and then
The Cries of Women and the Voice of Men:
Some roar out Vengeance, some for Mercy call;
And Shrieks and Tumult fill the dreadful Hall.


The “temple of love” emblematizes an idolizing of heterosexual desire that is mutually destructive for men and women, but promises women only disillusionment and annihilation: men at least have the pleasures of pursuit and momentary possession of women's bodies and their goods—a fleeting triumph of appropriation, of the seizure of property. The telling difference between the two “Mira to Octavia” poems is the latter's greater emphasis upon the purely instrumental, monetary advantage to be gained by a husband in marrying a woman of means, a predatory regime against which only passionate female friendship can provide any kind of bulwark. The first “Mira to Octavia” concludes playfully:

          In spite of all romantick Poets sing;
This Gold, my Dearest, is an useful thing:
.....But if there's none but Florio that will do,
Write Ballads both, and you may thrive—Adieu.


The second poem of this title, however, overrides the first poem's jocular caution—not to marry even for love, unless there are sufficient means—by proposing that any marriage will be likely to end in the unhappiness and oppression of the bride. Spinsterhood is explicitly advocated; Leapor even reassures her audience that she is neither a “Rebel to your Hymen's Law” nor “Foe to Man” (148-50), as if we were bound to accuse her of man-hating when she argues:

          And shall Octavia prostitute her Store,
To buy a Tyrant with the tempting Ore?
Besides, I fear your Shackles will be found
Too dearly purchas'd with a thousand Pound.
          Then be the charming Mistress of thy Gold;
While young, admir'd; and rev'renc'd, when you're Old.


There are verbal echoes here of Pope's praise of Martha Blount in Epistle to a Lady and of Clarissa's speech to Belinda in the Rape of the Lock, but where Pope explicitly advocates marriage for women, Leapor reverses his advice. Although Pope's good friend Martha was herself a spinster, in order to eulogize her Pope represents her in To a Lady as an exemplary wife and mother; a spinster cannot be represented as exemplary within his prescriptions for proper female behavior. Yet Pope also admits that Martha Blount is saved (implicitly, by her spinsterhood) from a tyrannical husband greedy for control of her property; her property-less state proves a blessing in disguise since she is thus “deny'd the Pelf / That buys your sex a Tyrant o'er itself” (287-88). Ironically, Pope's praise of Martha Blount conveys simultaneously that the ideal female virtues are wifely and maternal, but that the ideal female condition is spinsterhood. Leapor, contrary to her own former protest that she writes not as a rebel to “Hymen's Law,” writes here to challenge the hegemony of romantic love and marriage. A woman of property can only maintain her liberty—and her happiness—if she refuses to buy a “Tyrant o'er [her]self.” And a woman without property, a laboring woman, is unlikely to find happiness at any price except for brief moments of solace in the manner of “complaining Daphne” and Mira herself. We are reminded by the silences in Leapor's texts that the pursuit of happiness as an enabling myth, in terms of official precept accessible to women through romantic love and marriage, remains in this period largely a privilege of bourgeois male subjects. For women and the lower classes, unhappiness is to be endured, not abandoned, even for the pursuit of imaginary alternatives.

Perhaps Leapor's most technically successful intervention against the heterosexist mythologizing of marriage among the upper classes is The Mistaken Lover, in some sense a perverse rewriting of Swift's The Lady's Dressing Room.12 Leapor's Strephon could be read as having overcome his disillusionment with female bodies and their excremental functions sufficiently to marry a Celia who shits. As soon as Strephon has won possession of Celia and her fortune, he loses “interest”—both the excitement of pursuit, and imaginary economic speculation on future gain. As a wife Celia is condemned to loneliness, boredom, and the negation of her own desires and possible agency. The sporting terseness of Swiftian couplets is here deployed to savage the decorum of loveless gentry marriages of (in)convenience rather than English policies regarding Ireland or corruption in Sir Robert Walpole's administration:

          'Twas half a Year—It might be more,
Since Celia brought her shining Store,
Five thousand Pounds of Sterling clear,
To bless the Mansion of her Dear.
          Some tell us Wives their Beauties lose,
When they have spoil'd their bridal Shoes:
Some learned Casuists make it clear,
A Wife might please for half a Year:
And others say, her Charms will hold
As long as the suspended Gold;
But that her Bloom is soon decay'd,
And wither'd when her Fortune's paid.


The rule of the fathers renders Strephon, even as a negligent husband, the legal dictator of his wife's future, and he lays down the law of civil decorum as follows: once there was romance between them, as a courting couple,

          “But now, my Dearest, as you see
“In mutual Hatred we agree,
“Methinks 'tis better we retreat,
“Each Party to a distant Seat;
“And tho' we value each the other,
“Just as one Rush regards another:
“Yet let us often send to hear,
“If Health attend the absent Dear:
“And tho' each other we would shun,
“As Debtors do a hateful Dun:
“(Nor mind the crossing of a Street)
“Yet let's be civil when we meet,
“And live in short like courtly Friends:
“They part—and thus the Story ends.


The end of the story between courtiers and between husband and wife means the end of intrigue, of “plotting” in the conventional and technical senses, and the end of desire, the narrative motor. For Leapor, perhaps the cruellest aspect of male desire is its capricious and self-serving brevity.

Leapor's most explicitly separatist poem, in which the mutability of male desire is villified, and the only refuge is to be found in female affection, is a pastoral to end all heterosexual complaints, Complaining Daphne. A Pastoral. Abandoned by Cynthio, Daphne strives to control her passion and remorse, but only in recalling her mother's early love for her and the warnings she received at her mother's knee about men's predatory natures can she steel herself to resolution. During the hottest part of the day, Daphne and her mother would rest from weeding or hay-making by sitting in the shade, and her mother would tell (anti)romantic tales about the perils of heterosexual entanglement:

Long Tales she told, to kill the tedious Hour;
Of lovely Maids to early Ruin led,
Who once were harmless as the Flocks they fed;
Of some induc'd with gaudy Knights to roam
From their dear Parents, and their blissful Home;
Till, each deserted by her changing Friend,
The pageant Wretches met a woful End.
And still howe'er the mournful Tale began,
She always ended—Child, beware of Man.


Daphne's response to this remembrance is to pledge obedience to her mother's memory by forgetting Cynthio and embracing her sister shepherdesses. In a triumph of renunciation of heterosexual closure in marriage, the poem ends with a celebration of the tranquillity and harmony to be found when women choose to live only for each other, in a feminine pastoral paradise, a sapphic idyll:

Yes, sacred Shade! you shall Obedience find;
I'll banish Cynthio from my sickly Mind.
Come, sweet Content, and long-desired Rest!
Two welcome Strangers! to my aking Breast:
Purl on, ye Streams! ye Flow'rets, smile again!
Your chearful Daphne shall no more complain:
Haste, Philomela, with thy charming Lay,
And tune thy Chorals to the falling Day:
Ye Sylvan Sisters! come; ye gentle Dames,
Whose tender Souls are spotless as your Names!
Henceforth shall Daphne only live for you;
Content—and bid the lordly Race Adieu;
See the clear Streams in gentler Murmurs flow,
And fresher Gales from od'rous Mountains blow.
Now the charm'd Tempest from my Bosom flies:
Sweet Slumber seizes on my willing Eyes.
          Ye Winds, no more I ask the tempting Swain:
Go fan the Sweets of yonder flow'ry Plain.


Leapor's only available language for reproducing the elusive pleasures of this idyll is the language of sleep, the bliss of sleep after the turn in a dangerous fever. Not boredom, the sleep of dullness, but peace and a return to the pleasurable, maternally guarded safety of childhood are to be found here. This Daphne too, it would seem, takes her pleasure primarily by escaping—from hot-eyed, masculine embraces and the torments of subsequent abandonment.

To read these rejections of the fugitive pleasures of heterosexuality as a puritanical rejection of the body and its appetites would be to occlude the sensuousness of Leapor's verse, its appeals to visual and gustatory pleasures. The traditional designation of pastoral as a safe and suitable genre for female poets provides an excuse for pastoral veneration of female bodies in such poems as “An Hymn to the Morning,” as we have seen. In “Man the Monarch,” the conventions of heterosexual blazon are doubly ironized as an historical liability as well as an imprisoning ideology, a legacy of Edenic myth. Speculating on the origins of gender relations, Leapor rewrites Genesis in order to explain Man's “despotic Sway” (5). Unlike Collier's mythical Golden Age, which begins with the sexes ostensibly enjoying mutual harmony until custom stales affection, Leapor's begins with Man, “insolently vain” (7), tyrannizing over the animals, whom Heaven allows to escape into remote places like caves, oceans, and the sky. Faced with such a scene, “But where! ah! where, shall helpless Woman fly?” (23). Woman, the daughter of a complacent Mother Nature pleased with her own handiwork, is told simply to “live, and reign” (29), until the moment of an ambiguous “now,” simultaneously mythico-historical and contemporary with the scene of reading, when Mother Nature realizes her mistake: “Beholds a Wretch, whom she design'd a Queen, / And weeps that e'er she form'd the weak Machine” (30-33).

In a passage of complex irony, Leapor mocks the traditional anatomization of female beauty to be found in love lyrics by men while pointing out how inappropriate to domestic drudgery such a notion of femininity is:

In vain she boasts her Lip of scarlet Dyes,
Cheeks like the Morning, and far-beaming Eyes;
Her Neck refulgent—fair and feeble Arms,
A Set of useless and neglected Charms.
She suffers Hardship with afflictive Moans:
Small Tasks of Labour suit her slender Bones.
Beneath a Load her weary Shoulders yield,
Nor can her Fingers grasp the sounding Shield;
She sees and trembles at approaching Harms,
And Fear and Grief destroy her fading Charms.
Then her pale Lips no pearly Teeth disclose,
And Time's rude Sickle cuts the yielding Rose.
Thus wretched Woman's short-liv'd Merit dies:
In vain to Wisdom's sacred Help she flies;
Or sparkling Wit but lends a feeble Aid:
'Tis all Delirium from a wrinkled Maid.


Idealized femininity remains ambiguous in Leapor's texts, subject to demystification as oppressive, yet returned to again and again, obsessively. Women's bodies often figure in Leapor's verse as objects preyed upon by time and cruelly devalued by social custom as time passes. Indeed the description of female beauty and the regretful chronicling of decay are usually linked in Leapor's work. This combination may seem reminiscent of Swift's preoccupation with decaying bodies as specifically female bodies, as if the idealization of femininity made bodily functions and mortality more textually grotesque than their representation by means of a male body could ever do.

But unlike Swift, who renders the decaying body outrageously grotesque, Leapor avoids satirical inventories of bodily decay in favor of brief allusions. And those brief allusions interweave from poem to poem to form a network of sisterly advice and consolation. At moments of extremity, women may openly comfort one another sensuously and passionately. In “Colinetta,” the poetical heroine delivers her last verses from her deathbed on Lydia's lap (Leapor's œuvre is replete with premonitions and prefigurations of her own premature death): “On Lydia's Lap pale Colinetta lay; / … At last reviv'd, on Lydia's Neck she hung, / And like the Swan expiring thus she sung” (14-22).

Unlike Pope, Leapor does not find aging beauties necessarily either ludicrous or contemptible, though derision and contempt are the options socially on offer. Rather, with a sympathy that may seem older than her years, in a poem like Dorinda at her Glass—the ambitious poem that opens her first volume and foregrounds metaphors of mirroring—Leapor recommends comforting, not chastising, the body as it ages. The mirror, which allegorically betokens female vanity and keeps Dorinda a slave to arduous rituals that in time are doomed to fail, will be supplanted in this poem by Dorinda's advice to her sisters not to fight time.

More generally in Leapor's œuvre, the mirror that Mira's verse represents offers to supplement a female audience's collective imaginary sense of themselves in the hope of displacing such damaging and constraining self-representations. Coquettes and belles need not be ridiculous when time gains the upper hand in their struggle to maintain their desirability as a means to power. For Pope:

Beauties, like Tyrants, old and friendless grown,
Yet hate Repose, and dread to be alone,
Worn out in public, weary ev'ry eye,
Nor leave one sigh behind them when they die.
Still round and round the Ghosts of Beauty glide,
And haunt the places where their Honour dy'd.

(Epistle to a Lady, 227-42)

For Leapor, it seems possible to face age with dignity by accommodating oneself to small bodily comforts rather than the theatrical staging of beauty. Her advice is both sartorial:

Let Isabel unload her aking Head
Of twisted Papers, and of binding Lead;
Let sage Augusta now, without a Frown,
Strip those gay Ribbands from her aged Crown;
Change the lac'd Slipper of delicious Hue
For a warm Stocking, and an easy Shoe;


and philosophical:

          Hear this, ye fair Ones, that survive your Charms,
Nor reach at Folly with your aged Arms;
Thus Pope has sung, thus let Dorinda sing;
“Virtue, brave Boys,—'tis Virtue makes a King:”
Why not a Queen? fair Virtue is the same
In the rough Hero, and the smiling Dame:
Dorinda's Soul her Beauties shall pursue,
Tho' late I see her, and embrace her too:
Come, ye blest Graces, that are sure to please,
The Smile of Friendship, and the careless Ease;
The Breast of Candour, the relenting Ear,
The Hand of Bounty, and the Heart sincere:
May these the Twilight of my Days attend,
And may that Ev'ning never want a Friend
To smooth my Passage to the silent Gloom,
And give a Tear to grace the mournful Tomb.


Rejecting any sexually based or gender-specific distinction between masculine and feminine virtues, Leapor equates the sexes morally in order to distinguish them on the grounds of affective economy. In an historical moment when a woman's “honor” was primarily sexually construed, to claim that virtue is the same in the “rough Hero” and the “smiling Dame” is a bold claim, certainly more radical in its implications that Pope's notion of ideal women as softer men, or even a logically possible counter-notion of men's needing to become more like women in order to become “fully human.” And again we find the nexus of beauty's decay and female friendship easing the prospect of “friendless” death in a world where men only befriend women for their beauty. Where “beauty” is not a weapon in marriage-market or marital conflict, its loss matters relatively little. On her deathbed, Leapor's Dorinda hopes to be comforted by, not a husband, lover, father, brother, or child, but by a “Friend,” which in the context of this poem “by” a woman on behalf of her sex, will almost certainly strike us as designating a female friend.

From what we know of Leapor's experience of patronage, female friendship was crucial to her literary enterprise. Her short and “blameless” life, so free from scandal that one of her patrons, at least, commented that her character “was such as would have been ornamental in a much higher Sphere, to which in all Probability, if it had pleased God to spare her Life, her own Merit would have raised her,”13 seems to have been devoted entirely to her parents, one childhood friend figured in the Essay on Friendship as Fidelia (39-45), a circle of young women whom Leapor possibly met at Weston Hall,14 and Bridget Freemantle, foremost among her female patrons, who appears in Leapor's verses as Artemisia. As a clergyman's daughter, Freemantle seems to have been well-bred without ostentation; as a spinster whose father had died twenty-six years before, and who lived with her widowed mother, she was sympathetic to Leapor's poverty and obscurity. According to Richard Greene, the name Artemisia “refers to a ruler of Rhodes known for having fostered the arts.”15 Appropriate as this reference is for a patron, I would suggest that the name might well contain another allusion to a better-known classical figure—Artemis, virgin goddess of the hunt, through whom the name “Artemisia” would point towards both militant, if not amazonian, singleness and the cult of unfettered female friendship. Most importantly, Freemantle, living in a nearby village with her ailing mother, seems to have had time and inclination to take an active interest in Leapor's writing and to visit her frequently, as described in such poems as “To Artemisia. Dr. King's Invitation to Bellvill: Imitated.” She even supplied Leapor with some family memorabilia, “an old manuscript Pastoral of Mr. Newton's, in Blank Verse” which Leapor liked so much she rhymed parts of it and insisted upon acknowledging Newton in her published volumes; this Mr. Newton was probably Bridget Freemantle's maternal grandfather.16

As a patron, Freemantle seems to have been both devoted to promoting Leapor's career and sensitive to her feelings. Her anonymous account of Leapor in the second volume strikes one by its self-effacement and absence of class prejudice, though it is by no means innocent of class distinctions. Freemantle goes so far as to worry whether her interest in Leapor might prove something of an annoyance to a young woman of the servant class, a cookmaid, who, sometime after her mother's death in 1742 and probably in the first six months of 1745, when she was dismissed from service,17 kept house for her father without anyone to assist her. After proposing a subscription edition of her poems to Leapor, that she might be able to buy more time in which to write (presumably by hiring a servant), Freemantle indulges herself by calling often to observe Leapor's progress in composing new verses:

My expressing some Fear of being troublesome in coming so frequently, occasioned a great Variety of Invitations, both in Verse and Prose; which I could seldom resist: And indeed her whole Behaviour to me was so extremely good-natur'd and obliging, that I must have been the most ungrateful Person in the World, if I had not endeavour'd to make some Return.

From this Time to that of her Death, few Days pass'd in which I did not either see or hear from her; for she gave me the Pleasure of seeing all her Poems as soon as they were finish'd. And though I never was extremely fond of Poetry, and don't pretend to be a Judge of it, there was something so peculiarly pleasing to my Taste in almost every thing she wrote, that I could not but be infinitely pleas'd with such a Correspondent.

Nor did I admire her in her Poetical Capacity only; but the more I was acquainted with her, the more I saw Reason to esteem her for those virtuous Principles, and that Goodness of Heart and Temper, which so visibly appeared in her; and I was so far from thinking it a Condescension to cultivate an Acquaintance with a Person in her Station, that I rather esteem'd it an Honour to be call'd a Friend to one in whom there appear'd such a true Greatness of Soul as with me far outweigh'd all the Advantages of Birth and Fortune. Nor did I think it possible for any body that was as well acquainted with her as myself, to consider her as a mean Person.18

In the case of Leapor and Freemantle, it would seem that we have an example of female alliance across class lines that succeeded where More's patronage of Yearsley failed: in the cultivation of a strong friendship that allowed each woman access to the other's sensitivities. There is also, of course, no question of a possible literary rivalry between patron and protégée, since Freemantle does not even “pretend” to critical, yet alone creative, abilities. And Leapor's premature death put an end to the alliance before it had to stand the test of time—and of possible conflicts over the eventual financial arrangements that publication by subscription was likely to induce.

If the addresses to Artemisia and her female acquaintance tend to be chaste gestures of friendship and sisterly solidarity:

To Artemisia.—'Tis to her we sing,
For her once more we touch the sounding String.
'Tis not to Cythera's Reign nor Cupid's Fires,
But sacred Friendship that our Muse inspires.
A Theme that suits Æmilia's pleasing Tongue:
So to the Fair Ones I devote my Song

(Essay on Friendship, 1-6)

usually represented within Mira's humble surroundings:

If Artemisia's Soul can dwell
Four Hours in a tiny Cell,
(To give that Space of Bliss to me)
I wait my Happiness at three.

(“To Artemisia. Dr. King's Invitation to Bellvill: Imitated,” 1-4)

Leapor's sisterly strain is sometimes vexed by betrayal on the part of other female would-be friends and patrons. Sometimes the bored frivolity of leisured women leads them to seek out Mira's most recent literary productions for their own amusement—one of the liabilities of her “discovery”:

          Yet some Impertinence pursues me still;
And so I fear it ever must, and will.
So soft Pappilia o'er the Table bends
With her small Circle of insipid Friends;
Who wink, and stretch, and rub their drowsy Eyes,
While o'er their Heads Imperial Dulness flies.
“What can we do? We cannot stir for Show'rs:
“Or what invent, to kill the irksome Hours?
“Why, run to Leapor's, fetch that idle Play:
“'Twill serve to laugh at all the live-long Day.”
          Preferment great! To beat one's weary Brains,
To find Diversion only when it rains!

(An Epistle to Artemisia. On Fame, 167-78)

The dunce-like dullness of the idle female gentry offends Leapor as much as Artemisia's cultivation pleases her. Such torpid inactivity of mind in a body rendered idle by the weather is crucially linked to the desire for cruel amusement at the socially humbler, and more industrious, Mira's expense.

In “The Disappointment” from volume ii, the “Half-promised” receipt of cast-off clothing from the artful but thoughtless Sophronia tantalizes Mira into visions of sartorial grandeur, only to have such visions dashed by Sophronia's forgetfulness:

When you, Sophronia, did my Sense beguile
With your Half-promise, and consenting Smile;
What Shadows swam before these dazled Eyes!
Fans, Lace, and Ribbands, in bright Order rise:
Me thought these Limbs your silken Favours found,
And thro' streight Entries brush'd the rustling Gown;
While the gay Vestment of delicious Hue
Sung thro' the Isle, and whistled in the Pew.
Then, who its Wearer, by her Form shall tell:
No longer Mira, but a shining Belle.
Such Phantoms fill'd these giddy Brains of mine;
Such golden Dreams on Mira's Temples shine;
Till stern Experience bid her Servant rise,
And Disappointment rubb'd my drowsy Eyes.
Do thou, Sophronia, now thy Arts give o'er,
Thy little Arts; for Mira's Thoughts no more
Shall after your imagin'd Favours run,
Your still-born Gifts, that ne'er behold the Sun.


As J. Jean Hecht has shown, “When servants were engaged, they were frequently granted the right to the ‘cast clothes’ of the master or mistress as a regular perquisite.”19 For female servants, this perquisite most often accompanied upper-servant status; the lady's maid in particular might have “a sumptuous wardrobe of her own” (Hecht, p. 122). The cookmaid, however, was lowest in rank among female servants. For Mira, Sophronia's gift of a silk dress is an exceptional offer, not the rule. “Me thought these Limbs your silken Favours found, / And thro' streight Entries brush'd the rustling Gown”: Mira's imagination, stirred by Sophronia's “little Arts” of exciting desire, projects the cookmaid-poet, all “limbs,” eager to feel silk against arms and legs, into Sophronia's cast-off gown, and into a new intimacy with the superior Sophronia and her “silken Favours.” Thus gloriously dressed, Mira brushes and rustles her way into the primary public arena of the respectable female poor in an English village, the parish church, whose “streight Entry,” like Bunyan's wicket gate, is easier of access for the humble poor than the rich or vainly aspiring. Mira's history of straitened circumstances and strait-laced piety competes with her newly awakened vanity and sensuality in these lines, until “stern Experience” gets the upper hand, forcing Mira to recognize that nothing has changed, that disappointment is eminent, and that Sophronia is as untrustworthy and forgetful of her subordinates as ever, her “Favours” merely imaginary, her “Gifts” “still-born.”

It is tempting to read the poem that follows “The Disappointment”—“The Consolation”—as a response to such class-specific vicissitudes. In “The Consolation” Leapor returns to her preoccupation with death and funerary arrangements, this time anticipating Gray in presenting a humble, rustic grave as the equal of any queen's because death is the great leveller, the final social transformation in which class will cease to matter. Leapor will have none of the literary tradition of marble monuments, so often meretricious in their grandeur,

But the plain Stone with Chizel form'd,
But rudely shapen and adorn'd;
Inscrib'd with—“Natus Anno Dom'
“Here lies Mary in this Tomb.”
And there's no odds, that I can spy,
'Twixt Mary Queen of Scots and I.
So Poets, so shall Critics fall,
Cits, Wits, and Courtiers, Kings and all,
Hands that wrote or held a Flail,
Tongues that us'd to sooth or rail;
Rivals there no more contend,
And there Ambition finds an End.


Despite her attachment to upper-class female patrons and her related protests against women's slavery within the family and marriage, Leapor is a poet of class consciousness as well.

Here, though more implicitly than Collier, Leapor links her own situation with Stephen Duck's—he whose hands both wrote and held the thresher's flail. She does not mention him by name, but as Hannah More's memory of him in 1784 testifies, his status as a plebeian poetical genius functions as an eighteenth-century paradigm. It is interesting to note that Duck subscribed to Leapor's first volume. But he remains embedded in her poetical text not as a deracinated thresher-clergyman, the “Rever. Mr. Stephen Duck,” subscriber, but as forever the paradoxical thresher-poet whose hands could both labor and write when inspired by the rustic muse.

In a letter included in her second volume, which concerns the publication of her poems, Leapor goes so far as to deny that Duck's “situation”—his status as a laboring poet, hence a “curiosity”—was crucial to his literary popularity, given that he had obtained Queen Caroline's favor:

concerning Stephen Duck, I am of Opinion, that it was not his Situation, but the Royal Favour, which gained the Country over to his Side; and therefore I think it needless to paint the Life of a Person, who depends more upon the Curiosity of the World, than its Good-nature. Besides, the seeing myself described in Print would give me the same Uneasiness as being stared at. For this Reason, whenever my Verses shall appear amongst the Public, I hope they will excuse the Author in this Particular.20

Here Leapor's gender- and class-specific modesty, her embarrassment at the thought of being offered to the public as a curiosity, contributes to the ideological occlusion of Duck's class position—and her own—as inextricably bound up with their literary reception in the period by royalty and the middle classes alike. Within her poems Leapor appears to be striving for an idealized aesthetic ground of equivalence between her work and the texts of such poetic exemplars as Sappho, Pope, and Swift. The patronage of Bridget Freemantle apparently supported and reinforced this desire. But Leapor's poems also exhibit signs of struggle between a class allegiance that could not be merely taken for granted, and the upwardly mobile tendency of literary imitation in the period. Although Leapor herself may not have been able or willing to see the inevitability of a middle-class public's interest in the laboring-class “prodigy” as such, her texts remain testaments to the very dynamic of literary success and social subordination that she would have preferred to repudiate.

Despite, therefore, the frequent conjuncture between sapphic feeling, Popean or Swiftian imitation, and a certain upwardly mobile ambition in Leapor's verse—to be intimate with the world of fine ladies established most thoroughly as poetical terrain by Pope, to be as aesthetically successful a poet of “the feminine” as he was, and to be capable of Swiftian demystification of idealized femininity, as well—Leapor does not write as such a lady but as an intimate outsider: as a domestic servant, in short, for whom the cast-off silk dress remains both desirable and risible. The dangers represented by Leapor's sapphic muse are thus as much social as sexual: if sisterly alliances, affective and professional, can be formed across class lines, not only families and class hierarchies but the male literary establishment might be threatened by their social effects.


To focus exclusively on the implications of Leapor's sapphic muse or the importance placed on female friendship in her work would be to misread the social context in which her discovery and publication took place. Like Collier's, Leapor's subscription lists contain the names of more men (505) than women (277), though in the list accompanying her second (and arguably, more protofeminist) volume, women (173) outnumber men (111). The proposals for her subscription may have been drawn up by Garrick;21 Samuel Richardson, Christopher Smart, Isaac Hawkins Browne, John Duncombe, John Watts, and James Roberts were involved in the publication and promotion of her work;22 as late as 1784, the Gentleman's Magazine quoted a line from “Colinetta” as particularly evocative;23 and as late as 1791, William Cowper cited Leapor's poems as significantly exceptional examples of “strong natural genius.”24 For all Bridget Freemantle's devotion, and apparent success at interesting her friends in Leapor's work, it was still necessary for her to approach important men of letters if Leapor were to be launched as a literary discovery.

Ironically, literary critics and men of letters are represented with suspicion and hostility in Leapor's verse. She writes as if only sycophants and charlatans have come within her ken, either refusing to criticize helpfully for fear of offending, or refusing to read her work at all out of sheer class and gender prejudice. The pressure of composing quickly causes Leapor to lose confidence in her ability not to write like a hack; she seeks help from “Vido,” who offers only vacuous praise, implying that he too has been so contaminated by the Grub-street ethos that he possesses no judgment or taste:

          “Pray, Vido, look on these: Methinks they smell
“Too much of Grub-street: That myself can tell.”
          “Not so indeed, they're easy and polite.
          “And can you bear 'em?”
                                        “I could read till Night.”

(An Epistle to Artemisia. On Fame, 127-30)

The situation of the plebeian female poet at the hands of male critics is most vigorously dramatized in Leapor's “Minutius. Artemisia. A Dialogue.” At the request of the female patron, Mira's poems are scrutinized by the pedantic “Minutius,” though they are not “read.” Artemisia has hopes of the critic's appreciating both the form and content of her protégée's verse, but the microscopically inclined Minutius cannot get beyond Mira's unschooled handwriting and punctuation. Artemisia declares, “That you should mark,—was my Intention, / Her Thought, her Language, and Invention” (49-50). Minutius's comments display his socio-sexual prejudices rather than his critical acumen:

He! he!—Are these the Verses then?
She wrote 'em with a filthy Pen.
As I'm a Gentleman, I vow
I never saw the like till now:
There's not a Stop throughout the Song;
Or, if there is, 'tis planted wrong:
The hideous Scrawl offends my Sight:
But how should she know how to write
'Tis time to lay all Science by,
If such as she must versify.


And “lay all Science by” is just what Minutius proceeds to do, proving himself so incapable of a critical judgment, or even of a reading of the verses in question, that we must query his reputation as a man of letters. By contrast, Leapor's poetical talents come off well in this production. We must leave the poem feeling that a new literary era, in which pompous literary bores will be replaced by witty and unprejudiced writers and readers, has been initiated. This democratization of the literary scene, with its implicit feminism couched as a feminization, is a brave gesture on Leapor's part, especially given her dependence on the goodwill of certain literary gentlemen.

Despite these overt criticisms of the quasi-scientific club of gentlemen-critics, Leapor's poetry seems to have pleased that club, and to have gone on pleasing it, right through Roger Lonsdale's recent recuperation. This formal agility or air of openness, “ease,” and pleasantry, that must be seen to be duplicitous if we are to foreground the radical possibilities of Leapor's texts, extends to the social space of her own class origins and her family as well, the space from which she situates her writing as a scene of conflict.

Although, like Collier and Yearsley, she seems to have received at home the rudiments of an education and even initial encouragement, so long as writing verses was perceived as a childish pastime, once her writing promised to distract her from “more profitable Employment,” it was discouraged. These details are to be found in Freemantle's epistolary account. She reports being told by Leapor's father that Mary (or Molly):

was always fond of reading every thing that came in her way, as soon as she was capable of it; and that when she had learnt to write tolerably, which, as he remembers, was at about ten or eleven Years old, She would often be scribbling, and sometimes in Rhyme; which her Mother was at first pleas'd with: But finding this Humour increase upon her as she grew up, when she thought her capable of more profitable Employment, she endeavour'd to break her of it; and that he likewise, having no Taste for Poetry, and not imagining it could ever be any Advantage to her, join'd in the same Design: But finding it impossible to alter her natural Inclination, he had of late desisted, and left her more at Liberty. … she always chose to spend her leisure Hours in Writing and Reading … insomuch that some of the Neighbours that observ'd it, expressed their Concern, lest the Girl should over-study herself, and be mopish.25

The disturbing possibilities suggested by that phrase “endeavour'd to break her of it” are many; Leapor's strength of will in proving to her parents that “it [was] impossible to alter her natural Inclination” must have been positively formidable. The neighborly concern of those who cannot understand a literary disposition is ruthlessly satirized in Leapor's An Epistle to Artemisia. On Fame:

          Parthenia cries, “Why, Mira, you are dull,
“And ever musing, till you crack your Skull;
“Still poking o'er your What-d'ye-call—your Muse:
“But pr'ythee, Mira, when dost clean thy Shoes?”
          Then comes Sophronia, like a barb'rous Turk:
“You thoughtless Baggage, when d'ye mind your Work?
“Still o'er a Table leans your bending Neck:
“Your Head will grow prepost'rous, like a Peck.
“Go, ply your Needle: You might earn your Bread;
“Or who must feed you when your Father's dead?”
She sobbing answers, “Sure, I need not come
“To you for Lectures; I have store at home.
“What can I do?”
                                        “—Not scribble.”
                                                                                “—But I will.”
“Then get thee packing—and be aukward still.”


Here Pope's refusal to stop writing, despite the advice of friends, in the First Satire of the Second Book of Horace26 enables Leapor's defiance, and perhaps her dismissal from service. According to this poem at least, her willful scribbling caused her to be sent packing from her sojourn in the great world at Weston Hall, back to her father's house, just as Pope's writing advertised his sticking close to home at Twickenham, in the light of his disaffection from court and ministry, rather than sojourning in London. This passage also vividly summarizes the objections to writing as an employment for members of the laboring classes expressed so frequently in the eighteenth-century discourse on patronage. The fact that here the uneducated make colloquial objections lightens the tone considerably, though the potential power of a “store” of parental “Lectures” at home forbidding composition lingers ominously. The Turkish prejudice is deployed, as usual, to suggest an alien form of tyranny intruding itself on native domestic peace; if only these people would leave Mira alone with her muse! But Mira's bookishness contradicts the cleanliness, neatness, and industry with which the respectable poor were expected to identify, and which were clearly demanded of domestic servants. As Mr. Leapor confided to Bridget Freemantle, the possible utility or material “Advantage” to be gained by writing poetry rarely if ever entered the heads of the poor, or their employers. Only by plying her needle and minding the work of the gentleman's kitchen and the cottager's household could a Mary Leapor normally expect to earn her bread, and so keep the need for parish relief at bay. A certain class consciousness would seem to be unavoidable given these conditions. But Leapor's texts posit a familial struggle as well.

Leapor's tragedy, The Unhappy Father, which she once described as “a Piece I most value,”27 disrupts the privileged atmosphere of a gentleman's country house by disclosing the seething rivalries and resentments that threaten to pull apart the propertied patriarchal household, still feudal in its extended network of kin and servants but bourgeois in its claustrophobic centering on a single figure: Dycarbus, the landowner-patriarch. Dycarbus is complacently intoxicated by the “royal” good looks of his offspring:

When round my plenteous Table I behold
My lovely Daughter, with her noble Spouse;
And next to them my two majestic Sons,
Who look as tho' they were of royal Lineage,
And born to give obedient Kingdoms Law;
Methinks I flourish like the spreading Vine,
Whose curling Branches are with Clusters hung,
That draw their Juices from its friendly Stem.

(i.iii. 4-11)

But he is nevertheless willful in his disposition of their affective lives:

'Tis true, Eustathius is giv'n to Storms,
.....These little jars, that shake the Stream of Peace,
And vex the Spirits of these angry Lovers,
A Father's Care must dissipate, and join
These adverse Winds in one united Blast:
With him I've met Success; and over her
I claim th' Authority of paternal Power.

(i.iii. 12-20)

Dycarbus's fumbling interventions between rival brothers and cousins in love with the same women will nearly empty the stage by the play's conclusion.

More tellingly, the poem The Cruel Parent presents an iconography of paternal despotism and daughterly humiliation scarcely to be met with elsewhere in eighteenth-century verse. Celia is held prisoner by her father Lysegus, we know not why: implicit in his cruelty may be a suggestion that she once disobeyed him, but all that the text reveals is that her very existence is abhorrent to him. No mention of a mother is made. The poem is not only Gothic in its gloomy quasi-medieval furnishings but also in its designation of extreme emotions as seemingly groundless and inexplicable, as givens posited for their terrifying effects. Lysegus unlocks Celia's prison, only to silence her plea for mercy with a punitive lecture:

          But see Lysegus, her relentless Sire,
Whose Eye-balls sparkl'd with disdainful Ire;
His potent Hand the sounding Locks obey,
With grating Noise the horrid Gates gave way:
Then prostrate at his Feet the Damsel lay.
And am—Oh am I—by my Parent curs'd;
Of all my Woes the deepest and the worst:
She said—Lysegus answer'd in a Rage,
Hence vile Disturber of my luckless Age:
Think not by Tears this stubborn Heart to win,
Nor jar my Senses with thy hateful Din:
Go learn of Vagrants (fit Companions) go,
Their Arts of Stealing and their Whine of Woe.
Yet when before the Gate of Pride you stand,
And crave your Morsel at the Porter's hand;
May some stern Slave present the coming Prize,
Thrown to the Dogs before thy longing Eyes:
He ceas'd—but Celia views no more the Sun.


Such an effective patriarch is he, his words embodying his will as Law, that his daughter falls dead at his feet.

The cultural precedents for representations of the cruelty of patriarchal oppression available to Leapor are many. In “The Temple of Love” Leapor describes herself reading Jane Shore (4) before going to bed to dream horrifically. There is little reason to seek autobiographical causes for Leapor's protofeminist protests. She does, however, situate her writing as necessitating the defiance of her parents', and later, her employers' will. For Leapor, then, the scene of writing itself is a site of resistance to a culture organized round productive labor, defined as “not writing,” in which patriarchal relations govern servants within households like daughters within nuclear families. Bridget Freemantle's account represents Mr. Leapor as saying that after years of struggling to break Leapor of her writing habit, he had “desisted, and left her more at Liberty”: ironically, an image of freedom as unchaining that fits uncomfortably with Leapor's poetical scenarios of cruel paternal restriction, if not actual imprisonment, as in The Cruel Parent. And according to Freemantle, Leapor's deathbed request was that the subscription scheme be carried out for the benefit of her father; is there not some bleak poetic justice in Leapor's writing, against which her father had argued and lectured, contributing to the greater ease of his old age? It may be taken as a generous gesture of filial devotion, to be sure, but Leapor's texts point to a more complex subjective negotiation, in which the daughter proves, by dying and earning, the legitimacy of her defiance of her father's will and his limited opinion of her abilities. Freemantle writes, reporting one of Leapor's deathbed conversations:

“… —I find I am going.—I always lov'd my Father; but I feel it now more than “ever.—He is growing into Years.—My Heart bleeds to see the Concern he is in; and “it would be the utmost Satisfaction to me, if I could hope any thing of mine could “contribute to his comfortable subsistence in his old Age.28

In the light of Leapor's harrowing narratives of heterosexual attachment gone awry, as in “The Temple of Love,” and family feeling deformed by familial conflict, as in The Unhappy Father and The Cruel Parent, it is possible to read into this last wish a peculiar kind of vindication. If we are to take this speech as accurate reportage within the conventions of deathbed narratives, is there not something a little remarkable in Leapor's assuring her friend and patron that she has always loved her father, though never so much as now, when she is dying? And the work that he had tried to prevent will now, ironically, endow his old age, even afford him a comfortable subsistence: this work which was viewed as such unprofitable employment. We can imagine that Mr. Leapor wept at his daughter's death, and that her posthumously published poems might have given him some moments of uneasiness, if he read them.

Perhaps the cultural difficulty of this material is partly responsible for Leapor's reliance on the trope of the dream vision as a framing device. So often her poems begin with Mira drowsing, Mira falling into a trance from which she is eventually awakened at a moment of unrepresentable violence or other textual rapture:

          Amid these Scenes beneath a Maple Shade,
Sat careless Mira on her Elbow laid,
While frolick Fancy led the usual Train
Of gaudy Phantoms through her cheated Brain:
Till Slumber seiz'd upon her thoughtful Breast,
And the still Spirits sunk in balmy Rest:
But while her Eyes had bid the World farewel,
Thus Mira dream'd, and thus her Dreams we tell;
A seeming Nymph, like those of Dian's Train,
Came swiftly tripping o'er the flow'ry Plain

(“The Moral Vision,” 7-16)

When lonely Night compos'd the drowsy Mind,
And hush'd the Bosom of the weary Hind,
Pleas'd with plain Nature and with simple Life,
I read the Scenes of Shore's deluded Wife,
Till my faint Spirits sought the silent Bed,
And on its Pillow drop'd my aking Head;
Then Fancy ever to her Mira kind,
Prepar'd her Phantoms for the roving Mind

(“The Temple of Love,” 1-8)

'Twas when the Sun had his swift Progress made,
And left his Empire to the Queen of Shade;
Bright Cynthia too, with her refulgent Train,
Shot their pale Lustre o'er the dewy Plain:
Sat lonely Mira with her Head reclin'd,
And mourn'd the Sorrows of her helpless Kind:
.....Till too much Thought the aking Heart oppress'd.
And Mira's Eye-lids clos'd in silent Rest:
Then active Fancy, with her airy Train,
Compos'd the Substance of the ensuing Dream.

(The Cruel Parent, 1-16)

These opening meditations are often followed by a sudden rude awakening, when the ensuing scene would be too violent or disturbing for graphic representation:

Then with pale Cheeks and with a ghastly Stare,
Peep'd o'er her Shoulder hollow-ey'd Despair;
Whose Hand extended bore a bleeding Heart,
And Death behind her shook his threat'ning Dart:
These Forms with Horror fill'd my aking Breast,
And from my Eye-lids drove the Balm of Rest:
I woke and found old Night her Course had run,
And left her Empire to the rising Sun;

(“The Temple of Love,” 85-92)

Lysegus, mourn thy Cruelty and Pride:
From the fair Court of Equity I came,
Call'd by thy Sins, and Conscience is my Name:
With Celia's Name I arm the dreadful Blow:
He said and struck—the visionary Dart
Sought the dark Bottom of Lysegus' Heart:
He fell—and falling rais'd a fearful Cry;
Then Mira 'woke, and found the Morning Sky.

(The Cruel Parent, 113-23)

Leapor's dream visions may remind us of Collier's meditations in bed, for they both situate their writing as emerging from their all-too-rare moments of leisure. Both seem to find in the meditation that borders on dream-work a necessary poetic license for their criticism of the dominant order. The border between waking consciousness and unconscious, traditionally “prophetic” revelation, serves them as a fertile territory for writing against the grain of ordinary experience and ideological assumption. The difference between Collier's and Leapor's use of the trope of the dream vision is also significant: Collier represents herself naturalistically as a tired worker, Leapor pastorally, her trances indicative of a writerly interest in the traditional rhyming of “mind” with a body “reclined,” and in the topos of the dream vision as such. Where Collier strains against poetic convention in order to make a strong empirical case, Leapor embraces the topos as a sign of the high literary tradition to which she wishes her work to be assimilated, in spite of its protofeminism and its wit at the expense of the fathers.


As should by now be clear, Leapor's is in no sense a one-poem œuvre. Although Mary Collier can be said to have written nothing so important or innovative again after The Woman's Labour, Mary Leapor's two volumes contain numerous poems of aesthetic interest and accomplishment. Nevertheless, there is a case to be made for her poem Crumble-Hall as a representative text whose literary-historical neglect has been unfortunate, if unsurprising. Crumble-Hall shows off Leapor's abilities as a comic and satiric writer on an ambitious scale; it represents a significant transformation of the genre of the country-house poem, so crucial in the fabrication and consequent reproduction of a propertied eighteenth-century political consensus; and it effectively condenses many of Leapor's characteristic textual maneuvers, from her strategic appropriation of poetical rhetoric recognizable as Pope's or Swift's or Gay's, to her foregrounding of class and gender as important textual determinants. Crumble-Hall is that rare artifact: a class-conscious plebeian country-house poem that undeniably mocks and seeks to demystify the values of the gentry, whose social power in large part depends upon the deference—and the continued exploitable subservience—of servants and laborers. Leapor's poem opens up long-closed doors and back stairways, lets light into the servants' hall, shakes things up in a literary genre that traditionally works by assuring us that the world is best organized according to ancient custom and ceremony. Pope had mocked particular country houses and their owners for failing to fulfill their pact with England's glorious agrarian past; Alastair Fowler cites earlier examples of this critical tendency in the genre.29 But both Pope and these earlier poets nevertheless seek to preserve the country-house ideal. Leapor leaves us wondering how a literary audience could have tolerated such evidently self-serving exaggeration for so long.

Traditionally, the country-house poem serves as a panegyric to its owners and their way of life. This is as true of its first instance as of its better-known later examples. Recent feminist scholarship has proposed that the English country-house poem was invented by a woman, Aemilia Lanyer, though male poets did not follow her line with it.30 As Raymond Williams has shown, the representation of a deceptively “natural” landscape and, less often, of a worked and working country, means a disposition of that prospect “according to a point of view,” the proprietary point of view: “If we ask, finally, who the genius of the place may be, we find that he is its owner, its proprietor, its improver” (Williams, p. 123). In The Description of Cooke-ham from Salve Devs Rex Ivdaeorvm,31 Lanyer thanks a female genius of the place, Margaret Clifford, Dowager Countess of Cumberland, “From whose desires did spring this worke of Grace” (12), for commissioning this poem and supporting the poet generously during its composition. The house itself is represented as enabling divine verse—“Where princely Palace will'd me to indite, / The sacred Storie of the Soules delight” (5-6), but most of the poem is devoted to the surrounding grounds and woods, instinct with the presence of Christ and his apostles, including Margaret Clifford herself, and her daughter Anne, Countess of Dorset. This combination of panegyric and devotional verse, with its emphasis on description of the country as a spiritualized green world in which women move freely rather than of the country house, sign of aristocratic honor and legitimation of aristocratic property, tends not to be pursued by later male country-house poets, but such a green world returns emphatically at the end of Crumble-Hall.

The flippant tone of much of Leapor's poem, however, marks her difference from Lanyer and from the genre as a whole (with the exception of Marvell's Upon Appleton House and particular moments in Pope's Epistle to Burlington) at least until Gray's “On Lord Holland's Seat” of 1768. Leapor's Crumble-Hall sets out at once to mock the pretensions to grandeur of a gentry class scarcely removed from their servants and laborers in terms of education and culture, and to mock the poetic sycophancy that would write Crumble-Hall as a traditional panegyric in spite of these incongruities. To some extent, Leapor's ironic stance as commentator on gentry pretensions prefigures Crabbe's in The Borough and in the posthumous tale, Silford Hall. In the former, the young attorney Swallow makes crude use of traditional hospitality to stimulate profitable litigation over disputed property, while in the latter, the poor schoolmaster's son, Peter Perkin, glimpses the romance of the great world when he is shown the genteel furnishings of Silford Hall—the happiest, most memorable event of his life:

How vast that Mansion, sure for monarch plann'd,
The rooms so many, and yet each so grand,—
Millions of books in one large hall were found,
And glorious pictures every room around;
          He told of park and wood, of sun and shade,
And how the lake below the lawn was made:
He spake of feasting such as never boy,
Taught in his school, was fated to enjoy—
Of ladies' maids as ladies' selves who dress'd,
And her, his friend, distinguish'd from the rest,
By grandeur in her look, and state that she possess'd.
He pass'd not one; his grateful mind o'erflow'd
With sense of all he felt, and they bestow'd.(32)


Peter's inflated sense of the happiness made possible by wealth is undercut both by his own naiveté and the kind housekeeper's comments. Like Leapor, Crabbe represents the grandeur of the country house as subtly fractured from within by class antagonisms, but his narratorial perspective remains outside and his tone, unlike Leapor's, is distinctly moralizing rather than playful.

The opening of Crumble-Hall mockingly anatomizes the reverent traditionalism typical of the country-house poem. Crumble-Hall, we are told, has served as a repository of hospitality since Anglo-Saxon times; it has a noble past; no one has ever left it hungry. Inexorably, we are led to laugh at the sheer conventionality of country-house sentiment, designed to arouse feelings of loyalty throughout the social scale by means of the nostalgic projection of a past of shared wealth and plenty. This conventional summoning of a history of genteel largesse turns into a riot of comically conspicuous consumption that wastes resources in order to satisfy human greed:

That Crumble-Hall, whose hospitable Door
Has fed the Stranger, and reliev'd the Poor;
Whose Gothic Towers, and whose rusty Spires,
Were known of old to Knights, and hungry Squires.
There Powder'd Beef, and Warden-Pies, were found;
And Pudden dwelt within her spacious Bound:
Pork, Peas, and Bacon (good old English Fare!),
With tainted Ven'son, and with hunted Hare:
With humming Beer her Vats were wont to flow,
And ruddy Nectar in her Vaults to glow.
Here came the Wights, who battled for Renown,
The sable Frier, and the russet Clown:
The loaded Tables sent a sav'ry Gale,
And the brown Bowls were crown'd with simp'ring Ale;
While the Guests ravag'd on the smoking Store,
Till their stretch'd Girdles would contain no more.
          Of this rude Palace might a Poet sing
From cold December to returning Spring.


Throughout the poem there is an ironical movement between the old tropes of country-house praise and less exalted disclosures: the venison is tainted, the vulnerable hare has been hunted to death to provide meat for this already groaning table, the guests gorge themselves until they are grossly bloated. Of such an establishment, the poet writes, it might be possible to sing for—at least three or four months, a bathetic deflation. But this seasonal specificity also implies that a poet might well try to seek shelter during these particularly inhospitable months by singing for supper at the gentry's table. There is something self-mocking about the very inevitability of the country-house poem in a culture in which poor poets are paid to praise their social oppressors. Thus we are alerted to the possibility of socially critical digs, jibes, and disclosures in Crumble-Hall.

Sometimes the limitations of a plebeian woman's education can be turned to good use, if what is generated is the very close—and critical—reading of a few inspiring texts. As with Mary Collier's intertextual relation to Duck, so also with Leapor's Popean intertextuality: the critical appropriation of a poem that seems to express some of the prejudices of the dominant culture can be radically productive. Leapor's imitation of Pope's style in the service of quite different values is particularly concentrated and effective in Crumble-Hall. She seizes upon the Epistle to Burlington, Pope's most sustained effort in the country-house mode, but goes beyond his criticism of landowning wastefulness and conspicuous consumption, for Pope confines himself to criticizing only the wealthiest and highest ranking landlords. The gentry, the middling sort, and the select few “good stewards” among the aristocracy, such as Pope's friends Burlington33 and Bathurst, are redeemed, and the country-house ideal upheld. Leapor, while echoing Pope and frequently reminding us of his satirical outbursts in To Burlington against such figures of excess as Timon, forces us to re-read Pope's poem through the lens of her own, and so to reread it in a different, more democratic and gender-conscious way. Whereas with Pope we must toil up Timon's monumental garden terraces to greet the host:

          My Lord advances with majestic mien,
Smit with the mighty pleasure, to be seen:
But soft—by regular approach—not yet—
First thro' the length of yon hot Terrace sweat,
And when up ten steep slopes you've dragged your thighs,
Just at his Study-door he'll bless your Eyes(34)


with Leapor a sense of cramped quarters and inconvenient architecture predominates; the gentry and squirearchy appear to rule their parish and neighborhood without question, but theirs is a rule far removed from the opulence or national (perhaps prime-ministerial) significance of Timon's villa:

          Shall we proceed?—Yes, if you'll break the Wall:
If not, return, and tread once more the Hall.
Up ten Stone Steps now please to drag your Toes,
And a brick Passage will succeed to those.
Here the strong Doors were aptly fram'd to hold
Sir Wary's Person, and Sir Wary's Gold.


Pope's condemnation of aristocratic self-display on a Timonesque scale may now seem a limited protest, perhaps even an instance of Barthesian inoculation: attack a particularly offensive example of an accepted general practice, and the whole socio-political structure is obscurely strengthened. From Mira's perspective, even Crumble-Hall is a show place, the local center of birth, wealth, and history—figured ironically in the bulky person and fortune of that shrewd self-preservationist, Sir Wary. And Crumble-Hall should rank, in Pope's terms, with those ludicrous buildings impossible to beautify according to the tenets of Burlington's Palladianism; it is, quite literally, Pope's “some patch'd dog-hole ek'd with ends of wall” (31), an unfashionable monument to the gentry's conservatism.35 For Mira, however, Crumble-Hall, be it ever so humble, represents the site of privilege and class exploitation.

This confrontation takes at least two forms: a critique of the gentry for failing to make use of their privileges in improving ways, and an exposure of the suppressed narratives of traditional high-literary country-house poetry—the servants' “quarter.” Pope rails against Timon as a Philistine who possesses an expensive library for the sake of its commodity value; he is a connoisseur of printers and bindings, not of the contents of books:

His Study! with what Authors is it stor'd?
In Books, not Authors, curious is my Lord;
To all their dated Backs he turns you round,
These Aldus printed, those Du Suëil has bound.
Lo some are Vellom, and the rest as good
For all his Lordship knows, but they are Wood.
For Locke or Milton 'tis in vain to look,
These shelves admit not any modern book.


If Pope's is the sneering protest of the contemporary author who will find no patron in this rich man, Leapor's exposure of philistinism has a more radical edge. The issue in Crumble-Hall is not fine bindings versus intellectual enlightenment, but the fact of books being possessed in the greatest quantity by those who have plenty of leisure, but who do not read them, when there are others too poor to own many books and without much time for study, who nevertheless cannot get enough to read. This is the burden of overworked Mira's commentary on Biron's library, in which he has the audacity to sleep. (Leapor, we should recall, possessed all of sixteen or seventeen volumes to which she could turn in her few moments of “unprofitable employment,” though at Weston Hall there was a substantial library to which it is likely she enjoyed some access.36)

Here Biron sleeps, with Books encircled round;
And him you'd guess a Student most profound.
Not so—in Form the dusty Volumes stand:
There's few that wear the Mark of Biron's Hand.


This vignette might pass as a not very caustic comment on genteel idleness if we were not immediately confronted in the poem with a reminder of Mira's situation within the text and within the social space of Crumble-Hall. Mira's “place” is not among these neglected books, despite the overt literary consciousness manifest in the poem “she” is producing. With the library, we have come to the end of civilization within the house and are now to be plunged into the servants' quarters, Mira's “proper” domain, however badly her fingers may itch to inscribe marginalia in Biron's unmarked volumes. Mira's proper sphere may not be quite the realm of “Old Shoes, and Sheep-ticks bred in Stacks of Wool; / Grey Dobbin's Gears, and Drenching-Horns enow; / Wheel-spokes—the Irons of a tatter'd Plough” (99-101)—the furnishings of plebeian georgics in the manner of Duck and Collier. But neither is she to venture freely into the beautiful prospect that can be only glimpsed from the cramped, airless rooms at the top of the house, so often disposed as servants quarters:

From hence the Muse precipitant is hurl'd,
And drags down Mira to the nether World.


Mira's proper sphere is the site of domestic production itself within the household, the network of kitchens, pantries, sculleries, outbuildings, cottages, and kitchen gardens that supply Crumble-Hall with produce and labor. The danger in this text is that Mira might get above herself, put on airs, show too much familiarity with the beauty of leisured prospects and the freedom of the countryside: write like a traditional country-house poet, in short. From that possibility, that treacherous attraction to the aestheticizing language of pastoral, Mira's “precipitant” muse is precipitously hurled. The “precipitant” muse is getting ahead of herself, acceeding to a pastoral freedom from which she is socially barred. The distinctive status of Crumble-Hall depends upon this exclusion, which necessitates a reversal in traditional generic procedure made explicit when Mira announces that she will represent for us the “menial Train” (110), the domestics and fieldworkers of the estate, before the gardens and groves: “Its Groves anon—its People first we sing” (111).

Crumble-Hall gives us forty-two lines of description of the lower orders that populate this “nether World,” yet the chief innovation and interest of Leapor's poem do not lie in her supplying, within this self-contained section, what other country-house poems have omitted. Rather, there is a diffusion of the servant's perspective throughout the text that this temporarily exclusive focus on the servants' quarters only encapsulates. The incongruous disclosures that undermine Crumble-Hall's pretensions to awesome gentility earlier in the poem include the spider spinning high above the hall, whose web is safe because it lies beyond the reach of any broom (46-47); the “timeless” heraldic device that needs to be refurbished once a year (48-51); the mice which run safely through passages so dark that no one can see them clearly (52-55); the refusal to elaborate descriptions of the shining china bowls and tapestry that decorate the parlor, when merely noting their existence will suffice (68-71); and the observation that the subject of an historical painting looks distinctly like a member of the lower orders herself—“And, like a Milk-wench, glares the royal Maid” (79). What connects these incongruous disclosures is the perspective from which they emerge: the perspective of the female servant, responsible for cleanliness, sheen, and decorative order in the household. If Timon's Villa were possessed of spiders, mice, and artifacts that required constant tending, a male guest like Pope would not be likely to remark upon them. And more elevated members of the household at Crumble-Hall would most likely dwell not on these “menial” but material questions of domestic maintenance but on the symbolic meaning of objects compelling to gentry families, such as heraldic insignia, with its genealogical significance, and the provenance of valuable collectables like china, wall-hangings, and oil paintings, features of the house to which Mira alludes but neglects to describe.

Mira's servant's-eye view of this establishment is particularized as a female servant's vantage-point in another way as well: in terms of a psycho-sexual dynamic that inflects the gender-specific division of labor. The entrance hall of Crumble-Hall features old and intricate wood carvings which lend a carnivalesque yet sinister air to the house's history and resonate disturbingly with Leapor's examination of patriarchal despotism in other texts. Her sparing use of the Augustan emphatic triplet, after Dryden, strikes strangely here, giving force to this image of a cruel history of gender and family relations so casually lived with as mere customary decoration:

Strange Forms above, present themselves to View;
Some Mouths that grin, some smile, and some that spew.
Here a soft Maid or Infant seems to cry:
Here stares a Tyrant, with distorted Eye:
The Roof—no Cyclops e'er could reach so high.


The text rushes breathlessly past this image of domestic tyranny, but there it is. And its significance is amplified by one of Leapor's most complex and problematical vignettes within her description of the house's “menial Train.”

Ursula and Roger—a mock-georgic couple, as Margaret Doody notes37—occupy twenty-six vividly satirical lines and so in some sense come to stand in for their employers, who seem relatively unrepresented in the text. Thus Leapor turns the tables on the traditional country-house strategy of celebrating ownership while suppressing labor by leaving it unrepresented. The owners of Crumble-Hall remain indistinctly drawn, but two servants lay out a lower-class version of the domestic drama which we might have expected from such gentry based on Leapor's treatment of upper-class domestic relations elsewhere in her œuvre. Indeed Leapor pushes the nonrepresentation of proprietorship so far that Ursula herself appears to have forgotten that she has employers, or that she labors for any master other than her husband Roger. If, with Ursula, we forget the country-house framework in which this passage is embedded, the character seems to be a satire on a prosperous cottager's wife who is a slave to romance, unlike Collier's cottagers living on the verge of poverty and hunger. Ironically, however, Ursula and Roger's prosperity implicitly depends on the country house whose owners Ursula's obsessive focus on her husband occludes. Like the owners of country houses as traditionally represented, Ursula concentrates all drama and ceremony within her immediate domestic situation, to the exclusion of its relations of production. Her putative employers are as tangential to her self-representation as she would be to theirs, if this were a conventional country-house poem. Thus an ironical equivalence is established between property and labor in the country-house domain; each is represented as excluding the other symbolically while remaining materially dependent upon it. Ursula is as trapped by a domestic ideology that foregrounds romance and marriage to the exclusion of other social relations, including her own servitude, as any middle-class mistress capable of forgetting the labor of the servants who make her domestic idyll possible.

Ursula's lament exposes, from the perspective of the laboring classes, the bankruptcy of romantic gender ideology and the wretchedness of a dependent female subjectivity constructed within marriage under the sign of the “helpmate.” While her exhausted husband Roger, “o'erstuff'd” with beef, cabbage, and dumplings, sleeps at the table and the dogs bark and howl, Ursula laments her fate until the kettle boils:

“Ah! Roger, Ah!” the mournful Maiden cries:
“Is wretched Urs'la then your Care no more,
“That, while I sigh, thus you can sleep and snore?
“Ingrateful Roger! wilt thou leave me now?
“For you these Furrows mark my fading Brow:
“For you my Pigs resign their Morning Due:
“My hungry Chickens lose their Meat for you:
“And, was it not, Ah! was it not for thee,
“No goodly Pottage would be dress'd by me.
“For thee these Hands wind up the whirling Jack,
“Or place the Spit across the sloping Rack.
“I baste the Mutton with a chearful Heart,
“Because I know my Roger will have Part.”
          Thus she—But now her Dish-kettle began
To boil and blubber with the foaming Bran.
The greasy Apron round her Hips she ties,
And to each Plate the scalding Clout applies:
The purging Bath each glowing Dish refines,
And once again the polish'd Pewter shines.


Ursula gives voice to an important ideological problematic whose resonances persist well into our own historical moment: the question of the “bourgeoisification” of working-class ideas about sexuality, marriage, and the family. For Ursula, domestic labor and household production have ceased to have any meaning apart from the expression of marital devotion they supposedly signify. Unlike Collier's wives, Ursula does not “work,” she “sighs” while her husband sleeps, wishing he would wake up and show her some affection. At an historical moment when landed middle-class women were beginning to withdraw from production within the household economy and leaving even domestic tasks increasingly to the care of servants, when farmer's wives were beginning not to manage their stock or their dairies themselves, but to hire dairymaids, and when leisured domesticity itself was beginning to be seen as a sufficient occupation for women who could afford it, Ursula reproduces this identification with leisured domesticity at an ideological level. She thereby trivializes her work—keeping livestock, gardening, cooking, washing-up, housekeeping—by transforming these activities into mere epiphenomena of wifely devotion. The whole structure of employers and servants falls away, leaving only the heterosexual couple. One would think that the gargantuan meals Ursula prepares were destined for Roger's table alone, rather than for the gentry at Crumble-Hall, until the last line of her lament: “Because I know my Roger will have Part.” In a household economy in which Ursula, and not her mistress, is primarily in charge of the cooking, it is possible for her to ensure that her husband will have “part” of every dish, if only after “the quality” have eaten their fill. Obsessively, Ursula invests in a conjugal romance in which Roger's labor, or his dinner, leaves him apparently too exhausted to participate. The life of physical labor minimizes the deployment of affective energies within the household, according to this satiric scheme; emotional work becomes another form of women's work, radically separated from public activity and confined within the household, only to be devalued there as “mere” domesticity, not something in which working men can be expected to engage.

Whether this domestic dysfunction is meant to be seen as confined to the workers at Crumble-Hall cannot be decided; Leapor's class-specific focus gives us the domestic drama of Ursula and Roger rather than the drama of the house's owners. This is the burden of Leapor's plebeian transformation of the country-house poem. For the gentry's marital difficulties, that more familiar tale, we have numerous other sources for citation in Leapor's work, especially The Mistaken Lover. There is thus no reason to assume that Leapor endorses the ideology of romantic-love-in-marriage as unproblematical for upper-class women, while satirizing only its peculiar inappropriateness for women of the laboring classes. The laboring situation of Ursula and Roger does, however, render the contradictions of romantic ideology, and its powerfully imaginary status as ideology, particularly obvious.

The disjunction between Ursula's romantic expectations and the circumstances in which she finds herself as a working man's wife and domestic laborer also dramatizes at a strikingly early historical moment what Michèle Barrett, following Mark Poster, characterizes as “a struggle between the familial ideology of the emergent bourgeoisie and the practices of other classes.”38 Barrett acknowledges Poster's argument that “the bourgeois conception of the family has become dominant—that, in fact, the imposition of the bourgeois family onto the working class is ‘one of the unwritten aspects of the political success of bourgeois democracy’” (Barrett, pp. 203-04; Poster, p. 196), but she maintains a useful distinction between familial ideology and actual working-class practices that Leapor's poem also articulates:

At an ideological level the bourgeoisie has certainly secured a hegemonic definition of family life: as ‘naturally’ based on close kinship, as properly organized through a male breadwinner with financially dependent wife and children, and as a haven of privacy beyond the public realm of commerce and industry. To a large extent this familial ideology has been accepted by the industrial working class and indeed has proved effective as motivation for male wage labour and the male ‘family’-wage demand. Yet there is a disjunction between the pervasiveness of this ideology (from about the mid-nineteenth century onwards) and the actual household structure of the proletariat in which it exists. Few working-class households have historically been organized around dependence on a male ‘breadwinning’ wage and the earnings of other family members have usually been essential to maintain the household. … Families are enmeshed in and responsive to the ideology of ‘the family’ as well as engaged in reproducing it. … The point I am emphasizing here is that we can make a distinction between the construction of gender within families, and the social construction of gender within an ideology of familialism, and we can conclude that the latter formulation is the more accurate one.

(Barrett, pp. 204-06)

Thus a good half century before industrialization makes possible the new “industrial working class,” and some decades before the American and French revolutions, we find inscribed in Leapor's text the preconditions for the eventual dominance of bourgeois familial ideology. Frustrated romantic wife and exhausted, perhaps indifferent, husband who loves his creature comforts: the agrarian servants and laborers Ursula and Roger represent the soon-to-be hegemonic contradictions of gender ideology fundamental to the bourgeois family, especially the particular construction of female subjectivity effected by this cultural production. The fact that they seem to be a childless couple might then be read as accentuating the power of familial ideology to interpellate individual subjects at the deepest level of unconscious self-identification, regardless of their “real” circumstances.

These satirical characters may constitute a complex form of ideology critique, but they also exemplify Leapor's skill at appropriating high literary modes of representation. Ursula is drawn as sharply as any of Swift's or Pope's characters, and the last six lines of the passage, her kitchen rites, can stand with Pope's brilliantly squalid mock-epic games in Book ii of the Dunciad as a parody of Augustan periphrasis in the service of “menial” contemporary materials. Most suggestively, these lines closely follow the last six lines of Gay's “Thursday: Or, The Spell” which stand as an epigraph to this book's introduction. But where Gay gives us Hobnelia's swoon at Lubberkin's return as farce, the gratification of her desire through Lubberkin's willingness to “give her a green gown,” to make their liaison public through pregnancy, as low comedy, Leapor represents the consequences of such romantic enthrallment as both bathetic and pathetic. The mock-heroic mode of Ursula's kitchen rites seems meant to restore us to comic stability after the absurd but painfully self-righteous masochism of her lament.

Leapor's satire thus spares neither her own class nor women as complicit with their own oppression. Is it not possible, however, that Leapor's satire here succeeds too well in displacing “responsibility” or agency for ideological interpellation onto these lower-class characters, so that the containers of ideology become the object of satire, and not the ideology itself? Or, to put it another way, does she not end up recycling traditional classist and misogynistic conventions of representation as part of her satiric apparatus? At what point does Leapor's satire cease to be critical of ideology and help perpetuate instead the very stereotypes of class- and gender-specific subjectivity that her texts also work to destabilize or render untenable? If we had some evidence of contemporary critical reception of this poem, such a determination might be easier, but the evidence is not forthcoming. I would suggest that the narrative, or rather the ideological, excess generated by Ursula's lament, in the context of Crumble-Hall as an anti-country-house poem, prevents any easy recuperation of this character in the service of such ideological consolidation. We would have to read Ursula and Roger entirely outside the contexts of the poem and Leapor's œuvre to conclude “Servants are just like that!” or “Isn't that just like a woman!” or “How silly of the lower classes to behave in such a way!” To read the vignette out of context might be to construct such a conservatively recuperative reading, but we should remember the country-house conventions in which Ursula and Roger are embedded. As with the proprieties and proprietors of Crumble-Hall, so with its servants, who are neither outside ideology nor uncontaminated by the country-house ethos. If we also keep both class and gender in play as possible textual determinants, and refuse to read the passage outside the larger “text” of Leapor's literary production—the whole apparatus of her self-representation and her patronized presentation to the public—then the evidence for her typically critical stance and frequently demystificatory procedures may encourage us to resist a recuperative reading.

Leapor's demystification of the country household as social institution and as literary trope does not end with her satire on gender ideology, however. The poem concludes with a long-deferred escape into those pastoral groves surrounding Crumble-Hall—a briefly glimpsed alternative, even utopian, domain of leisure and freedom. But even here the landscape exists primarily as a site of conflict; the country house can no longer serve as a locus of social harmony or of harmony between human interests and a more complex ecology. The green world of the grove is no sooner escaped into than it is rent by shrieks, for like so many landlords bent on the “improvement” of an estate, Crumble-Hall's owners are felling their timber, in this case for the minor ostentation of a new parlor.39

          But, hark! what Scream the wond'ring Ear invades!
The Dryads howling for their threaten'd Shades:
Round the dear Grove each Nymph distracted flies
(Tho' not discover'd but with Poet's Eyes):
And shall those Shades, where Philomela's Strain
Has oft to Slumber lull'd the hapless Swain;
Where Turtles us'd to clasp their silken Wings;
Whose rev'rend Oaks have known a hundred Springs;
Shall these ignobly from their Roots be torn,
And perish shameful, as the abject Thorn;
While the slow Carr bears off their aged Limbs,
To clear the way for Slopes, and modern Whims;
Where banish'd Nature leaves a barren Gloom,
And aukward Art supplies the vacant Room?
Yet (or the Muse for Vengeance calls in vain)
The injur'd Nymphs shall haunt the ravag'd Plain:
Strange Sounds and Forms shall teaze the gloomy Green;
And Fairy-Elves by Urs'la shall be seen:
Their new-built Parlour shall with Echoes ring:
And in their Hall shall doleful Crickets sing.


Here Leapor's appropriation of neoclassical tropes with a sapphic tendency takes on new significance in the advocacy of a “green” politics of ecological conservation. The female pastoral idyll that offers at least a partial alternative to the miseries and confinement of marriage is enabled by the very wildness of the forest, as opposed to the worked garden or field. And the forest accommodates the exhausted swain as well; it represents not so much a separatist idyll as a realm of general liberty, of release from social constraints and relief from social oppression. With an intertextual flourish, Leapor reverses the praise that Pope had offered Burlington for his use of the forest in the service of building, commerce, and imperial exploits; for Pope, those who follow Burlington's example as improving stewards of their land are those:

Whose rising Forests, not for pride or show,
But future Buildings, future Navies grow:
Let his plantations stretch from down to down,
First shade a Country, and then raise a Town.


But for Leapor the grove represents the only site of social ventilation on the estate and should not be sacrificed for mere aggrandizement of the country house. “Improvement” and “progress” are thus subjected to ironical scrutiny at the same time that a more natural economy than the present, “improving” one and an ecological consciousness are recommended. Crumble-Hall is a country-house poem that advocates the containment, not the expansion, of the country house: its radical removal from the scene may be as yet unthinkable but its demystification is complete.

Of the plebeian female poets of the period, Mary Leapor possesses the most writerly œuvre. Hers is also the body of work most easily assimilable to what we commonly describe today as “radical feminism,” with its polemics against patriarchy, male violence, and heterosexist containments of economies of desire. Paradoxically, then, Leapor represents some of the most easily recuperable and some of the most difficult and unexpected possibilities of emergent eighteenth-century feminism. Leapor's contemporary readers would appear not to have read her as radically as some feminist readers may now wish to do. What most delights the traditional literary critic may well prevent him from recognizing what feminist readers might be most interested to discover. That Mary Leapor, a gardener's daughter and a domestic servant, should have had her work published at all, even posthumously, may still seem to us in the late twentieth century little short of miraculous. That too tells us something about the appeal of the unlikely, the curious, the peculiarly marginal, in this period of expanding literary markets. Perhaps Leapor's relative subordination of issues of class consciousness to issues of gender oppression will prove the most easily assimilable aspect of her work; it is also, I would argue, in the U.S. context at least, the least radical, in the strict sense of constituting an uprooting of fixed assumptions, of what is historically and structurally, though differently constituted in different times and places, always already there.


  1. Poems, Upon Several Occasions. By Mrs. Leapor of Brackley in Northamptonshire, 2 vols. (London: J. Roberts, 1748-51). We should note that James Roberts, the publisher and bookseller, had also handled Duck's and Collier's work. The “Rever. Mr. Stephen Duck” is listed as a subscriber to Leapor's first volume. Readers of Leapor are all indebted to the groundbreaking research of Betty Rizzo, particularly her work on the patronage and publication history of Leapor's texts. In “Christopher Smart, the ‘C. S.’ Poems, and Molly Leapor's Epitaph,” The Library, sixth series, 5 (March 1983), pp. 22-31 and in her entry on Leapor in Todd (ed.), A Dictionary, pp. 192-93, Rizzo establishes that Samuel Richardson printed the second volume, edited by Isaac Hawkins Browne, and that Leapor's chief patron, the writer of the letter of February 21, 1749 to John *****, Esq. in Leapor's second volume, the document from which most biographical information about Leapor has been derived, is Bridget Freemantle. In “Molly Leapor: An Anxiety for Influence,” The Age of Johnson: A Scholarly Annual 4, ed. Paul J. Korshin (New York: AMS Press, forthcoming, 1991), Rizzo makes a strong case for John Watts having printed the first volume, pp. 14-15. My thanks to her for having generously shared valuable unpublished research.

  2. Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine 41:257 (March 1837), p. 408.

  3. I am indebted to Richard Greene for these biographical facts about Leapor; his fund of knowledge and good judgment, and his generous sharing of unpublished work, have saved me from a number of errors. He discovered the existence of the inscribed copy of Leapor's first volume at Weston Hall—the library contains both volumes—and represents her biography most fully in relation to criticism of the poems in his unpublished D.Phil. thesis, “Mary Leapor: A Problem of Literary History,” Oxford University, 1989.

  4. The Cruel Parent. A Dream is a poem in Leapor's first volume; The Unhappy Father. A Tragedy, the work of which she was most proud, is a play in her second.

  5. For an introduction to some of the theoretical problems posed by such an inquiry, see Monique Wittig, “The Straight Mind,” Feminist Issues 1:1 (Summer 1980), pp. 103-11; the “Lesbian Issue” of Signs 9:4 (Summer 1984); Katie King, “The Situation of Lesbianism as Feminism's Magical Sign: Contests for Meaning and the U.S. Women's Movement, 1968-1972,” Communication 9 (1986), pp. 65-91; and Biddy Martin, “Lesbian Identity and Autobiographical Difference[s],” in Life/Lines: Theorizing Women's Autobiography, ed. Bella Brodzki and Celeste Schenck (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1989), pp. 77-103. I am especially indebted to Elaine Hobby, whose unpublished paper, “Writing and Deviance in Early-Modern England: Katherine Philips—Was She, Or Wasn't She? And Why Does It Matter?,” delivered at the University of Sussex in the spring of 1986, has helped me to place some of these difficulties in a theoretically nuanced historical context.

  6. Hobby, with reference to a recent formulation by Jonathan Dollimore, “Writing and Deviance in Early-Modern England,” p. 7.

  7. See in the second volume of her poems the letter of February 21, 1749 from Leapor's anonymous female patron, Bridget Freemantle, to John *****, Esq., p. xxxii. At one point in her letter, Freemantle addresses this John *****, Esq. as if he were instrumental in printing Leapor's verse: “… when the Papers were first sent to you, in order to be printed,” p. xxv. There are no fewer than fifteen John———, Esq.'s among the subscribers to Leapor's first volume, and eight in the list for volume ii, including one John Wowen, Esq. (five asterisks, five letters?) who subscribed for four copies of the latter, as many as Samuel Richardson, and Isaac Hawkins Browne and his wife between them, did—and Richardson and Hawkins Browne were involved in bringing out this second volume. Four copies of the second volume were as many as were bought by anybody except the Rev. Dr. Trimnell, Archdeacon of Leicester, who bought six. Betty Rizzo thinks that John *****, Esq. is John Duncombe: “Molly Leapor: An Anxiety for Influence,” p. 16; Richard Greene thinks he is possibly John Blencowe, of the family for whom both Leapor and her father had worked.

  8. The recovery of Sappho for twentieth-century feminists includes such work as Joan DeJean's “Fictions of Sappho,” Critical Inquiry 13 (Summer 1987), pp. 787-805, Linda S. Kauffman, Discourses of Desire: Gender, Genre, and Epistolary Fictions (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1986), esp. pp. 50-61, J. Hallett, “Sappho and Her Social Context: Sense and Sensuality,” Signs 4 (1979), pp. 447-64, Eva Stehle Stigers's response, pp. 465-71, and Lawrence Lipking, Abandoned Women and Poetic Tradition (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1988).

  9. See, for example, Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, Œuvres Diverses Du Sieur D*** Avec Le Traité Du Sublime … (Paris: Denys Thierry, 1685); Posthumous Works of Monsieur Boileau. Made English by Several Hands (London: E. Curll, 1713); Ambrose Phillips's translations of Sappho's odes, with a life, in The Works of Anacreon, And Sappho. Done from the Greek, by several Hands (London: E. Curll, 1713); and Joseph Addison's The Works of Anacreon, Translated Into English Verse; … To which are added the Odes, Fragments, and Epigrams of Sappho (London: John Watts, 1735); it is interesting that Watts published Sappho and printed Leapor's first volume. Longinus quotes an ode of Sappho's in order to illustrate the potentially sublime representation of eros as engaging not merely one “passion,” but all the passions and all the senses—a description of erotic feeling endorsed by Longinus as what “any lover undergoes.” Some translators make more of Sappho's addressing this ode to a woman than others; Ambrose Phillips's “normalizing” headnote reads: “Whatever might have been the Occasion of this Ode, the English Reader will enter into the Beauties of it, if he supposes it to have been written in the Person of a Lover sitting by his Mistress,” p. 74.

  10. Joseph Addison, Spectator no. 223, Thursday, November 15, 1711 in The Spectator, ed. Donald F. Bond, 5 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1965), ii, p. 366.

  11. See Lipking, Abandoned Women and Poetic Tradition, p. 255 for other contenders; Lipking himself favors Aphra Behn, p. 97.

  12. On Leapor's debt to Swift, see Margaret Doody, “Swift among the Women,” pp. 79-82.

  13. “To the Reader,” in the first volume of Leapor's poems, Sig. a2v.

  14. In the biographical chapter of “Mary Leapor,” Richard Greene suggests that such poems as “The Disappointment,” An Essay on Friendship, “The Head-Ach. To Aurelia,” and others indicate that Leapor at some point belonged to a circle of young women, possibly while she was in service at Weston Hall since her father seems not to have known about them, but Greene also presents a few arguments against this supposition: “The Sacrifice” and An Epistle to Artemisia. On Fame suggest that she entertained friends at home; Philip Leapor simply may not have observed his daughter's friendships closely; and Leapor's work in the Jennens's house would have left little time for socializing, especially if she was using her leisure to write, pp. 16-17.

  15. Greene, “Mary Leapor,” p. 19.

  16. Bridget Freemantle was the second daughter of Thomas Freemantle, rector of Hinton from 1692 until his death in 1719, and Mary Freemantle, daughter of John Newton, Gent. She and her mother lived together in Hinton, a small village “in a low situation about one mile east from Brackley” until her mother's death some months before Leapor's in 1746. Bridget Freemantle lived on at Hinton until her death in her eighty-first year in 1779. See George Baker, The History and Antiquities of the County of Northampton, 2 vols. (London: Nichols, 1822-30), i, pp. 635-38. My thanks to Betty Rizzo for this reference.

  17. Greene, “Mary Leapor,” p. 17.

  18. Letter [from Freemantle] to John *****, Esq., pp. xx-xxii.

  19. Hecht, The Domestic Servant Class in Eighteenth-Century England, p. 115. My thanks to Richard Greene for this reference.

  20. Letter from Leapor [to Freemantle], ii, p. 314.

  21. D.N.B., xi, p. 766.

  22. See Betty Rizzo, “Christopher Smart, the ‘C.S.’ Poems, and Molly Leapor's Epitaph,” pp. 22-31 and “Molly Leapor: An Anxiety for Influence,” pp. 13-19; D.N.B., xi, p. 766. The evidence for Samuel Richardson, Isaac Hawkins Browne, and Christopher Smart as involved in the production and promotion of volume ii—Smart largely through a projected epitaph—and for the identification of Bridget Freemantle as the author of the letter to John *****, Esq. is in a letter from Richardson to Isaac Hawkins Browne, December 10, 1750, in the Hyde Collection, Four Oaks Farm, Somerville, New Jersey.

  23. “Th' autumnal threads that round the branches flew” is a slight alteration of “Colinetta,” line 11; Gentleman's Magazine 54:ii (September 1784), p. 650. This quotation touches off a discussion in subsequent issues regarding Leapor's identity; we cannot assume that she was widely known, but her reputation lived on.

  24. William Cowper, letter of March 19, 1791 in William Hayley, The Life and Posthumous Writings of William Cowper, Esqr., 4 vols. (Chichester: J. Seagrave for J. Johnson, London, 1806), iii, p. 296. This letter favorably compares Elizabeth Bentley's “natural genius” with Leapor's.

  25. Letter [from Freemantle] to John *****, Esq., ii, pp. xxix-xxx.

  26. Pope, Satire II. i., ed. John Butt, T.E., iv: “F. I'd write no more. P. Not write? but then I think, / And for my Soul I cannot sleep a wink” (11-12).

  27. Letter from Leapor [to Freemantle], ii, p. 317.

  28. Letter [from Freemantle] to John *****, Esq., ii, p. xxviii.

  29. Alastair Fowler, “Country House Poems: The Politics of a Genre,” The Seventeenth Century 1:1 (1986), pp. 1-14.

  30. See The Feminist Companion to Literature in English and the forthcoming anthology from the Brown University Women Writers Project under the direction of Susanne Woods and Elaine Brennan, Women Writers in English 1330-1830. Lanyer does not appear in such otherwise indispensable studies of the genre as George R. Hibbard's “The Country-house Poem of the Seventeenth Century,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 19 (1956), pp. 159-74 and Raymond Williams's The Country and the City. See, for a critique of Williams and other marxist writers on the genre, Fowler, “Country House Poems.” See also Heather Dubrow, “The Country-House Poem: A Study in Generic Development,” Genre 12 (Summer 1979), pp. 153-79 and, in relation to Pope, Howard Erskine-Hill, The Social Milieu of Alexander Pope: Lives, Example, and the Poetic Response (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975), esp. pp. 279-317.

  31. Aemilia Lanyer, The Description of Cooke-ham from Salve Devs Rex Ivdaeorvm (London: Printed by Valentine Simmes for Richard Bonian, 1611), Sig. h2r-11r.

  32. George Crabbe, Letter VI. Professions—Law in The Borough, ed. Norma Dalrymple-Champneys and Arthur Pollard, The Complete Poetical Works, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988), i, pp. 419-21 and Silford Hall; or, The Happy Day in Posthumous Tales, The Complete Poetical Works, iii, p. 24.

  33. For the historical distortions involved in this view of Burlington, see Carole Fabricant, Swift's Landscape (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), pp. 109-13.

  34. Pope, The Epistle to Burlington in T.E., iii:ii.

  35. The description of the rooms at Weston by Sir George Sitwell in A Brief History of Weston Hall Northamptonshire and of the Families That Possessed It (London: privately printed, 1927) suggests that Weston Hall may well have been Leapor's model for the house, but what Leapor satirizes, Sitwell cites as evidence “that some good architect was the designer,” p. 13: “At the south-east corner of the house the ground falls away sharply, thus enabling kitchen and offices to be placed in a basement well lighted from the east. From the kitchen wing, a service passage at the same level led under the small paved court in front of the hall, emerging by a stairway through what is now a china cupboard close to the parlour and drawing-room. The windows, half-sunk in the ground, which light the passage, are of the 1680-90 type, and the order in which ‘small beer cellar, bottle house, cellar stair door, folding doors by parlour,’ follow each other in the list of 1714, indicate that this was the original planning of the house.” My thanks to Richard Greene for bringing this book to my attention.

  36. Greene, “Mary Leapor,” p. 13.

  37. Margaret Doody, “Swift among the Women,” p. 82.

  38. See Michèle Barrett, Women's Oppression Today, p. 202, and Mark Poster, Critical Theory of the Family (London: Pluto, 1978).

  39. Great alterations that sound remarkably reminiscent of Leapor's parlor-building here were made at Weston, though not until 1777, according to Sitwell: “These alterations of 1777 made the house more commodious, but ruined its beauty. A lofty Drawing- or Dining room was gained, with three airy bedchambers of the new fashion. On the other hand, the Great Parlour disappeared, the ceiling in this part being lowered to gain height for the storey above, while the hall was deprived of afternoon sun and of its view over the flower-garden,” A Brief History, p. 72.

Betty Rizzo (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10496

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.


Leapor's brief life (1722-1746) may be rather thoroughly understood both in circumstances and theme as a persistent struggle of a talent to realize itself in a hostile environment. In 1722 her father, Philip Leapor of Brackley, Northamptonshire, was gardener on the estate of the Blencowes, the local great family at nearby Marston St. Lawrence; here on 26 February 1722 Mary Leapor, the only child of the family to reach maturity, was born.2 Five years later her father moved his family back to their native Brackley and set up as an independent nursery-man and gardener. He worked hard and remained unalterably poor. Whether or not this was his own fault is difficult to conclude from the letters of Elizabeth Purefoy of Shalstone who often employed him, for though she had various complaints of his lateness or his plants, she was not an easy woman to please.3 In and near Brackley and in poverty, Leapor lived out her short career.

Earlier generations had often spelled the name “Lepper,” as it was pronounced. The family in Brackley derived from a yeoman family, two representatives of which, John Leapor father and son, left wills in 1686 and 1701 that indicate a respectable solvency.4 The elder John left thirty pounds apiece to five children, all underage, and annuities of six pounds to his wife and his mother. The son John in 1701 continued the annuities and left his lands to an unborn child if a boy on condition he pay to his sister £250.

The elder John Leapor in 1686 left among several other pieces of property a cottage then occupied by John Leapor, a currier or tanner. This third John was almost certainly related to the two yeomen, probably a cousin, an unlanded descendent of younger sons. He wrote his own will in 1718,5 remembering a wife Sarah, a son Adam, and ten grandchildren, these latter grouped to suggest that they were the offspring of four or five different children. Among these grandchildren was Philip Leapor, probably Mary's father, who like most of the others received five shillings. John Leapor the currier left three pounds five shillings among his son and grandchildren and all else to his wife Sarah. Significantly, both he and his witnesses, unlike the two yeomen and theirs, signed only with marks. By 1748, when Leapor's poems were published by subscription, there were no longer any family members anywhere substantial enough or concerned enough to subscribe.

In Brackley Molly may have attended the village school, taught by Mr. Cooper, long enough to learn to read and write. The parents of Stephen Duck, the thresher poet, when his schoolmaster complained that he was learning faster than the master could teach, took him from school for fear he would grow unfit for his station. When at the age of ten or eleven Leapor began her perpetual scribbling, her parents, for the same reason, tried to break her of the habit. But they were ineffectual and kindly people who without too great a struggle gave up a hopeless effort. By the time she was 24, Leapor, despite a life supposed to be dedicated to labor, had accumulated a library of 16 or 17 volumes which included part of Pope, Dryden's Fables, and some volumes of plays, and a stock of writings which was to fill two volumes or over 600 printed pages.

When old enough Leapor was sent out to service and was for some time cookmaid in the establishments of two neighboring gentlemen. Mrs. Purefoy conceived the duties of the cookmaid in her own establishment to include the milking of three or four cows (“just by the yard gate”), the management of the dairy, the boiling and roasting of fowls and butchers' meat.6 For this she paid a salary of less than four pounds a year, and we may suspect at least a partial self-portrait by Leapor, when

Poor daggled Urs'la stalks from Cow to Cow,
Who to her Sighs return a mournful Low;
While their full Udders her broad Hands assail,
And her sharp Nose hangs dropping o'er the Pail.(7)

Two families by whom Leapor was employed, probably the only two, have been identified. Leapor worked as kitchen maid at Weston Hall, in Princethorp, some 25-30 miles northwest of Brackley, in our own century noted as the home of the Sitwells, but then the home of Richard and Susanna Blencowe Jennens.8 Susanna Jennens was the daughter of Sir John and Lady Blencowe, Philip Leapor's employers at Marston St. Lawrence, had probably known Leapor all her life, and was to prove a firm support of Leapor's subscriptions. And in all likelihood Leapor worked for the Chauncy family at Edgecote House, three women of which subscribed for both of Leapor's volumes. The “gentleman” employer who remembered her as “extremely swarthy, and quite emaciated, with a long crane-neck, and a short body, much resembling, in shape, a bass-viol” was probably Chauncy. She had, he recollected, the unfortunate habit of “sometimes taking up her pen while the jack was standing still, and the meat scorching.”9 This unsympathetic portrait, rendered after Leapor's death when her fame had been established and interest in her much roused, reminds us that gentlemen have never had to mind their gentility in regard to serving maids, and helps us to understand why she was so long in finding patronage. It would have taken unusual courage and daring for a gentleman to assist in her studies and her writing a cookmaid already neglectful of her true vocation. And here was not a Pamela, obviously miscast in station, instantly assimilable into the gentry. Here was a homely, scraggly, charmless person, whose strong good sense, quick ability to learn things cookmaids had no need to know, sense of humor and of the ridiculous even in herself, and satiric eye would not have been considered pristine charms in any woman. Preserve her, she said defensively, from people

Who read your want of Wit or Grace,
Not from your Manners, but your Face

(“The Visit,” II, 291)

but her manners, if inoffensive, cannot have been pleasing. She continues by mentioning—without exactly claiming them for herself—a wide-spread mouth, a freckled hand, a skinny arm, full shoulders, and a nose an inch awry. Her patron, Bridget Freemantle, warns us that her self-portrait in “Corydon. Phillario. Or, Mira's Picture” (II, 294-98), is a caricature, but still. … She comes walking in dirty linen with “studious Brows and Night-cap dishabille” and displays a freckled face, eyes dimmed from reading wicked plays all evening by a rush candle, brows like a dirty furze-faggot, a shape

Where Mountains upon Mountains rise!
And, as they fear'd some Treachery at hand,
Behind her Ears her list'ning Shoulders stand.

Her teeth “look decay'd with Posset, and with Plumbs, / And seem prepar'd to quit her swelling Gums.”

There were good reasons why Leapor had to die before her poetry could be valued: she was ungainly, unlovely, uncharming, and proletarian. In a small place like Brackley there were many people who might have taken her up but didn't: the schoolmaster, the vicar, the bookseller, the local gentry. Much of her wry, self-deprecatory, and mildly satiric verse describes the unlooked-for reactions her works, which apparently circulated freely in Brackley, occasioned. Ladies sent for her tragedy to while away a dull afternoon. They praised her, and they laughed at her. Minutius in “Minutius. Artemisia. A Dialogue,” faults her for her punctuation and in “To Grammaticus” she apologizes for the injuries her imperfect verses have inflicted. (It is probable that her editors did have to amend her verses, and some involuntarily comic effects are still to be found).10 Gentlemen more than once looked over her verses and returned them in virtual silence. Delpho, in “An Epistle to Artemisia. On Fame,”

O'er the scrawl'd Paper cast his judging Eyes,
Whose lifted Brows confess'd a Critic's Pride,
While his broad Thumb mov'd nimbly down the Side.
His Form was like some Oracle profound;
The list'ning Audience form'd a Circle round. …

Mira cries, “Sir, will they prosper?”

Replies the Statue—Why, perhaps they may.

Nothing more; no help proferred. This satire rings the changes on the thoughtless and heartless responses her work evoked including that of Vido, who praises all falsely, and that of the languid Cressida:

That Thought of yours was very pretty now.
I've read the like, tho' I forget the Place.
But, Mrs. Mira, How d'ye like my Lace?

Leapor's strange aspirations roused both interest and ridicule; but patronage, as we shall see, came both accidentally and belatedly.

In 1742 Ann Leapor, the poet's mother, died. Bridget Freemantle was later to report that as Mary Leapor was not very strong, and as he now needed her at home, her father thought it best to let her leave service and keep house for him. The family cottage must have been by or close to Philip Leapor's nursery in the south end of Brackley, near Goslin Green. It was probably made of Brackley stone from the local stonepit like the other cottages and had—details from the verse—an earthen floor, plaster walls rather dusty and dirty, blue-curtained windows, simple wooden furnishings—shelves, tables, chairs, chests, and bedsteads. Her writing bureau with its lock and key, a place to store her work, was a precious gift from her patron in the last year of her life.

Brackley in Leapor's time was a quiet town, much shrunk from an earlier period when it boasted a castle and later a great manor house. Twenty miles southwest of Northampton, it consisted of about two hundred and fifty families living close along the one mile-long street that extended northward and upwards from the bridge over the youthful River Ouse in the south. At the top of the hill to the north, the street turned eastwards to St. Peter's Church where there were Sunday morning services, and beyond was the Old Town with about twenty families. In the east side of town near the river was St. Peter's Chapel where there were services on Sunday afternoon.11 To the southwest on the left bank of the river on a high tract surrounded on three sides by a river loop was the old castle site, though not a stone remained; here Philip Leapor had his nursery and garden and here Molly Leapor, who probably lived conveniently nearby, served as nurserywoman:

Whilst in laborious Toils I spent my Hours,
Employ'd to cultivate the springing Flow'rs.
Happy, I cry'd, are those who Leisure find,
With Care, like this, to cultivate their Mind

(“To Lucinda,” II, 59).

Henry Purefoy in his diary on 12 July 1745 noted that he had visited the Leapors at Brackley and spoken to “Mr. Leapor the Brackley gardiner's Daughter & the young Woman who showed us Mr. Leapor's Garden.”12

In the village and around it was a healthy variety of people from every class and vocation, great people, gentry, shopkeepers, craftspeople and yeomen. The Duke of Bridgewater was lord of the manor and Bridgewater nominees for Parliament were in Leapor's time returned unopposed. The Duke died leaving his son still a schoolboy and in December 1745 the Duchess married Richard Lyttelton, who officiated until his stepson came of age. Brackley was represented by non-residents—Sir Paul Methuen, George Lee, Sewallis Shirley—but there were the Blencowes at Marston St. Lawrence. Brackley did not lack its gentlemen's houses. When the Rev. Mr. Littleton Burton's leasehold estate was advertised in 1745, it was a handsome well-built stone house, 51 feet in front, five rooms to a floor, with eight good closets, cellaring, stables, barns, a dovehouse and other offices, a large well-planted orchard, 294 acres of arable land, a farmhouse, six small tenements and a yearly value of £190.13 William Loveday, Esq., whose house was advertised in 1752 after his death, had six rooms on a floor, good gardens, a coachhouse and barn, stabling for six or eight horses.14 There were well-to-do minor gentry in town, like the Welchmans—Mr. Welchman, Sr. was an attorney—and the Frewens. There was the parson, Thomas Bowles, A.M., B.D., and D.D. of Oxford, who also ran a private classical establishment in Brackley and was married to Elizabeth Lisle of the Lisle family of Evenley, just south of the Ouse.15 Mary Leapor might also have profited (but did not) from the presence of the bookseller James Payne, who far from being a mere provincial vendor of magazines and newspapers, was the brother and associate of the celebrated Tom Payne of London.16 Brackley was neither cut off from the world nor dull. There was a twice-weekly wagon to and from London, driven almost throughout the century by first Old Eagles, then Young. There was a Wednesday market day with a cattle mart, and the Old Fair on St. Andrew's Day as well as the three newer fairs on the Wednesday in Easter Week, on St. Barnabas' Day, and on the Wednesday after the Feast of St. Michael.

The Purefoy Correspondence gives many a glimpse of the ordinary people among whom Leapor lived. There was a cutler named William Garland whose son Halhed was apprenticed in 1730 to Samuel Richardson and who took up his freedom as a London printer in February 1752.17 There was Charles Garland, an innholder and woodward to the woods of the Duke. There was Oliver Payne the baker, father to the booksellers; the grocers, Thomas Yates Sr. and Jr.; Mr. Blencow the ironmonger; Mr. Stranks the draper; Mr. Pidenton, another draper; the Fenimores Sr. and Jr. of the Horse Shoe Alehouse; Charles Parker Jr. the mason; Stiles the ropemaker; Mr. Watts, Jr. the plumber who could clean brewery pipes; Mr. Jolly the cooper; Mr. Palmer the Northton carrier at the Red Lion Inn; Mr. Jones the tailor; John Whitmore the shoemaker; Mr. Cooper the schoolmaster. Many of these men played several roles in the community, like Philip Leapor himself, who sold and put in plants and gardened, and mended clocks. Mr. Cooper the schoolmaster could be summoned to come over and write up a will; Mr. Palmer, the Northton carrier, ground razors; Mr. Pidenton took in letters; and Mr. Stranks the draper sold rum by the gallon.

Molly Leapor cannot have lived an isolated life, but she always chose a quiet one. Her father reported that she had only one intimate friend, a young Brackley woman in her poetry called Fidelia, and that “she always chose to spend her leisure hours in writing and reading, rather than in those diversions which young people generally chuse; insomuch that some of the neighbours that observed it, expressed their concern, lest the girl should over-study herself, and be mopish” (II, xxx). She and her father had an amicable, even a loving, relationship and her concern for him when she was dying suggests real tenderness: she begged Bridget Freemantle to continue the plans for a subscription already begun for her father's sake (II, xxviii). Still, until Freemantle entered the picture, he often tried to convince her that time spent scribbling was time lost in plying her needle, that only as a sempstress could she support herself when he was gone.

Then comes Sophronia, like a barb'rous Turk:
“You thoughtless Baggage, when d'ye mind your Work?
“Still o'er a Table leans your bending Neck:
“Your Head will grow prepost'rous, like a Peck.
“Go, ply your Needle: You might earn your Bread;
“Or who must feed you when your Father's dead?”
She sobbing answers, “Sure, I need not come
“To you for Lectures; I have store at home.”

(“An Epistle to Artemisia. On Fame.” II, 52)

Leapor kept reading and writing; as she wrote her craving for book learning grew, and when she could she studied. It was only after her meeting with Bridget Freemantle, the 46-year old daughter of a widowed mother, in about August 1745, that Leapor tasted anything like happiness.18 Freemantle was a gentlewoman, no doubt of limited but adequate means, unliterary (she herself tells us), living in Brackley with her elderly mother. Her father Thomas had been rector of Hinton in the Hedges, two miles from Brackley, until his death in June 1719. Bridget had been baptized at Hinton in 1699, was used to quiet living, was sensible about seeking diversion in a small town, and did what she thought right. She had been shown a notebook of Leapor's poems in 1742 or 1743, but ill health then prevented her inquiring further about the girl whose work she thought extraordinary for her circumstances. Then in summer 1745, informed that Leapor had finished a tragedy, she happened to meet her on the street and begged for a sight of it. The tragedy, if not stageworthy, was a creditable performance and fully impressed, Freemantle paid Leapor a visit and asked to see again her other writings. The notebook of poems had been burned, but there was a store of writings in a little box. It may have been at this first interview that Freemantle broached the idea of publication by subscription.

Other ideas were tested. Somehow Freemantle arranged to send the tragedy—The Unhappy Father—to Rich at the Covent Garden Theatre. Both the prospects of production and the return of the claret-stained rejected manuscript prompted verses. Half of Leapor's output derives from that final year in which she had a sympathetic and encouraging friend; roughly half her poems are addressed either to Artemisia or to “Dear Madam” (both Freemantle) or are about her hopes, fears, dreams, and the new events of her life, all written for Freemantle's sympathetic eyes. For the first time in her life Leapor was experiencing the intoxicating encouragement of whole-hearted approval.

Wrapp'd in Sorrow, wretched Mira lay,
Till Artemisia swept the gloom away:
The laughing Muse, by her Example led,
Shakes her glad Wings, and quits the drowsy Bed

(“An Epistle to Artemisia. On Fame,” II, 53).

Artemisia had the persuasiveness to bring other patrons round, notably Parthenissa, a lady who brought Leapor a pocket notebook from London, and wrote verses therein advising it

Go, and humbly sue thy Peace:
Then, if she can forgive,
And deign to touch thy vacant Leaves,
They may for Ages live.

(“Parthenissa's Answer to the Pocket-Book's Soliloquy,” II, 97)

Parthenissa also called Leapor “The Successor of Pope.” Heady stuff! At a council of war attended by Leapor, Artemisia, and Parthenissa, Parthenissa, who probably at this point had contacted the hitherto unhelpful James Payne (or Delpho?), suggested Leapor's parting with her work for £10, and Leapor, in an access of ambition for which she apologized later to Artemisia, refused—no doubt thinking of the riches of subscription (“The Penitent,” I, 118-20). She was right.

A possible Parthenissa was Elizabeth Lisle Bowles, the wife of Brackley's learned divine and private schoolmaster. More likely, however, is the Mrs. J—— to whom Bridget Freemantle consigned the manuscripts for the second volume of poems, and whom I would guess to be Susannah Blencowe Jennens. Whoever she was, Parthenissa was enlisted in the cause by Artemisia, and had more money, more mobility, and more influence.

The subscription was already in train—Freemantle was a wonderful organizer—and Leapor had enjoyed her new life for scarcely fifteen months when in November 1746 she fell ill with measles and died on the 12th. She was buried in woolen on the 14th. Freemantle, who had lost her mother only in May, devoted herself to executing Leapor's wishes, getting out not only one subscription volume, but a second. The pecuniary results were quite as Leapor had foreseen, far better than £10. The profits from the first volume ought to have been £75,19 which perhaps explains why, when there was an election in Brackley in 1749, Philip Leapor voted as a freeholder.20 So much, Leapor might have said to him, for honest toil. Freemantle asked the group surrounding Richardson, who by this time were patrons of the second volume, “to write a few things” to put upon the grave-stone—now vanished—but nothing came of that, and Leapor had after all asked for a plain stone chiselled

Natus Anno Dom'
Here lies Mary in this Tomb,

(“The Consolation,” II, 83)

commenting on the lack of distinction in the grave between “hands that wrote or held a flail.” Much as she might have wished, the inscription read “In Memory of / Mary Leapor / Daughter of / Philip and Ann / Leapor: who / Departed this Life / Nov. ye 26, 1746 / Aged 24.”21 Freemantle lived sturdity on until April 1779 but what else she did was not recorded; she was buried with her parents at Hinton.


Patronage was the important element in the fame of all the natural poets and the fame of each may be said to have been proportionate to the station of the patron.22 Stephen Duck, the Thresher Poet, protected by Queen Caroline, was most famous Thresher Poet, protected by Queen Caroline, was most famous of all; Henry Jones, the Irish Bricklayer, had Lord Chesterfield; and Ann Yearsley, the Bristol Milkwoman, had Hannah More and her circle. Mary Leapor's considerable reputation in the later eighteenth century is probably owing not to her subscription volume of verses, but to her being taken up by Samuel Richardson and his circle soon after the first volume appeared. This circle put out the second volume and publicized her diligently.

Freemantle began by determining to do something for Leapor: to procure for her an income so that she could devote herself to her studies and her writing. That Leapor's talents be recognized was also essential. In that last year Freemantle gave a great deal of time and energy to Leapor. She gave her a writing bureau. The two women visited back and forth. Freemantle roused the gentry and the clergy to assist. She enlisted (though it would seem at the eleventh hour) the entire Blencowe family: John Blencowe, Esq, his sisters, his widowed mother, his dead father's brothers and sisters, and many of their connections. Work on the subscription list was well in train when Leapor died unexpectedly in mid-November 1746. Freemantle never broke stride. The proposals for the subscription volume were dated Jan. 1, 1746-7.23 Subscriptions were to be taken in by Mr. Leapor, the author's father at Brackley, and by J. Roberts, the publisher in London.

The editor for this first volume has not been discovered. Chalmers, in his Biographical Dictionary, credits Garrick with having written the proposals, but those would almost certainly have been the proposals for the second volume, a copy of which I have not found. Someone very efficiently wrote and circulated the proposals for the first volume; someone chose and edited the poems, taking the more formal, less autobiographical ones; and someone—this time, I would guess the Duchess of Bridgewater and Richard Lyttelton—lent names and influence to help collect the impressive list of almost 600 subscribers who took more than 600 books.

The parliamentary representatives of the shire and its towns were approached and besides Lyttelton, Sewallis Shirley and John Hill subscribed as did members of the Isham family. Someone circularized parliament itself with notable success, for nearly two dozen M.P.s or their wives subscribed. Eminent clerics, including Archdeacon Trimnell, the new father-in-law of the editor of the second volume, Isaac Hawkins Browne, subscribed, thirty-five reverends in all. The nobility was represented by four dukes, eleven earls and countesses, twenty-three lords and ladies (two of whom were really countesses and a third the future Duchess of Northumberland), two viscounts, four baronets, four honourables, and a bishop. The Brackley bookseller James Payne did not subscribe, now or later, but the gentry came through, Dr. Bowles, Mrs. Bowles, and many of the Lisles, the Lovedays, the Purefoys; these last circularized their friends as, no doubt, did many of the others. (As the Welchmans did not subscribe, nor the Frewens, one suspects they figured, like Payne, among the unsatisfactory readers of her work in Leapor's verses.) A few Brackley tradespeople ventured, Mrs. Garland, John Whitmore the shoemaker, and Edward Yates the grocer. Stephen Duck subscribed, and many blue-stocking ladies including Mrs. Delany, Lady Sophia Carteret, Lady Pomfret, and the Duchess of Portland. James Roberts the bookseller, the London distributor of the volume, did not subscribe, but the printers Jacob and Richard Tonson did, as did John Watts, the latter very probably the actual printer of the volume.

The question of who printed the first volume of Leapor's work, like the question of who edited it, has always been unanswered. Richardson did not print the first volume. James May, an authority on such matters, has identified some of the ornaments of the volume as among those shared in the publications of those consistent collaborators John Watts, Jacob Tonson, and James Roberts. He notes one set of ornaments that appear in Tonson publications printed by Watts in the 1710s (the Mettaire Classics) and on to 1730, in Roberts publications from 1725-29, and in Watts publications from 1729-34 and 1740—. As he finds Watts ornaments from the 1730s and 1749s as well, he concludes that it was probably Watts who printed the 1748 volume.24 The subscription list itself concludes with an ornament from Tonson's and Watt's De rerum natura of Lucretius (1713). Watts, the Tonsons, and Roberts often worked together, and authors publishing by subscription often turned to Roberts, a prolific publisher, to retail their books. It may be Roberts, May suggests, who directed Leapor's editors to Watts for printing.

The proposals for the first volume had promised it in September 1747; it was actually delivered some time in 1748. As it was not “published,” having been delivered only to subscribers, it was not advertised until considerably later, when Roberts placed an ad in the Daily Advertiser of 29 Oct. 1749. Such a procedure was quite usual with subscription volumes and meant either that a number of volumes had never been claimed by their subscribers or that Roberts had published a few extra for later over-the-counter sales.25 Once the volume was advertised, the Monthly Review for November played up nicely, printing an eight page review as “Article V” which provided several of Leapor's poems prefaced by the poignant facts of her case. The public responded with interest and by June 1750 Samuel Richardson had become whole-heartedly involved and a second volume was well in train.

The patronage of the second volume is quite different from that of the first. The subscription list is only half as long, and the patrons are, in the majority of cases, new ones. The splendid roster of the nobility is greatly shortened, as are the lists of clergymen and members of parliament. The Duchess of Bridgewater and Richard Lyttelton are no longer present; some of the Blencowes and Bowleses are faithful but the Purefoys are not. Either many former patrons considered one volume quite enough, or the canvassing the second time was done by someone far less influential and efficient. Freemantle mentions in her prefatory letter to the second volume that she had turned over manuscripts for it to a Mrs. J———. There are only two Mrs. J———'s who subscribe to the second volume, a Mrs. Jeffreys and a Mrs. Jennens, both of whom also subscribed to the first. Mrs. Jeffreys I have not identified; but Susanna Blencowe Jennens is a reasonable candidate for both an early patron (Parthenissa) and a recipient of manuscripts to be carried up to London.

What is obvious is the predominance of the Richardson circle among the subscribers. The second volume was very probably sparked by Richardson's empathetic attraction to another gifted non-establishment author. Among his friends, Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Hawkins Browne, William, John, and Miss Duncombe, Susanna Highmore,26 Thomas Edwards, and Richardson himself took 14 books; Browne's inlaws, Dr. and Miss Trimnell, took 7, and two Highmore friends, the Rev. Mr. Drake and Miss Brockman, took one each. The youthful John Duncombe,27 only 21 in 1750 but a B.A. from Corpus Christi, Cambridge in 1748, is probably, I think, the John * * * * *, Esq. to whom Freemantle sends information about Leapor in her prefatory letter. He was, as we shall see, the most influential shaper of Leapor's literary reputation.

Eking out the new volume wasn't easy and perhaps for that reason it contains verse of a revealing and personal nature as well as strongly feminist poems some of which preach that celibacy is preferable to marriage, though either is a poor fate. Woman is

A Wife in Bondage, or neglected Maid;
Despis'd, if ugly; if she's fair—betray'd.

(“An Essay on Woman, II, 64)

The tragedy contains a strong feminist statement about the repression of women:

Why did Heavn's creating Power form
Among' his Works, one Creature only doom'd
To lasting Anguish, and perpetual Chains?
And yet inspir'd her with a thinking Soul,
To taste our Sorrows with a keener Relish?
Our servile tongues are taught to ask for Pardon
Ere the weak Senses know the Use of Words:
Our little Souls are tortur'd by Advice;
And moral Lectures stun our infant Years:
Thro' check'd Desires, Threatnings and Restraint,
The Virgin runs, but ne'er outgrows her Shackles;
They still will fit her, even to hoary Age:
With lordly Rulers Women still are curs'd;
But the last Tyrant always proves the worst.

(The Unhappy Father, II, 189-90)28

Richardson printed all this; but none of Leapor's admirers ever quoted it or referred to it in print.

The volume was at last advertised in the Daily Advertiser for 19 February 1751 to be delivered to subscribers on 14 March. Then on 28 March it was advertised as published and sold by Roberts, a very fast resort to public retail. On 8 May Thomas Edwards wrote from the country to Richardson, “I thank you for sending me Molly Leapor. How does the town receive her? I am sorry to see the number of subscribers fall so vastly short of what appeared to the other volume. What ignorants we are! If we had but thought of vamping her with cuts, we had done the business.”29 But using cuts to swell the book instead of some of the more dubious materials would not have swelled the subscription.

Following this publication the Monthly Review played its friendly part, in June 1751 publishing as “Article III” nine pages of prose (and no poetry at all), Mrs. Freemantle's prefatory biographical account, and three of Leapor's letters. Richardson had failed to interest Christopher Smart very much in Leapor's case in 1750, though Smart did publish, with lukewarm praise, one of her pastorals in his magazine The Midwife.30 Richardson had better luck with John Duncombe who in 1751 wrote his poem The Feminead (a clever tribute to Susanna Highmore, published only in 1754), in which he praises Leapor extravagantly. The Magazine of Magazines in April 1751 also praised Leapor and printed a sonnet to her which is probably the very one by Susanna Highmore which Richardson, in a letter to her of July 1750, rejected for the prefatory material to the second volume, apparently because he thought the sonnet form too artful to accompany “the sweetly easy poems of Molly Leapor.”31 In fact (see below) the piece in the Magazine of Magazines is probably also Duncombe's. John Hill, on 4 April 1751, printed a letter in his “Inspector” essay in the London Daily Advertiser, praising Leapor's ability, despite her want of education or reading, to equal some of her favorite authors because of the strength of her genius and the fruitfulness of her invention. Then in 1755 another suitor of Susanna's, Bonnell Thornton with his friend George Colman, published Poems by Eminent Ladies, and included Leapor's work. It would appear that Susanna Duncombe, of whom Smart had also been an admirer,32 by rousing both Thornton and Duncombe to compliment her writing ability obliquely through the praise of women writers in general, accidentally contributed significantly to the raising of Leapor's reputation. And the acquisition of the endorsement of the Richardson circle was a support which, if Leapor had lived, would have elevated her to a position as a literary figure of some importance. There is small doubt that she could have survived the elevation and have been happy and productive.


Whether she could ever have written the work expected of her, however, is doubtful, for indeed, though most of her admirers seem not to have noticed it, she had never done so. The gap between the theory about and the practice of the natural poets of the eighteenth century was great, and one wonders how the theorists could have ignored the discrepancy for so long.

What were these theories? This ground has been well covered by James Osborn,33 by W. J. Bate in The Burden of the Past and the English Poet, by Wellek in his literary histories. Addison, as he did so often, provided the background in Spectator 160. The first class of geniuses, he said, were those great natural geniuses who were undisciplined and unbroken by the rules of art. Examples may be found in the Old Testament, in Homer, in Pindar, in Shakespeare. The second class of geniuses were formed by rule and submitted their natural talents to the restraints of art. Examples may be found in Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Tully, and Milton. The danger for the second class is that of cramp from imitation, for “an imitation of the best authors is not to compare with a good original.” And despite the amount written throughout the eighteenth century on the virtues of imitation, despite the so-called preeminence of “the rules,” originality remained the great, primary, and all too elusive first quality sought in the poetry of the period. Imitation was accepted as a modest faute de mieux. Johnson was always stressing the importance of originality. Imlac in Rasselas (Chapter X), for instance, noted that the early writers were in possession of nature and their followers of art, “that the first excel in strength and invention, and the latter in elegance and refinement.” The Lives of the English Poets are filled with statements supporting the primary importance of originality: “Congreve has merit of the highest kind: he is an original writer,” says Johnson, adding that he borrowed neither the models of his plot nor the manner of his dialogue. Edward Young, a poet of genius, “in his Night Thoughts … has exhibited a very wide display of original poetry.”34

Originality was very seldom to be found in correct neoclassical poetry. Pope himself had accepted as his task the refinement and correction of the couplet form. And then Pope had applied himself to his task with such consummate genius that he apparently left nothing further to be accomplished in that direction. Pope had probably not imagined himself to have a choice. It was widely believed that the educated poet of the eighteenth century could not even aspire to originality. Originality one could hope to find only in a primitive society like Homer's.

This primitivistic theory, as Wellek calls it,35 was both pervasive and influential in the eighteenth century. Diderot, for instance, believed that one could find true emotional intensity only in primitive people, that among the more spontaneous and more violent barbarians genuine poetry must therefore be more common. William Duff, in his Essay on Original Genius (1767), suggested that original genius in poetry would be found only in early, uncultivated societies where one would find (he postulated) the requisite naiveté, vivid metaphor, simplicity of manner, universal feeling, leisure and tranquillity, and exemption from the rules and restraints of criticism. Wellek, after having cited much evidence, postulates an eighteenth century vision of a biological evolution of poetry which derived from the language of primitives and from the childhood of humankind and to which no return was possible.36

Such a faith was probably confirmed by an endemic belief based on the biological model that humankind had now progressed from childhood to a stage variously viewed as a vigorous prime or as a gentle deterioration towards the final death of creation. Chaos when it came to such a model must be the absolute end, not the prelude to a reorganization that might be both creative and renewing. And thus great original poetry was irrecoverable both in the present and in the future and must be found, if found at all, either in the past or in the kind of reconstitution of the past that a primitive human being ought—at least in theory—to embody.

We see the poets of the period expressing and attempting to fulfill their longings for the great poetry of the past, the epic, in various ways. Like Percy, Hurd, or Walpole they might plunge into studies of ancient poetry or Gothicism. Ossian did not exist and therefore had to be created; Chatterton sought a more primitive voice. Wordsworth, when he began to utter as a wise and simple peasant, was after the same end, an end delineated as early as Addison's analysis of the “Ballad of Chevy Chase” in Spectators 70 and 74, in which he discovered all the genius and truth to nature, all the simplicity of the ancients, all the elevated thought, of the true epic. Had the earlier natural poets known more about tradition instead of less, they might, like Burns and Wordsworth, have followed Addison and given the public what it really wanted.

For following the theory of the biological model, critics and the educated public placed their hopes of original poetry in the natural poets and endowed in imagination each one at first discovery with all the qualities which in reality were never found but in the spurious Ossian, who was made up to specifications. As those burdened by education saw it, was it not possible that a humble peasant, one who had never read any literature and who was, like those spontaneous poets in the childhood of the race, creating metaphor and poetic line something as the Nile was imagined to create life, might in fact produce truly great and original work? The idea, though about as accurate as Gulliver's theoretical speculation about the Struldbruggs, was equally entrancing, and it seemed that one might he able to capture Homer live in a Brackley cottage.

When Ann Yearsley, the Bristol Milkwoman, was discovered by Hannah More in 1784, hopes of this kind were still possible, for the rational Mrs. Montagu wrote

Indeed she is one of nature's miracles. What force of imagination! What harmony of numbers! In pagan times, one could have supposed Apollo had fallen in love with her rosy cheek, snatched her to the top of Mount Parnassus, given her a glass of his best, helicon to drink, and ordered the nine Muses to attend her call. … Her native fire has not been damped by a load of learning. … Avaunt! grammarians; stand away logicians … and make room for the Bible and Milton when a poet is to be made. … Wonder not therefore, if our humble dame rises above Pindar, or steps beyond Aeschylus.37

But the truth about Leapor is that though she was different from those educated poets suffering from the anxiety Bate expresses as “What is there left to do?”38 the difference is not what the public supposed. In fact, Leapor, like the other primitives, knew exactly what was left to do: she had to catch up, make up for lost time, follow Pope and learn to write like him. She was overwhelmed with an anxiety, not the anxiety of influence but the anxiety for influence. As a result her poetry, like that of Duck, could scarcely be more conventional, but of course was never as accomplished as that of Pope, Young, Otway or Rowe.

Thus she gave her days and nights to the study of Dryden and Pope. For an easy and elegant prose style she studied the classic periodical essays of Addison. Her patron Freemantle thought her remarkably successful in these aspirations, and Parthenissa called her “The successor of Pope.” How then could Leapor's verse possibly fulfill the romantic longings of the period? For a start, she had absorbed all the neoclassical values and knew that nature must be controlled by art, imagination by reason, literature by morality.

Can Nature please?—Not till she's well refin'd,
Reforming Art shou'd follow close behind;
But that proud name with me disdains to dwell,
And far she flies—Ah far from Mira's Cell.

(“To a Gentleman with a Manuscript Play,” I, 268).

In August 1746 Leapor addresses Lucinda, who combined with the talents given her by nature has had “all that Art or Learning can bestow” to improve them, and tells how she

longs, assisted by thy friendly Aid,
To noblest Themes her artless Voice to raise,
And strives to sing her great Creator's praise
Like a poor Bird, who swells its little Throat,
And warbles forth its native untaught Note.

(“To Lucinda,” II, 58).

She genuinely distrusts her lack of training.

Nor was Leapor an expresser of primitive passion. The truth was that she often used the writing of verse to quiet her anxieties and longings with philosophy. She told Freemantle that most of her poems “were wrote when cross accidents happened to disturb her, purely to divert her thoughts from dwelling upon what was disagreeable and that it generally had the intended effect, by putting her in a good humour” (II, xxviii). “An Essay on Happiness” runs through portraits of the opulent and great and, identifying bliss with content, ends

Cease, busy Fool: is Happiness thy Care?
Pierce thy own Breast, and thou wilt find it there:
Drive thence the Passions, and the Guilt expel,
And call fair Virtue to the polish'd Cell.
Call soft Content with all her smiling Train;
Peace for thy Health, and Patience for thy Pain:
Then not till then, O Man, thy Heart shall know
Bliss so ador'd, but seldom found below.

(“An Essay on Happiness,” I, 59-60)

Leapor's poetry, then though possibly always motivated by her passions, was not an attempt to express them, but was rather a ratiocinative argument to subdue them, and, finally, to display them subdued and crushed beneath her foot. “An Essay on Hope” runs through the vanity of human wishes and ends

          But the grand Hope that yields perpetual Joy,
No trifles gave, no trifles can destroy;
With Mercy from the blest Abode it came,
Its Birth Celestial and its End the same;
That bids our Days in one smooth Tenor roll,
Its task to chear and harmonize the Soul.
On smarting Want it pours a healing Balm,
Makes Toil seem pleasant and Affliction calm.

(“An Essay on Hope,” I, 65)

And “On Patience” recommends the same sort of philosophy:

Small Comfort feels the discontented Breast
From the gay Splendor of a shining Vest;
While some, whose Bodies are expos'd to Air,
Whose Meals are slender, and whose Feet are bare;
Who want the needful Aid of Cloaths and Fire;
Yet sing in Want, and laugh in Rags and Mire.

(“On Patience,” II, 2)

Her long poem “Mopsus; or, the Castle-Builder,” takes the restless and ambitious Mopsus (herself) though a series of adventures as he seeks to better himself until he learns to seek contentment at home.

Leapor has no doubt about the relationship of reason to the passions:

Wouldst thou learn thy Passions to controul,
To pierce the dark Recesses of the Soul?
Ev'n here the Lamp of Reason is thy Guide.

(“To Lucinda,” II, 61)

The theme of the quieting, stilling, and harmonizing of the soul is endemic to Leapor's work. She seeks a lulling of discontent and the passions. In “The Beauties of the Spring” she recommends sylvan bowers where no martial clamours are found, “No streaming Purple stains the guiltless Ground,” but fairer scenes “Give a soft Pleasure, and a quiet Joy.” She writes often of nature, but the sublime is not her object. “A Summer's Wish” is typical of her verses.

My Guardian, bear me on thy downy Wing
To some cool Shade where infant Flow'rs spring;
Where on the Trees sweet Hony-suckles blow,
And ruddy Daisies paint the Ground below:
Where the shrill Linnet charms the solemn Shade,
And Zephyrs pant along the cooler Glade,
Or shake the Bull-rush by a River Side,
While the gay Sun-beams sparkle on the Tide:
O for some Grot whose rustick Sides declare,
Ease, and not Splendor, was the Builder's Care;
Where Roses spread their unaffected Charms,
And the curl'd Vine extends her clasping Arms;
Where happy Silence lulls the quiet Soul,
And makes it calm as Summer Waters roll.
Here let me learn to check each growing Ill,
And bring to Reason disobedient Will;
To watch this incoherent Breast, and find
What fav'rite Passions rule the giddy Mind.
Here no Reproaches grate the wounded Ear;
We see delighted, and transported hear,
While the glad Warblers wanton round the Trees,
And the still Waters catch the dying Breeze,
Grief waits without, and melancholy Gloom:
Come, chearful Hope, and fill the vacant Room;
Come ev'ry Thought, which Virtue gave to please;
Come smiling Health with Thy Companion Ease:
Let these, and all that Virtue's self attends,
Bless the still Hours of my gentle Friends:
Peace to my Foes, if any such there be,
And gracious Heav'n give Repose to me.

(I, 21-23)

Here Leapor stills the waters twice, as she stills the breeze, and her own passions.

But in contrast to most of her actual work, what was written about her tended to be in concert with contemporary ideas of the natural poet. The proposals for the 1748 volume gave, as a sample, stanzas from a rare ode, the “Ode on Mercy,” a poem which modelled on the 145th Psalm suggested a reach for the sublime. Reviews of both of Leapor's volumes in the Monthly Review printed excerpts without critical comment and the first significant critical response I find is in the Magazine of Magazines, which, speaking of Leapor's “native wood-notes wild,” informs the public that she, “unassisted by art or culture, was indebted for most of her sentiments and poetry to the strength of her own genius, and the flights of her own imagination.”39 The sonnet, probably Highmore's (formerly rejected by Richardson) praises Leapor's “strength unknown to learning's polished strains.” Duncombe said virtually the same of Leapor in the Feminead: she “has lately convinced the world of the force of unassisted nature, by imitating and equalling some of our most approved poets, by the strength of her parts, and the vivacity of her genius.” He ended his lines on her

          Let cloister'd pedants, in an endless round,
Tread the dull mazes of scholastic ground;
Brackley unenvying views the glittering train
Of learning's useless trappings idly vain;
For, spite of all that vaunted learning's aid,
Their fame is rivall'd by her rural maid.

Apart from such upholdings of the legend, both, I think, the work of Duncombe under the influence of Richardson, notices are brief, like Cowper's comment about another disadvantaged poet in 1791: he had not seen such genuine poetic talent in such a poet since Mary Leapor.40 In general Leapor was not studied for what she was, but was cited for what she was not. The most outrageous and perhaps the most revealing of such citations occurs in the Gentleman's Magazine in 1784, incidentally reaffirming Duncombe's suggestion in the Feminead of her connection to Shakespeare—“Those envied honours nature lov'd to pay / The briarbound turf, where erst her Shakespeare lay, / Now on her darling Mira she bestows.” Now a correspondent, discussing the phenomenon of gossamer, quotes Chaucer's remark about its never having been accounted for. In eighteenth century gloss,

As sore some wondir on the cause o' thundr,
Onn ebb and flode, on gosomor, and mist,
And onn all things, till that the cause is wist. …(41)

A note says that Shakespeare has also mentioned gossamer in King Lear, IV, 6, and as a climax “And Molly Leapor styles it, ‘Th'autumnal thread that round the branches flew. …’” Leapor was firmly assigned to the camp of the poets of nature.

A final check through the attributes William Duff lists as those of original genius in poetry reminds us that he does not demand high passion. Naiveté and simplicity of manners Leapor had in spite of herself, though she certainly tried to rid herself of the first. But her naiveté and simplicity are relative only, and her persona, Mira, may be said to bear the same relationship to herself as the “I” of Pope's satires: it is a fictionalized, moralized, idealized persona. The strands of tradition in any ordinary literate poet are braided and twisted of different single threads, each thread an influence, each influence so woven with the others by the poet's synthesizing mind that it cannot be easily unravelled. Or the verse is a musical chord into which the separate notes of literary or experiential influence are blended. Leapor's cord is thin, often like a single strong and homespun thread, and her voice has a monodic effect, sometimes a lonely effect. The effect in fact may be genuinely primitive, natural.

Vivid metaphor, though, has no part in her craft. One might have hoped that the country daughter of a nurseryman might have described nature with a fresh eye; but instead she labored to learn the “correct” ways to describe what she knew so well, probably learning to “see” them conventionally. A description begins

Bright Sol had drove the sable clouds away,
And chear'd the Heavens with a Stream of Day,
The woodland choir their little Throats prepare,
To chant new Carols to the Morning Air. …

(“Dorinda at her Glass,” I, 2)

Leapor must have known the birds as other than the woodland choir, but addressed them again: “Hark, ye Warblers of the Sky!” (I, 12).

In their new Liv'ries the green Woods appear
And smiling Nature decks the Infant Year;
See yon proud Elm that shines in borrow'd charms,
While the curl'd Woodbines deck her aged Arms.

(“The Beauties of the Spring,” I, 12)

In general her flowers paint the ground and the shrubs, odors are ambrosial, buds swell, swains dot the landscape, zephyrs blow, and Philomel sings. When Lucia falls prey to a villain, she becomes a lamb, but not an English lamb—a lamb beset in the desert by a tiger. And when Leapor attempts a homely simile, she avoids the actual naming of the object, a mayfly:

Womens Friendships, like a certain Fly
Are hatch'd i'th'Morning and at Ev'ning die.

(“Essay on Friendship,” I, 74)

Leapor was straining to learn convention, not trying to give vent to a natural inclination toward vivid metaphor.

For universal feeling, Leapor schooled her feelings carefully to accord with neoclassical and Christian values, as we have seen; there was little to learn about what was universal from her. Leisure and tranquillity among the laboring classes would seem from Leapor's experience to be a romantic idea of the idle classes. Exemption from the rules and restraints of criticism is what she perhaps most feared and most attempted to remedy.

And yet she was probably as primitive a poet as one could find: uneducated, without free access to many books, without much conversation, consigned to a station designed to be unacquainted with such things. Yet art had made her a poet of her own time. “A Summer's Wish” is absolutely neoclassically correct. It begins with an invocation to something winged and proceeds through a generalized description of a place which might well have been Philip Leapor's nursery garden, full of well-tended shrubs, trees, and flowers on a small promontory around which the river bent. Still there is no clue that this is a real or particular place with private associations. There are blowing honey-suckle, painted ground, linnets, zephyrs, a grotto. This landscape is thoroughly moralized. It is devised for ease, not splendor. The vines and roses offer unaffected charms and clasping arms. The place is calm and still. The river waters which roll are twice stilled; even the breeze is dying; the poet's passions are quieted. Reason dominates passion and art dominates nature. What the poet has to learn from this landscape is to still the waters of her own breast, and when she has achieved serenity, then birds can celebrate, grief is banished, hope enters, and she is empowered to bless her friends and foes alike. The poet's moral struggles correspond to the gardener's struggles to cultivate the garden, to the control that quiets nature. This is a postlapsarian garden to which order, peace, and grace have been restored at great expense. Lovers and human relationships do not enter. Birds are the only other living creatures.

This is Leapor's predominant theme, an important theme, a woman's theme, but not the theme of a “natural poet.” Because of the slot to which she had been assigned, she was scarcely understood in her own period. Perhaps she may be read and better recognized now as a gifted poet always calling upon art to inspire, authenticate, regulate, and explain her troubled existence, ordering her private space in which that boon autonomy is attained only at the expense of outlawing such passions as ambition, sexuality, and rage.


  1. Richard Greene has submitted a doctoral thesis on Leapor at Oxford (1990); Donna Landry has devoted a chapter to her in her book The Muses of Resistance; I have discussed Leapor and three other natural poets in an essay, “The Patron as Poet-Maker: The Politics of Benefaction,” in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture 20.

  2. Most of the biographical facts known of Mary Leapor were provided by Bridget Freemantle in the introduction to the second volume of her poems. Though Freemantle's letter is unsigned, it can be attributed to her (see note 18).

  3. See Purefoy Letters 1735-1753, ed. G. Eland (London: Sidgwick Jackson, Ltd, 1931), 2 vols., for Elizabeth Purefoy's dealings with Leapor and her notable management of her own affairs.

  4. Northamptonshire Record Office, Archdeaconry Wills, Third Series, V 166, 245. Probably the unborn child in 1701 (below) was a girl or did not live.

  5. Northamptonshire Record Office, Archdeaconry Wills, Fifth Series “Secundus” 150.

  6. Purefoy Letters, I, 147.

  7. Mary Leapor, Poems upon Several Occasions, By Mrs. Leapor of Brackley in Northamptonshire (London: Printed: And Sold by J. Roberts in Warwick-Lane, 1748), I, 257. In 1751 was published “The Second and Last Volume” also “Printed: And Sold by J. Roberts, in Warwick-Lane.” Subsequent references to works from these volumes will be indicated in the text by volume and page number.

  8. Dear Miss Heber, an Eighteenth Century Correspondence, ed. Francis Bamford (London: Constable, 1936), p. xxi.

  9. The Gentleman's Magazine, Nov. 1784, p. 807. Richard Greene names the Chauncys through an identification of the “Crumble Hall” of Leapor's verse as Edgecote House, an identification suggested by Trevor Hold in A Northamptonshire Garland, an anthology of poetry published by the Northampton Libraries in 1989. Greene concludes, assuming that the “Sophronia” who turned “Mira” away in “Epistle to Artemisia. On Fame” is the same Sophronia who makes cheesecakes at Crumble Hall, that Leapor must have worked in that house. Leapor's name “Crumble Hall” is all the more apposite because the Chauncys tore the house down in 1746 and rebuilt it as well as because she found so little appreciation there.

  10. For instance “Then Phillis hastens to her darling Cow, / Whose shining Tresses wanton on her Brow …” (“The Beauties of the Spring,” I, 16). Freemantle notes that the poems were not finally edited by Leapor who, on her death, left pins stuck into the places she intended to amend.

  11. For details about Brackley, neighboring villages, and inhabitants, see John Bridges, The History and Antiquities of Northamptonshire, ed. Peter Whalley (Oxford: T. Payne, et al., 1791), 2 vols., and George Baker, The History and Antiquities of the County of Northampton (London: John Bowyer Nichols & Son, 1822-30), 2 vols. (See also note 16.)

  12. Purefoy Letters, I, 92 and II, 278.

  13. Burton had been murdered in 1740 by a discharged servant. The estate was advertised in the Daily Advertiser, 98 June 1745.

  14. The Daily Advertiser, 18 April 1752.

  15. Thomas and Elizabeth Bowles were the grandparents of William Lisle Bowles (1762-1850), the writer of sonnets.

  16. “Honest Tom Payne,” baptized in Brackley May 26, 1719, was the son of Oliver Payne the baker, and Martha, his wife, the younger brother of Oliver Payne, a bookseller in the Strand, and the brother too of James Payne of Brackley; Thomas and James Payne published at least one book together, William Payne's Elements of Trigonometry in 1772. Richard Greene informs me that a forthcoming book by John Clarke, Yesterday's Brackley—The Last 300 Years, to be published by Barracuda Books, contains information on many of these Brackley contemporaries of Mary Leapor.

  17. See William M. Sale, Jr., Samuel Richardson: Master Printer (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1950), pp. 20, 351. Garland apparently went to Dublin after completing his articles and set up a shop in Essex Street; so he was probably not the connection that led to Richardson's printing the second volume. He very likely returned to London in 1752, when he took up his freedom.

  18. For the identification of Leapor's patron Artemisia as Bridget Freemantle, see Betty Rizzo, “Christopher Smart, The ‘C.S.’ Poems, and Molly Leapor's Epitaph,” The Library, Sixth Series 5 (March 1983), p. 30, and “Mary Leapor,” A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers 1660-1800, ed. Janet Todd (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Allanheld, 1985), pp. 192-93. An unpublished letter from Richardson to Isaac Hawkins Browne, dated 10 Dec. 1750, identifies as Mrs. Freemantle the author of the account of Leapor that was published as the preface to the second volume. Internal evidence in the letters by Leapor published in the same volume establishes Freemantle to be also her patron Artemisia. The unpublished Richardson letter is in the Hyde Collection, Somerville, N. J.

  19. The first half of the subscription price, paid down when the subscription commenced, was calculated to cover the costs of paper and printing. The second half, paid down when the books were delivered, was the author's profit. In this case the price of the book was five shillings, and 2 1/2 shillings x 600 = £75.

  20. Copies of the Polls Taken at the Several Elections for Members to Represent the County of Northampton in Parliament. In the Years 1702, 1705, 1730, 1745 [1749], and 1806. At Northampton. (Northampton: T. E. Dicey, 1832) lists 43 freeholders in Brackley in the 1749 election, including John Blencowe, Thomas Bowles, D.D., Charles Garland, Robert Loveday, and John Watts (presumably the plumber, but possibly related to the printer of the first volume—see Note 24) as well as Philip Leapor, who voted in none of the previous elections (no Leapor did).

  21. The gravestone has vanished, but the error of date derives either from an error on the stone or from the transcription made by Baker (I, 637-38), the only source for the inscription. The Brackley burial register confirms Leapor's date of burial as 14 November.

  22. For an expanded study of this subject, see the essay in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture noted in footnote 1.

  23. A copy of these is in the Bodleian Library, MS Ballard 42.

  24. Watts did not subscribe to the second volume. My gratitude to James May for deliberations with me over ornaments in the British Library as well as for subsequent communications and advice about this problem.

  25. All the copies were still not disposed of when on 19 Jan. 1750 the book was again advertised as “This Day Published,” a common ploy for selling off old stock.

  26. Susanna Highmore (1725-1812), daughter of the painter Joseph Highmore and prominent member of the Richardson circle, married John Duncombe in 1761. For her see Warren Mild, “Susanna Highmore's Literary Reputation,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 192 (Dec. 1978), pp. 377-84, and “Susanna Duncombe,” in Todd's A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers, pp. 106-107.

  27. For John Duncombe, see DNB. He and his father William Duncombe (see DNB) began ca. 1750 to become intimate with Richardson.

  28. Leapor was a great user of models and one wonders where she could have found models for the bold feminism running in her later poetry. There is a model for one thought in this which she might well have seen in “The Humble Wish,” from A New Miscellany (Bath, 1726): “I ask not wit, nor beauty do I crave, / Nor wealth, nor pompous titles wish to have; / But since 'tis doom'd, in all degrees of life, / (Whether a daughter, sister, or a wife,) / That females shall the stronger males obey, / And yield per force to their tyrannic sway; I Since this, I say, is ev'ry woman's fate, / Give me a mind to suit my slavish state.”

  29. The Correspondence of Samuel Richardson, ed. Anna Laetitia Barbauld (London: Richard Phillips, 1804), III, 24.

  30. Smart published “Colinetta” (from I, 26-30) in Midwife I, 2 (21 Nov. 1750), 81-84, with an introduction by his comic persona Mrs. Midnight: “The following Pastoral Piece, written by Mrs. Leapor, exceeds every thing of that kind, which has yet been exhibited by the Male Authors, and I think does a supreme Honour to our Sex. Where will you find in any of them so much Nature, Sweetness, Simplicity and Ease, and such a judicious Choice of new and enlivening Epithets?—Our Readers will have a farther Account of this excellent Lady in a future Number.” No further account followed. “Colinetta” was reprinted with other Midwife pieces in The Nonpareil (1757). Smart probably quotes Richardson in his assessment of Leapor—see next note.

  31. The Correspondence of Samuel Richardson, II, 253. Note that like Smart, Richardson praises Leapor's verse for sweetness and ease.

  32. See Rizzo, “Christopher Smart, The ‘C.S.’ Poems, and Molly Leapor's Epitaph,” p. 24. Smart had in all probability published verses to Highmore.

  33. See “Spence, Natural Genius, and Pope,” Philological Quarterly XLV, 1 (Jan. 1966), pp. 123-44.

  34. Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets, ed. G.B. Hill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905; rep. Octagon Books, Inc., 1967), II, 228; III, 339.

  35. A History of Modern Criticism: 1750-1950, The Later Eighteenth Century (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1955), I, 28 and passim.

  36. Wellek, p. 189.

  37. Memoirs of the Life and Correspondence of Mrs. Hannah More, ed. William Roberts (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1851), I, 206-207.

  38. Walter Jackson Bate, The Burden of the Past and the English Poet (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 3.

  39. April 1751, p. 369.

  40. The Letters and Prose Writings of William Cowper, ed. James King and Charles Ryskamp (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), III, 485. Cowper had been a great friend of John Duncombe's. His praise of Leapor is well-supported by an argument that poets need education, that a strong tendency to write is often found where genius is wanting, but that Mrs. Leapor and Elizabeth Bentley had the most marks of a true poetical talent among such disadvantaged poets.

  41. The Gentleman's Magazine, Sept. 1784, p. 650. The comment appears as a note to a letter on spiders from Thomas Holt White; as Duncombe was a prolific contributor to the magazine, he may himself have been responsible for the note.

Richard Greene (essay date 1993)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 32175

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.]


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 invited may be justified in relation to the traditional canon of polite verse. This gathering, above all, does not wish to be disturbed or embarrassed or confused. Yet one may imagine that the dinner-party takes place in a large house, and that in another room the ladies are engaged in their own conversations. One woman, the wife of the host, is giving instructions to the upper servants. She may feel, like the Countess of Winchilsea, that her gifts are not valued: ‘… the dull mannage, of a servile house ❙ Is held by some, our outmost art, and use.’2 She may think herself wasted in a world where good help is hard to find. On the night of the dinner-party, it seems, the kitchen-maid has allowed the meat to scorch.

That women writers all suffered the same disadvantages, entertained approximately the same ambitions, and approached their writing out of basically the same experiences, is manifestly untrue. While many concerns are shared, their lives are often as different as those of the Countess of Winchilsea and the kitchen maid from Brackley. Although most scholars are aware of this problem with respect to women's writing, some prefer simpler terms. The editors of Kissing the Rod: An Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Women's Verse choose a military metaphor to describe the activity of women poets in their period: ‘We have aimed to show who the women were who tried to storm the highest bastion of the cultural establishment, the citadel of “sacred poetry”. They were all guerilleras, untrained, ill-equipped, isolated and vulnerable.’3 Given the number of titled ladies in the volume, it is hard to believe that their struggles were absolutely equivalent to that of, say, Aphra Behn, who at the end of her life was brought to desperate circumstances. Ann Messenger describes the condition of women writers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in very different terms:

no single critical or historical label fits. There were isolated, confessional, misunderstood, suffering women writers, and there were successful amateurs and professionals, welcomed and supported as part of the community. There were fighters and rebels who were writers, and there were contented wives, mothers, and Sunday school teachers who were writers. There was a sense of sisterhood, of a women's literary tradition, and there was overt rejection of the idea. The only truly valid generalization that can be drawn is that no truly valid generalization is possible.4

Messenger is not, of course, suggesting that women's writing in the period is so fragmented that the concept is basically useless, but that the writing of women cannot be reduced to a single critical proposition.

Some critics of women's writing in the eighteenth century approach their material with a narrowly ideological set of criteria. In a paper awarded a prize by the women's caucus of the MLA, Beth Kowaleski-Wallace writes: ‘Eighteenth-century literary biography reiterates the preoccupation with the benevolent patriarch by providing examples of men-centered women, “daddy's girls”, among them Elizabeth Carter, Hannah More, Maria Edgeworth, and Fanny Burney.’5 It is hard to imagine that a term like ‘daddy's girls’ can be applied with fairness, let alone exactitude. While it is certainly necessary to chart shifts in women's position in literature and society through history, it is crudely ahistorical to judge writers of the past exclusively through terms arrived at in the late twentieth century. Jessica Munns asks an important question in a generally sympathetic review of Jacqueline Pearson's The Prostituted Muse: Images of Women and Women Dramatists 1642-1737: ‘What are modern feminists, busily undoing gender systems, doing setting up systematics of feminism and then, as it were, awarding or withholding Brownie points for their fulfilment or omission?’6 To treat women of the eighteenth century narrowly as pioneers or precursors of modern feminism has the unfortunate effect of visiting a new teleology on eighteenth-century studies. Whereas the view of mid-century literature as pre-Romantic was effectively demolished by Northrop Frye,7 there is a danger now of regarding women writers as pilgrims on the way to modern feminism, or at least to some recognizable place in the history of women's writing. The essential point is not that a feminist reading of the eighteenth century is impossible, but that it must, as Munns suggests, recognize not only sexual difference but the difference between one century and another.8

The crucial historical issue in relation to women writers of the eighteenth century is marriage. Lawrence Stone has put forward a highly influential argument that the eighteenth century saw the rise of the companionate marriage, and that affection between husband and wife was for the first time widely judged as important as economic considerations.9 This argument has been challenged in relation to all classes by historians examining various kinds of evidence from the seventeenth century and earlier.10 The belief that affection as an ideal of marriage was basically invented by the middle and upper classes in the eighteenth century has, however, led some critics into simplistic views. Eva Figes, for example, bases her interpretation of women's writing until 1850 on the belief that ‘Until the eighteenth century marriage, like life, tended to be brutish and short’.11 Katherine Rogers, though a well-informed critic, is likewise misled on this point. She believes that the sudden growth in women's writing and the interest in issues relating to women was largely owing to the rise of the companionate marriage. The first sentence of Feminism in Eighteenth-Century England makes her position clear: ‘A significant new interest in woman's nature and position, caused in part by a radical change in attitudes toward marriage, appears in eighteenth-century literature.’12 Women did find a new means of articulating their experiences by publishing, yet it is a mistake to believe that the huge growth in women's writing went hand in hand with equally momentous shifts in attitudes towards marriage.13

Given that the ideal of the companionate marriage had existed before the eighteenth century, it must be recognized that women's position within marriage was inferior to that of men. At marriage a woman's legal identity was submerged in that of her husband. A married woman's position before the law was approximately that of a child or an incompetent. The husband had coercive powers to govern most aspects of a woman's life, particularly through his control of money. Although they had certain rights, especially under equity law, few women were willing to go to court against their husbands.14 At lower levels of society the forms of marriage tended to be more relaxed. Common-law marriage or simple espousal allowed women to retain financial independence.15 By definition, of course, women at the lower levels of society would have had fewer assets to control.

Within marriage a wife was generally expected to obey her husband. The biblical teaching on this was unambiguous: Genesis 3: 16 and Galatians 5: 22-3 as well as other passages firmly established the husband as the dominant partner. Biblical authority was very difficult to resist, and presented particular problems to orthodox moralists who were also aware of the dangers of domestic tyranny. Samuel Johnson treads carefully in one of his sermons, affirming the woman's duty of obedience while arguing strongly that a husband's authority also has its limits: ‘But though obedience may be justly required, servility is not to be exacted; and though it may be lawful to exert authority, it must be remembered, that to govern and to tyrannize are very different, and that oppression will naturally provoke rebellion’ (Johnson, xiv. 14). Basic affection and normal standards of decency often allowed balanced relationships to evolve. Some husbands, however, would feel no hesitation in exacting the obedience decreed by scripture, even by the domestic chastisement permitted under law. The potential for oppression was enormous. Bridget Hill maintains that wife-beating was common through all levels of society, though it was rather better concealed among the affluent (Hill, 199-200).

Moral standards imposed a further and more subtle restriction on women. Whereas standards of ethical behaviour for men were essentially active, a woman was obliged above all to remain chaste. According to Katherine Rogers, a zealous defence of sexual reputation entailed a negative moral standard: virtue consisted in what was not done. In order to preserve her reputation, a woman was obliged to refrain from most types of work that might bring financial independence. As one rose in society this problem, paradoxically, became more acute as the possibilities of domestic service or involvement in a family enterprise were reduced.16 Although writing remained an outlet for women's talents, many women who published were attacked as whores. Early in the century especially, there was the real danger of being compared with Aphra Behn or Delarivière Manley or other writers whose sexual conduct had caused scandal. There had been women writers of the Restoration whose reputations were unassailable, notably Katherine Phillips, but to publish was indeed a risk. By the second quarter of the century there were more examples of women writers whose morality was unimpeachable, including Elizabeth Rowe and Elizabeth Carter. Yet there were also instances of women writers falling into disgrace, most famously Laetitia Pilkington, a protégée of Jonathan Swift. The opprobrium that went with sexual scandal was usually difficult to bear. Catherine Jemmat in her ‘Essay in Vindication of the Female Sex’ (1766) described her own ‘ruin’:

The villain who was the occasion of my ruin and disgrace, and has imparted the self-same treatment on many others of my sex, is considered by the world as a man of unspotted honour. The public may be assured that he has been very frequently engaged in what is gently termed gallantry and intrigue; but yet these (give me leave to call them capital crimes) are not in the least considered in him as deserving of censure.17

Jemmat's frank protest against a double standard is certainly unusual. It shows nonetheless that, in matters of scandal, women had everything to lose, and men almost nothing. Women writers were expected to remain within strict bounds of modesty. It was normal for women to write about love, but they were expected always to be decorous. It was acceptable for Alexander Pope to describe female desire in ‘Eloisa to Abelard’, but no woman might approach the subject without considerable danger to her reputation.

An adult woman was normally expected to be a wife and mother. Yet in the first half of the century the number of unmarried women increased substantially, so that they formed a significant minority group.18 Spinsters maintained an anomalous social position and were often seen as a threat to a society that assumed all women would marry and be subject to the control of their husbands (Hill, 229-30). Spinsters and widows enjoyed the legal status of femme sole in which they had control of their own affairs. Where a woman could expect a jointure, the death of a husband had distinct benefits, yet a woman who had lost a husband, or failed to get one at all, might find herself in genuine distress. Olwen Hufton observes that outside domestic service single working women had difficulty surviving on their wages. One common solution to this was ‘spinster clustering’, that is, single women sharing accommodation and expenses. An alternative was for a widowed mother and unmarried daughter to maintain a household, as, indeed, Bridget Freemantle did with her mother. Many women would assume control of the family business upon the death of a spouse. Widows were numerous, for example, in the publishing business. They were often to be found operating shops and farms. Hufton notes more surprising instances of widows continuing in their husbands' occupation as gaolers. Unmarried women, especially widows, had some prospect of an independent life. However, the numbers of women choosing not to marry receded in times of rising real wages, and the same conditions lowered the average age at marriage.19 Hence, it is wise to remember that many women remained unmarried only because they did not have the means to start a new household with a husband. In the upper classes women often remained unmarried because their families could not provide sufficient dowries. Nonetheless, there were also women who chose not to marry in order to retain personal freedom. Defoe's Roxana explains why she has turned down an offer of marriage from a Dutch merchant: ‘… I had no need to give him twenty Thousand Pound to marry me, which had been buying my Lodging too dear a great deal.’20 The case for women to eschew marriage was, of course, made most forcefully by Mary Astell, who, unlike Roxana, was not inclined to consider the merits of being a mistress. Rather, she proposed the establishment of an institution resembling a convent where women might study and develop themselves spiritually. Astell's college, though it was never established, became a landmark in feminist thinking of the period.21

The education of women at all levels of society was plainly inadequate. The universities excluded them altogether. This exclusion entailed that women writers would be less burdened by long-established literary models and possibly more disposed to develop their own forms and techniques. That a university education was not absolutely necessary for literary success can be seen in the career of Alexander Pope or Samuel Richardson. Yet systematic exclusion of women from higher education can only be seen as having forced the great majority of capable women out of the intellectual mainstream. Women's academies, in general, prepared the daughters of the wealthy to make their way in society, and sought to enhance their prospects of marriage. Whereas young men as a matter of course would study the classics, women would be instructed in painting, music, dancing, modern languages, or other accomplishments, but rarely would they be expected to achieve real competence.22 Indeed, a learned woman was likely to experience difficulty finding a husband, and education might cease to be any advantage. There were, nonetheless, women who managed to become well educated. Mary Wortley Montagu taught herself Latin and other languages, and read extensively in her father's library. Mehetabel Wright was instructed by her father, Samuel Wesley, and is said to have understood Greek by the age of 8. Elizabeth Carter and Constantia Grierson established themselves as classical scholars. Elizabeth Montagu became a leading Shakespearian critic. Most women who desired learning, however, acquired it by struggle, and in a manner which promoted a sense of inferiority even among the most gifted and widely read women. Indeed, the colourful story of Susanna Centlivre's sojourn at Cambridge supposedly disguised as a man presents an image of the woman entering the intellectual world by stealth. There is, however, no need to look for metaphors in the struggles of labouring women, including Mary Leapor, for whom education was a barely attainable luxury.

Women writers of the period, as well as sympathetic men, argued for better education as a means of improving the lot of women. It is significant that Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote, one of the most interesting novels of its time, is essentially a satire on women's education. Arabella, the heroine, is remarkably gifted, yet her reading is confined to French romances. She understands the world through trivial fictions, and is trapped within a child's view of history and society. Near the end of the novel the unnamed clergyman who is attempting to show Arabella how unreasonable her notions are, is left ‘in strange Embarrassment, not knowing how to account for a Mind at once so enlighten'd, and so ridiculous’.23 The parson's words can surely be read as an indictment of women's education which, though it improved throughout the period, generally failed to realize their intellectual potential.

It is now well known that women of the eighteenth century produced books in almost all genres. Women's writing in the period has recently become an area of scholarly interest. There had been earlier studies of women writers, notably Myra Reynolds's The Learned Lady in England 1650-1760 (1920), and occasional studies of individual writers, but only since the 1970s have the conditions obtained for a comprehensive re-examination of these writers. Of particular importance is Janet Todd's A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers 1660-1800 (1984), which brings forward an enormous amount of information about writers, some of whom have been entirely unregarded for more than two centuries. In general, studies of women prose writers have outstripped by some distance studies of poets, apart from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and the Countess of Winchilsea. This imbalance is unfortunate, since, as Pat Rogers observes: ‘there were more first-rate women poets than novelists in the period, and … poetry was still the place where ideas were growing most vigorously’.24

A study of women writers can easily lose sight of broader literary relations, and inadvertently consign its subjects to a ghetto. Since 1987 there have been two valuable essays which examine women poets of the eighteenth century in relation to contemporary male writers. Jocelyn Harris takes as her point of departure Duncombe's The Feminiad.25 Her approach is fruitful in that it explores major issues in women's poetry of the time and its relation to the literary mainstream. Also of considerable interest is Margaret Doody's ‘Swift among the Women’, which traces the Dean's influence on women poets of the time.26 Both Harris and Doody take a particular interest in Mary Leapor's poetry.

The publication of Roger Lonsdale's Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology (1989) was an event of considerable importance. The most obvious achievement of this book is that it located and republished many poets whose neglect was far deeper than that of Mary Leapor. Indeed, the appearance of Lonsdale's book revealed and at once remedied a huge gap in the study of women writers. Claire Tomalin, Mary Wollstonecraft's biographer, asks candidly in her review of the anthology: ‘How many women poets of the eighteenth century can most of us name? I was stuck after Anne, Countess of Winchilsea, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Joanna Baillie, Mrs. Barbauld and Helen Maria Williams.’27 Apart from the simple work of recovery, Lonsdale provides a good deal of new biographical information about the poets, and, perhaps most importantly, his long introduction supplies a comprehensive history of women poets throughout the century. He accepts that the material defies easy summary and generalization (ECWP, p. xxii), but proceeds to survey the actual work of women poets, recognizing that there are always some who stand outside general trends. From the beginning to the end of the century, he observes that there was a huge increase in the amount of poetry published by women. This, in itself, indicates a change in the literary status of women. In the first decades, Lonsdale notes that there were a number of poets, such as Lady Mary Chudleigh, Octavia Walsh, Elizabeth Tollet, and Mehetabel Wright, who worked very much in isolation; these are not, however, entirely representative, since the Restoration ‘brought a new confidence and competence to women's verse’ (ECWP, p. xxii). Sarah Fyge Egerton, Elizabeth Rowe, the Countess of Winchilsea, and others asserted themselves in the literary mainstream. In the 1730s women found new outlets for their work through periodicals, especially the Gentleman's Magazine, and through subscription publishing. By the 1740s the numbers were increasing, although the best women poets, including Mary Leapor and Mary Jones, tended to be somewhat behind the times, modelling their work on Pope and Swift rather than responding to the new trend towards sensibility at mid-century. The 1750s marked an important transition, as works by such men as Duncombe and Ballard celebrated the achievements of women writers, and Colman and Thornton published the first edition of Poems by Eminent Ladies. In the 1750s the place of women in contemporary literature was much more widely recognized. The literary circles of Richardson and Johnson proved especially welcoming to women poets such as Elizabeth Carter, Anna Williams, Charlotte Lennox, and Hester Mulso Chapone. As the century went on, women poets exercised much greater influence on the literary scene. The appearance of Anna Seward, Anna Aikin Barbauld, Hannah More, Charlotte Smith, Helen Maria Williams, and others entailed that women were largely setting the poetic fashion from the late 1770s to the early 1790s. Indeed, the influence of women writers at the time was rising in many areas, as Fanny Burney's Evelina (1778) and Hannah Cowley's dramatic works placed them in the forefront of contemporary literature. The appearance of new literary circles around Elizabeth Montagu and Hester Thrale Piozzi was a further sign of women's improved status in the literary world.

In Lonsdale's view, the 1790s saw a reaction against women writers. New theories about education challenged women's intellectual credentials, since most of them lacked a knowledge of the classics. Wordsworth's polemics at the turn of the century implied strong criticism of fashionable women poets:

Superficially more democratic than Richard Steele's definition of the poet as a ‘very well-bred Man’, Wordsworth's notion of the poet may seem even more relentlessly masculine and, in the loftiness of his conception of poetic genius, even more exclusive … In attacking the ‘gaudy and inane phraseology’ of fashionable poetry, Wordsworth (ostensibly attacking Thomas Gray) was in fact echoing the charge repeatedly levelled at women poets by reviewers and others in the 1780s and 1790s …

(ECWP, p. xl)

Before long, a good deal of the poetry that women had written would seem decidedly out of date. Its exclusion from major anthologies made doubly sure that, after a generation or so, it would be read by almost no one.

Lonsdale's history of women poets through the century allows them to be understood against developments in the poetry written by men, whose dominance of fashion was challenged for only a short time towards the end of the period. Yet he also makes clear that a number of the best poets in his anthology were unbothered by developments in London: ‘Some homely writers had clearly never heard about the requirements of polite taste’ (ECWP, p. xxvi). Among these, towards the end of the period, are Susanna Blamire and Joanna Baillie, who are among the most heavily represented poets in the anthology. Indeed, if one considers the whole century, a surprising number of the heavily represented poets remained largely unaffected by changes in fashion, among them Mary Leapor, Mary Jones, Esther Lewis, Susanna Blamire, Elizabeth Hands, and Joanna Baillie. These poets generally prefer concrete description, and a versification reminiscent of Swift and Pope, to odes, abstraction, and sublime rhetoric. As a question of aesthetic value, it is hard to dispute Lonsdale's decision to give prominence to this material. Yet if one accepts that a number of very accomplished poets remained firmly off the routes of mainstream development, it must also be accepted that the history of women's poetry, and of poetry in general throughout the eighteenth century, has been written in a simplistic manner. Indeed, if so much is happening on the edges, one is obliged to ask again what is really characteristic of the period.

The rest of this [essay] will discuss Mary Leapor's work in so far as it responds specifically to her experience of being a woman. The first section will discuss Leapor's attitudes towards marriage and the family. The second will discuss her views of female friendship. The final section will consider her representation of the female body, especially in relation to contemporary ideals of beauty.


Mary Leapor's writings are given an extended feminist materialist reading by Donna Landry in The Muses of Resistance: Laboring-Class Women's Poetry in Britain, 1739-1796 (1990). In a sense, one can only be delighted that Leapor and other poets like her are receiving such serious attention. Yet, in view of the problems discussed in the first section of this chapter, it will be necessary to disagree with a number of Landry's principal arguments. First, her approach is decidedly teleological, and she makes no secret of her attempt to understand Leapor against the backdrop of recent feminist discourse: ‘Of the plebeian female poets of the period, Mary Leapor possesses the most writerly œuvre. Hers is also the body of work most easily assimilable to what we commonly describe today as “radical feminism,” with its polemics against patriarchy, male violence, and heterosexist containments of economies of desire’ (p. 119). Although Landry makes clear that the shoe does not always fit, this sort of approach, as suggested above, is dangerous in that it shapes what a scholar is willing to see. This danger is most obvious in Landry's consistent use of the terms ‘heterosexual union’, ‘heterosexual attachment’, and ‘heterosexual couple’, where Leapor's meaning is simply marriage or married couple. Landry's concern is to explore sexual difference: ‘the extent to which Leapor's writing represents female eroticism as transgressive, situates it in relation to sapphic textuality, and exposes the necessary construction of such alternative desires within as well as against the very terms of heterosexual propriety from which they are generated’ (p. 84). The binary opposite of heterosexual is homosexual or lesbian; the binary opposite of married is single. It appears that Landry is intent on manipulating such terms, in order to perform an ideological deconstruction. Again, she makes no secret of this:

We are reminded by the silences in Leapor's texts that the pursuit of happiness as an enabling myth, in terms of official precept accessible to women through romantic love and marriage, remains in this period largely a privilege of bourgeois male subjects. For women and the lower classes, unhappiness is to be endured, not abandoned, even for the pursuit of imaginary alternatives.

(p. 88)

This reading of silences depends on the argument that the companionate ideal of marriage developed first among the privileged classes, and that in the eighteenth century lower-class women could expect little affection in marriage. Even if the historical argument were sound, an objection could be raised to the critical method: silences are sometimes extremely difficult to interpret. Indeed, Landry is mistaken even when she claims that the poems are silent on the question of lower-class marriage: in ‘The Month of August’, for example, Phillis, a country girl, believes that she will be happy in marriage to a man of her own class, and Leapor does not undermine that suggestion. Although in other poems Leapor shows that labouring-class women can be desperately unhappy in marriage, she is not unequivocal. Depending upon one's theoretical persuasion, Landry's approach is either deconstructive, and rather exciting, or merely tendentious.

Landry represents Leapor as the thoroughgoing enemy of patriarchy who ‘laughs at the fathers’. Yet, to promote this idea, she puts forward some very strange arguments. She provides a lopsided interpretation of Freemantle's report that on her death-bed the poet expressed concern for her father and asked that the subscription be carried on for his sake:

In the light of Leapor's harrowing narratives of heterosexual attachment gone awry, as in ‘The Temple of Love,’ and family feeling deformed by familial conflict, as in The Unhappy Father and The Cruel Parent, it is possible to read into this last wish a peculiar kind of vindication. If we are to take this speech as accurate reportage within the conventions of deathbed narratives, is there not something a little remarkable in Leapor's assuring her friend and patron that she has always loved her father, though never so much as now, when she is dying? And the work that he had tried to prevent will now, ironically, endow his old age, even afford him a comfortable subsistence: this work which was viewed as such unprofitable employment.

(pp. 104-5)

In its way, this view of Leapor's last wishes is almost breathtaking. With a gesture to the conventions of death-bed narratives, Landry reads Freemantle's account as if it were a twentieth-century novel. Freemantle's letter shows that although Philip and Anne Leapor both attempted to break their daughter of the habit of writing verses, towards the end of the poet's life some accommodation was reached: ‘But finding it impossible to alter her natural Inclination, [her father] had of late desisted and left her more at Liberty’ (ii, p. xxx). Leapor's poetry makes clear that she suffered many distressing lectures from her father, yet if the two had reached an understanding—indeed, if they intended to use the money from the subscription to buy their freehold and have security for their life together—Landry's interpretation of this episode is simply captious. The same attempt to represent fathers in Leapor's writing purely as tyrants can likewise be seen in her interpretation of The Unhappy Father, which will be discussed below.

If Landry consistently overstates Leapor's radicalism, it remains true that by the standards of her time Leapor's views on marriage and the family were critical and hard-edged. That she could deal with the philosophical and ideological issues related to women's position in the family is evident from the poem ‘Man the Monarch’, in which she debunks the view that men's sovereignty over women derives from Adam:

          When our Grandsire nam'd the feather'd Kind,
Pond'ring their Natures in his careful Mind,
'Twas then, if on our Author we rely,
He view'd his Consort with an envious Eye;
Greedy of Pow'r, he hugg'd the tott'ring Throne;
Pleased with Homage, and would reign alone;
And, better to secure his doubtful Rule,
Roll'd his wise Eye-balls, and pronounc'd her Fool.
The regal Blood to distant Ages runs:
Sires, Brothers, Husbands, and commanding Sons,
The Sceptre claim; and ev'ry Cottage brings
A long Succession of domestic Kings.

(ML ii. 10)

The poem is a response to some book Leapor has been reading. Jocelyn Harris is almost certainly right when she suggests that she is, in fact, responding to John Locke,28 who writes ‘Of Adam's Title to Sovereignty by the Subjection of Eve’:

if this be the Original Grant of Government and the Foundation of Monarchical Power, there will be as many Monarchs as there are Husbands. If therefore these words [Genesis 3: 16] give any Power to Adam, it can only be a Conjugal Power, not Political, the Power that every Husband hath to order the things of private Concernment in his Family, as the Proprietor of the Goods and Land there, and to have his Will take place before that of his wife in all things of their common Concernment; but not a Political Power of Life and Death over her, much less over any body else.29

As is widely observed, rationalist philosophy paved the way for a re-examination of women's place in society and in the family.30 If Locke could subject the divine right of kings to a critical examination, the rights of husbands were likewise vulnerable to a reasoned critique. The language of kingship, sovereignty, and liberty is taken from political philosophy and applied to marriage. Mary Astell writes: ‘how much soever Arbitrary Power may be dislik'd on a Throne, Not Milton himself wou'd cry up Liberty to poor Female Slaves, or plead for the Lawfulness of Resisting a Private Tyranny.’31 Leapor's contempt for the idea of ‘A long Succession of domestic Kings’ is close in spirit to a passage by ‘Sophia’, the pamphleteer:

I myself was accidentally witness to the diverting scene of a journeyman taylor's beating his wife about the ears with a neck of mutton, to make her know, as he said, her sovereign lord and master. And yet this, perhaps, is as strong an argument as the best of their sex is able to produce, tho' convey'd in a greasy light.32

Both Leapor and ‘Sophia’ find something contemptible in the claims of men to automatic mastery over their wives. Indeed, for both it is ridiculous that a man who has no claim on the world's attention, should none the less be able to exact full obedience from his wife. This attitude, especially in ‘Sophia's’ case, may owe something to class-distinction, that is, a duke beating a duchess with a neck of mutton might prove less illustrative than a journeyman tailor doing such a thing to his wife. Yet the central point is that it is absurd to assume that any woman is less competent to direct her life than any man she marries.

In her rejection of a purely romantic view of the relations of men and women, Leapor's opinions on marriage are at a very great distance from those of more conventional women poets in her time. Mary Jones complains in a letter dated 1735 of the tediousness of most women's verse:

Whenever I meet with a Sister in print, I always expect to hear that Corydon has prov'd false; or that Sylvia's cruel Parents have had prudence enough to keep two mad People from playing the Fool together, for Life. I've often wish'd, for the honour of our Sex, that these Subjects had been exhausted seventeen hundred years ago; but am afraid that seventeen hundred years hence, we shall have the same false Corydon's, and the same complaining Sylvia's. 'Tis pity, that this passion alone should set us to Rhyming.33

There were, of course, a good number of poets who moved beyond such limitations. Jones's comments are actually part of a favourable reaction to Mary Barber's poems. None the less, a woman poet who attacks the naïvety of a purely romantic view of marriage is, in some sense, going against the grain.

Jonathan Swift often presents a decidedly unpleasant view of women's sexuality, yet his poetry provided a model for women poets of the time who wished to expose the deceptions of romantic love, and the concealed dangers of marriage. For Swift, of course, the disillusionment will come when the man discovers that the woman he worshipped as a goddess is only too physical, as in ‘The Lady's Dressing Room’:

          Thus finishing his grand Survey,
Disgusted Strephon stole away
Repeating in his amourous Fits,
Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!

(Swift, ii. 529)

‘The Lady's Dressing Room’ drew the fire of Mary Wortley Montagu and the unidentified Miss W———, both of whom wrote parodies of the poem.34 Mary Leapor, in an octosyllabic satire, ‘The Mistaken Lover’, responds, according to Margaret Doody, to Swift's ‘Strephon and Chloe’, a poem which describes fashionable courtship and marriage.35 Swift's Chloe manages to conceal perfectly all of her less attractive bodily functions:

Her graceful Mein, her Shape, and Face,
Confest her of no mortal Race:
And then, so nice, and so genteel;
Such Cleanliness from Head to Heel:
No Humours gross, or frowzy Steams,
No noisom Whiffs, or sweaty Streams,
Before, behind, above, below,
Could from her taintless Body flow

(Swift, ii. 584)

Chloe's beauty is a matter of hiding the dirty facts of the body. Strephon allows himself to be duped by the charms of this woman who, in Swift's view, seems immortal because she appears clean. In Leapor's poem, the deceptive exterior is not the woman's beauty but the beau's appearance. Having been wounded by her killing eyes, Strephon chooses his course:

What shou'd he do?—‘Commence the Beau,
‘For Women oft are caught by Show.’
The wounded Strephon now behold,
Array'd in Coat of Green and Gold,
(Of which we something might advance)
The Sleeve was a-la-mode de France.
We leave it here—and haste to tell,
How smartly round his Temples fell
The modish Wig.—Yet we presume,
More graceful was the scarlet Plume:
Tho' some rude Soldier (doom'd to bear
The Southern and the Northern Air,
And walk through ev'ry kind of Weather)
Might jeer at Strephon's scarlet Feather;
And tell us such shou'd ne'er be wore,
Unless you fought at Marston-moor.

(ML i. 81-2)

Although she describes a stereotypical beau, Leapor emphasizes that Strephon's artificial appearance is part of his strategy to deceive Celia. That he wears a soldier's plume without meriting it is meant to show that he is a bluff. In a passage which departs from Swift's model and follows John Gay's ‘The Fan’, Strephon pays court to Celia with serenades and sonnets, and all ‘the Lover's Cant’. In short order, Celia agrees, the documents are drawn up, and the wedding proceeds:

But I shall pass the Wedding-day,
Nor stay to paint the Ladies gay,
Nor Splendor of the lighted Hall,
The Feast, the Fiddles, nor the Ball.
A lovely Theme!—'Tis true, but then
We'll leave it to a softer Pen:
Those transient Joys will fade too soon,
We'll therefore skip the Hony-Moon.

(ML i. 83)

Leapor is here parting company with conventional love poetry, leaving that to others who have ‘a softer Pen’; Swift himself gives some space to describing wedding festivities, though the bitter revelation is expected shortly.

At this point in the poem Leapor, like Swift, attempts to account for the eventual unhappiness of the marriage. For Swift, the reason is that the marriage is based on an idealization of the woman. Marriage brings with it a disconcerting reality:

          How great a Change! how quickly made!
They learn to call a Spade, a Spade.
They soon from all Constraint are freed;
Can see each other do their Need.

(Swift, ii. 590)

The magic wears off, and Swift advises women that they have only themselves to blame for a husband's loss of enthusiasm if they do not keep themselves clean:

          Unjustly all our Nymphs complain,
Their Empire holds so short a Reign;
Is after Marriage lost so soon,
It hardly holds the Honey-moon:
For, if they keep not what they caught,
It is entirely their own Fault.

(Swift, ii. 591)

Leapor, however, will have none of this. The truths that are recognized after marriage have very little to do with chamber pots. Rather, the husband's motives are exposed. Strephon has married Celia because she could bring ‘Five thousand Pounds of Sterling clear, ❙ To bless the Mansion of her Dear’. For Leapor, this is the hidden danger where a woman surrenders financial control in marriage:

          Some tell us Wives their Beauties lose,
When they have spoil'd their bridal Shoes:
Some learned Casuists make it clear,
A Wife might please for half a Year:
And others say, her Charms will hold
As long as the suspended Gold;
But that her Bloom is soon decay'd,
And wither'd when her Fortune's paid.

(ML i. 84)

Leapor rejects Swift's view: Strephon, having secured his wife's money, offers the feeble excuse for his dissipated behaviour that he was mistaken about her physical charms before they were married:

‘But Ma'm, the Reason was, I find,
That while a Lover I was blind:
And now the Fault is not in me,
'Tis only this—that I can see.
I thought you once a Goddess trim,
The Graces dwelt on ev'ry Limb:
But, Madam, if you e'er was such,
Methinks you're alter'd very much …’

(ML i. 87-8)

Strephon goes on to recount the various features which once inspired his love but now leave him cold:

‘As first (I beg your Pardon tho’)
You hold your Head extremely low:
And tho' your Shape is not awry,
Your Shoulders stand prodigious high:
Your curling Hair I durst have swore,
Was blacker than the sable Moore:
But now I find 'tis only brown,
A Colour common through the Town:
'Tis true you're mighty fair—But now
I spy a Freckle on your Brow;
Your Lips I own are red and thin,
But there's a Pimple on your Chin:
Besides your Eyes are gray—Alack!
'Till now I always thought 'em black.

(ML i. 88)

Nowhere in this catalogue of imperfections is there anything particularly unpleasant, certainly nothing to convince the reader that Strephon has discovered something repulsive about Celia's body. Strephon is simply attempting to excuse his loss of interest in Celia. In the end, Leapor proposes an explanation for marital disaffection far simpler than Swift's:

          ‘Thus, Madam, I the Truth have told;
'Tis true, I thank you for your Gold;
But find in searching of my Breast,
That I could part with all the Rest.’

(ML i. 88)

Doody notes that Leapor picks up Swift's characters or anti-characters and turns them to her own purposes.36 As a subversion of what is already a mock form, Leapor's poem has its own sophistication. She agrees with Swift that coquettes and beaux tend not to live happily ever after, but she takes an altogether different view of the reasons. She believes that women with property or money are especially attractive to men, and that once that advantage has been surrendered, the husband may simply lose interest.

Leapor also produced several shorter satires on fashionable courtship and marriage. The tone is evident from some of the titles: ‘Proper Ingredients for the Head of a Beau, found among the Rules of Prometheus’; ‘The Sow and the Peacock’; ‘Strephon to Celia: A modern Love Letter’. In each of these she takes aim at that object of Scriblerian mockery, the beau. Her satire, however, is always underpinned by an awareness of women's vulnerability.

Leapor's belief that a man's attractive appearance or manner may conceal something treacherous is reiterated throughout her writing. Her treatment of courtship and betrayal in ‘Complaining Daphne’ bears careful examination. In this pastoral Daphne is longing for the return of her ‘cruel, marble-hearted Swain’ [ii. 74]. She comes to believe, however, that she is probably better off without him:

Yet he may wear a Heart replete with Guile,
And cover Mischief with a fraudful Smile:
And foolish Daphne to her cost shall find
Her heav'nly Cynthio like his earthly Kind.

(ML ii. 76)

Cynthio has something in common with Strephon in ‘The Mistaken Lover’. His pleasant appearance and delightful manner conceal bad motives. Daphne has no money for him to take, but there is the perennial fear of seduction. In a striking passage Daphne recalls working in the fields with her mother, falling ill from the heat, and being consoled by stories about love. Interestingly, John Clare also describes old women singing and telling stories during the weeding and haymaking.37 Evidently ‘Complaining Daphne’, though a pastoral, has an actual connection with the life of agricultural labour in Northamptonshire. Clare does not specify what the songs and stories were; Leapor's account emphasizes tales of betrayal in love:

Long Tales she told, to kill the tedious Hour;
Of lovely Maids to early Ruin led,
Who once were harmless as the Flocks they fed;
Of some induc'd with gaudy Knights to roam
From their dear Parents, and their blissful Home;
Till, each deserted by her changing Friend,
The pageant Wretches met a woful End.
And still howe'er the mournful Tale began,
She always ended—Child, beware of Man.

(ML ii. 77-8)

The poem, at this point, is by no means radical. Leapor has described a pining country girl and ‘her cruel, marble-hearted Swain’, both of the sort Mary Jones found so tedious: ‘the same false Corydon's, and the same complaining Sylvia's’. The essential affirmation in the poem is that a young woman should preserve her virginity, again nothing remarkable. A mother advising her daughter to beware of men is likewise in the normal course of things. Donna Landry sees the poem rather differently:

Daphne's response to this remembrance is to pledge obedience to her mother's memory by forgetting Cynthio and embracing her sister shepherdesses. In a triumph of renunciation of heterosexual closure in marriage, the poem ends with a celebration of the tranquillity and harmony to be found when women choose to live only for each other, in a feminine pastoral paradise, a sapphic idyll …

(Landry, 90)

It must be observed that the point of the mother's stories was not that Daphne should embrace her sister shepherdesses in a sapphic idyll, but, very simply, that she should not allow herself to be seduced. The conclusion of the poem does, however, point to a repudiation of sexual passion:

Ye Sylvan Sisters! come; ye gentle Dames,
Whose tender Souls are spotless as your Names!
Henceforth shall Daphne only live for you;
Content—and bid the lordly Race Adieu;
See the clear Streams in gentler Murmurs flow,
And fresher Gales from od'rous Mountains blow.
Now the charm'd Tempest from my Bosom flies:
Sweet Slumber seizes on my willing Eyes.

(ML ii. 78-9)

The sylvan sisters are ‘spotless’ and an alternative to guilty passion with Cynthio; Daphne will be safe from sexual feeling and sexual betrayal in their company. Her options are not precisely heterosexuality and lesbianism, but rather seduction and chastity. Leapor characteristically affirms the value of female friendship, while rejecting idealized romantic love. Although the poem is conventional in several respects, it ends critically, not with the shepherdess cheered up by a song or by the sight of another attractive shepherd, but with Daphne recognizing that she has been gullible about her young man. That Daphne repudiates ‘the lordly Race’ indicates that she sees sexual betrayal as a form of domination.

Leapor's views on marriage are ambiguous. That she could not find a simple solution to the problems of women in marriage can be seen from two poems entitled ‘Mira to Octavia’ which advise a young woman who has fallen in love with an unsuitable man. The poem which appears in the first volume is relatively simple in its advice. The one in the second volume is longer and far more detailed, suggesting that Octavia had rejected the reasoning of the earlier piece. In the first poem Leapor writes:

                                                            your Servant has been told,
That you, (despising Settlements and Gold)
Determine Florio witty, young and gay,
To have and hold for ever and for ay …

(ML i. 258)

Octavia is willing to marry a dashing young man for love. In Leapor's view, her friend has failed to recognize that beneath the charming exterior there may be something very unpleasant:

I know, to shun, you hold it as a Rule,
The arrant Coxcomb and the stupid Fool:
No such is Florio, he has Wit—'tis true,
Enough, Octavia, to impose on you:
Yet such a Wit you'll, by Experience, find
Worse than a Fool that's complaisant and kind:
It only serves to gild his Vices o'er,
And teach his malice how to wound the more.

(ML i. 258)

A marriage begun without financial security looks hazardous to the poet, let alone one where the man seems cunning and manipulative. She foresees a future when those qualities Octavia admires in Florio will be only an irrelevance:

Now cou'd your Florio by his Wit inspire
The chilly Hearth, to blaze with lasting Fire:
Or when his Children round the Table throng,
By an Allusion or a sprightly Song,
Adorn the Board, i'th' twinkling of an Eye,
With a hot Pasty or a Warden Pye,
There might be Reason on Octavia's Side,
And not a Sage cou'd blame the prudent Bride.

(ML i. 259)

Leapor goes on to observe that although knights in romances may ‘… sup on Grass and breakfast on the Breeze’, that is nothing which Octavia could bear. Instead, she should consider the merits of another suitor, Dusterandus, who, though less charming than Florio, is more likely to prove a good husband:

                                                            He whose stedfast Mind
Is yet untainted, tho' not much refin'd;
Whose Soul ne'er roves beyond his native Fields;
Nor asks for Joys but what his Pasture yields;
On Life's dull Cares with Patience can attend,
A gentle Master and a constant Friend …

(ML i. 260)

Leapor is adamant that her friend will be happier with a man who is dependable and who lives within his means. She also sees a contrast between the wounding tongue of Florio and the more gentle, if less polished, manner of Dusterandus. The prospect of lasting affection is greater with Dusterandus. At all costs, she would dispel her friend's idealized view of marriage: ‘In spite of all romantick Poets sing; ❙ This Gold, my Dearest, is an useful thing’ (ML i. 261). In this poem, therefore, Leapor argues that happiness in marriage is available to Octavia if she chooses wisely.

The second poem to Octavia opens with little change from the first. Mira may not, however, continue to criticize the man Octavia wants to marry:

Frown not, sweet Virgin; we'll Decorums keep;
Philander's Faults shall in Oblivion sleep.
Peace to his Name!—These only are design'd
A simple Lecture to our easy Kind.

(ML ii. 102)

Leapor's first poem was evidently not well received. In the second, the attack on Florio's character is dropped, and the man is now called Philander, a possible borrowing from Aphra Behn. Dusterandus is not mentioned, perhaps because Octavia simply did not care even to consider his merits as a husband. Leapor adopts the less offensive course of a generalized commentary: ‘Of Wives I sing, and Husbands, not a Few: ❙ Examples rare! some fictious, and some true’ (ML ii. 102). Through the rest of the poem she offers examples of marriages in which a promising husband proves neglectful or vicious. The first of these seems to take account of Octavia's objections to Dusterandus. Leapor describes the condition of a woman named Pamela who marries a stupid man:

But could our Eyes behold the deep Recess,
Where soft Pamela's thoughts in private rest,
You'd find, in spite of Hymen's sacred Vows,
Ten Hours in Twelve that she abhors her Spouse.

(ML ii. 103)

Leapor goes on to describe a woman married to a clergyman who is universally virtuous and ‘Pleasant to all except his doating Bride’ (ML ii. 104). Another woman, Virgo, marries Tycho, an astronomer, who has time for nothing lower than the stars and the planets. A prude, Chloe, marries a zealot, Enthusiano, who eventually locks her up with directions to say her prayers, as he goes to his mistress. Leapor insists that she has not exaggerated the perils of marriage:

          Poets and Painters then, perhaps you'll cry,
Oft in their Satire, and their Canvas, lye.
But, dear Octavia, in the Case of Wife,
I fear the Shade but faintly Apes the Life.

(ML ii. 108)

Leapor is attempting to dissuade her friend from a particular marriage through generalized arguments. She uses the vignettes to explode a naïve view of romantic fulfilment in marriage. Since she is not to discuss the faults of the particular man involved, and since nothing is to be gained by arguing for the uninspiring Dusterandus, she attempts to convince her friend that marriage per se is risky, even if there is some chance of a happy outcome:

          Yet, not a Rebel to your Hymen's Law,
His sacred Altars I behold with Awe:
Nor Foe to Man; for I acknowledge yet
Some Men have Honour, as some Maids have Wit.
But then remember, these, my learned Fair,
Old Authors tell us, are extremely rare.

(ML ii. 109)

Leapor does not make the case that women are always unhappy in marriage. Since she is not going to advise Octavia to marry the suspect Philander, she suggests celibacy:

          And shall Octavia prostitute her Store,
To buy a Tyrant with the tempting Ore?
Besides, I fear your Shackles will be found
Too dearly purchas'd with a thousand Pound.
          Then be the charming Mistress of thy Gold;
While young, admir'd; and rev'renc'd, when you're Old.
The Grave and Sprightly shall thy Board attend,
The gay Companion, and the serious Friend.

(ML ii. 109)

Leapor makes general assertions about marriage in this poem partly because she cannot make further particular observations without offending Octavia. How, then, are these assertions to be understood—as a radical statement of separatist principles, or as a rhetorical posture? In both poems, Leapor attempts to debunk unreal expectations of marriage. She considers it to be a gamble for any woman, a gamble which can only be justified where the woman examines the character and prospects of the man she is to marry. In some cases, it is best to remain celibate. Since Octavia will save a substantial dowry, she will have a prosperous independence. The one indisputable position which connects the two poems is that Octavia should not marry Florio or Philander on the slender hope that love will prevail.

In Leapor's view, the problems of women in relation to marriage are not immediately curable. There is no obvious choice which will set women free. ‘An Essay on Woman’, though very much a poem of protest against the injustices women suffer, offers no simple solutions. The poem opens with a grim summary of the lot of a woman:

Woman—a pleasing, but a short-liv'd Flow'r,
Too soft for Business, and too weak for Pow'r:
A Wife in Bondage, or neglected Maid;
Despis'd, if ugly; if she's fair—betray'd.

(ML ii. 64)

Marriage exposes the woman to tyranny, while celibacy leaves her scarcely better off. Olwen Hufton maintains that in the eighteenth century the stereotypical spinster was ‘one to be despised, pitied, and avoided as a sempiternal spoilsport in the orgy of life’.38 It is hard to imagine that Leapor would sentimentalize the condition of celibacy, especially if she found herself mocked as an old maid. Indeed, she, like Johnson, is aware how few the pleasures would be. Celibacy is, at best, the lesser evil; by no means is it regarded as a panacea. Women who are courted by men are, however, in greater danger of being deceived and exploited:

'Tis Wealth alone inspires ev'ry Grace,
And calls the Raptures to her plenteous Face.
What Numbers for those charming Features pine,
If blooming Acres round her Temples twine?

(ML ii. 64)

A woman without wealth will have few suitors, but a woman who can produce a large dowry will have more than her share of acquisitive Strephons writing sonnets. Compliments, however, last only

Till mighty Hymen lifts his sceptred Rod,
And sinks her Glories with a fatal Nod;
Dissolves her Triumphs; sweeps her Charms away,
And turns the Goddess to her native Clay.

(ML ii. 65)

Flattery conceals greed, and marriage will bring a hard realization to women who readily believe the compliments of their suitors or, indeed, their promises of fidelity. Moreover, Leapor can see no means of improving the situation. Wealth, beauty, and wit are all shown to be insufficient means for securing affection and happiness. Sylvia, for example, is beautiful: ‘And yet That Face her partial Husband tires, ❙ And those bright Eyes, that all the World admires’ (ML ii. 65). Pamphilia, a self-portrait of the poet, seems to annoy both men and women by her learning:

Pamphilia's Wit who does not strive to shun,
Like Death's Infection, or a Dog-Day's Sun?
The Damsels view her with malignant Eyes:
The Men are vex'd to find a Nymph so wise:
And Wisdom only serves to make her know
The keen Sensation of superior Woe.

(ML ii. 65-6)

Leapor was without question committed to educating herself, and yet here she asks whether her struggle is worth the insults and the discouragement. A woman who wishes to achieve an enjoyable life by accumulating wealth is likewise deceived. Leapor sees such a woman degrading herself as a miser:

Then let her quit Extravagance and Play;
The brisk Companion; and expensive Tea;
To feast with Cordia in her filthy Sty
On stew'd Potatoes, or on mouldy Pye;
Whose eager Eyes stare ghastly at the Poor,
And fright the Beggars from her hated Door:
In greasy Clouts she wraps her smoky Chin,
And holds, that Pride's a never-pardon'd Sin.

(ML ii. 66)

This image of the financially independent woman is repugnant to Leapor, who would rather remain poor but take some enjoyment from her life:

          If this be Wealth, no matter where it falls;
But save, ye Muses, save your Mira's Walls:
Still give me pleasing Indolence, and Ease;
A Fire to warm me, and a Friend to please.

(ML ii. 67)

The means of escaping poverty are not worth pursuing by a woman who genuinely wishes to be happy. In the end, there is nothing better to be expected than dignified poverty with the consolation of friendship. This is the best that can be hoped for, even if it is a long way from a fully satisfying life. At the end of the poem every difficulty remains:

Since, whether sunk in Avarice, or Pride;
A wanton Virgin, or a starving Bride;
Or, wond'ring Crouds attend her charming Tongue;
Or deem'd an Idiot, ever speaks the Wrong:
Tho' Nature arm'd us for the growing Ill,
With fraudful Cunning, and a headstrong Will;
Yet, with ten thousand Follies to her Charge,
Unhappy Woman's but a Slave at large.

(ML ii. 67)

Leapor's rage is unmistakable: women are essentially trapped. Yet she is prepared to fight for her dignity, and, indeed, believes it is in women's characters to resist a tyranny, even if they are deprived of the hope of success. These lines make the poem's opening reference to women's softness and weakness sound like an ironic echo of Pope's ‘Epistle to a Lady’:

Nothing so true as what you once let fall,
Most Women have no Characters at all.
Matter too soft a lasting mark to bear,
And best distinguish'd by black, brown, or fair.

(Pope, iii. ii. 46)

If Leapor can find no clear path to freedom she is willing at least to raise a forceful argument against the way women are understood. The title of the poem, ‘An Essay on Woman’, is certainly a reference to Pope. Leapor's ‘An Essay on Friendship’ is a more comprehensive rebuttal of Pope's ‘Epistle to a Lady’ (see below), yet it is evident that she also has the poem in mind when she is writing ‘An Essay on Woman’. This may be judged simply on the basis of two small echoes: Pope has characters named Simplicius and Papillia, Leapor has Simplicus and Pamphilia. More importantly, Pope writes:

          See how the World its Veterans rewards!
A Youth of frolicks, an old Age of Cards,
Fair to no purpose, artful to no end,
Young without Lovers, old without a Friend,
A Fop their Passion, but their Prize a Sot,
Alive, ridiculous, and dead, forgot.

(Pope, iii. ii. 69-70)

Leapor and Pope see the general condition of women as a series of contradictions. For Pope, these contradictions are follies to be satirized; for Leapor, they are injustices to be protested against. As Pope can imagine a Martha Blount who is an exception to the follies of her sex, so, in Leapor's poetry, the happy woman is an exception because she has escaped the general trap. It would, of course, be wrong to view Pope or even Swift as a simple woman-hater. Leapor, whose own techniques and interests have been deeply influenced by both poets, none the less disputes their general understanding of women's unhappiness. For her, women are not merely the authors of their own misfortunes or, at best, ‘softer men’, but the victims of an unjust order.

Leapor's treatment of the family is not limited to the relations of husbands and wives. In her poem ‘The Cruel Parent’, she describes the suffering of a young woman who is starved by her father. To what extent this relates to Leapor's own circumstances is not certain. The poem is not addressed to Artemisia and is, on that account, probably from some time before that friendship commenced. The poem is set in the night and opens: ‘lonely Mira with her Head reclin'd, ❙ And mourn'd the Sorrows of her helpless Kind’ (i. 273). What Mira's own immediate sorrows are is not stated: rather, she describes the pains of Celia:

Then to her Fancy Celia's Woes appear,
The Nymph, whose Tale deserves a pitying Tear;
Whose early Beauties met a swift Decay;
A Rose that faded at the rising Day,
While Grief and Shame oppress'd her tender Age,
Pursu'd by Famine and a Father's Rage …

(ML i. 274)

Evidently Celia suffers more terribly than Mira, though the poet identifies with her. Mira falls asleep and dreams luridly about Celia, whose father, Lysegus, keeps her locked in a room in a castle, and refuses to feed her. Instead, he berates her and describes the misery she might expect as a beggar. Eventually she drops dead, and Lysegus is speared by a supernatural visitor.

Since there is no indication what Mira is unhappy about, or whether Leapor was thinking of any real person in Celia, it is very difficult to judge the significance of this poem. It could be speculated that it was written after Leapor's dismissal from Edgcote House, and that her father was extremely angry at her returning as his dependant. By this reasoning, Leapor's only way of striking back at the father to whom she was looking for support was to write a poem as a cathartic fantasy. Donna Landry believes that the poem ‘presents an iconography of paternal despotism and daughterly humiliation scarcely to be met with elsewhere in eighteenth-century verse’ (Landry, 103). Unarguably, the father in the poem is a despot, and the daughter is humiliated. Landry's views on Leapor are most nearly justified in relation to this piece. Yet the poem stands apart from the attitudes most commonly expressed in her work, and, given its obscurity, it is necessary to be cautious with respect to its specific meaning. Contrary to Landry's claim, moreover, Leapor's treatment of conflict between a father and daughter is by no means unique in eighteenth-century poetry. Lady Dorothea Dubois, for example, describes an attempt to be reconciled with her bigamous father, the Earl of Anglesey, as he is dying. The old man repudiates her, and she is driven out of the house by her half-brother and a gang of servants:

His base-born Son, a Pistol e'en presents,
Behind her Head; but watchful Heav'n prevents
The Fiend from executing his Intents.
They pull and drag her, tear her Hands and Cloak,
Nay dare uplift their own to give a Stroke:
Force her from Room to Room, then down the Stairs,
Nor heed her piteous Cries, nor flowing Tears.
Some, more humane, now shook indeed their Head
As they pass'd by, but nothing still they said.
(Scarce two Months past a dang'rous Lying-in,
Such cruel Usage surely was a Sin.)
.....Her Servants now are ty'd, her Horse's Ear
Inhumanly cut off: 'tis much they spare
Dorinda's Life …(39)

Dubois actually wrote a number of poems arguing her claims against her father. Somewhat earlier, Sarah Fyge Egerton had complained in poems, admittedly less violent, that her father had banished her from London for publishing ‘The Female Advocate’. Accordingly, it is difficult to maintain that ‘The Cruel Parent’ is in any way unique. It is certainly Leapor's most angry description of a father figure, and must owe something to her disagreements with her own father. While it could be said that an extreme poem reveals hidden struggles most clearly, it may also be remote from the poet's characteristic beliefs and attitudes. At the very least, the poem can be said to show Leapor's awareness of the vulnerability of an unmarried woman who is dependent on her father for financial support. Whether it confirms her as the enemy of patriarchy, as one who ‘laughs at the fathers’, is doubtful.

Leapor's play The Unhappy Father provides a complex treatment of issues relating to marriage and the family. As Betty Rizzo observes, it is a domestic tragedy in the manner of Nicholas Rowe, a she-tragedy.40 The woman at the centre of the work is Terentia, an orphan under the care of a widower, Dycarbas. His two sons, Polonius and Lycander, compete for Terentia's affections. In order to defuse this rivalry, Dycarbas resolves that both sons should leave home for a time. Terentia, who has chosen Polonius over Lycander, initially resents Dycarbas's action:

Last Night I heard—I heard with wounded Ears,
Your cruel Father (never so till then)
Give the strict Orders for your hasty Voyage.
My swelling Heart was stung with bitter Grief;
But you receiv'd the Sentence with a Smile.

(ML ii. 131)

By the end of this scene, however, Terentia is expressing fulsome gratitude to Dycarbas for saving her from an uncle who had wanted to steal her inheritance. There is no doubt of her regard for Dycarbas:

If Deeds like this demand a Blessing, then
Sure Heav'n has Millions still in Store for you:
For You, ascend the Pray'rs of hoary Age,
Who share the Comfort of your bounteous Hand:
Deserted Babes are taught to lisp your Name,
And, smiling, stretch their little Hands to you.

(ML ii. 133)

Terentia goes offstage and, in a soliloquy, Dycarbas explains his actions. First, however, he asks for divine guidance: ‘Assist me, Heav'n! and teach me how to act ❙ In this so nice, so delicate affair’ (ML ii. 134). He accepts Terentia's choice of Polonius: ‘Her Inclination my Consent has joined ❙ To give this beauteous Blessing to Polonius’ (ML ii. 135). There is no question that Dycarbas has any intention of opposing Terentia's decision, though he is conscious of having authority in the matter. His purpose in sending his sons away is solely to prevent conflict between them until Lycander also accepts Terentia's decision. There are, then, no grounds to believe, as Landry does (p. 103), that he is wilful in his disposition of his children's affective lives; indeed, his most important act is essentially to defend Terentia's freedom.

To focus on Dycarbas is unfortunately something of a distraction; his supposedly ‘fumbling interventions’ (Landry, 103) have little to do with the outcome of the play, and the final disasters are exclusively the result of sexual jealousy among the young male characters. Lycander describes his passion for Terentia to his sister Emilia:

O my Emilia, I've surviv'd myself,
And know not how to act in this new Being.
How comes it? I, whose Soul was only read
In stern Philosophy, and sacred Morals;
Who look'd on Beauty with a careless Eye,
Nor paid the least Attention to its Charms;
What Magic bids me now so fondly dote
On what so lately I disdain'd to look on?
Woman, a Feather in the Cap of Nature!
I hate the Sex: And yet I love Terentia.

(ML ii. 156)

Lycander is cold and intellectual. Ordinarily he has no respect whatever for women: indeed, his attraction to Terentia goes against his reason, philosophy, and morality. Although he accepts his father's command, he delays his departure for one last meeting which Emilia, his accomplice, arranges with the reluctant Terentia. This act of disobedience leads to the subsequent massacre.

Perhaps the most interesting character in the play is Emilia, whose marriage to Eustathius is characterized by serious arguments and frequent reconciliations. Despite Dycarbas's efforts to persuade Eustathius and command Emilia, they cannot moderate their behaviour. When Leonardo, a cousin who had once wished to marry Emilia, appears, intent on revenge, it is very easy for him to provoke Eustathius' Othello-like jealousy. Leonardo forges a love letter from Emilia, and bribes a servant to deliver it to Eustathius along with Emilia's stolen glove. The letter invites Leonardo to a tryst in the grove where Terentia is to meet Lycander. Eustathius' anger reaches a new height and, after an exchange with him, Emilia complains:

Is this the Treatment of unhappy Wives?
Ah! who would then be counted in the Number?
And why did Heav'n's creating Power form
Amongst his Works, one Creature only doom'd
To lasting Anguish, and perpetual Chains?
And yet inspir'd us with a thinking Soul,
To taste our Sorrows with a keener Relish?
Our servile Tongues are taught to cry for Pardon
Ere the weak Senses know the Use of Words:
Our little Souls are tortur'd by Advice;
And moral Lectures stun our Infant Years:
Thro' check'd Desires, Threatnings, and Restraint,
The Virgin runs; but ne'er outgrows her Shackles;
They still will fit her, even to hoary Age.
With lordly Rulers Women still are curs'd;
But the last Tyrant always proves the worst.

(ML ii. 190)

This soliloquy, one of Leapor's strongest statements on the treatment of women, was, as Betty Rizzo observes, mentioned by none of her eighteenth-century admirers (Rizzo, 328). Doubtless such a protest would have upset the meek image of the poet promoted during the subscriptions. Yet these lines contain an anger encountered again and again in her work, that, from the constraints of a girl's upbringing to the tyrannies of marriage, there is small hope of a woman achieving the life she wants. It is probable that the soliloquy is based on a speech of Calisto in Rowe's The Fair Penitent:

          How hard is the Condition of our Sex,
Thro' ev'ry State of Life the Slaves of Man?
In all the dear delightful Days of Youth,
A rigid Father dictates to our Wills,
And deals out Pleasure with a scanty Hand;
To his, the Tyrant Husband's Reign succeeds
Proud with Opinion of superior Reason,
He holds Domestick Bus'ness and Devotion
All we are capable to know, and shuts us,
Like Cloyster'd Ideots, from the World's Acquaintance,
And all the Joys of Freedom; wherefore are we
Born with high Souls, but to assert our selves,
Shake off this vile Obedience they exact,
And claim an equal Empire o'er the World?(41)

Protests of this sort are difficult to contain within the patriarchal conventions of the tragedy. Emilia, it turns out, has moral defects: she fights with her husband and disobeys her father. That Emilia makes the speech suggests that Leapor at this point in her career is uncertain of how far she can press the argument. When it comes from Emilia's mouth, Leapor can partly disown the content of the speech as a manifestation of Emilia's moral failings. If an entirely innocent character, Terentia perhaps, embarked on an angry critique of patriarchy, it would be very difficult to remain within the tragic form, and ultimately impossible to interest a producer in the script. When the bloodbath begins, Emilia is stabbed by her husband, who is killed by Lycander, who then kills Leonardo and takes a mortal wound himself. In all of this sanguinary excess, it is the guilty who die. The only innocent person to perish in the play is Dycarbas, an old man already resigned to the will of God:

For soon this feeble Case, worn out with Age,
Shall sleep and moulder in its dusty Cell.
Then the freed Spirit shall exulting fly …

(ML ii. 206)

The reported death of Polonius causes Dycarbas's final collapse, and brings Terentia to the verge of suicide. The reassertion of order in the play comes with Polonius's return. He assumes the authority of the patriarch and saves Terentia from her weakness. At the end they look forward to a married life together in a world diminished by the events of the play. There is no question that Leapor's play concludes with a reaffirmation of patriarchal values. Yet the portrayal of sexual violence, combined with Emilia's protest, leaves the impression that the conclusion does not entirely resolve thematic contradictions.

In her second play, untitled and completed only to the third act, Leapor finds scope within the historical events surrounding the short reign of the Saxon King Edwy or Eadwig (955-9) to study once more the problems of marriage and sexual violence. In this play, the king and his army do battle, presumably at Gloucester, with a larger force representing ambitious elements in the Church. The two soldiers leading the rebel armies, Odoff and Dusterandus, are motivated partly by a desire to take Edwy's wife, Elgiva, and her sister, Emmel, as spoils:

O how 'twou'd please my Pride to clasp her here
To this glad Breast!—While Horror, Rage, and Grief,
Shall reign alternate in her glowing Eyes!
Whilst raving, weeping, struggling in my Arms,
I gaze with Rapture on her vary'd Charms.

(ML ii. 250)

The treatment of the two sisters as objects for possession and domination is given a further and perhaps more insidious turn by their mother, Eleonora, who by ‘serpentizing Fraud’ uses her daughters to gain political advantage. In the first instance she arranges the marriage of Elgiva to the sensitive and naïve king. While this proves a very happy marriage, it also gives Eleonora the influence she desires. At the beginning of the play she persuades Edwy to reject offers of peace from the rebellious monks, who are, in fact, her enemies far more than the king's. When it appears that Edwy will lose the battle, she tries to purchase her survival by delivering her daughters to Odoff and Dusterandus. The chiefs renege on the deal and she is stabbed as she tries to entice Odoff herself. From this point, the play is unfinished.

The events upon which the play is based suggest an interesting examination of the forces opposing happiness in marriage. Edwy survived and retreated from the battle at Gloucester, and a meeting of the Witan divided his kingdom. In the following year, 958, a bishop forced the separation of Edwy and his wife on the grounds of consanguinity. Edwy died in 959 at the age of 19 (DNB vi. 558). If the play had been completed, it would have shown the marriage of Edwy and Elgiva destroyed by parental manipulation and political intrigue.

Leapor portrays Edwy as a heroic figure and a good husband. Elgiva, like Terentia in the earlier play, is powerless: she is effectively sold by her mother and then held prisoner by men intent on raping her. Eleonora herself is the most concentrated depiction of evil in Leapor's writings. The play portrays a good marriage torn apart by external forces. It certainly embodies an affective ideal of marriage, yet it is also the work of a woman who was convinced that marriage is fraught with dangers.

Leapor does not utterly repudiate marriage: repeatedly in her work she offers examples of marriages which could bring a woman some kind of satisfaction. She is keenly aware, however, of the deceptions to which a woman is exposed in courtship, and of the possibility that a husband may simply prove a tyrant. Yet she cannot find an entirely satisfactory alternative, for the life of the spinster is often portrayed in stark terms. Although it appears that she reached a peace with her father, she found herself constrained within that relationship. Her ambivalence towards him is reflected in her work as she portrays several fathers who are sympathetic, and one especially who is repugnant. On balance, however, her poetry is pessimistic about marriage and women's place in the family. It is perhaps a measure of Leapor's character that, even where there is little hope that injustice will be overcome, she is willing to raise a protest.


Mary Leapor's poetry consistently affirms the value of women's friendship. Even though many writers before her had made a similar affirmation, not least Katherine Phillips and Mary Astell, it must be recognized that to make such claims was to dispute a widely held belief, based on Aristotelian physiology, that women were by nature soft and therefore inconstant.42 The best-known statement of this view of women is Pope's ‘Epistle to a Lady’. Some women actually accepted Pope's view, albeit with sorrow. Sarah Dixon, for example, wrote on the loss of a friend:

Ingenious Pope! whose better Skill
Can dive into a Woman's Will,
How truly have the Numbers told
‘Her Soul is of too soft a Mould,
A lasting Character to hold.’(43)

Other women were willing to argue that if there was truth in Pope's portraits of women, the cause of their failings was not, as he suggested, a weakness of nature. Lady Irwin in ‘An Epistle to Mr. Pope’ spoke of women ‘Whose mind a savage waste unpeopled lies’. For her, any difference between men and women was accounted for by education:

          What makes y(e) diff'rence then, you may enquire,
Between the hero, and the rural 'squire;
Between the maid bred up with courtly care,
Or she who earns by toil her daily fare:
Their power is stinted, but not so their will;
Ambitious thoughts the humblest cottage fill;
Far as they can they push their little fame,
And try to leave behind a deathless name.
In education all the diff'rence lies;
Women, if taught, would be as bold and wise
As haughty man, improv'd by art and rules;
Where God makes one, neglect makes twenty fools.

(GM 6 (1736), 745)

Irwin's poem, it should be noted, was written more than a decade before Gray's ‘Elegy’. She sees similarities between the wasted potential of women and that of the poor. Although it would be wrong to see the injustices suffered by a Viscountess as equivalent to those of the poor, Irwin's willingness to examine questions of gender and class together make ‘An Epistle to Mr. Pope’ a striking and significant composition. Somewhat later, Mary Whateley, following Pope's style very closely, suggests that it is not necessary for women to respond in kind to misogynistic satire:

          Satire on Men superfluous wou'd be,
What they approve, by our own Sex we see.
Since Woman's Happiness depends on Man;
'Tis easy to conclude where first began
This Group of Follies, that o'erspread the Earth:
From our wise Lords they first receiv'd their Birth;
These our fond Females, bent to please Mankind,
Enlarg'd, exalted, soften'd, and refin'd.(44)

Trivial behaviour in women ultimately reveals the folly of men's minds: women have become what men desire. Pope's Epistle is probably the most important statement of the dominant view of women in the eighteenth century, and women writing explicitly about issues of gender often found it necessary to confront this poem.

Mary Leapor appears to have given a great deal of thought to Pope's ‘Epistle to a Lady’. ‘An Essay on Woman’ rejects the belief that women are soft and incapable of an active life. In the second ‘Mira to Octavia’ poem, Leapor draws on Pope in a crucial passage:

          And shall Octavia prostitute her Store,
To buy a Tyrant with the tempting Ore?
Besides, I fear your Shackles will be found
Too dearly purchas'd with a thousand Pound.

(ML ii. 109)

Although there are other possible sources, it is most likely that these lines are an echo of Pope's comments on Martha Blount's celibacy:

Ascendant Phoebus watch'd that hour with care,
Averted half your Parents simple Pray'r,
And gave you Beauty, but deny'd the Pelf
Which buys your sex a Tyrant o'er itself.

(Pope, iii. ii. 73)

Leapor offers to her friend the choice Pope applauded in Martha Blount. Indeed, this debt must be recognized: while Leapor disagrees with much of ‘Epistle to a Lady’, she also accepts much. Throughout her work, she tends to regard the happy, mature, and stable woman as an ideal reached only occasionally, and to believe that most women are unhappy and inclined to unworthy behaviour. Whereas Pope sees this as an inevitable consequence of women's softness, Leapor believes that women can actually improve themselves.

‘Essay on Friendship’ is particularly significant among Leapor's works. Although its language is not as remarkable as that of some of her other poems, it reveals a great deal about her attitudes towards gender, and towards her own writing:

To Artemisia—'Tis to her we sing,
For her once more we touch the sounding String.
'Tis not to Cythera's Reign nor Cupid's Fires,
But sacred Friendship that our Muse inspires.
A Theme that suits Æmilia's pleasing Tongue:
So to the Fair One's I devote my Song.

(ML i. 74)

Leapor's development as a writer is closely connected to her friendships with other women. During her time at Weston Hall she was evidently influenced by Susanna Jennens and her circle of relatives and acquaintances who wrote verse in the normal course of friendship. It seems that Leapor's writings later circulated in manuscript around Brackley, although not exclusively among women. The poems of her last fourteen months are, with few exceptions, directed to Bridget Freemantle: ‘'Tis to her we sing …’. The implied reader of Leapor's poems is, generally speaking, a female friend.45 Although some poems, especially her essays, suggest that she is also looking towards a wider audience, in the vast majority of poems she speaks specifically to some woman she knows. Not all of these addresses are meant to be read by the person involved: Sophronia would have dismissed Leapor all the sooner if she had read ‘The Disappointment’ and ‘The Consolation’. Still, in an important way, Leapor's poetic voice is formed by her relations with other women. In the passage above, she makes clear that she is not interested in conventional love poetry, but in describing something closer to her actual way of life. She has taken some point made by a friend whom she names Æmilia and develops it into a full essay. Leapor's poem has its origin in conversation, so that literary creativity and friendship are in this case, as in many of her poems, inseparable. Leapor's plays have an obviously public character, yet it is interesting to observe that the second was written ‘At the Request of a Friend’ (ML ii. 225); presumably, that friend was Freemantle. It seems that the issue of friendship is significant in respect to almost every area of Leapor's writing. Moreover, she understands friendship in literary terms. She knows about misogynistic satire:

          The Wise will seldom credit all they hear,
Tho' saucy Wits shou'd tell them with a Sneer,
That Womens Friendships, like a certain Fly,
Are hatch'd i'th Morning and at Ev'ning die.
'Tis true, our Sex has been from early Time
A constant Topick for Satirick Rhyme:
Nor without Reason …

(ML i. 74)

Betty Rizzo suggests that Leapor's metaphor is a sign of her limitations as a poet; she cannot bring herself to write the simple word ‘mayfly’ (Rizzo, 338). Yet this is not the actual struggle with convention going on in these lines. Leapor, surprisingly, includes Pope among saucy wits, for the mayfly as a metaphor for women's changeable nature is taken from his ‘Epistle to a Lady’:

Rufa, whose eye quick-glancing o'er the Park,
Attracts each light gay meteor of a Spark,
Agrees as ill with Rufa studying Locke,
As Sappho's diamonds with her dirty smock,
Or Sappho at her toilet's greazy task,
With Sappho fragrant at an ev'ning Mask:
So morning Insects that in muck begun,
Shine, buzz, and fly-blow in the setting-sun.

(Pope, iii. ii. 50-2)

Pope, in a Swiftian moment, connects women's changes with dirt and, in the image of fly-blow, putrefaction. This passage, among other things, mocks a woman who reads Locke. Leapor's reference to the fly is a signal that she is arguing against Pope's Epistle.

As a woman who had apparently chosen not to marry, Leapor looked for constancy primarily in relation to friendship. She describes friendship in terms which have rather less to do with sexuality than with religion. For Leapor, friendship is ‘sacred’. Constancy is to be cultivated in the soul:

                                                                                                              we're often found,
Or lost in Passion, or in Pleasures drown'd:
And the fierce Winds that bid the Ocean roll,
Are less inconstant than a Woman's Soul:
Yet some there are who keep the mod'rate Way,
Can think an Hour, and be calm a Day:
Who ne'er were known to start into a Flame,
Turn Pale or tremble at a losing Game.
Run Chloe's Shape or Delia's Features down,
Or change Complexion at Celinda's Gown:
But still serene, compassionate and kind,
Walk through Life's Circuit with an equal Mind.

(ML i. 75)

The concept of aequa mens, a balanced spirit, is originally Stoic, and is also very Horatian; in Leapor's work, however, the idea is usually associated with resignation to the will of God. It is interesting to connect this point with her ‘An Epistle to a Lady’; as Leapor contemplates her own death, and the soul leaving the body, the last thing she wishes to see is her friend: ‘Be you the last that leaves my closing Eyes’ (ML i. 40). Friendship is seen as a spiritual comfort, steadying her spirit for its last journey.

In her ‘Essay on Friendship’ Leapor offers several characters of women to make an argument for behaviour that is temperate, honest, and cheerful. She claims that friendships should be in the same degree, and not ‘Where heavy Pomp and sullen Form withholds ❙ That chearful Ease and Sympathy of Souls’ (ML i. 77). This may tell us something about Bridget Freemantle—that she did not stand on her dignity in her friendship with the poet, even though she came from a more genteel background, and was about the age of Leapor's parents. Like Pope, Leapor finds one woman who combines all that she could hope for:

Celestial Friendship with its nicer Rules,
Frequents not Dunghills nor the Clubs of Fools.
It asks, to make this Union soft and long,
A Mind susceptible, and Judgment strong;
And then a Taste: but let that Taste be giv'n
By mighty Nature and the Stamp of Heav'n:
Possest of these, the justly temper'd Flame
Will glow incessant, and be still the same:
Not mov'd by Sorrow, Sickness, or by Age
To sullen Coldness or distemper'd Rage.
The Soul unstain'd with Envy or with Pride,
Pleas'd with itself and all the World beside,
Unmov'd can see gilt Chariots whirling by,
Or view the wretched with a melting Eye,
Discern a Failing and forgive it too:
Such, Artemisia, we may find in you.

(ML i. 77-8)

In this light, constancy in friendship is seen as a kind of grace or spiritual maturity, and inconstancy as sin. This is significant, since a weakness of nature cannot really be escaped, but sin, on the other hand, can be repented of. Although Leapor accepts that many women are guilty of inconstancy and immoderate behaviour, she none the less holds out the prospect of transformation. Whereas Pope's view of inconstancy begins in muck and ends in maggots, Leapor moves the discussion towards the higher and more generous ground of theology:

          But all have Failings, not the best are free,
Or in a greater or a less Degree.
What follows then?—Forgive, or unforgiven
Expect no Passage at the Gate of Heav'n.

(ML i. 79)

Leapor accepts part of Pope's charge against women. She provides her own examples of sudden changes in behaviour, some of which are very close to Pope's characters. Leapor describes Armida: ‘To-day more holy than a cloister'd Nun, ❙ Almost an Atheist by to-morrow's Sun’ (ML i. 78), while Pope writes of Narcissa: ‘Now Conscience chills her, and now Passion burns; ❙ And Atheism and Religion take their turns …’ (Pope, iii. ii. 55). Leapor, however, is not ultimately constrained by what Pope gives her. By seeing the failures of women as sins which may be repented of, rather than the unalterable course of nature, she advances a far more hopeful view of her sex than does Pope.

Leapor's ‘Essay on Friendship’ ends with a surprisingly modest claim: ‘our chief Task is seldom to offend, ❙ And Life's great Blessing a well-chosen Friend’ (ML i. 80). It seems that one of the great pains of Leapor's life was the lack of such friendship. Her relationship with Freemantle seems to have provided her with shelter from an often upsetting social life in Brackley. ‘The Visit’ presents an unusual picture of Mira simply defeated by ‘the scolding Dame’ and the gossips and physiognomists of Brackley:

          O Artemisia! dear to me,
As to the Lawyer golden Fee;
Whose Name dwells pleasant on my Tongue,
And first, and last, shall grace my Song;
Receive within your Friendly Door
A Wretch that vows to rove no more:
In some close Corner let me hide,
Remote from Compliments and Pride;
Where Morals grave, or Sonnets gay,
Delude the guiltless chearful Day …

(ML ii. 290)

Leapor and Freemantle spent a good deal of their time talking about poetry and religion. The word ‘guiltless’ is striking. Leapor in many places feels compelled to defend the pleasure she takes in writing poetry and reading books. In ‘The Question. Occasion'd by a Serious Admonition’, she writes:

Let me enjoy the sweet Suspence of Woe,
When Heav'n strikes me, I shall own the Blow:
Till then let me indulge one simple Hour,
Like the pleas'd Infant o'er a painted Flow'r:
Idly 'tis true: But guiltlessly the Time
Is spent in trifling with a harmless Rhyme.

(ML i. 225)

It is easy in the quest for grave scholarly judgments to forget that Leapor wrote for pleasure. As the unemployed daughter of a gardener, her luxuries were few. A woman of her station was expected to work hard. Her father and mother objected to the way she used her spare time. Her neighbours observed her, and feared ‘mopishness’; that this is even recorded implies that it was a matter of some discussion. Poems like ‘The Visit’, ‘The Epistle of Deborah Dough’, and ‘Corydon. Phillario. Or, Mira's Picture’, show that Leapor found herself talked about. In the narrow world of Brackley, this meant that she was an outsider. Her father, it should be noted, observed only one of his daughter's friends, who appears in the poetry as ‘Fidelia’ (see ML ii, p. xxx). The value Leapor places on authentic friendship arises from painful experience. When she criticizes the inconstancy of women, it is not because she is overwhelmed by Pope's influence, but because she has been, if not betrayed, at least disappointed in her friendships with other women. It is against this background of rejection that Leapor's celebrations of friendship must be understood.

Her poetry indicates that Leapor did have some friends before meeting Freemantle; Octavia, for example, respected her enough to listen to her advice, even if she probably did not accept it. Leapor often compliments other women in her poems, and two especially, ‘Song to Cloe, playing on her Spinnet’ and ‘Silvia and the Bee’, are given over to praising the beauty and the accomplishments of particular friends. In the first of these Leapor warns beaux to beware of Cloe's eyes that wound, and she goes on to describe her friend's musical skill:

          Amphion led the ravish'd Stones
(They say)—and as he'd rise or fall,
Bricks, Pebbles, Slats and Marrow-Bones
Wou'd form a Steeple or a Wall:
                    But this, you know,
                    Is long ago:
We fancy 'tis a Whim:
O had they charming Cloe heard,
They'd surely not have stir'd for him.
                    The Thracian Bard,
                    Whose Fate was hard,
(And Proserpine severe)
Had brought Eurydice back—alas!
But Cloe was not there.

(ML i. 121-2)

In ‘Silvia and the Bee’, Silvia walking among flowers is stung by a bee seeking the sweetest honey. She kills it, and Mira reproaches her in a spirit of raillery for similar treatment of two admirers, Cynthio and Amintor:

They tell you, those soft Lips may vie
          With Pinks at op'ning Day;
And yet you slew a simple Fly,
          For proving what they say.
Believe me, not a Bud like thee
          In this fair Garden blows;
Then blame no more the erring Bee,
          Who took you for the Rose.

(ML i. 273)

Both poems are somewhat conventional in their idealized descriptions of a woman's beauty captivating young men. Yet, in their way, these poems are also rather accomplished. ‘Song to Cloe, playing on her Spinnet’ especially displays a delicate touch and a complete control of form. Both poems could be read for an underlying lesbian attraction, though such an argument would be difficult to sustain, since Cloe and Silvia are both praised for their ability to win young men's affections. In the end, the poems must be read as expressions of sheer delight in friendship.

Leapor's poems inviting friends to tea are written in a similar vein of pleasure or celebration. She writes ‘To Artemisia’:

If Artemisia's Soul can dwell
Four Hours in a tiny Cell,
(To give that Space of Bliss to me)
I wait my Happiness at three.

(ML i. 106)

Such poems are a summons to conversation and Bohea. They are, in that respect, very ordinary; yet insofar as they represent the interior world of Leapor's friendships they are distinctive. John Stuart Mill's claim that eloquence is heard and poetry overheard can, in a sense, be applied to such poems. Although Mill may have been thinking of the Romantic poet speaking gloomily to himself, here Leapor holds out the prospect of good gossip, and the reader is set to overhear the conversation:

          What Nymph, that's eloquent and gay,
But owes it chiefly to her Tea?
With Satire that supplies our Tongues,
And greatly helps the failing Lungs.
By that assisted we can spy
A Fault with microscopick Eye;
Dissect a Prude with wond'rous Art,
And read the Care of Delia's Heart.

(ML i. 108)

In ‘The Proposal’ Leapor actually characterizes her muse in comic terms as a gossip (see ML i. 173). Patricia Meyer Spacks sees a parallel between the ‘exclusionary alliance’ which exists in gossip, and the relation between a reader and narrator in fiction: ‘what reader and narrator share is a set of responses to the private doings of richly imagined individuals’.46 Although Spacks is mainly concerned with fiction, in Leapor's poetry a reader is often drawn into such a relationship with the poet, and into the privileged society of her closest friends.

Mary Leapor's muse is emphatically social. Although a handful of poems were written in times of solitude or loneliness, the great bulk of her poetry was written for Freemantle or for other friends. This is an important point. John Sitter writes:

By the mid-century, retirement has hardened into retreat. The poet characteristically longs to be not only far from the madding crowd, which Pope had wanted as much as Gray, but far from everybody. Accordingly, many of the poems that most reflect the 1740s and 1750s are not epistles—that is, not poems with an explicit audience and implicit social engagement—but soliloquies or lyrics, usually blank verse musings or odes addressed to personifications.47

Whereas Sutherland describes the Augustan poet as a man at dinner with his friends, Sitter leaves the impression of the mid-century poet alone in his rooms gnawing a joint. Leapor, of course, fits neither pattern. Having been dismissed as a kitchen-maid, she harnesses her poetry to her teapot. She is an outsider, but a sociable one. She does not fly from history, yet as a woman of the labouring class there is a great deal from which she is excluded. Her poetry is addressed immediately to her friends; the reading public, the anonymous book buyer, stand somewhere outside that circle, but within earshot.

A final question is whether Leapor's view of female friendship is in some sense lesbian. There is certainly no indication of a physical relationship between Leapor and Freemantle, or with any other woman mentioned in the poems. Lillian Faderman accepts that women's relations may have been less physical in the past, but asserts that it is possible that such relations were still lesbian: ‘if by “lesbian” we mean an all-consuming emotional relationship in which two women are devoted to each other above anyone else, these ubiquitous sixteenth-, seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century romantic friendships were “lesbian”’.48 This broad definition may ultimately empty the term of meaning; one is left with a scholar pushing writers of the past through a psycho-sexual hoop. The majority of recent commentators have argued that evidence of lesbianism among eighteenth-century writers is very difficult to assess. Ruth Perry describes the problem in her biography of Mary Astell:

For one thing, intense, spiritualized friendships with other women were not unusual in that culture. … The fact is that men and women of that day inhabited separate worlds; their social rounds and domestic activities kept them in the society of their own sex much of the time. Social intercourse with those of the opposite sex was strictly regulated before marriage. As a result, there were simply more same-sex intimacies and ones of greater intensity than we are used to in our modern world, steeped as it is in post-Freudian heterosexuality.49

Janet Todd likewise proceeds cautiously in discussing lesbianism. Female friendship is expressed in fiction and especially in letters through language in which by the mid-eighteenth century terms of ecstasy figured almost by convention: ‘female friendship represented for most women simply a rapturous sentimental union, springing perhaps from fear of male aggression or neglect but fed primarily by yearning for a partner in sensibility, a confidante in literature’.50 Donna Landry entertains very little doubt that Leapor's poetry is basically lesbian, though the case is not argued in depth. On the basis of a reference to Sappho in ‘An Hymn to the Morning’, Landry develops the concept of Sapphic textuality:

Sappho's name also functions in this period as a sign of transgressive female desire. If we read ‘An Hymn to the Morning’ in the light of Mira's yearning to match Sappho in poetical sweetness, her technical rivalry with the Lesbian muse—and, more contentiously, her rivalry with Sappho as a wooer of women, her technical rivalry with the lesbian lover—the eroticism of Leapor's textuality becomes distinctly noticeable, though it remains safely mediated by conventional landscape cathexis.

(Landry, 85)

Landry provides little evidence that the name Sappho actually had the connotation of ‘transgressive female desire’. Use of the name was, in fact, standard for female poets: in a notable instance, John Dryden used it in his ode on the death of Anne Killigrew. Her claim on this point is doubtful, to say the least. The words ‘more contentiously’ are an admission that the whole case for lesbianism is not provable; indeed, with respect to the poem she is discussing, neither Sappho nor Mira woos in any discernible way. Landry reads concealed eroticism in various female personifications, and in a landscape which, she admits, contains at least one heterosexual image. Everything really depends on the final stanza:

Thus sung Mira to her Lyre,
Till the idle Numbers tire:
Ah! Sappho sweeter sings, I cry,
And the spiteful Rocks reply,
(Responsive to the jarring Strings)
Sweeter—Sappho sweeter sings.

(ML i. 25)

Sappho is invoked purely as a predecessor in women's poetry: sexual rivalry is not an issue. Landry writes of the whole poem: ‘These verses are hardly sapphic in any technical sense. Indeed, the reference to Sappho in the last stanza may seem to come out of nowhere’ (Landry, 84). If the reference comes out of nowhere, it is by no means a promising place to begin an interpretation of Leapor's poetry.

The evidence that Leapor was a lesbian in the strict sense, as opposed to Faderman's, is slight. She did not marry; she criticized aspects of the institution of marriage; and she formed close friendships with women, one of which was particularly important. In some poems she praises the beauty and accomplishments of other women, though in a manner which foregrounds heterosexual courtship. This evidence is simply not conclusive. To borrow a term from Nina Auerbach, lesbianism is a ‘silent possibility’51 in Leapor's writing. It is more probable, however, that Leapor's female friendships followed the pattern most usual in her time, and that in Bridget Freemantle she simply found ‘a partner in sensibility, a confidante in literature’.


She is the daughter of a gardener, but no such elegant creature as Tennyson's Rose. She has work to do indoors and out, and her life is eminently prosaic. She has a plain face, an awkward figure, and nondescript clothes. But she has no quarrel with fate or her mirror. She seems to have been a shrewd, sensible young woman, vivacious, quickwitted, with no illusions, no sentimentality, no dreams.52

Myra Reynolds's claim that Mary Leapor has no argument with her mirror just misses a useful insight about the poet. More recently, Jocelyn Harris has spoken of Leapor's ‘self-loathing’;53 although this is a strong term to use, any close reading of Leapor's poetry will show that she was very sensitive about her appearance. This is a significant issue in a culture where women were taught to value themselves by their beauty. The Countess of Winchilsea describes the problem in ‘An Epilogue to the Tragedy of Jane Shore’:

There is a season, which too fast approaches,
And every list'ning beauty nearly touches;
When handsome Ladies, falling to decay,
Pass thro' new epithets to smooth the way:
From fair and young transportedly confess'd,
Dwindle to fine, well fashion'd, and well dress'd.
Thence as their fortitude's extremest proof,
To well as yet; from well to well enough;
Till having on such weak foundation stood,
Deplorably at last they sink to good.
Abandon'd then, 'tis time to be retir'd,
And seen no more, when not alas! admir'd.(54)

Amusing though this is, other women were embittered by the loss of their beauty. The most famous instance is Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, whose ‘Saturday’ eclogue describes a woman in despair over the damage smallpox has done to her face. Even late in her life, Montagu remained unable to accept her own loss of beauty. She wrote to her daughter in 1757: ‘It is eleven Year since I have seen my Figure in a Glass. The last Refflection I saw there was so disagreeable, I resolv'd to spare my selfe such mortifications for the Future, and shall continue that resolution to my Live's end.’55 Even women who are supposedly resigned to the ordinariness of their features register a quiet complaint. Elizabeth Teft asks:

Was Nature angry when she form'd my Clay?
Or, urg'd by Haste to finish, cou'd not stay?
Or drest with all her Store some perfect she,
So lavish there, she'd none to spare for me?
I oft converse with those she's deem'd to grace
With Air and Shape, fine Mien, and charming Face:
When self-survey'd, the Glass hears this Reply,
Dear! what a strange, unpolish'd thing am I!(56)

Mirrors often appear in the poetry of women in the eighteenth century. Terry Castle suggests that for these poets the mirror was at once an emblem of the psyche and the symbol of an alternative world: ‘the mirror image both distilled a longing for purity and expressed a desire for escape’.57 If women's lives were often painfully limited, it was possible to find or make a better self in the mirror. There, too, a woman could find plainness confirmed, or watch her beauty decay.

The tendency to judge a woman's worth, or for her to judge her own worth, by her appearance was by no means new. Roy Porter maintains, however, that in the eighteenth century the growth of fashion brought with it a new standard of beauty which emphasized the artificial, so that many Georgians feared a civilization of façades.58 ‘Georgian values glamorized fine ladies into sex objects. Mutating from household managers into mannequins, ladies slipped into a femininity worn for the gaze of men, which had traditionally been the prerogative of actresses and whores.’59 Women wore cosmetics that were caked and heavily coloured, so that painted faces largely obscured the natural complexion. In addition, such equipment as wigs, visors, jewels, masks, patches, lace, and gauze tended to conceal defects in appearance and tantalize at the same time. Men often believed that a woman's modesty could be judged by her ability to blush under the right circumstances. Yet under thick cosmetics this physiognomic test was no longer possible. Artificial appearance thereby takes on a sexual overtone which Porter detects in the expression ‘making faces’, meaning to have sex.60 Keith Thomas observes that by the eighteenth century bodily control became a symbol of social hierarchy.61 An elegant person would not pass wind audibly, or expose teeth while laughing. Women's clothing was, of course, constricting, doubtless an aspect of this fashion to control the body. Stays would be tightened mercilessly to achieve the desired figure, and the image of women fainting because of overtightened stays is a commonplace in the literature of the period. Nature was forced into the correct forms. There was hardware available to straighten women's backs, necks, and shoulders. Where this involved suspension by the chin, there was risk of strangulation. As well as maintaining a good posture, women were expected to move with grace, which was the principal reason for dancing lessons.62 A woman attempting to achieve such perfection needed to spend a great deal of money, and so women of the labouring class were automatically excluded, even if they were possessed of ‘natural’ beauty. This highly artificial ideal can be seen, then, as an aspect both of the relations between men and women, and of the relations between classes.

Jonathan Swift's misogynistic satires often work simply by showing the difference between the physical woman and the dazzling effect created by make-up and dress. What Swift finds is, of course, the problem: ‘Who sees, will spew; who smells, be poison'd’ (Swift, ii. 583). For Swift, there is a connection between cosmetics and prostitution; the carefully assembled exterior often conceals both physical horror and moral contamination. Mary Leapor attempts to see beyond artificial appearance to what she believes is a more authentic femininity. Her poem ‘Dorinda at her Glass’ describes a faded beauty who can no longer marshal her charms. Whereas Pope's Belinda might worship her own image as an idol, Dorinda can now only grieve before the mirror:

At length the Mourner rais'd her aking Head,
And discontented left her hated Bed.
But sighing shun'd the Relicks of her Pride,
And left her Toilet for the Chimney Side:
Her careless Locks upon her Shoulders lay
Uncurl'd, alas! because they half were Gray;
No magick Baths employ her skilful Hand,
But useless Phials on her Table stand:
She slights her Form, no more by Youth inspir'd,
And loaths that Idol which she once admir'd.

(ML i. 2-3)

Not even the most elaborate cosmetics can hide Dorinda's age. She has valued herself as a beauty, and now that her looks have departed she is left with nothing:

To her lov'd Glass repair'd the weeping Maid,
And with a Sigh address'd the alter'd Shade.
Say, what art thou, that wear'st a gloomy Form,
With low'ring Forehead, like a northern Storm;
Cheeks pale and hollow, as the Face of Woe,
And Lips that with no gay Vermilion glow?

(ML i. 3)

Dorinda only knows herself by the mirror: it has literally and figuratively provided her with a self-image. Of course, without her cosmetics there is nothing alarming about Dorinda. Unlike Swift, Leapor chooses to affirm Dorinda's worth. Indeed, Dorinda now advises other women to recognize that beauty cannot be made to last, and Leapor closes the poem urging women to improve themselves spiritually so that old age will be satisfying:

Thus Pope has sung, thus let Dorinda sing;
‘Virtue, brave Boys,—'tis Virtue makes a King:’
Why not a Queen? fair Virtue is the same
In the rough Hero, and the smiling Dame:
Dorinda's Soul her Beauties shall pursue,
Tho' late I see her, and embrace her too …

(ML i. 7)

Leapor, a committed Anglican, believes that life's fundamental duties are spiritual. Worship at the shrine of beauty is a distraction from true worship. She often understands friendship as a spiritual comfort: accordingly, she advises women to pursue friendship, rather than beauty, since death is in sight: ‘To smooth my Passage to the silent Gloom, ❙ And give a Tear to grace the mournful Tomb’ (ML i. 8). By emphasizing the spiritual potential of women, Leapor believes that she has found a more reasonable and more durable standard of value.

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. Yet she felt her own dignity threatened by standards of beauty. In ‘The Visit’, she is distressed by comments on her appearance, and it is for this reason that she needs shelter:

Where careless Creatures, such as I,
May 'scape the penetrating Eye
Of Students in Physiognomy;
Who read your want of Wit or Grace,
Not from your Manners, but your Face;
Whose Tongues are for a Week supply'd
From one poor Mouth that's stretch'd too wide;
Who greatly blame a freckled Hand,
A skinny Arm, full Shoulders; and,
Without a Microscope, can spy
A Nose that's plac'd an Inch awry.

(ML ii. 291)

It seems that, in the view of some of her acquaintances, Leapor was simply an ugly woman. Yet the poet often sees her appearance in relation to her poverty, as one manifestation of a generally bleak and constrained way of life. In ‘The Disappointment’, she indulges a brief fantasy of being something more:

What Shadows swam before these dazled Eyes!
Fans, Laces, and Ribbands, in bright Order rise:
Methought these Limbs your silken Favours found,
And thro' streight Entries brush'd the rustling Gown,
While the gay Vestment of Delicious Hue
Sung thro' the Isle, and whistled in the Pew.
Then, who its Wearer, by her Form shall tell:
No longer Mira, but a shining Belle.

(ML ii. 79)

Leapor dreams of escape from plainness; she dreams of being elegant, even beautiful. Of course, the promised gown is a cheat, and she is left with her old self. When she recounts her dismissal from Edgcote House in ‘An Epistle to Artemisia. On Fame’, she is criticized by Parthenia for her dirty shoes and by Sophronia for her posture: ‘“Still o'er a Table leans your bending Neck: ❙ Your Head will grow prepost'rous, like a Peck’ (ML ii. 52). When the Gentleman's Magazine published the remarks of a former employer on Mary Leapor, much was made of the length of her neck and the shortness of her body. Leapor, a poor woman, could not dress to advantage; indeed, her employers' low regard for her as a servant is partly related to her appearance. Her shoes, posture, and proportions have a strange economic significance, since they all seem to have been factors in her dismissal. In ‘The Mistaken Lover’ Strephon attacks his wife's appearance to cover his actual greed. It may be that the spectacle of an intellectually ambitious kitchen-maid unnerved her employers, and that she posed a threat to their view of a proper social order. In a world where physiognomy was a respected practice, Leapor's appearance may have given the Chauncys grounds to believe that she really was a person of no significance and that she ought to learn her station.

Leapor's most telling examination of standards of beauty is ‘Corydon. Phillario. Or, Mira's Picture’. In her letter Freemantle expresses concern that this poem will be misunderstood:

I think it may give the Reader a worse Idea of her Person than it deserv'd, which was very far from being shocking; tho' there was nothing extraordinary in it. The Poem was occasioned by her happening to hear that a Gentleman who had seen some of her Poems, wanted to know what her Person was.

(ML ii, p. xxxii)

This seems quaint, but at least one scholar has expressed confusion over whether this Mira is a real person.63 To know the occasion of the poem is helpful in any case, since it allows the reader to see that not only is Leapor making a burlesque of her own appearance but satirizing the gentleman as well, and, in a broad sense, the male gaze. Corydon is a shepherd, and Phillario is a sophisticated man accustomed to polite society. The two are walking amid flowers and birds, and Phillario asks about the local beauties: ‘What Nymph, O Shepherd! reigns ❙ The rural Toast of these delightful Plains?’ Phillario mentions several women who are admired variously for graceful ease, inspiring eyes, a charming voice, a fair face, or raven hair. Phillario, however, is startled by the sight of Mira:

But who is she that walks from yonder Hill,
With studious Brows, and Night-cap Dishabille?
That looks a Stranger to the Beams of Day;
And counts her Steps, and mutters all the Way?

(ML ii. 295-6)

Presumably Mira is composing a poem, counting the syllables as she walks. The gentleman who was impressed by Leapor's poems has given her an occasion to debunk any notion that intellectual or personal worth can be judged from physical appearance. In ‘The Mistaken Lover’ Leapor shows Strephon feebly criticizing his wife's appearance; in this poem she goes much further by asserting that she herself is an ugly woman, a slattern, and almost dares the gentleman to stand by his favourable opinion of her intelligence. When Corydon asks Phillario if he likes Mira, the response is unmistakable:

Like her!—I'd rather beg the friendly Rains
To sweep that Nuisance from thy loaded Plains;
—Hold, Phillario! She's a Neighbour's Child:
'Tis true, her Linen may be something soil'd.
Her Linen, Corydon!—herself, you mean.
Are such the Dryads of thy smiling Plain?

(ML ii. 296)

Twentieth-century readers may think of the eighteenth century as a time when dirt was everywhere and personal hygiene abysmal. Indeed, that would appear to be the origin of Swift's excremental vision. Johnson's famous comment about Kit Smart suggests that some people were actually content with their dirt: ‘Another charge was, that he did not love clean linen; and I have no passion for it.’64 Yet, by the eighteenth century, polite culture made much of personal cleanliness. In one conduct manual, we read: ‘Cleanliness is a mark of politeness: and it is universally agreed upon, that no one, unadorned with this virtue, can go into company without being offensive. Besides, the easier or higher any one's fortune is, this duty rises in proportion.’65 Hygiene becomes a matter of social distinction: polite people always wear clean linen. In her self-portrait Leapor is intent on flouting almost every aspect of contemporary standards of beauty. Moreover, she is willing to connect her poor appearance with her interest in literature. Corydon, speaking as well as he can in Mira's defence, observes:

Her Eyes are dim, you'll say: Why, that is true:
I've heard the Reason, and I'll tell it you.
By a Rush-Candle (as her Father says)
She sits whole Ev'nings, reading wicked Plays.

(ML ii. 297)

It seems that a literary woman of Leapor's class can only read by night: there are simply too many things to be done during the day. The poems which impressed the gentleman could only have been produced by a poet with rings around her eyes. If women are to be judged by their appearance, Mira ought to give up books:

She read!—She'd better milk her brindled Cows:
I wish the Candle does not singe her Brows,
So like a dry Furze-faggot; and, beside,
Not quite so even as a Mouse's Hide.

(ML ii. 297)

Phillario goes on to denounce Mira's shape as so many mountains, and then looks into her mouth:

But she has teeth—
                              —Consid'ring 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.

(ML ii. 298)

Although eighteenth-century cooking tended to use a great deal of sugar, women were expected to keep their teeth in repair. John Breval writes in The Art of Dress (1717):

          Take, gentle Creatures, take a Friend's Advice,
In polishing your Teeth be wond'rous nice;
For no Defect in these (should such be known)
Ten Thousand other Graces will attone;
Oft let the Brush it's Morning Task repeat;
And shun at Boards the too high-season'd Meat;
Ragouts, and luscious Soups, make Teeth decay,
And op'ning Lips the tainted Breath betray.(66)

Roy Porter suggests that the reasoning behind Chesterfield's advice to his son never to laugh was that laughter might reveal rotten teeth.67 Bad teeth, like other unpleasant aspects of the body, ought to be concealed or controlled.

Such principles of fashion, of course, applied above all to women. Insofar as Leapor presents herself as genuinely ugly, she has a chance to confound the gentleman's expectation that a gifted writer will also have a charming appearance. As Margaret Anne Doody puts it: ‘Leapor plays with the fascination of female ugliness in such a manner as to free herself from conventional claims of feminine proprieties.’68 By emphasizing every defect in her body, she offers a challenge to polite culture. Whereas women are expected to conceal or control whatever defects their bodies may have, Leapor puts hers on display, and even amplifies them. This is a procedure like Swift's, except that Leapor is staking her claim to real dignity; she asserts that she does not wish to be valued for beauty, but for her wit and, as we glean from other poems, her morals. Maximilian Novak speaks of the eighteenth century as the ‘Age of Disguise’, and Terry Castle treats the masquerade as a central metaphor of eighteenth-century culture.69 Leapor adamantly refuses to conceal herself. She insists on a dignity which has nothing to do with appearances. Bold though it is, Leapor's poem is remarkably pessimistic. Mira cannot enter Phillario's world on the strength of her intellect, because her features are too plain; although Corydon will not attack her appearance, he has no appreciation of her intellect since he believes that plays are wicked. The poem has an oddly sinister ending:

No more, my Friend! for see, the Sun grows high,
And I must send the Weeders to my Rye:
Those spurious Plants must from the Soil be torn,
Lest the rude Brambles over-top the Corn.

(ML ii. 298)

Phillario has already wished that the rain would sweep Mira away, and now Corydon is intent on getting rid of weeds. Presumably Mira is such a ‘spurious plant’, unwelcome, and best plucked out. The poem is a counter-pastoral, and its underlying vision is of disharmony. As in ‘An Essay on Woman’, Leapor raises her protest but can see no escape from her situation. In ‘Mira's Picture’ she is caught between classes and between standards of value: both Corydon and Phillario judge her to be worthless.

Margaret Anne Doody claims that eighteenth-century poetry is incarnational, not merely because it deals in particulars, ‘but also because it celebrates, however ruefully, the experience of living a bodily and historical life’.70 How much of eighteenth-century poetry can be accounted for by this term is arguable, yet the idea is certainly useful with respect to Mary Leapor. Doody believes that interest in incarnation can lead to an ‘ironic self-awareness of the gap between that cultural icon, the beautiful female, and the strange physical self’.71 Leapor's poetry can certainly be very physical, as in ‘Mira's Picture’. She is aware of women's bodies. A classic instance of this is ‘The Head-Ach’, in which she humorously compares her own writing of poetry with a friend's gossip. Both are crimes for which they are punished in the natural course of things:

          Just so, Aurelia, you complain
Of Vapours, Rheums, and gouty Pain;
Yet I am patient, so shou'd you,
For Cramps and Head-achs are our due:
We suffer justly for our Crimes;
For Scandal you, and I for Rhymes …

(ML i. 102)

Leapor finds in her menstrual pains a bond with Aurelia, even if the poem is largely a gentle rebuke to her friend for malicious talk. In a very light-hearted manner, she connects her poetry with women's friendship, and with women's physical experience.

In Doody's view, women poets of the eighteenth century are often very conscious of dirt. In this, again, they resemble Swift, though they rarely share his horrified fascination. An awareness of dirt can often be detected in women's descriptions of their environment. Esther Lewis describes a stroll during the winter:

Exalted now on iron stilts I move,
Through dirt with cane supported fearless rove,
Till rooted deep upon the yielding plain,
A breathing monument awhile remain,
To warn each wand'ring she my fate to shun,
Nor such defiling dirty hazards run.(72)

Doody's notion of incarnation in poetry really does not account for the hundreds of poems written by women to the standard abstractions such as sleep, pity, and wisdom, yet there is certainly a strain in the poetry of eighteenth-century women which might take as its best emblem Esther Lewis perched on her stilts. Mary Leapor, too, knows that she lives in a dirty world. Her house, for example, would probably have had a clay floor, and if its lighting was primarily from rushes, it would have been dingy. As a gardener's daughter she would have been accustomed to muddy boots and black finger-nails. In ‘The Pocket-Book's Petition to Parthenissa’, the book begs Parthenissa to write something on one of its pages, after which it will be content: ‘Nor once, repining at my Cell, ❙ With Darkness, Dirt, and Mira, dwell’ (ML ii. 94). In ‘An Epistle to a Lady’ Leapor indicates that in her house there is no hope of keeping things clean:

Convinc'd too soon, her Eye unwilling falls
On the blue Curtains and the dusty Walls:
She wakes, alas! to Business and to Woes,
To sweep her Kitchen, and to mend her Clothes.

(ML i. 39)

‘An Epistle to a Lady’ is Leapor's most poignant meditation on death. … She ponders her body's fragility, her intellectual struggles, the poverty and drabness of her environment, and her need for friendship; the poem ends with thoughts of the world to come. Apart from Doody's specific use of the word, ‘incarnation’ is a theological term describing the divinization of history and the material order. The paradox in Leapor's response to her experience is that she is firmly aware of its physical nature, yet she also insists on the intellectual and spiritual dignity of women. Leapor's poetry strives towards a vision of wholeness. Her protest is, in that sense, rooted in orthodoxy.


The cult of the primitive in eighteenth-century England had numerous manifestations: the Gothic fashion in literature, architecture, and landscape; ballad collecting, archaeology, and other forms of antiquarianism; an interest in undeveloped societies such as those of the South Sea Islanders, the American Indians, and the Eskimos; the peculiar fascination with people who had lived outside normal society, such as Peter the Wild Boy, who was found in a wood near Hanover and learned no more than a score of words in his lifetime, or Mlle Le Blanc, who was captured near the Marne living in a tree;73 and, of course, Lord Monboddo's quest for a human being with a tail.

Oddities notwithstanding, this cult contributed substantially to the development of new attitudes towards originality, nature, and emotion in literature. Although the gap between primitivist theory and actual literary practice was great, it became possible through claims of natural genius for labouring-class poets to command the interest of readers and critics of a higher class. Such claims, of course, usually distorted and, in some cases, entirely misrepresented, the efforts of these poets. … Mary Leapor's education, though haphazard and incomplete, was considerably greater than was admitted at the time of her publication. To describe her as a primitive or a natural genius is, in the final analysis, a mistake.

The primitive poet was thought to compose directly from nature, hence spontaneously, artlessly, and without forethought either of design or of audience.74 The primitive poet was therefore unencumbered by tradition or textuality. Such a talent was already complete and could undergo no education or development. William Duff writes in An Essay on Original Genius (1767):

The truth is, a Poet of original Genius has very little occasion for the weak aid of Literature: he is self-taught. He comes into the world as it were completely accomplished. Nature supplies the materials of his compositions; his senses are the under-workmen, while Imagination, like a masterly Architect, superintends and directs the whole.75

That a natural poet had no need of books was a common claim. One critic, Thomas Blackwell, went so far as to argue that in the case of poets like Homer or Hesiod, the fewer books read the better. Blackwell's An Enquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer (1735) gives a fascinating description of the qualities associated with natural poetry:

But what marvellous Things happen in a well ordered State? We can hardly be surprized; We know the Springs and Method of acting; Every things happens in Order, and according to Custom or Law. But in a wide Country, not under a regular Government, or split into many, whose Inhabitants live scattered, and ignorant of Laws and Discipline; In such a Country, the Manners are simple, and Accidents will happen every Day: Exposition and loss of Infants, Encounters, Escapes, Rescues, and every other thing that can inflame the human Passions while acting, or awake them when described, and recalled by Imitation.76

Blackwell appears well insulated from the violence of his own time. The England which produced Moll Flanders or even The Dunciad ought to have satisfied any desire for extreme experience. A self-congratulating sense of modernity is fairly common in the early eighteenth century; what is thought lacking in emotional, cultural, and artistic experience is attributed to an expertise in living. René Wellek identifies among critics of the time a biological or organic view of history, according to which humanity develops from the childhood of earlier times to eventual old age and death.77 According to such a view, the vigour of ancient times has given way to a less exuberant though more orderly and mature way of life. A writer such as Blackwell seems, on the one hand, ideologically assured about his own society: ‘We know the Springs and Method of Acting’. On the other hand, he recognizes a narrowness and constraint in that culture.

Theories of primitivism, it could be argued, allowed writers, thinkers, and artists to deal with problems of disorder without seriously questioning their society. Primitivism explained and even sentimentalized those who lacked education or economic security. As with the pastoral myth, it could either obscure or bring into focus problems of social disadvantage. Even in its most blinkered forms, however, primitivism concentrated attention on people outside the élite, and made possible in some quarters a gradual increase in understanding.

The idea of inspired poets had a venerable history, but the primitivists of the eighteenth century were keen to find contemporary instances of natural genius. The great model in English was Shakespeare warbling ‘his native wood-notes wild’. In 1767 Richard Farmer produced An Essay on the Learning of Shakespeare, by which he hoped to see the poet ‘acquitted … of all piratical depredations on the Ancients: … his Studies were most demonstratively confined to Nature and his own Language’.78 Mrs Montagu, who along with Hannah More later promoted Ann Yearsley, wrote of Shakespeare in 1769: ‘Heaven-born genius acts from something superior to rules, and antecedent to rules; and has a right of appeal to nature herself.’79 Even where commentators avoid comparisons with Shakespeare and are generally more restrained, interest in a primitive poetic impulse is sometimes intense. Mark Akenside writes in The Pleasures of the Imagination:

                                                                                                                        Ask the swain
Who journeys homeward from a summer day's
Long labour, why, forgetful of his toils
And due repose, he loiters to behold
The sunshine gleaming as thro' amber clouds,
O'er all the western sky; full soon, I ween,
His rude expression and untutor'd airs,
Beyond the pow'r of language, will unfold
The form of beauty smiling at his heart.(80)

Akenside hopes for great poetry from labourers, though he also sees a need for raw talent to be improved by culture. In view of such expectations, labouring poets were able to present themselves, or, at least, be presented to the public as natural geniuses.

Some labouring poets understood their own work in primitivist terms. Ann Yearsley writes ‘To Mr. ****, an Unlettered Poet, on Genius Unimproved’:

Florus, canst thou define that innate spark
Which blazes but for glory? Canst thou paint
The trembling rapture in its infant dawn,
Ere young Ideas spring; to local Thought
Arrange the busy phantoms of the mind,
And drag the distant timid shadows forth,
Which, still retiring, glide unform'd away,
Nor rush into expression? No; the pen,
Tho' dipp'd in awful Wisdom's deepest tint,
Can never paint the wild extatic mood.(81)

There is something strange about one supposedly natural poet writing to another in epistemological terms. It is difficult to believe that Yearsley has produced this self-conscious poem purely through inspiration rather than as a result of reading contemporary authors chosen by Hannah More. Yearsley wishes to appear learned, even as she boasts of the ‘extatic mood’. James Woodhouse recalled with some resentment the role of natural genius:

As tutor'd Bears are led from place, to place,
Displaying biped gait, and burlesque grace;
Their action clumsey, and their shape uncouth,
While grunting bagpipe greets the gaping youth;
And, with most solemn phiz, and upright air,
Make witlings titter, whilst the ignorant stare—
As dancing Dogs make Oafs and Children, swarm;
Dress—mien—demeanour—all in human form—
As Monkeys, rear'd erect, on paws, or breech,
Well mimic Man in all but laugh, and speech—
Or as, from street to street, queer Camel's shown,
From other beasts, by pipe and tabor, known;
Tho' seldom eye perceives a bungling brute
Whose make, and motion, less with music suit;
So was he sent the twofold City through,
For Cits, like Swains, are pleas'd with something new,
That each Subscriber's eyes might freely range,
O'er Clown, so clever! Spectacle, so strange!(82)

That an intelligent labouring person should be portrayed as a prodigy or a marvel is plain snobbery, yet it was a necessary part of the subscription process for the poet to face this humiliation. The primitivist movement increased the chances of publication for a poet of the labouring class, but it also obliged such a poet to assume a public identity which was not only humiliating but often deceptive.

Not all critics believed primitivist ideas. Samuel Johnson's amusing treatment of the subject in Chapter XXII of Rasselas is well known. Lord Kames in his Elements of Criticism (1762) argues for a universal standard of taste; however, he excludes from true taste the people for whom other commentators claimed natural genius: ‘Those who depend for food on bodily labour, are totally void of taste; of such a taste at least as can be of use in the fine arts.’83 Thus, the pose of natural genius, even where it was assumed without deceit, was likely to impress only a part of the literary establishment.

Mary Leapor made it plain that she did not wish to be described in the subscription proposal, since that would excite the world's curiosity rather than its good nature (ML ii. 314). When that proposal appeared after her death there was strong emphasis on the defects in her education:

[She] had no other Education than in common with those of her own Station; could borrow no Helps from the Converse of her Country Companions; yet, by the Strength of her own Parts, the Vivacity of her own Genius, and a perpetual Pursuit after Knowledge, not only acquired a Taste for the most exalted and refined Authors in our Language, but aspired to imitate 'em.84

There is no deception here, except perhaps on the point of her ‘Country Companions’. Evidently, this term refers to acquaintances of her own class, and not to the Jennens family or Bridget Freemantle from whose converse she certainly borrowed helps. The proposal, however, indicates that she read something beyond Alexander Pope and the Bible, for it combines a primitivist appeal to genius with an assertion that her natural parts had been improved by a knowledge of the best writers. Joseph Spence had provided Stephen Duck with a reading list of good authors, as Shenstone was to do for Woodhouse, and More for Yearsley. It seems that, despite the more extreme theoretical claims concerning natural genius, few of those who promoted such geniuses actually subscribed to a pure primitivism. It was common to attempt some reconciliation of those theories with a more neo-classical conception of literature. Nonetheless, the note to Leapor's first volume attempts to minimize her reading: ‘Mrs. Leapor from a Child delighted in reading, and particularly Poetry, but had few Opportunities of procuring any Books of that kind’ (ML i. 3). Freemantle compounds this impression when she observes that Leapor's whole library consisted of sixteen or seventeen volumes (ML ii, p. xxxii). In 1754 John Duncombe, though not an extreme primitivist, provided the obligatory comparison between Leapor, the natural poet, and Shakespeare, in his Feminiad.85 In his letter to the Gentleman's Magazine, he implied the same comparison: ‘Molly Leapor … was a most extraordinary uncultivated genius, who “warbled her native wood-notes wild”.’ As apologists for her work, Freemantle, Duncombe, and, to a lesser degree, the author of the proposals (presumably Garrick), portray Leapor in terms which minimize her opportunities of learning. This, obviously, is not a literary fraud on the scale of the ‘Rowley’ poems or Ossian, yet it is a distortion that must be corrected.

That Mary Leapor had few of the characteristics of the natural poet envisaged by literary theorists of the day is certain. Betty Rizzo argues this point vigorously:

But the truth about Leapor is that though she was different from those educated poets suffering from the anxiety Bate expresses as ‘What is there left to do?’ the difference is not what the public supposed. In fact, Leapor, like the other primitives, knew exactly what was left to do: she had to catch up, make up for lost time, follow Pope and learn to write like him. She was overwhelmed with an anxiety, not the anxiety of influence but the anxiety for influence.

(Rizzo, 332)

This point is absolutely essential for an understanding of Leapor. From ‘To Lucinda’, ‘Mopsus’, and ‘A Summer's Wish’, Rizzo demonstrates that Leapor was unhappy with her lack of education, and that she used her poetry to moderate her ambitions and her emotional excesses. Rizzo's argument opens another issue that is crucial to Leapor's poetry: whereas Leapor is a formidable social critic, she none the less affirms many of the central values of her culture. As an intellectual, she recognized that Pope, Swift, Gay, Addison, Steele, and other leading writers of her time embodied a tradition of learning. Her attitude towards that tradition was fundamentally respectful. She wished to put on the mind of her culture, and that could only be achieved by extensive reading.

There is an aspect of Leapor's poetry that Rizzo overlooks. Following Freemantle, Duncombe, and others, Rizzo asserts that ‘she was probably as primitive a poet as one could find: uneducated, without free access to many books, without much conversation, consigned to a station designed to be unacquainted with such things’ (Rizzo, 338). From ‘Epistle to Artemisia. On Fame’, it is evident that Leapor knew a number of aspiring poets, and discussed writing with them. The folder of manuscript poems preserved at Weston Hall only confirms the internal evidence that she was not deprived of literary acquaintances, even if their attainments were limited. More importantly, there is a large number of references in her poetry to books she has read. Indeed, there is solid internal evidence, supported by some small pieces of external evidence, that Leapor had read some works of classical literature, and many contemporary authors.

Bridget Freemantle's letter contains a curious defence of Leapor's originality:

Since the Publication of her Poems, I hear she has been accused of stealing from other Authors; but I believe very unjustly, and imagine the Censure proceeds rather from a random Conjecture that it must be so, than any just Foundation. I don't find that the Particulars are pointed out; and if there are really any Lines in her Book that bear so near a Resemblance to what has been wrote by other Authors, as to give room for such a Conjecture, I, that was so well acquainted with her Way of Thinking, dare venture to answer for her, that it proceeded from the Impression the Reading those Passages some time before happen'd to make upon her Mind, without her remembring from whence they came; and therefore she can no more be reckon'd a Plagiary on that Account, than a Person could justly be accused of being a Thief, for making use of a Shilling or two of another's Money that happen'd to be mix'd with his own, without his knowing it.

Besides, I don't believe it impossible for two People to think exactly alike upon a Subject, and even to express themselves almost in the very same Words for a Line or two, without ever having been acquainted with one another's Thoughts; tho' I don't know that this was the Case of Myra.

(ML ii, pp. xxiii-xxiv)

Freemantle takes the charge of plagiarism seriously. It was, of course, a common occurrence in the eighteenth century for a new author to be accused of some imposture. Indeed, according to Janet Todd, women writers were the particular object of this kind of scepticism.86 Many women produced poems defending themselves against the charge that they could not have written their own works. Mary Masters, for example, attempted to answer doubts about a psalm she had versified:

But still the Poem, howsoe'er design'd,
Is a true Picture of the Author's Mind.
Whate'er I write, whatever I impart,
Is simple Nature unimprov'd by Art.
Search but those Strains, you think so much excel,
Scan ev'ry Verse, and try the Numbers well:
You'll plainly see, in almost ev'ry Line,
Distinguishing Defects to prove them Mine.(87)

Masters often apologizes for her incapacity as a poet. Here she gives voice to a sense of inferiority underlying the work of many natural poets. She claims that the poem must be hers since it is basically incompetent.

The accusation of plagiarism against Leapor should not be dismissed out of hand. Whoever made the charge was probably aware of the number of echoes and allusions in her writing. To describe this as plagiarism is, as Freemantle observes, unjust. Leapor often refers to major writers in order to disagree with them. Moreover, it is a long-established strategy among poets to rework passages by other authors. What Leapor borrows she usually changes. She does little for which she could not have found a sanction in Pope's ‘An Essay on Criticism’. Nevertheless, the accusation is interesting since it suggests that some readers found Leapor's credentials as a natural poet or original genius suspect even at the time of publication. Defending Leapor, Freemantle implies that the poet read widely enough to forget where particular lines or passages came from. Had Leapor lived and allowed herself to be described as an original genius, she might have faced the sort of embarrassment that overtook Burns as the extent of his reading became known. In ‘To Lucinda’ she does in fact assume the role of the uncultivated poet; therefore, her humility about her education could easily have been taken as an attempt to deceive, even if that was not her intention. Given what now seems the fragility of primitivist thinking, it is surprising that there were not even more scandals associated with the movement.


To assess Leapor's early education is difficult. It is probable, as Betty Rizzo observes, that she attended the school in Brackley run by a Mr Cooper (Rizzo, 314-15), that is, the Magdalen Free School. This establishment may have resembled the one attended by Mopsus: ‘His father plac'd him in a Country School, ❙ To learn Division, and the Golden Rule …’ (ML ii. 11). Victor E. Neuburg describes a typical school in the eighteenth century: ‘For the children of the poor who could pay a trifling weekly fee, some sort of education could be acquired at the random, private-venture establishments set up by, perhaps, a “dame” or an old soldier—almost anyone, in fact, who was unsuccessful or incapable in any other sphere of activity.’88 A private-venture school would have followed the same method as the charity schools in which, according to M. G. Jones, children were taught first to read and later to write; they were taught arithmetic only when the other skills had been perfected.89 Keith Thomas argues that even in the eighteenth century it was not uncommon for people to read print, sometimes only black letter, without learning to write.90 Leapor herself had poor handwriting, probably as a result of this emphasis on teaching students above all to read. Richard Cooper was, however, an able and committed teacher (Clarke, 146-7). Leapor was doubtless better than most pupils. It is conceivable that she received extra attention. Cooper was not only a teacher but a bookbinder, and may have allowed her to read the books in his possession. Her interest in the law, a point which will be returned to, may also have originated with him, since he supplemented his income by taking wills (Eland, ii. 288).

Cooper did not run the only school in Brackley. There was also the public school run by Magdalen College, Oxford, and a small academy operated by the vicar, Thomas Bowles. Betty Rizzo considers the possibility that Elizabeth Lisle Bowles, the vicar's wife, took an interest in Mary Leapor (Rizzo, 322). A close connection between Leapor and the Bowles family would be particularly interesting with respect to her education. One of the vicar's main scholarly projects was to replace Lily's Latin grammar, which had been in use since 1548: ‘that the Roman Dialect may be no longer the slow and ungrateful Production of Force, Drudgery, and servile Punishments, the long-prevailing Obscurities of former Ages are clear'd’.91 Bowles appears a humane teacher. The first edition of his grammar, A Compendious and Rational Institution of the Latin Tongue, was published in 1740. Since Leapor would have seen Bowles at least every Sunday, it is hard to imagine that she would not have known he had published this book, or that she would not have gone out of her way to obtain a copy and read it. If she was a friend, or even a protégée, of Elizabeth Lisle Bowles, then she would certainly have read the book.

There is not much evidence that Leapor actually learned Latin. As Betty Rizzo argues, however, she did feel the need to catch up, to fill the gaps in her learning. That she did not know Latin or Greek would have seemed an important gap, as Chesterfield wrote to his son: ‘the word illiterate in its common acceptation means a man who is ignorant of those two languages’.92 Whether Leapor learned Latin or, as is likely, read the major authors in translation, Bowles's grammar would have been an excellent guide. At the end of the volume there is a short, lucid essay on each important Roman author. For example, he writes of Virgil:

His Pastorals describe that innocent Simplicity which was the Blessing of the first Ages of the World, and which he has supported by rural Scenes, Songs and Music, Omens of Birds, Comparisons, and all such Ideas as are common to a pastoral Life. His Georgics reconcile the most lively and ornamental Parts of Poetry with the Simplicity of the plain and common Precepts of Agriculture; and not only instruct in rural Affairs, but furnish the attentive Mind with many excellent Improvements in Arts and Sciences. Industry and Sobriety, the Love of one's Country, and a Religious Frame of Mind, are every where inculcated …93

What Edmund Blunden calls Leapor's sense of completeness of form when she varies from the standard couplet may owe something to Bowles's book, since it also contains chapters on versification and scanning. The grammar is, however, a very brief affair, and it is most likely that it would have provided Leapor with no more than a smattering of Latin, and an over-view of the literature.

Leapor's reading of the classics cannot have been systematic. For example, she writes to Bridget Freemantle about her preference for the Apocrypha, especially the prayer of Manasses, over some classical authors:

The style is pleasant, and has something in it of modern Eloquence; and those agreeable Repetitions awaken the Readers Attention, and leave a pleasing Anguish on the Mind. In the Whole, it is the perfect Picture of a wounded Soul: And Manasses in his Chains and Afflictions, is a greater Favourite of mine, than all the Caesars, Cicero, or Cato himself.

I would beg of you, if you please, to send me the rest of the Odyssey; for I long to know the End of the Fable; and I have Leisure To-day from dirty Work.

(ML ii. 320)

Although it is remarkable that by the last year of her life Leapor had not yet read through Homer, this letter suggests that she was indeed accustomed to wide reading. Freemantle appears to have been worried that she would borrow time from her other responsibilities to read Homer. A letter that follows the one quoted above, and was probably written on the same day, though the two are separated by the editor or printer, responds to Freemantle's misgivings: ‘I thank you for your kind Admonition: Yet I believe you mistook my Intention; which was not to meditate upon Homer, but, out of an excessive Curiosity (peculiar to my Temper), to know the latter End; tho' I intend to read and digest him at a more proper time’ (ML ii. 313).

This letter reveals something of Freemantle's position regarding the poet. On the one hand, she supplies books and encourages her friend's intellectual development. On the other hand, she is intent that Leapor should fulfil her obligations. Other references suggest that these letters were written around August 1746, the busiest month for farmers and their families. It is likely that Freemantle did not wish to be the cause of the poet annoying her father. A basic point confirmed by these letters is that Leapor was able to borrow books from Freemantle. It appears that she had read the Iliad some time earlier, for there are several brief references to that epic in her poetry. The most substantial occurs in ‘Soto’, a character of a drunk. Soto disgorges two gallons of beer and falls asleep:

Down drops the Youth, his giddy Head
Falls easy on the liquid Bed:
So swam Achilles fierce and brave,
On angry Xanthus's swelling Wave;
And 'scap'd with being wet to th' Skin;
For Pallas held him up by th' Chin:
So Bacchus saves, by mighty Charms,
His helpless Devotee from Harms …

(ML i. 177)

Roger Lonsdale notes that these lines allude to the eleventh book of the Iliad (ECWP, 526 n).

Homer was not the only Greek poet whom Leapor read. In the last stanza of ‘An Hymn to the Morning’ there is, of course, the reference to Sappho's sweeter song (ML i. 25). Leapor might have encountered some of Sappho's verse in several translations. Pope's version of ‘Sappho to Phaon’ is a strong possibility. Ambrose Philips also translated some of Sappho's poems, and his version of ‘A Hymn to Venus’ appeared in The Spectator, no. 223, while no. 229 compared translations of the ‘Ode to Lesbia’, by Catullus, Boileau, and Philips. Edmund Blunden sees in ‘The Month of August’ evidence that Leapor may have read Theocritus, perhaps in ‘the hearty, homely translation by Creech’.94 While there are no direct references to Theocritus, and no obvious allusions or echoes in Leapor's text, there are enough similarities in tone for Blunden's observation to be at least plausible.

Leapor alludes to Roman poets in several places. In ‘The Proclamation of Apollo’ she describes a feast which makes repast of Homer's song, and ‘Next Virgil on the Table Shines, ❙ And then smooth Ovid's tender Lines’ (ML i. 46). There is another reference to Virgil in ‘An Epistle to Artemisia. On Fame’. Leapor alludes to the personification of fame in the fourth book of the Aeneid:

          Bold Maro paints her of gigantic Size,
And makes her Forehead prop the lofty Skies;
With Eyes and Ears he hung the Lady round,
And her shrill Clarion shook the Heavens around …

(ML ii. 43)

Leapor probably knew Ovid and Virgil from a volume of Dryden's translations (1701) in the library at Weston Hall. She refers to one other Roman poet, albeit indirectly: ‘Upon her Play being returned to her, stained with Claret’ is based on Horace's familiar poem ‘To his Book’. There was, of course, a long tradition of poets addressing their books in the manner of Horace, and it cannot be assumed that she had actually read this or any other of Horace's works. As a reader of Alexander Pope, however, she must have known something about Horace. Her own interest in the epistle form if not a result of reading Horace, would surely have led her to seek out this author.

Leapor shows some knowledge of classical prose writers. In ‘An Imperfect Scene’, which was to be included in The Unhappy Father, Lucy describes how Lycander took advantage of her: ‘He first seduc'd me from my native Home, ❙ With Vows of Friendship, and Platonic Love …’ (ML ii. 223). In ‘The Mistaken Lover’, the story of deception in love is seen as a lesson for young men and women:

‘'Twill help to make our Strephons wise,
And stop the Growth of tender Lies:
And more than Plato's moral Page
Instruct the Celia's of the Age.’

(ML i. 89)

In the letter quoted above, Leapor mentions three Roman prose writers whom she has read. The standard translation of Caesar's writings at the time was that of Martin Bladen.95 Cicero's works could be had in a number of translations. Cato the Censor's writings, however, were not widely available in translation, and Leapor may only be referring to Addison's play about Cato of Utica. In ‘The Sow and the Peacock’ she humorously describes the intellectual attainments of the pig: ‘Philosophy she had good Store, ❙ Had ponder'd Seneca all o'er …’ (ML i. 180). Her knowledge of Seneca probably came from Roger L'Estrange's book, Seneca's Morals By Way of Abstract & Discourse, a volume which is in the library of Weston Hall.

Leapor's knowledge of the classics was probably patchy, at best. Discounting the possibility that she knew Latin or, even less likely, Greek, her experience of classical writers would have been filtered through the sensibilities of their translators, and reworked according to contemporary tastes in literature. Indeed, a very significant part of what she read would have been translated by Pope, Dryden, and, to a lesser extent, Philips, authors whose English works were among the main influences on her own verse. Her reading of the classics may not have provided a sharp contrast to the literature of her own time. Still, her reading was not necessarily limited to those authors mentioned in her poems. The library at Weston Hall contains English versions of Josephus, Plutarch, Juvenal, and Lucretius, which Leapor may have read even though she makes no allusion to them in her poetry. She may have wanted to make a show of erudition in her poetry, but she probably did not drop every name she knew.

Leapor's knowledge of English writers is much wider than her knowledge of the classics, as we would expect. Here, again, it is possible to trace a pattern of allusions and echoes. Her reading concentrated on authors from the Restoration to her own time, doubtless because these books were more easily obtained than earlier ones. There are, naturally, references to Chaucer and Shakespeare. ‘The Fox and the Hen’ is a rewriting of ‘The Nun's Priest's Tale’, complete with a fox named Reynard and a hen called Partlet (ML i. 97-100). There is also a reference to Chanticleer in ‘Mopsus’ (ML ii. 24). It is likely that Leapor knew this tale from the translation by Dryden at Weston Hall, although she may simply have read it from a chap-book. If this is so, she seems aware also of the antiquity of the tale. The hen addresses the fox:

‘From long ago, (or Record lies)
You Foxes have been counted wise:
But sure this Story don't agree
With your Device of eating me.’

(ML i. 99)

Leapor knows that Reynard's hen-house depredations have been going on for a very long time.

She may have read a great deal of Shakespeare. The Unhappy Father, for example, is indebted to Othello, with Leonardo, cast in the role of Iago, provoking Eustathius to a rage of jealousy in which he kills his wife, who is called Emilia like Iago's wife in Shakespeare's play. The names of Lycander and Polonius are borrowed respectively from A Midsummer Night's Dream and Hamlet. ‘On Winter’ echoes the closing lines of Love's Labour's Lost. The library at Weston Hall contains a full set of Pope's edition of Shakespeare.

Leapor certainly read Paradise Lost. In The Unhappy Father, Leonardo speaks the following lines:

So the grand Foe of human Kind, like me,
Arriv' d within fair Eden's blissful Bounds;
There felt, like me, the keen alternate Pangs
Of Admiration, Hatred, and Despair.
Alike our Aim; both Mischief, his and mine.
No Matter; I have lost the Sense of Joy,
Excepting this,—To breed Dissension here.

(ML ii. 164)

This is an unmistakable reference to the fourth book of the epic. Since Milton's works enjoyed a huge circulation after the subscribed edition of 1688, it would be surprising if Leapor had not read them. The copy of Paradise Lost at Weston Hall is the first edition, second issue; it seems that the literary tastes of the Blencowe and Jennens families were something more than middle-brow. Outside her plays Leapor uses blank verse only in ‘The Fields of Melancholy and Chearfulness’ (ML i. 145-53); her preference for rhyme, especially the heroic couplet, indicates that influence from Paradise Lost in terms of technique was limited. Interestingly, almost two-thirds of ‘The Fields of Melancholy and Chearfulness’ is a meditation on death:

Complaining Sounds were heard on ev'ry Side,
And each bewail'd the loss of something dear:
Some mourn'd a Child that in its Bloom expir'd,
And some a Brother's or a Parent's Fate:
Lost Wealth and Honours many Tongues deplor'd,
And some were wretched, tho' they knew not why.

(ML i. 146-7)

The use of blank verse as well as the basic gloominess of the poem points not so much to Milton as to a reading of Edward Young or Robert Blair.

Among the volumes which Leapor herself owned was a copy of Dryden's Fables. It is perhaps superfluous to observe that a number of her poems are also fables, and in large measure indebted to Dryden and Gay. Her probable debt to Dryden's translations has already been observed. Among the volumes of plays in her possession, it is likely that some were by Dryden, though there is no indication of which ones. At Weston Hall there is a six-volume set of Dryden's Miscellany Poems, another six-volume set of his Dramatic Works, and a copy of his Fables.

Congreve would have been an obvious choice of reading for an aspiring playwright, and it could be argued that the closing scene of The Unhappy Father is based on The Mourning Bride, in which Almerja attempts to poison herself, having heard that her suitor, Alphonso, has been killed. In Leapor's play Terentia likewise considers drinking a cup of poison after hearing that Polonius has been devoured by a shark. In both plays the heroines are prevented from killing themselves at the last moment by the return of the man supposedly dead. While cups of poison are not uncommon in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century drama, the parallels between the two plays are sufficient to suggest that Leapor had read Congreve. It should also be noted that Leapor gave one of her poems the title ‘The Way of the World’. There is a copy of The Works of Congreve (1719) at Weston Hall. Leapor's plays show similarities also to the works of Nicholas Rowe. Betty Rizzo notes the resemblances between her treatment of women and this playwright's domestic tragedies.96 Apart from a passage from ‘The Fair Penitent’ which seems to be echoed in Emilia's speech on the lot of women, Leapor writes an entire poem, ‘The Temple of Love’, about a dream which follows a reading of ‘Jane Shore’. Although it is possible that she knew the story in chapbook form, the phrase ‘I read the Scenes of Shore's deluded Wife’ (ML i. 162), indicates that she was reading the play. There is an edition of Rowe's Dramatick Works (1720) at Weston Hall. The plot of The Unhappy Father owes something also to Otway's ‘The Orphan’, in which a young woman, Monimia, lives in a country house under the care of an ageing guardian whose two sons compete for her love. Although Leapor does not follow Otway in allowing the young woman to be tricked into a loss of virginity, Terentia's circumstances at the beginning of the play are very likely modelled on those of Monimia. There is a set of The Works of Mr. Otway (1722) at Weston.

Finally, Leapor's unfinished play about the Saxon king Edwy may be partly modelled on Thomson's and Mallet's Alfred or Thomson's Edward and Eleonora. Leapor's play, however, does not share the topicality of these works. It also contains references to Addison's Cato. At one point Elgiva cries, ‘O! for the Constancy of Cato's Daughter!’ (ML ii. 238) When the soldier Dusterandus speaks of ravishing Emmel, he echoes Sempronius, who has designs upon Marcia, Cato's daughter:

How will my Bosom swell with anxious Joy,
When I behold her strugling in my Arms,
With glowing Beauty, and disorder'd Charms,
While Fear and Anger, with alternate Grace,
Pant in her Breast, and vary in her Face!(97)

If there is any truth in the claim of Corydon in ‘Mira's Picture’ that Mira ‘sits whole Ev'nings, reading wicked Plays’ (ML ii. 297), Leapor must have read a great number. Those that can be identified by allusions, echoes, or parallels, may be the ones she most admired and strove to imitate. Since she wrote only tragedies, her reading of comedies is difficult to pursue, yet comedies are surely the more ‘wicked’ form, and may, if Corydon is believed, have constituted a large part of her reading.

Leapor refers to a number of minor poets from the Restoration and the early part of her own century. She writes in ‘An Epistle to Artemisia. On Fame’ of one of her visitors:

Comes Codrus next, with Talents to offend;
A simple Tutor, and a saucy Friend,
Who pour'd thick Sonnets like a troubled Spring,
And such as Butler's wide-mouth'd Mortals sing:
In shocking Rhimes a Nymph's Perfections tells,
Like the harsh Ting-Tong of some Village-Bells.

(ML ii. 51)

This is an allusion to Whachum, who serves as versifier to the cunning man Sidrophel in Hudibras:

                                                            He serv' d his Master,
In quality of Poetaster:
And Rimes appropriate could make,
To ev'ry month in th' Almanack,
When Termes begin, and end, could tell,
With their Returns, in Doggerel.
.....His Sonnets charm'd th'attentive Crowd,
By wide-mouth'd Mortal trol'd aloud,
That, circled with his long ear'd Guests,
Like Orpheus look'd, among the Beasts …(98)

Leapor's debt to Samuel Butler bears further attention. Her poem ‘Mopsus’ depicts a comic knight-errantry which recalls Hudibras. Leapor's poem is written in heroic couplets rather than octosyllabics, yet she draws directly from Hudibras in the figure of Sir Sidrophel, an astrologer hired by Viscount Simper:

A sage he hir'd, whose deeply-thoughtful Skull
Could teach the Vulgar when the Moon was full;
Who scatter'd Hate among the friendly Stars,
And made e'en Venus retrograde to Mars.

(ML ii. 32)

Sidrophel offers Mopsus advice supposedly garnered from the stars, on his prospects in marriage. In Butler's poem, Sidrophel offers similar counsel to the hero:

You are in Love, Sir, with a Widdow,
Quoth he, that does not greatly heed you;
And for three years has rid your Wit
And Passion without drawing Bit:
And now your bus'ness is, to know
If you shall carry her, or no.(99)

Leapor was somewhat uneasy about Hudibrastics. In a letter to Freemantle she describes ‘Mopsus’ as ‘a kind of popular Piece’ (ML ii. 316); evidently she saw this poem as something less than ‘polite’. Certainly, to mock astrologers and almanacs is to dismiss a great deal of popular literature—but even to parody astrologers and chap-book romances in the manner of Butler is, in Leapor's view, to be writing at a popular level. Still, it may be judged that Leapor understood her own role as a poet partly in terms drawn from Samuel Butler. In an octosyllabic piece, ‘The Epistle of Deborah Dough’, she compares herself to a local cunning man: ‘But there's a Man that keeps a Dairy, ❙ Will clip the Wings of Neighbour Mary …’ (ML ii. 69). This man is a writer of verses, but more like Whachum than Mira:

                                        some People would infer
That this good Man's a Conjurer.
But I believe it is a Lye;
I never thought him so; not I:
Tho' Win'fred Hobble, who, you know,
Is plagu'd with Corns on ev'ry Toe,
Sticks on his Verse with fast'ning Spittle,
And says it helps her Feet a little.
Old Frances too his Paper tears,
And tucks it close behind her Ears;
And (as she told me t'other Day)
It charm'd her Tooth-ach quite away.

(ML ii. 70-1)

Leapor, in this poem, considers the role of the poet in popular culture. If in relation to landscape improvement Leapor makes a stand within popular culture, here, despite the humour, she shows herself to be alienated from that culture. Indeed, it appears that a reading of Samuel Butler has helped her to define herself as a poet.

Leapor refers to another supposedly popular writer in ‘The Proposal’. The muse addresses Mira about the plan for her to publish in magazines, where her verses will not be appreciated by ‘drowsy Swains ❙ … Protesting with a Critick's Spite, ❙ That none since Durfey knew to write’ (ML i. 174). Thomas D'Urfey (1653-1723), author of many dramatic and poetic works, was often the butt of literary jokes, and Leapor's reference to him shows her own desire to identify with refined authors. Her knowledge of him may have come from the volume of his Tales (1704) at Weston Hall, though his works were very widely circulated and she may have known him from many sources.

Another poem suggesting the extent of Leapor's reading is ‘Proserpine's Ragout’, which, as a descent into the underworld, follows a long tradition of poems based on Lucian. One possible model is Edward Ward's ‘A Journey to Hell’, which examines dozens of social problems, many of which Leapor summarizes in the last section of her poem. That Leapor may have read Ward's poem is suggested by another possible echo; she writes in ‘The Penitent’ concerning the sale of her poems: ‘Now, could you find an honest Dealer, ❙ As an Attorney or a Taylor …’ (ML i. 120). In ‘The Inspir'd Quill’ she again refers to lawyers:

To some Attorney let me go,
For there my Talents suit (you know)
Heroicks I shall write but ill;
But I'm a Doctor at a Bill …

(ML i. 118)

There were two lawyers in Brackley, a father and son named John Welchman; their reputations were dubious, especially the father's, though they were certainly not tailors. More likely, Leapor is thinking of these lines from ‘A Journey to Hell’, describing tailors who

After long Troubles did themselves withdraw,
From making Sutes of Cloaths, to manage Suits of Law:
Well knowing it requires an equal Skill,
To make a Lawyer's or a Taylor's Bill.(100)

Though not conclusive, the similar rhymes and the association of lawyers and tailors suggest that Leapor was thinking of Ward's poem.

Another poet who used the device of a satirical descent into Hell was William King. That Leapor knew some of King's poems is probable; one of her own invitation verses is entitled ‘To Artemisia. Dr. King's Invitation to Bellvill: imitated’. Unfortunately, this poem has proved difficult to trace, as it does not appear in William King's collections, or among the works of the younger William King of Oxford, or those of Henry King. Leapor's descriptions of cooking, although drawn from her own immediate experience, probably owe something to King's ‘The Art of Cookery’. It is worth noting that Margaret Doody believes Leapor's kitchen imagery derives from Swift.101 That does not exclude a reading of King. Indeed, ‘Proserpine's Ragout’, which is both a descent into the underworld and a cooking poem, at least suggests a reading of this poet.

An author Leapor obviously admires is mentioned along with Pope in ‘The Muses Embassy’:

The Muses, as some Authors say,
Who found their Empire much Decay,
Since Prior's Lute was stopp'd by Death,
And Pope resign'd his tuneful Breath …

(ML ii. 276)

In her letters Leapor refers to two contemporary authors, Colley Cibber (ML ii. 312), to whom she sent her play, and Stephen Duck, whose career she discusses in relation to her own subscription (ML ii. 314). There are two volumes of Plays Written by Mr. Cibber (1721) at Weston, but no volume of Stephen Duck. It is probable nonetheless that she had read both authors. Betty Rizzo observes the connection between Leapor's ‘Colinetta’, and the pastorals of Ambrose Philips.102 Philips's shepherd Colinet appears in his second and fourth pastorals; Leapor alters the name to Colinetta for her shepherdess, and follows Philips in the use of images from English rural life. Leapor's poem ‘On Winter’ is, of course, modelled on Philips's ‘Winter Piece’.

The folder of manuscript poems at Weston Hall contains transcripts of poems by Mary Wortley Montagu and Mary Astell on the death of Mrs Bowles. This is interesting, since it indicates that both authors were known to Susanna Jennens and probably to Mary Leapor, although there are no copies of their works in the library. Since Leapor does not name any female writers in her own works, it is valuable to know where she might have derived her views on issues of gender. That she should have developed her arguments on the rights of women, as well as a rhetoric to articulate those ideas, suggests that she read other women writers as well, though there is no easy way of proving this. One possibility is that she read the pamphlets of ‘Sophia’, but the only support for this is that the passage from Nicholas Rowe which lies behind Emilia's long speech in The Unhappy Father also appears on the title-page of Woman Not Inferior to Man (1739). Since it is almost certain that Leapor read Rowe's works for herself, the connection with ‘Sophia’ is no more than tenuous.

A poet of the mid-eighteenth century with limited access to books would be expected to read Swift before most other authors. Margaret Anne Doody has made a very reasonable case for Swift as a major influence on Leapor's work, particularly on ‘The Mistaken Lover’. A reading of Swift presumably also lies behind poems like ‘On Patience. To Stella’ and ‘On Discontent. To Stella’. Even without direct allusions, it may be taken for granted that Leapor read Gulliver's Travels, if only in chap-book form, since it was one of the most widely circulated books of the time.

Leapor makes no direct reference to John Gay. Yet her own taste for fables makes it more than probable that she read his fables as well as those of Dryden. None of her own fables is closely based on Gay's. That she read some part of his works, however, is beyond question. The following passage from ‘The Mistaken Lover’ has a strong resemblance to a passage in ‘The Fan’. Leapor describes the behaviour of an amorous beau:

He purchas'd all the Songs of Note,
And got the Lover's Cant by rote:
He brib'd her Footmen and her Maids,
And with his nightly Serenades
Her vaulted Roofs and Gardens rung:
For her he ogled, danc'd and sung;
Was often at her Toilet seen,
With Sonnets to the Paphian Queen:
Then at her Feet dejected lying,
Praying, weeping, sighing, dying.

(ML i. 82-3)

Gay's Strephon does much the same:

Strephon had long confess'd his am'rous Pain,
Which gay Corinna rally'd with Disdain:
Sometimes in broken Words he sigh'd his Care,
Look'd pale, and trembled when he view'd the Fair;
With bolder Freedoms now the Youth advanc'd,
He dress'd, he laugh'd, he sung, he rhim'd, he danc'd;
Now call'd more pow'rful Presents to his Aid,
And to seduce the Mistress, brib'd the Maid;
Smooth Flatt'ry in her softer Hours apply'd,
The surest Charm to bind the force of Pride:
But still unmov'd remains the scornful Dame,
Insults her Captive, and derides his Flame.(103)

The lines which follow this contain a lengthy appeal to Venus. Evidently Leapor has rewritten the passage in a different metre to suit the purposes of her own poem.

As might be expected, the essays of Addison and Steele had an important influence on Leapor's writing. In fact, she based entire poems on periodical essays. In ‘An Enquiry’ she writes of worlds too minute to be seen:

          Pluck off yon Acorn from its Parent Bough,
Divide that Acorn in the midst—and now
In its firm Kernal a fair Oak is seen
With spreading Branches of a sprightly Green:
From this young Tree a Kernal might we rend,
There wou'd another its small Boughs extend.

(ML i. 199)

This is based on The Tatler, no. 119, in which Addison describes a ‘good Genius’ speaking to him about microscopes:

I have been shown a Forrest of numberless Trees, which has been picked out of an Acorn. Your Microscope can show you in it a compleat Oak in Miniature; and could you suit all your Organs as we do [in our spiritual state], you might pluck an Acorn from this little Oak, which contains another Tree; and so proceed from Tree to Tree, as long as you would think fit to continue your Disquisitions.104

Another of Leapor's poems drawn from a periodical is ‘The Inspir'd Quill’. She writes:

          The sage Pythagoras, you know,
Asserted many Years ago,
That when or Man or Woman dies,
The Soul to some new Mansion flies?

(ML i. 112)

The quill describes how in previous lives it has been a usurer, a beau, a lap-dog, a lawyer, and a crow. This follows the pattern of The Spectator no. 343, in which a monkey writes a letter describing his own career of transmigration: he has been variously a brahmin, a tax-collector, a flying fish, an emmet, a miser, a bee, a rake, a bay-gelding, and a beau. It is a distinct possibility that Leapor knew Pythagoras not only from this source but from Dryden's translation of Ovid, which is discussed above, although plainly the humour of her poem is modelled on The Spectator. Leapor's reading of periodicals included The Guardian, according to one of her letters (ML ii. 311). At Weston Hall there is a collection of the writings of Addison and Steele in various editions.

The influence of Alexander Pope is evident throughout Leapor's verses, though in her plays that influence tends to be submerged. It is not certain that she read all of Pope. According to Freemantle, she owned ‘Part of Mr. Pope's Works’ (ML ii, p. xxxii). This means little, since Freemantle lent Leapor the translation of the Odyssey, and probably owned his other works. At Weston Hall, apart from his edition of Shakespeare, there is only a volume of Pope's prose. This is surprising, since there were a number of aspiring poets in the house at different times, all of whom would have wanted to read his verse. Leapor, at any rate, read most of his works. The evidence is not far to seek. Titles such as ‘An Essay on Woman’ or ‘An Epistle to a Lady’ are borrowed directly from Pope. ‘The Proclamation of Apollo’, according to one of the letters, springs from a reading of the Dunciad:

The Occasion of this Whim was the reading of that list prefixed to Mr. Pope's Dunciad, which tells us the Number of his Enemies.—After having fretted at their Impudence, who durst scribble against my favourite Author, I began to reflect on the Stupidity of Goose-quill Wars, and these Knight-Errants of Apollo.

(ML ii. 309)

Another poem is entitled ‘On Mr. Pope's Universal Prayer’, and, like its original, asserts the need for religious tolerance. In other places she quotes Pope directly, as in ‘Dorinda at her Glass’: ‘Thus Pope has sung, thus let Dorinda sing; ❙ “Virtue, brave Boys,—'tis Virtue makes a King:”’ (ML i. 7), lines taken from ‘The First Epistle of the First Book of Horace Imitated’ (Pope, iv. 285, l. 92). In one of her letters she quotes from memory Pope's desire to ‘Maintain a Poet's Dignity and Ease, ❙ And see what Friends, and read what Books I please’. Here she is drawing from the ‘Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot’ (Pope, iv. 114, ll. 263-4). This poem is likely also to be the model for her ‘Epistle to Artemisia. On Fame’ (see ECWP, 526 n). Although she makes no direct reference to it, there is no doubt that Leapor read ‘The Rape of the Lock’. ‘Dorinda at her Glass’ is about a woman at her toilet; Leapor is not, however, simply re-creating Belinda's youthful folly, since Dorinda is an older woman attempting to deny the imminence of death. Still, the poem is a response to Pope's work. ‘Crumble Hall’, similarly, is partly a response to the ‘Epistle to Burlington’.

In some areas of her work, it must be observed, Leapor moves away from Pope—her pastorals, for example, use images from actual rural life. As a reader of the Guardian, she must have known about the controversy on this point, and chosen to follow Philips rather than Pope. … Leapor questions Pope's views of women, and … [she presents] a far less enthusiastic view of landscape improvement than that in the ‘Epistle to Burlington’. Leapor's regard for Pope, however, surpassed by a very long way her feelings for any other writer. ‘Celadon to Mira’, a poem in which the shade of Pope appears to Mira, ends with this remarkable couplet: ‘Still look to Heav'n and its Laws attend, ❙ And next the Lines of thy aerial Friend’ (ML i. 142). Pope's verse has for Leapor a significance second only to scripture. Of course, Leapor's enthusiasm for Pope was shared by many poets of the time. The impression that Leapor read Pope and little else is understandable though false. Leapor's identification with Pope can be seen in the grief of her poem ‘On the Death of a justly admir'd Author’, and in the anger against his critics expressed here in ‘The Libyan Hunter’:

          Old Story tells us, on an earthly Plain
Once Jove descended wrap'd in golden Rain:
Now Fate permits no such familiar Powers,
But Shoals of Criticks fall in leaden Showers:
These gaze at Wit, as Owls behold the Sun,
And curse the Lustre which they fain wou'd shun;
These Beasts of Prey no living worth endure,
Nor are the Regions of the Dead secure …

(ML i. 153)

Repeatedly through her work Leapor asserts her allegiance to Pope; she sees in him a genius thoroughly misunderstood. Doubtless, she projects on to him her own resentment against those who belittle her writing. Pope, for Leapor as for many others in her time, is the apogee of literary achievement, the ultimate model of good writing. Leapor may rightly be described as an imitator of Pope, yet her willingness to depart from his procedures or argue against some of his ideas shows that there is nothing slavish in her imitation. Indeed, Leapor's attitude towards Pope very much reflects her tendency to respect the intellectual, social, and religious traditions of her society while arguing bravely against specific ideas or practices which she believes are oppressive. Leapor's passionate admiration of Pope's work is matched by a robust independence of mind.

There is no simple equation between authors named, quoted, or echoed by Leapor and the full extent of her reading. In some cases she may simply be dropping names of authors she has not read, yet it is most likely that she read more authors than can be identified simply from her poetry. Her references to other writers indicate a substantial amount of reading, yet she makes no discernible reference to Thomson's poetry, or to the novels of Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding. Since these authors had a huge circulation, it is hard to imagine that she did not read some of their works.

Leapor's reading included some learned works which are not in the narrow sense literary. … The library at Weston Hall contains a number of [theological and spiritual works]. ‘To Lucinda’ records her feeling that theology was the most important gap in her reading, though at the end of her life she was reading philosophy or theology, as she indicates in ‘An Epistle to a Lady’:

But tho' these Eyes the learned Page explore,
And turn the pond'rous Volumes o'er and o'er,
I find no Comfort from their Systems flow,
But am dejected more as more I know.

(ML i. 38-9)

These volumes were doubtless borrowed from Freemantle, but it is difficult to know what they were. …, Leapor at some point became acquainted with at least part of John Locke's writings. The expression ‘pond'rous Volumes’ suggests that she was reading substantial works by a number of authors.

In several poems Leapor displays a knowledge of the law. Apart from her comments on lawyers' bills, there is evidence of a knowledge of documents. One of her best poems, ‘Mira's Will’, opens with the word ‘Imprimis’, and closes with the direction:

All this let my Executors fulfil,
And rest assur'd that this is Mira's Will,
Who was, when she these Legacies design'd,
In Body healthy, and compos'd in Mind.

(ML i. 10)

The schoolteacher in Brackley, Richard Cooper, was both a book-binder and a scrivener of sorts. In the smallpox epidemic of 1742 he took down a will for Henry Purefoy which was executed by John Welchman, senior. It is very probable that Leapor's comments on attorneys would have originated through her contact with Cooper, who in turn would have witnessed any sharp dealing by Welchman (see Clarke, 105-9). Her knowledge of the law suggests an association with Cooper that went beyond the ordinary curriculum; he may have put her to some use in relation to his legal work or his book business. Her grasp of legal nomenclature is evident in ‘The Inspir'd Quill’:

          Once more to gain a human Face,
I step'd into a Lawyer's Case:
This Station pleas'd me wond'rous well,
And in a trice I learn'd to spell,
Cou'd read old Coke with prying Eyes,
Explain, distinguish, and advise,
Talk Latin to a good degree;
As Admittendo Custode,
Eject, Extendi: and my Fee:
'Tis true I scorn'd to rob or kill,
But not to cheat or forge a Will:
In Jointures I cou'd split a Hair,
And make it turn against the Heir:
I spar'd no Widow for her Tears,
No Orphan for his tender Years:
My Maxim was get Money, Man,
Get Money, where and how you can …

(ML i. 115)

Leapor uses a few Latinisms, indicating at least an acquaintance with the language, that is, enough to recognize pretence in a lawyer. Sir Edward Coke was a byword for legal knowledge in her time, and the reference does not imply that she had read his works. Leapor does have a grasp of legal jargon, none the less, and that suggests some knowledge of law books.

It can be established that Leapor had read at least a fair selection of literary works, and a more modest number of works in other areas. Although Leapor's reading constituted something less than a full education, she cannot be considered a primitive. Indeed, there is a great difference between a person who educated herself and a primitive as conceived by eighteenth-century theorists. Leapor worked hard to repair the gaps in her learning, and would have continued to do so. It is interesting that in ‘An Epistle to a Lady’ she actually calls herself learned (see ML i. 39). While ‘To Lucinda’ does portray Mira as a primitive, it is likely that ‘An Epistle to a Lady’ represents Leapor's true judgement of the depth of her own education. Donna Landry accurately describes her as the ‘most writerly’ of women poets of the labouring class (Landry, 119). Leapor had some grasp of literary tradition and a reasonable knowledge of contemporary authors; therefore, she was to some extent also a ‘readerly’ poet.


  1. James Sutherland, A Preface to Eighteenth-Century Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1948), 105.

  2. Anne Finch, The Poems of Anne Countess of Winchilsea, ed. Myra Reynolds (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1903), 5.

  3. Germaine Greer et al., ed., Introduction, in Kissing the Rod: An Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Women's Verse (London: Virago, 1988), 1.

  4. Ann Messenger, ‘Introduction: Restoring the Picture’, in His and Hers: Essays in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature (Lexington: The University of Kentucky Press, 1986), 9.

  5. Beth Kowaleski-Wallace, ‘Milton's Daughters: The Education of Eighteenth-Century Women Writers’, Feminist Studies, 12 (1986), 275-93.

  6. Jessica Munns, review of The Prostituted Muse: Images of Women and Women Dramatists 1642-1737, by Jacqueline Pearson, Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research, ser. 2/4 (1989), 64.

  7. See Northrop Frye, ‘Towards Defining an Age of Sensibility’, ELH 23 (1956), 144-52.

  8. Munns, review of The Prostituted Muse, 64.

  9. Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1977), 270-404. See also Randolph Trumbach, The Rise of the Egalitarian Family: Aristocratic Kinship and Domestic Relations in Eighteenth-Century England (New York, San Francisco, and London: Academic Press, 1978).

  10. See Kathleen M. Davies, ‘The Sacred Condition of Equality: how Original were Puritan Doctrines of Marriage?’, Social History, no. 5 (May 1977), 563-80; E. P. Thompson, ‘Happy Families’, review of The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, by Lawrence Stone, New Society (8 Sept. 1977), 499; Keith Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680 (London: Hutchinson, 1980), 70-86; Margaret Spufford, Small Books and Pleasant Histories: Popular Fiction and its Readership in Seventeenth-Century England (London: Methuen, 1981), 157-61; J. A. Sharpe, ‘Plebeian Marriage in Stuart England: Some Evidence from Popular Literature’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, ser. 5/36 (1986), 69-90; also of interest is Miriam Slater, who puts forward an argument similar to that of Stone in ‘The Weightiest Business: Marriage in an Upper-Gentry Family in Seventeenth-Century England’, Past & Present, no. 72 (Aug. 1976), 25-54; Sara Heller Mendelson responds to Slater in ‘The Weightiest Business: Marriage in an Upper-Gentry Family in Seventeenth-Century England’, Past & Present, no. 85 (Nov. 1979), 126-35; Miriam Slater, ‘A Rejoinder’, Past & Present, no. 85 (Nov. 1979), 136-40.

  11. Eva Figes, Sex and Subterfuge: Women Novelists to 1850 (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1982), 5-6.

  12. Katherine Lyle M. Rogers, Feminism in Eighteenth-Century England (Brighton: Harvester, 1982), 1.

  13. See Judith Phillips Stanton, ‘Statistical Profile of Women Writing in English from 1660 to 1800’, in Frederick M. Keener and Susan E. Lorsch (ed.), Eighteenth-Century Women and the Arts (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988), 247-54. Stanton argues that the publication of women authors achieved momentum by itself; the appearance of one woman in print would encourage a number of others to make the attempt. This argument implies that the growth of publishing rather than a new attitude towards marriage itself was crucial to the growth of women's writing.

  14. Janelle Greenberg, ‘The Legal Status of the English Woman in Early Eighteenth-Century Common Law and Equity’, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 4, Proceedings of the American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (Madison and London: University of Wisconsin Press, 1975), 175.

  15. See John R. Gillis, ‘Married but not Churched: Plebeian Sexual Relations and Marital Nonconformity in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, in Robert MacCubbin (ed.), 'Tis Nature's Fault: Unauthorized Sexuality during the Enlightenment (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 31-42.

  16. Rogers, Feminism in Eighteenth-Century England, 36-8.

  17. Catherine Jemmat, ‘Essay in Vindication of the Female Sex’, in Miscellanies, in Prose and Verse (London, 1766), 103-4.

  18. Olwen Hufton, ‘Women without Men: Widows and Spinsters in Britain and France in the Eighteenth Century’, Journal of Family History, 9 (1984), 357-8.

  19. Ibid. 355-66.

  20. Daniel Defoe, Roxana, ed. Jane Jack (London, New York, and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1964; paperback edn., 1981), 144.

  21. See Bridget Hill, ‘A Refuge from Men: The Idea of a Protestant Nunnery’, Past & Present, no. 117 (Nov. 1987), 107-30.

  22. Janet Todd, ed., A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers 1660-1800 (London: Methuen, 1984), Introduction, 3-4.

  23. Charlotte Lennox, The Female Quixote, ed. Margaret Dalziel (London, New York, and Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1970), 367.

  24. Pat Rogers, ‘Puellilia’, review of Mothers of the Novel: One Hundred Good Women Writers Before Jane Austen, by Dale Spender, London Review of Books (7 Aug. 1986), 11.

  25. Jocelyn Harris, ‘Sappho, Souls, and the Salic Law of Wit’, in Alan C. Kors and Paul J. Korshin (ed.), Anticipations of the Enlightenment in England, France, and Germany (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), 232-58.

  26. Margaret Anne Doody, ‘Swift among the Women’, Yearbook of English Studies, 18 (1988), 68-92. For two less interesting treatments of women poets in the period see Anke Janssen, ‘Frühe Lyrikerinnen des 18. Jahrhunderts in ihrem Verhältnis zur Poetik und zur Poetic Diction’, Anglia, 99 (1981), 111-33; and Karl Heinz Göller, ‘The Emancipation of Women in Eighteenth-Century English Literature’, Anglia, 101 (1983), 78-98.

  27. Claire Tomalin, ‘A Buried Treasury of Wicked Wits’, review of ECWP, The Independent (7 Oct. 1989), 34.

  28. Jocelyn Harris, Samuel Richardson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 18.

  29. John Locke, ‘The First Treatise’, in Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1960; 2nd edn., 1967), 192.

  30. See Rogers, Feminism in Eighteenth-Century England, 53-84; Alice Browne, The Eighteenth Century Feminist Mind (Brighton: Harvester, 1987), pp. 20-1.

  31. Mary Astell, Some Reflections Upon Marriage (London, 1700; 2nd edn., 1703), 29.

  32. ‘Sophia’, Woman Not Inferior to Man (London, 1739), 15.

  33. Mary Jones, ‘To Hon. Miss Lovelace’, in Miscellanies in Prose and Verse (Oxford, 1750), 321.

  34. See Mary Wortley Montagu, ‘The Reasons that Induced Dr. S[wift] to write a Poem call'd the Lady's Dressing room’, in Essays and Poems and Simplicity, A Comedy, ed. Robert Halsband and Isobel Grundy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), 273-6; Miss W———, ‘The Gentleman's Study, In Answer to [Swift's] The Lady's Dressing Room’, ECWP 130-4.

  35. Doody, ‘Swift among the Women’, 79-80.

  36. Ibid., 79.

  37. See John Clare, ‘The Autobiography 1793-1824’, in The Prose of John Clare, ed. J. W. Tibble and Anne Tibble (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1951), 19. It should be noted that stories told (or read) at harvest time may also have been conventional in some kinds of poetry: see Christopher Smart, ‘A Noon-Piece’, in The Poetical Works of Christopher Smart, ed. Karina Williamson and Marcus Walsh, 5 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980-), vol. iv: Miscellaneous Poems English and Latin, ed. Karina Williamson (1987), 143.

  38. Hufton, ‘Women without Men’, 356.

  39. Lady Dorothea Dubois, ‘A True Tale’, in Poems on Several Occasions (Dublin, 1764), 13-14.

  40. Betty Rizzo, ‘Leapor, Mary’, in Todd (ed.), A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers 1660-1800, 192-3.

  41. Nicholas Rowe, ‘The Fair Penitent’, in The Dramatick Works of Nicholas Rowe, Esq., 2 vols. (London, 1720), i. 30.

  42. See Carolyn Williams, ‘The Changing Face of Change: Fe/male In/constancy’, British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 12 (1989), 13-28.

  43. Sarah Dixon, ‘On the Loss of Stella's Friendship’, in Poems on Several Occasions (Canterbury, 1740), 54.

  44. Mary Whateley, ‘The Vanity of external Accomplishments’, in Original Poems on Several Occasions (London, 1764), 104.

  45. For discussions of the idea of an implied reader, see Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction from Bunyan to Beckett (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974); Walter J. Ong, ‘The Writer's Audience is Always a Fiction’, in Interfaces of the Word: Studies in the Evolution of Consciousness and Culture (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 1977), 53-81.

  46. Patricia Meyer Spacks, Gossip (New York: Alfred P. Knopf, 1985), 22.

  47. John Sitter, Literary Loneliness in Mid-Eighteenth Century England (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 1982), 85-6. I am indebted to Dr Roger Lonsdale for his comments on Sitter's argument in relation to problems of the poetic canon.

  48. Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1981), 19.

  49. Ruth Perry, The Celebrated Mary Astell: An Early English Feminist (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 140.

  50. Janet Todd, Women's Friendship in Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), 359-60.

  51. Nina Auerbach, Communities cf Women: An Idea in Fiction (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1978), 7.

  52. Reynolds, The Learned Lady in England 1650-1760, 247.

  53. Harris, ‘Sappho, Souls, and the Salic Law of Wit’, 242.

  54. Anne Finch, ‘An Epilogue to the Tragedy of Jane Shore’, in Poems, 101.

  55. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ‘To Lady Bute’, in The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ed. Robert Halsband, 3 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965-7), iii (1967), 135.

  56. Elizabeth Teft, ‘On Viewing Herself in a Glass’, in Orinthia's Miscellanies (London, 1747), 54.

  57. Castle, ‘Unruly and Unresigned’, review of ECWP, p. 1228.

  58. Roy Porter, ‘Making Faces: Physiognomy and Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England’, Études Anglaises: Grande Bretagne, États-Unis, 38 (1985), 387.

  59. Ibid. 389.

  60. Ibid.

  61. Keith Thomas, ‘The Place of Laughter in Tudor and Stuart England’, TLS (21 Jan. 1977), 80.

  62. Browne, The Eighteenth Century Feminist Mind, 32-3; see also Fenela Ann Childs, ‘Prescriptions for Manners in English Courtesy Literature, 1690-1760, and their Social Implications’ (D.Phil. thesis, Oxford University, 1984), esp. 246-7.

  63. See Marion K. Bragg, The Formal Eclogue in Eighteenth-Century England, University of Maine Studies, ser. 26 (Orono, Me.: The University Press, 1926), 88.

  64. James Boswell, Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. G. B. Hill, rev. L. F. Powell, 6 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1934-50), i (1934), 397.

  65. The Young Gentleman and Lady Instructed, 2 vols. (London, 1747), ii. 162; cited by Childs, ‘Prescriptions for Manners’, 252.

  66. John Breval, The Art of Dress (London, 1717), 19-20; for a discussion of Breval and the problems of tooth-brushing in the early eighteenth century see Childs, ‘Prescriptions for Manners’, 252.

  67. Porter, ‘Making Faces’, 391.

  68. Doody, ‘Swift among the Women’, 79.

  69. See Maximilian Novak, ed., English Literature in the Age of Disguise (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1977); Terry Castle, Masquerade and Civilization: The Carnivalesque in Eighteenth-Century English Culture and Fiction (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1986).

  70. Doody, ‘Tit for Tat’, review of ECWP, p. 3.

  71. Ibid., 4.

  72. Esther Lewis, ‘A Letter to a Lady in London’, in Poems Moral and Entertaining (Bath, 1789), 300.

  73. See Chauncey Brewster Tinker, Nature's Simple Plan: A Phase of Radical Thought in the Mid-Eighteenth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1922; London: Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, 1922), 6-7. For standard works on primitivism, see A. O. Lovejoy, ‘Monboddo and Rousseau’, in Essays in the History of Ideas (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1948), 38-61; René Wellek, A History of Modern Criticism 1750-1950, 6 vols. (London: Jonathan Cape, 1955-86), vol. i: The Later Eighteenth Century (1955), esp. 105-32; M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1953), esp. 78-84; James M. Osborn, ‘Spence, Natural Genius and Pope’, Philological Quarterly, 45 (1966), 123-44; Walter Jackson Bate, The Burden of the Past and the English Poet (London: Chatto & Windus, 1971), esp. 47-54. See also Lois Whitney, Primitivism and the Idea of Progress in English Popular Literature of the Eighteenth Century (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1934); A. O. Lovejoy, Gilbert Chinard, George Boas, and Ronald S. Crane, gen. eds., A Documentary History of Primitivism and Related Ideas, 1 vol. only: A. O. Lovejoy and George Boas, Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1935); Samuel H. Monk, The Sublime: A Study of Critical Theories in XVIII-Century England (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1935); Basil Willey, The Eighteenth Century Background: Studies on the Idea of Nature in the Thought of the Period (London: Chatto & Windus, 1940); Ernest Lee Tuveson, The Imagination as a Means of Grace: Locke and the Aesthetics of Romanticism (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1960); Patricia Phillips, The Adventurous Muse: Theories of Originality in English Poetics 1650-1760, Studia Anglistica Upsaliensia, 53 (Uppsala: Uppsala University, 1984), esp. 66-106.

  74. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp, 83.

  75. William Duff, An Essay on Original Genius (London, 1767), 281-2.

  76. Thomas Blackwell, An Enquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer (London, 1735), 26-7.

  77. Wellek, History of Modern Criticism, 127-32; also useful is the discussion of Wellek's argument in Rizzo, 329-31.

  78. Richard Farmer, An Essay on the Learning of Shakespeare (Cambridge, 1767), 49.

  79. Elizabeth Montagu, An Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare (London, 1769), 7-8.

  80. Mark Akenside, The Pleasures of the Imagination (London, 1744), 119-20.

  81. Ann Yearsley, ‘To Mr. ****, an Unlettered Poet, on Genius Unimproved’, in Poems, on Various Subjects, (London, 1787), 77-8.

  82. Woodhouse, ‘The Life and Lucubrations of Crispinus Scriblerus’, in Life and Poetical Works, i. 71-2.

  83. Henry Home, Lord Kames, Elements of Criticism, 2 vols. (9th edn., Edinburgh, 1817), ii. 446; cited by Wellek, History of Modern Criticism, 109.

  84. Proposals For Printing by Subscription The Poetical Works, Serious and Humorous, Of Mrs. Leapor, lately Deceased.

  85. Duncombe, The Feminiad, 20-1.

  86. Todd, Preface and Acknowledgements, in A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers 1660-1800, p. xx.

  87. Mary Masters, ‘To the Gentleman who questioned my being the Author of the foregoing Verses’, in Poems on Several Occasions (London, 1733), 45.

  88. Victor E. Neuburg, Popular Literature: A History and Guide from the Beginning of Printing to the Year 1897 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977), 106; see also Neuburg's Popular Education in Eighteenth Century England (London: Woburn Press, 1971).

  89. M. G. Jones, The Charity School Movement: A Study of Eighteenth Century Puritanism in Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1938), 80.

  90. Keith Thomas, ‘The Meaning of Literacy in Early Modern England’, in Gerd Baumann (ed.), The Written Word: Literacy in Transition, The Wolfson College Lectures, 1985 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 99-102.

  91. Thomas Bowles, Preface, Aristarchus: Or, A Compendious and Rational Institution of the Latin Tongue (Oxford, 1740; rev. edn., 1748), p. iv. The earlier edition did not include the preface from which the quotation is taken.

  92. Philip Dormer Stanhope, The Letters of the Earl of Chesterfield to his Son, ed. Charles Strachey, 2 vols. (London, 1901), i. 230; cited by Thomas, ‘The Meaning of Literacy’, 101.

  93. Bowles, A Compendious and Rational Institution of the Latin Tongue, 105.

  94. Blunden, ‘A Northamptonshire Poetess’, 65; see also Thomas Creech, The Idylliums of Theocritus (Oxford, 1684).

  95. Martin Bladen, trans., Julius Caesar's Commentaries (London, 1705).

  96. Rizzo, ‘Leapor, Mary’, in Todd. (ed.), A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers 1660-1800, 192.

  97. Joseph Addison, Cato: A Tragedy (London, 1713), 43-4.

  98. Samuel Butler, ‘The Second Part: Canto III’, in Hudibras, ed. John Wilders (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967), 162-3.

  99. Ibid. 168.

  100. Ward, ‘A Journey to H——: Or, A Visit Paid to the D——’, in Works, iii. 25.

  101. Doody, ‘Swift among the Women’, 82.

  102. Rizzo, ‘Christopher Smart, The “C.S.” Poems, and Molly Leapor's Epitaph’, 26.

  103. Gay, ‘The Fan’, in Poetry and Prose, i. 59-60.

  104. Donald F. Bond, ed., The Tatler, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), ii. 208.

Valerie Rumbold (essay date 1996)

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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 the roof, and dragging the authorial persona down with her (ll.108-109). This bizarre disruption, figuring a complex set of tensions between rootedness and aspiration, implies a radical challenge to the assumptions on which country house poems had usually been based. For Leapor is not an appreciative visitor or recipient of patronage intent on celebrating the owner through an unfolding of the values discerned in his management of property, but a woman who has been dismissed from the post of kitchenmaid in the house she takes for her model—and dismissed, moreover, for writing poetry.3 Malcolm Kelsall has noted the irony that the country house tradition is not the creation of the landowning class itself, but ‘is originated by, and belongs to, outsiders’, giving rise to the ‘paradox […] that the ideal signification […] is created and sustained by those who do not belong to the patrician order’.4 Leapor represents a different kind of irony in her relation to her subject: by being the lowliest kind of insider, and one who has been rejected by dismissal even from that position, she becomes an outsider in a more radical sense than any poet invited by the owners could possibly be. ‘Crumble Hall’ therefore offers a rare exception to the poetic refraction of estates through the needs and desires of such interested parties. Instead, it reshapes traditional structures to express what such an estate might mean to one whose labour had helped to sustain it.

To argue in this way is, it might be objected, to import into a reading of ‘Crumble Hall’ biographical and social factors which Leapor chooses to exclude from the text. Although this is a familiar epistle, it is one in which Mira, Leapor's persona, addresses Artemisia, in real life her friend Bridget Freemantle, on the subject of Crumble Hall, which seems to be based on the actual Edgecote House; and a reading of the poem must attend to the fact that Mira is not simply Leapor, Artemisia not simply Freemantle and Crumble Hall not simply Edgecote House.5 This is, moreover, an epistle which—even if its poetic personæ were assumed to be simple equivalents—could never draw on any public familiarity with the persons involved (in comparison, for example, with Pope's To Burlington, which Greene identifies as the only country house poem Leapor had certainly read); and the text itself deepens this obscurity by omitting any reference to Leapor's work in, or dismissal from, Edgecote House, or to the prospect which subsequently emerged of mounting a subscription to support her writing.6 There are, however, unusual factors in the case of ‘Crumble Hall’ which make contexts and issues which the text does not raise particularly important to an appreciation of the poet's strategies. In contrast, for example, with the use of private friendship to address public ends which characterizes the eighteenth-century verse epistle as described by William Dowling, Leapor is far more concerned with friendship as the enabling context for a potentially risky personal exploration of issues of social and cultural power.7 Greene writes that ‘with Freemantle Leapor could easily speak her mind; to have the same confidence with new readers would take time’; and it is clear that much of the verse which so impresses recent rediscoverers of her work was initially considered unsuitable for publication.8 There are therefore some grounds for reading the poem as a private document which does not need to labour obvious contexts. Moreover, when ‘Crumble Hall’ was finally published in the second, posthumously conceived volume of Leapor's works, readers came to it via Freemantle's biographical preface to Volume ii and other poems containing elements of autobiography. It was thus never a free-standing epistle aimed through its addressee at the public, but an intimately conceived confidence which the poet's early death allowed the subscribers to read, as it were, over her shoulder. On the other hand, by choosing not to allude to her dismissal or her hopes of literary independence in ‘Crumble Hall’ Leapor is also experimenting with a stance of detachment which might entitle her to a public voice, a dissent superior to the embarrassments of personal circumstance.

The opening of ‘Crumble Hall’ would have recalled for its original readers much that was familiar from earlier poems in the sequence and from the biographical sketch (ll.1-6):

When Friends or Fortune frown on Mira's Lay,
Or gloomy Vapours hide the Lamp of Day;
With low'ring Forehead, and with aching Limbs,
Oppres'd with Head-ach, and eternal Whims,
Sad Mira vows to quit the darling Crime:
Yet takes her Farewel, and repents, in Rhyme.

The reference to writing as ‘the darling Crime’ would have recalled Leapor's initial conflict with her parents over it, and Mira's narrative of her dismissal, where writing figured once more as the disapproved alternative to conventionally feminine skills:

Go ply your needle: You might earn your Bread;
Or who must feed you when your Father's dead?(9)

In contrast, friendship with women who supported her in the development of her talent became crucial; and in an exemplary instance of Artemisia's liberating influence Mira is able in ‘Crumble Hall’ to turn away from self-blame and launch further out into the creativity that her more conventionally dutiful self would have inhibited:

The Sun returns, and Artemisia smiles […]
Then who so frolick as the Muse and I?(10)

Indeed, the possibility is left open that Freemantle had specifically suggested that Leapor write about the house from which she had been dismissed (ll.11-12):

We sing once more, obedient to her Call;
Once more we sing; and 'tis of Crumble-Hall.

Thus encouraged, Leapor is able to confront the scene of a dismissal which had both compromised her livelihood as a servant and focussed her commitment to poetry, writing with an authority which in itself makes less credible the blaming and belittling of the internalized voices which urge her to seek peace by repression.

The typical progression in country house poetry through grounds to a house presented as the setting for a politically, morally and aesthetically creative owner implied wide claims for the potential of the established social order. Leapor's decision to move directly into the house is, in contrast, an immediate structural sign of her detachment. The move does not depend on her knowledge of the tradition for its significance: whether or not she is explicitly conscious of the convention that estate and gardens display a nurturing order which the house will focus in its idealization of the owner's domestic life, she declares by her decision, as much as by her treatment of landscape at the poem's close, the failure of the estate to figure meaning for her in the conventional way—a failure of meaning which is also to be evident in the absences of her treatment of the house.11 On the other hand, she certainly knew Pope's To Burlington, with its concern for the management of land, a poem which even in its satirical treatment of Timon's Villa preserves the progression through grounds to an interior expressive of the owner's values, a formal allusion which recalls the threatened standard which it falls to Burlington to maintain.12 Leapor, however, shows no interest in proposing a patrician ideal. It is conceivable too that she could have seen an example of a satire which omits consideration of the grounds, for Joseph Hall had adopted this procedure in his attack on the vogue for pretentious new houses which he blamed for the decay of the old values of charity and hospitality.13 The significance of Leapor's formal departures from the tradition does not depend, however, on establishing conscious imitation: the difference between the pattern she chooses and those chosen by poets differently situated with regard to the houses they describe is significant in itself.

According to Fowler, ‘When the early estate poem moves indoors—sometimes at the formal centre—it is usually to praise the lord's hospitality, on which his reputation depended’ (p.8). Leapor is in fact to reserve the numerological mid-point of ‘Crumble Hall’ for a theme more central to her own sense, as aspiring writer, of her relation to the culture represented by the house where she used to work; and her movement into the grounds is reserved for still later in the poem; but she does retain, while placing it at the beginning, the link between the poem's entry to the house and the theme of hospitality. By the 1740s, the keeping of open house, seen as under threat even in early estate poems, was completely obsolete: indeed it had ceased to provide a central topic for estate poems by the mid-seventeenth century (Fowler, p.18). Leapor, sensitive to its practical irrelevance, sets her vision of hospitality firmly in the medieval past (ll.13-16, 23-28):

That Crumble-Hall, whose hospitable Door
Has fed the Stranger, and reliev'd the Poor;
Whose Gothic Towers, and whose rusty Spires,
Were known of old to Knights, and hungry Squires, […]
Here came the Wights, who battled for Renown,
The sable Frier, and the russet Clown:
The loaded Tables sent a sav'ry Gale,
And the brown Bowls were crown'd with simp'ring Ale;
While the Guests ravag'd on the smoking Store,
Till their stretch'd Girdles would contain no more.

The tone modulates from mild approval at the social inclusiveness of the feast (stressing first duty to outsiders to the household, ‘the Stranger’ and ‘the Poor’, and including too the three orders of medieval society, knights, ecclesiastics and workers) to the comic excess of the guests who ‘ravag'd […] / Till their stretch'd Girdles would contain no more’.14 Yet although this is a version of the communal meal which had customarily shaped the nostalgia of country house poems, it is not presented as realistic or even desirable as an aspiration for the present.

Mira turns from this medieval revelry with a dismissive fling at the discursive propensities of—one presumes—other, more conventionally admiring poets ll.29-30):

Of this rude Palace might a Poet sing
From cold December to returning Spring […].

As Landry notes, this is the time of year when the average poet would do anything for a hot meal at someone else's fireside (Landry, p.109). Leapor, however, is writing as if, unlike the poets she mocks, she feels completely independent of landowners like her former employers; and her independence of tone is impressive, since subscription itself—a form of diffused patronage—raised for her a number of anxieties: she doubted whether her work was good enough, hated the idea of having to go through the motions of obsequious dedication, and must have realized that her employers at Edgecote House represented a class of potential subscribers whose support she could hardly dispense with.15

The irreverence of ‘Crumble Hall’ is ultimately communicated less by particular remarks—striking though some of these are—than by a total refusal of the larger meanings customarily created in estate poems. Far from presenting a view in which ‘Parts answ'ring parts shall slide into a whole’, the promise that Pope had held forth to Burlington, Mira presents Crumble Hall not as an ordered whole ripe for panegyrical or symbolic interpretation, but as an assemblage of features which can be related, if at all, only at the local level.16 This could be related to an extent to the actual plan of her model, for Edgecote House remained in essence, despite later additions, a medieval house (it had passed through the hands of Henry V, Thomas Cromwell and Anne of Cleves before being acquired by the Chauncy family for whom Leapor worked); and Mira refers explicitly to the inconvenience of having to cross and recross the central hall for lack of connecting corridors.17 Yet although Leapor probably did share something of the contemporary aesthetic prejudice that dismissed Gothic structures as mere accumulations of unintegrated detail, it would be inadequate to refer her refusal of symbolic unity and resonance simply to disdain for a particular style of architecture. There is nothing to suggest that she would, for instance, have preferred a Palladian house, especially since the poem concludes with outright condemnation of plans for modernization and rebuilding. Leapor's sense of the grand house as a heap of scattered effects instead expresses a systematic and radical refusal to be impressed, a refusal to construct any coherent aesthetic effect which could resonate with idealizing symbolism.

One of the most successful aspects of ‘Crumble Hall’ is Leapor's choice of a formal model which has the capacity to support the poem structurally without implying any celebratory focus, namely the model of the guided tour, in which the addressee is imagined as actually following the speaker though the house, viewing each part in turn as directed. This is also a particularly timely model, since, as Carole Fabricant notes, it was only in the 1740s that guidebooks and the tourism which they both served and helped to create became a major factor affecting attitudes to leisure and to the ownership of land.18 An earlier example of a comparable method in verse might seem to be provided by Charles Cotton's The Wonders of the Peake (1681), which takes its implied tourist on a markedly unappreciative survey of the established sights of the Peak District.19 Cotton, however, finally abandons his tone of detachment and reveals his agenda by eulogizing the family which presides over the grounds and house at Chatsworth; and the poem closes by setting their creativity in Edenic contrast with the appalling chaos which he discerns in the surrounding Derbyshire countryside.

While the form of the guidebook can, as Cotton shows, be applied to the praise of the landowner, it does not in itself impose a burden of thematic or symbolic construction: indeed, by its very insistence on conceiving the house as a sequence of different rooms and objects, the guidebook form aptly lends itself to the dissident poet's refusal to concede symbolic unity or resonance to the sum of impressions. Moreover, the motives which induced tourists to view and owners to display their houses form an obvious contrast with the relative lack of interest in the building shown by a poem like Johnson's ‘To Penshurst’, since, as Fowler points out, such poems are posited on the assumption that a building which draws attention to itself implicitly condemns the vanity and extravagance of its owners (Fowler, p.2). However, Leapor adopts the guidebook format without imposing on her implied tourist any duty of admiration, offering instead a disenchanting survey which rises at best to faint praise. Furthermore, an adapted medieval house like Edgecote would not have been considered a showplace in her time; and it would have fallen to a housekeeper, not a mere kitchenmaid, to represent the owner in showing visitors round the house.20 These discordant factors intensify the parody, as Mira proceeds to repudiate the ‘identification with the tastes and interests of the landed rich’, and ‘the illusion of shared participation in a world not in any meaningful sense their own’ which Fabricant identifies as the typical effects of country house visiting on humbler visitors (Fabricant, pp.257, 263-67). Considered as a guide, Mira respects the proprieties, it could be argued, in not showing her employers' private apartments (with the significant exception of Biron's study, to be considered below); but on the other hand she deliberately breaks customary decorum in the opposite direction by showing the kitchen, and in it the individual activities of the servants, thus exposing, on the basis of her creator's privileged knowledge, the exclusivity and bias of the ordinary tour of state rooms and gardens (Fabricant, p.269).

Mira's detachment from the customary values of country house poetry is evident from her first approach to the main entrance and hall, where the impression is of a riot of sculpture which is both arbitrary and questionably violent in its subject matter: why would anyone in their right mind want ‘two grim Giants o'er the Portals’? seems to be the underlying question, as Mira defiantly refuses to naturalize customary forms of architectural swagger. The couplet verse reinforces the sense of arbitrary oddity (ll.39-40):

Strange Forms above, present themselves to View;
Some Mouths that grin, some smile, and some that spew.

Once inside, these carved images of threat and tyranny set the scene for a measuring of the building's scale that suggestively links the size, violence and monstrosity of the Cyclops with the intimidating task—not often considered in country house poetry—of keeping the ceiling clean (ll.41-47):

Here a soft Maid or Infant seems to cry:
Here stares a Tyrant, with distorted Eye:
The Roof—no Cyclops e'er could reach so high:
Not Polypheme, though form'd for dreadful Harms,
The Top could measure with extended Arms.
Here the pleas'd Spider plants her peaceful Loom:
Here weaves secure, nor dreads the hated Broom.

The passage ends with the heraldic symbols of past violence which assure the family's present rank, a theme which, as Fowler points out, is often elaborated in estate poems as a source of imagery and allusion to family history (Fowler, p.8). For Mira, however, this is just another object which someone has to climb up and clean; and the necessity of mispronouncing ‘Honi Soit’, whether deliberate or not, further aids her demystification of the insignia of power (ll.48-51):

But at the Head (and furbish'd once a Year)
The Heralds mystic Compliments appear:
Round the fierce Dragon Honi Soit twines,
And Royal Edward o'er the Chimney shines.

Moving from the hall, the visitor is briefly shown a dark passage leading to the kitchen, which ‘much attention calls’ (ll.59-60):

The Fires Blaze; the greasy Pavements fry;
And steaming Odours from the kettles fly.

Yet at this point the visitor is not invited to linger over this unaccustomed stress on the downside of traditional hospitality, but is shown briefly into ‘a brown Parlour’ where the shabby, old-fashioned furniture encapsulates the lapse of medieval glories: only in the shine of the worn upholstery nails is the gleam of armour recalled. The room is described (ll.62-64), in implicit contrast with the customary guides' detailing of notable objects, as

For nothing famous, but its leathern Chairs,
Whose shining Nails like polish'd Armour glow,
And the dull Clock beats audible and slow.

Yet there is no-one in the room as we look in, and this is to be a characteristic of nearly every room we are shown—at least of the rooms meant for communal use by the family and their guests.21 The opening scene of conviviality in the hall was set back in Gothic times: now, even the family have faded from view, perhaps an ominous fading in the context of a tradition which celebrates houses as expressive settings for their masters.

Turning from the old-fashioned parlour, Mira contrasts it with a more fashionable parlour on the opposite side of the passage, whose precise geometry and dimensions she pointedly leaves to ‘learned Quadrus’, passing also over the detail of its ‘Gay China bowls’ and tapestry walls: the ‘long Description would be too sublime’, she claims, perhaps in affected deprecation of her own capacity to deal with such refined subjects, perhaps in mockery of those for whom ‘sublime’ would seem appropriate language for discussing interior decoration (ll.65-72). She next decides to take us upstairs, past tapestries whose noble subjects in ‘gorgeous Colours’ signally fail to impress her. There is a vacuous solidity about ‘doughty George’ as he ‘bestrides the goodly Steed’, and a flat predictability about his triumph (‘The Dragon's slaughter'd, and the Virgin freed’); while Ptolemy and Cleopatra, shown, in a deft display of Leapor's familiarity with such classical personages, ‘but lately rescu'd from their Fears’, strike her as badly drawn, and more suggestive of the cowshed than the palace:

Their aukward Limbs unwiedly are display'd;
And, like a Milk-wench, glares the royal Maid.(22)

Indeed, wherever Mira takes us she seems either to be unimpressed by what is meant to be impressive, or to be disparaging of what is homely and unpretentious. If country house writing in general betrays, in Kelsall's Spenserian formulation, a tension between a House of Pride and a House of Holiness, between false ostentation and wholesome comfort, in Mira we have a commentator who can be pleased by neither (Kelsall, p.35). The only other upstairs rooms she shows us are ‘more familiar’, but are not commended for it (ll.81-84). They have only commonplace hangings, and the only furniture noted is ‘the soft Stools’ and ‘lazy Chair’, which ‘To Sleep invite the Weary, and the Fair’. The coupling may suggest Mira's suspicion that beauty and gentility might entail a high price in cultivated feebleness—in contrast with the Mira who in another poem images herself as a bizarre scarecrow figure, trudging through an otherwise idyllic landscape to the consternation of the polite tourist (Leapor, ii, pp.294-98).

Mira is quick to draw attention to one of the drawbacks, seldom so explicitly pointed out, of living in a truly traditional country house. Having looked at the upstairs sitting room, and curious to go on, the tourist is forcibly interrupted by the architecture (ll.85-86)

Shall we proceed?—Yes, if you'll break the Wall:
If not, return, and tread once more the Hall.

In effect, the centrality of the hall so celebrated in the country house tradition for its communality entails a constant trailing back and forth through the main room for lack of corridors: Mira's parading of the inconvenience is reminiscent of Pope's letter describing the oddities of Stanton Harcourt, which she may well have known.23 Yet in place of Pope's whimsical enjoyment there is a strong sense of a building planned for the purposes of the owners, not the servants. As she heads through the hall again, up steps and down a ‘brick Passage’, she notes (ll.89-90):

Here the strong Doors were aptly fram'd to hold
Sir Wary's Person, and Sir Wary's Gold.

Yet if chivalry and wealth constituted the power of a former age on which the house was built, it is the privilege constituted by education in the modern world which most concerns Mira now; for it is here, in the only private room included in the tour, and at the poem's mid-point (ll.91-94 of a poem of 187 lines) that we at last glimpse that shy creature, a member of the gentry, undisturbed in his natural habitat:

Here Biron sleeps, with Books encircled round;
And him you'd guess a Student most profound.
Not so—in Form the dusty Volumes stand:
There's few that wear the Mark of Biron's hand.

Instead of the traditional transition from grounds to house for the celebration of hospitality and community, Leapor places at the centre of her poem a neglected library (Fowler, p.8). The eldest son of the household in which she had served, Biron's likely original, went up to Oxford in 1744 but never took a degree: the opportunities that Mira yearns for are wasted on the heir of Crumble Hall (Greene, p.16).

With this crucial glimpse of intellectual torpor asleep in the space once consecrated to the Gothic stronghold of ‘Sir Wary's Person, and Sir Wary's Gold’, Mira has more or less finished with those parts of the house that concern the gentry - indeed with those parts of the house that generally concern the country house poem. She moves on, again emphasizing the inconvenience of Gothic irregularity (ll.95-98):

Would you go farther?—Stay a little then:
Back through the Passage—down the Steps again;
Thro' yon dark Room—Be careful how you tread
Up these steep Stairs—or you may break your Head.

All there is to see up these stairs are attics, infested with ‘Sheep-ticks’ bred in bales of stored wool, and full of broken farm implements: items which, if in good repair, might characterize the house as the heart of a living, working landscape speak only of inefficiency, vermin and clutter (ll.99-102). And yet, beyond this, just when the visitor indicates a desire to turn back, Mira produces what might seem to be the climactic moment of the poem (ll.103-109):

No farther - Yes, a little higher, pray:
At yon small Door you'll find the Beams of Day,
While the hot Leads return the scorching Ray.
Here a gay Prospect meets the ravish'd Eye:
Meads, Fields, and Groves, in beauteous Order lie.

Although the heat of the leads is vivid, the ‘gay Prospect’ seems to have nothing much to say to Mira: she is not of a rank to find in the ‘beauteous Order’ of a high viewpoint that unites disparate landscape features any inspiring image of her own relation to the world (Greene, pp.125-26, 140). Although enclosure had come early to Northamptonshire, and although her father was a supplier of landscaping services to improving gentry, her preferred viewpoint is invariably the lower angle and more detailed focus of one actually accustomed to working with plants and soil. And as far as the artifice of created landscapes is concerned, she shows herself elsewhere a sceptic: notably in ‘The Month of August’ she associates grounds contrived by wealth with sterile oppression, in contrast with the warmth and fruitfulness of productive market gardens (Leapor, i, pp.34-38). Mira's perfunctory praise of the landscape's ‘beauteous Order’ offers the culminating—and typically understated—example of the poem's detachment from a symbolic tradition which celebrates, in effect, the power over land and community of people like Leapor's former employers. Yet what is most striking about Mira's brief excursion onto the leads is its conclusion (ll.108-109): after only one couplet about the view,

From hence the Muse precipitant is hurl'd,
And drags down Mira to the nether World.

In the context of a poem spent in fussy movements of up three steps and down a few more, down a passage, back through the hall and out the other side, this surreal move is one of unprecedented directness, expressing as it does the alienation which makes this insider poet a radical outsider to the vistas of ‘beauteous Order’ focussed, to the consenting eye, on the country house and its exemplary owners. It catches something of the violence of feeling associated with Leapor's own subjection to the labour of the kitchens, and with her ejection from Edgecote House; but at the same time it enacts the detachment necessary to the working out of her vocation as writer. This turn, whose importance is hard to overstate, therefore underlines the significance of Leapor's reversal of the traditional estate poem's movement through grounds to house: the house is what she knows, what she can relate to; but the social context of her knowledge makes impossible the resonance of the usual composing and unifying conventions.

A further aspect of Leapor's articulation of the transition between house and grounds remains to be noted. What may seem like formal indecision at this point is actually a way of forcing attention to a subject usually passed over in estate poetry (ll.110-11):

Thus-far the Palace—Yet there still remain
Unsung the Gardens, and the menial Train.

Again, the effect is understated; but the juxtaposition suggests the artificiality—if not the effrontery—of a tradition which by its very form denies recognition to the people whose labour sustains the estate. The traditional country house poem had never evolved a context in which the human realities of labour could be imaginatively addressed: the nearest approximation was, significantly, the motif of the creative supervision exercised by the proprietor (Fowler, p.17). Leapor's very obviously signalled pause for choice at this point, with the diversion from customary subjects which follows from it, thus asserts against the tradition the importance of work and workers, not simply as undistinguished menials or personified Labour, but as individuals (l.112):

Its Groves anon—its People first we sing.

So in the end it is ‘the menial Train’ who are presented as the ‘People’ of the house which had felt so empty as Mira led the tour. To name them as such is to acknowledge their importance in a very striking way, in the context of a tradition primarily concerned with the tastes and values of landowners; and to characterize them as individuals is, in a sense, further to dignify them, although Leapor's treatment tends more to the satirical than to any idealization of the dignity of labour. Sophronia the housekeeper, for example, is exercising her ‘learned Knuckles’ (an ironic allusion to the ‘wisdom’ implied by the name Leapor coins for her) in all kinds of creatively tactile kneading and squeezing; Colinettus is dashing between dinner and hayrick in constant apprehension of rain; and ‘surly Gruffo’ is dispensing beer warily to the haymakers ‘As tho' he fear'd some Insurrection nigh’ (ll.114-30). Most memorably of all, Urs'la delivers an extended lamentation on the insensibility of Roger to her charms—an insensibility not unconnected with the beef, cabbage and dumpling she has lovingly stuffed into him, to the detriment of the pigs hopeful of their accustomed swill (ll.131-56). Landry has focussed on the ironies of Urs'la's articulation of wifely anguish and idealism in the light of her labouring condition: far from being a bourgeois wife maintained by her husband, she is a servant paid to cook for her masters (Landry, pp.113-17). Her marked detachment from this fact (‘I baste the Mutton with a chearful Heart, / Because I know my Roger will have Part’) effectively underlines the detachment of all the servants from any consciousness of their contingent status in the scheme of things: although, as Fowler emphasizes, it was a test of a well-managed household that it should run smoothly and be capable of entertaining distinguished guests in proper style even in the owner's absence, the self-absorption of these servants seems independent of any conception of higher purpose—which is entirely in keeping with a poem whose keynote is precisely the failure of parts to come together into a resonant whole (Fowler, p.11). Whether these individuals are making cheesecakes, making hay, serving dinner, washing up after it or merely digesting it, they are apparently doing what they are doing either for its own sake or for their own purposes, without a thought of the masters who employ them. It is a poem in which the gentry seem to have evaporated, leaving the only vibrant part of the house to those whose energies maintain it. And yet we cannot visualize these people, either, as an ideally harmonious community: the status-conscious Sophronia must, as Mira jokes, ‘keep her Station’ even ‘in Mira's Rhyme’; Gruffo suspects impending mutiny by ‘the fierce Crew, that gaping stand a-dry’; Urs'la loves but is nonetheless neglected by Roger. Leapor, whether considered as the daughter of a nurseryman and market gardener or as a prospective published poet, occupies a social position too complex in its affiliations to allow her any simple replacement of idealized owners by idealized workers.24

When Mira finally turns to the surroundings of the house, she views them from a congenial, low-level viewpoint sharpened by her professional familiarity with plants and gardens, devoting the ordering rhetoric of the couplet, which she had denied to the overview of the composed landscape, to the patterning of precise shapes and textures on the ground:

Soft flow'ry Banks the spreading Lakes divide:
Sharp-pointed Flags adorn each tender Side.(25)

The park is described as a place where Mira's ‘frolick Fancy’ may ‘rove’, where ‘the pleas'd Swans’ glide in the shade of willows, and where ‘the hapless Swain’ may sleep under oaks which ‘have known a hundred Springs’, an appeal to continuity markedly associated not with the prestige of the owner's family, but with the use of the landscape to its lowlier inhabitants (ll.157-79). This unusually approving motif comes into perspective, however, when it is disclosed that Diracto plans to cut down the trees in favour of ‘Slopes, and modern Whims’, and to build a new Parlour, perhaps with the ‘aged Limbs’ of oak carried away by ‘the slow Carr’ (ll.166-87). If he does so, Mira warns, the ‘injur'd’ dryads will haunt the plain—though the servants will perceive the omens in terms of more traditional portents (ll.182-85):

Strange Sounds and Forms shall teaze the gloomy Green;
And Fairy-Elves by Urs'la shall be seen:
Their new-built parlour shall with Echoes ring:
And in their Hall shall doleful Crickets sing.

So, curious and inconvenient as Mira finds the Gothic house, innovation is no answer. The gentry are vaguely absent or at best inertly present in the house they have: their only alternative is to rebuild, in which case the powers that protect the established amenities will be impotent to insinuate their unease, restricted as they are to a traditional language that only the servants will be inclined to take seriously. Mira's closing plea seems to recognize its own futility, meeting Diracto's obstinacy half way even as she speaks (ll.186-87):

Then cease, Diracto, stay thy desp'rate Hand;
And let the Grove, if not the Parlour, stand.

In fact, insofar as Crumble Hall is a response to the real Edgecote House, Mira foresees only a fraction of the innovation of which the Chauncy family proved capable: by the end of the century they had pulled down both the medieval house and the adjoining village, thus achieving an elegance uncluttered by any evidence of the existence of their inferiors (Greene, p.16). Leapor, having accepted dismissal as the price of rebellion against the subservience expected of her as a servant, had cast off any vested interest she might have had in trying to sustain traditional country house values. She was beginning, however tentatively, to aspire to a career in which writing would be a legitimate activity in itself, rather than allowing herself to be intimidated into seeing it as a ‘darling Crime’ punished by headaches and mental turmoil; and she was contemplating doing this by a distinctively contemporary appeal not simply to individual patrons but also to the taste of a wider, more commercial literary market. Thus she gained the privileged view of the alienated insider who can, from her combination of knowledge and independence, risk a dissenting vision.

Fabricant discusses, with reference to the literature of guidebooks, the shoemaker James Woodhouse's laudatory ‘The Lessowes. A Poem’, a moving illustration of a lower-class poet's contradictory feelings about his patron's property and of his difficulties in confronting those feelings in verse.26 Woodhouse admires the landscapes contrived by the proprietor whose favour he enjoys; but when his desire for land of his own breaks in, it can only do so in violently resentful language at variance with the smooth flow of imaginative compliance which sets the tone of the poem as a whole. His sense of himself as ‘a landless boor’, a ‘skeleton’ in ‘ragged’ clothes, pent up in ‘murkey walls’, unable to escape the ‘leaden senseless chat’ of his neighbours and the ‘shrill clamours’ of his children is too disconcerting to integrate into his account of his pleasure in landscapes owned and contrived by others. He can only back off with perfunctory gestures in the direction of resignation and hope in a life to come. In contrast with such emotionally and aesthetically unresolved resentment, Leapor's ‘Crumble Hall’ presents an impressive articulation of dissent from the assumptions of country house and guidebook writing, reshaping the traditional country house poem into a form boldly and precisely expressive of her scepticism.


  1. Mary Leapor's poems are quoted from her Poems on Several Occasions, 2 vols (London, 1748-51). ‘Crumble Hall’ appears in volume ii, 111-22.

  2. Alastair Fowler, The Country House Poem: A Cabinet of Seventeenth-Century Estate Poems and Related Items (Edinburgh, 1994), p.1.

  3. Leapor's ‘Epistle to Artemisia. On Fame’ gives, as narrated by her persona Mira, what appears to be a circumstantial account of the conflict over her writing with a superior (named as Sophronia, apparently based on the housekeeper at Edgecote House: the character recurs at lines 114-21 of ‘Crumble Hall’) which led to her dismissal (Leapor, ii, 43-54). Her employment at Edgecote House (near her home at Brackley in Northamptonshire), its relation to Crumble Hall, and the reasons for her dismissal are discussed in Richard Greene, Mary Leapor: A Study in Eighteenth-Century Women's Poetry (Oxford, 1993), pp.15-17, 117-19, 153.

  4. Malcolm Kelsall, The Great Good Place: The Country House and English Literature (London, 1993), p.40.

  5. The identification of Bridget Freemantle as the author of the biographical letter prefaced to Volume ii of Leapor's Poems is made by Betty Rizzo; and from Freemantle's preface and the letters included at the end of the volume it emerges that she was the original of Artemisia, and the prime mover in encouraging Leapor to mount a subscription (see Betty Rizzo's two articles: ‘Christopher Smart, The “C. S.” Poems, and Molly Leapor's Epitaph’, in The Library, sixth series, v (1983), 22-31 (p.25); ‘Molly Leapor: An Anxiety for Influence’, in The Age of Johnson 4 (1991), 313-43 (p.321-23)). For the development of Freemantle's friendship with Leapor, see Greene, pp.17-22 and passim.

  6. For Leapor's knowledge of country house poems, see Greene, p.137; for the chronology of her dismissal and the subscription project, see pp.18-19, 21-24.

  7. William C. Dowling, The Epistolary Moment: The Poetics of the Eighteenth-Century Verse Epistle (Princeton, 1991).

  8. Greene, p.125. For the exclusion from the subscription project as originally conceived of the more challenging poems on social, sexual and economic matters which finally appeared in Volume ii, see Greene, pp.152-54. For recent appreciation of poems relegated to Volume ii, see the highlighting of ‘Crumble Hall’ in Donna Landry's The Muses of Resistance: Laboring-Class Women's Poetry in Britain, 1739-1796 (Cambridge, 1990), pp.107-19, and the selection offered by Roger Lonsdale in Eighteenth-Century Women Poets (Oxford, 1990), pp.194-217, which is taken for the most part from Volume ii.

  9. Leapor, ii, xxix-xxx; p.52.

  10. For the support given to Leapor by Susannah Jennens, a previous employer who addressed her playfully as ‘the successor of Pope’, and for the wider importance to her of her women friends, see Greene, pp.10-14, 77. The quotation is from ‘Crumble Hall’, ll.8, 10.

  11. For the difficulty of establishing Leapor's knowledge of country house poetry, and for the relation of ‘Crumble Hall’ to the tradition, see Greene, pp.137-45.

  12. The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, ed. by John Butt et al., 11 vols (London, 1939-69), iii, ii, To Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, ll.99-176 and 191-204.

  13. Virgidemiarum, anonymous, by Joseph Hall, 2 vols (London, 1597-8), Book 5, Satire 2. The relevant passage is reprinted in Fowler, pp.39-42.

  14. For a harsher reading of the passage (contested by Greene, pp.139-40), see Landry, p.109.

  15. For Leapor's anxieties, see ii, pp.xxvi-xxvii, 315; for subscribers, see Rizzo, ‘Molly Leapor: An Anxiety for Influence’, pp.324-27; Greene, pp.16, 24.

  16. To Burlington, l.66.

  17. For the history of Edgecote House, see Greene, p.16; for the awkwardness of movement around Crumble Hall, see particularly ll.52-57, 85-98.

  18. Carole Fabricant, ‘The Literature of Domestic Tourism and the Public Consumption of Private Property’, in The New Eighteenth Century, ed. by Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown (London, 1987), pp.254-75, 310-13 (pp.254-64).

  19. Charles Cotton, The Wonders of the Peake (London, 1681). The section on Chatsworth is given in Fowler, pp.373-82.

  20. For the role of upper servants in showing houses, see Adrian Tinniswood, A History of Country House Visiting: Five Centuries of Tourism and Taste (Oxford, 1989), pp.40, 65, 97.

  21. For the transition from the earlier sense that tourists, being by implication guests of the owner, should be entertained as such to the modern custom of advertising set opening times and issuing tickets, see Tinniswood, pp.63-65, 91-93.

  22. Presumably the tapestry showed Ptolemy and Cleopatra's relief at being rescued by Julius Caesar from the enemies who had deposed them, an early incident in Cleopatra's involvement with the Roman Empire. Given our ignorance of the books available to Leapor, the source of her knowledge remains obscure: she may simply have asked someone to explain the subject of the tapestry to her. The quotation is from ll.75-80.

  23. The Correspondence of Alexander Pope, ed. by George Sherburn, 5 vols (Oxford, 1956), i, 505-509.

  24. From Freemantle's preface to Leapor's second volume, it appears that had she lived, she would have spent some of the subscription money on paying a servant to take over her father's housework (ii, xxii-xxiii), and Greene, qualifying any impression of Leapor's absolute identification with an oppressed servant class, points out that servants seem already to have been employed in the Leapor household (pp.117-23). Rizzo suggests that her father, who received the subscription money after her death, may have used it to buy out the freehold of his premises, thus attaining a rank which entitled him to vote (‘Molly Leapor: An Anxiety for Influence’, p.323).

  25. ‘Crumble Hall’, ll.161-62. For an account of the relevance to Leapor of the politics of point of view implicit in ideas of landscape, see Greene, pp.125-26.

  26. James Woodhouse, Poems on Sundry Occasions (London, 1744), pp.63-65; Fabricant, pp.269-71.

Laura Mandell (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12291

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:


Her Shape—
—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, 1751)1

Note, This Description of her Person is a Caracture.

(Note by the editors to “Mira's Picture”)

I must beg Leave to enter a Caveat against printing the Poem call'd Myra's Picture; because tho' she may be suppos'd to have made very free with herself, I think it may give the Reader a worse Idea of her Person than it deserv'd, which was very far from being shocking, tho' there was nothing extraordinary in it. The Poem was occasioned by her happening to hear that a Gentleman who had seen some of her Poems, wanted to know what her person was.

(Bridget Freemantle, Introduction to Leapor's Poems Upon Several Occasions, Vol. II)

Bridget Freemantle advises against printing this anti-blason written by the popular eighteenth-century, laboring-class poet Mary Leapor.2 As her patron, Freemantle is concerned in general to present Leapor as one of the deserving poor (Greene, 152-3) and thus is worried about this anti-blason's politically subversive intent. Freemantle's “caveat” implies that Leapor's “Picture” poem is not an accurate description, nor a misogynous satire against women, as anti-blasons are usually taken to be. Rather, it is a satire of the aristocratic gentleman Phillario who, like the “Gentleman who had seen some of [Leapor's] poems [and] wanted to know what her person was,” has a set of expectations, gleaned from the pastoral, about rural, laboring women. Phillario addresses the “harmless Shepherd Swain” Corydon in order to find out whether “th'Arcadian Nymphs outshine / The shiv'ring Beauties of this Northern Clime” (II.294-5): he ridiculously expects rural nymphs to have white skin and teeth, despite the hardship of their physical existence. This poem de-idealizes the pastoral nymph and swain by describing skin freckled or browned from working out of doors, and decayed teeth, which Phillario foolishly attributes to eating sugar-plums and wine-spiced posset rather than to poverty. Leapor's poem, like Duck's “Thresher's Labour” and Collier's “The Washer Woman,” exposes the pastoral's deliberate obfuscation of rural labor and poverty,3 but it does so using a markedly different strategy from that employed by either Duck or Collier. While Duck and Collier put male and female laborers (respectively) back into the prospect from which they had been removed, Leapor depicts an aristocratic gentleman whose expectations of rural life, conditioned by the pastoral, are sorely disappointed by Mira's dirty linen, swarthy skin, and bad teeth; real experience of the repugnant female body, Leapor insists, demystifies pastoral literary conventions.

“Mira's Picture” is not by any means the first anti-blason. Anti-blasons were included in the first collection of poetry that eulogizes female body parts, Marot and Scève's Blasons anatomiques du corps féminin (1536).4 Before the eighteenth-century, anti-blasons work, as parody always does, to better define that tradition. For example, in his poem “My Mistress' Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun,” Shakespeare describes how unlike blason images his lover's body actually is, for the sake of succeeding better than his predecessors at praising her beauty: he de-idealizes for the sake of idealizing better, outdoing but not overturning the blason form. In contrast, anti-blason poetry of the eighteenth century written by Jonathan Swift and Leapor questions the ideological investments of the form. It operates as that kind of literary history engaged in progressivist critique, the basic rhetorical structure of which is articulated in John Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding.

Knowledge, Locke says, comes from “[o]bservation employ'd either about external, sensible Objects; or about the internal Operations of our Minds, perceived and reflected on by our selves”;5 the experience of observing provides a ground for “the taking away False Foundations” (Essay, “Epistle to the Reader,” 10). Locke uses objective experience, experience of that which anyone would find to be existing in reality, to critique the ideas promulgated by past authorities,6 just as the anti-blason points to reality in order to critique literary conventions. Locke's critical, progressivist mode of analysis thus constitutes a “reflection on ‘today’ as difference in history and as motive for a particular philosophical task”—to take Michel Foucault's definition of Enlightenment discourse.7 As an Enlightenment genre, the eighteenth-century anti-blason deploys the rhetoric of experience to reflect on the adequacy of conventions; its “philosophical task” is to discover the reality hidden by traditional literary forms for the sake of overcoming their oppressive mystifications.

Contemporary histories of difference, whether feminist, postmarxist, or new historicist, despite their desire to distance themselves from the positivism informing Enlightenment modes of critique, implicitly rely on the rhetoric of empiricism insofar as they presuppose the objectivity of their own pronouncements. Since writing anti-blasons is, as I will show in more detail below, an eighteenth-century way of doing a progressive, “new” history, analyzing one of its most debilitating pitfalls, as I will do, can elucidate a serious problem confronting those engaged now in recovering histories of difference through cultural artifacts that intrinsically exclude those histories.8 Let me briefly outline that problem by way of introduction.

Although enabling a progressive questioning of exclusionary cultural forms, obviously objectivity has its price. Demanding a “concordance between the mind of man and the nature of things,” as Bacon does in describing the new science,9 puts pressure on representation to become immediate—that is, for its own conditions to drop out of sight. Tristram Shandy tells us that Locke's Essay “is a history-book … of what passes in a man's own mind,”10 but eighteenth-century writers collude in trying to forget that it is a “book,” “an account” of the raw stuff of experience rather than that stuff itself. From Bacon to Sterne, history is being redefined so that rhetoric and conditions of representation are seen only as containers for actuality. But of course the rhetoricity of language continually reasserts itself, causing scientific writers a certain amount of anxiety, as evinced by the often-quoted passage from Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society in which he asks scientific writers to obviate “the mists and uncertainties [that come from] Tropes and Figures” by “return[ing] back to the primitive purity [of language], when men deliver'd so many things in almost an equal number of words.”11 Both Naomi Schorr and Jacqueline Rose have noticed that, when anxiety about representation runs particularly high in a given text, it turns misogynous, that is, it attempts to incite hatred of women by depicting the female body as disgusting.12 The (post)modern era beginning with Enlightenment might be defined by the intensity of anxiety over the sheer referentiality of discourse.13 Depictions of the decaying female body are deployed to shore up this emerging, modern “representational epistemology” in which “to know reality is to have a correct [i.e., literal rather than figural, actual] representation of things” (Taylor, ix, 144).

In “Mira's Picture,” one can see the anxiety caused by an implicit claim to the referentiality of Leapor's discourse and, concomitantly, the use of misogyny to allay it. In her anti-blason, Leapor uses the platform of realistic, experientially-informed description as a method for attacking the way that aristocratic conventions represent laboring women. She describes the female body as disgusting to assert the greater objectivity of her own discourse in comparison with that of the aristocratic pastoral. “'Tis no great matter whether [Mira] has [teeth] or no / They look decay'd,” Phillario exclaims: what difference does it make whether the nymph has teeth; they are rotting! While that sentence shirks responsibility for accurately depicting history (Mira may or may not have teeth), it simultaneously claims to do so: that they are pictured as rotting constitutes proof that these teeth are being accurately described—why would one describe teeth as decayed unless they actually are? The language of this poem is able to point to really existing teeth because they are rotting. Whether language can capture the “great matter”—the real world—that it points to “or no,” is indeed a “great matter” since it reveals the oppressiveness of aristocratic pastoral form.

A logic becomes apparent in the protest made by “Mira's Picture,” then, which, after showing feminist literary history's connection to the anti-blason tradition, I will discuss at length below. The logic is this: because misogyny sustains objectivity, and because progressivist discourse relies upon objective reality to demystify ideologically loaded misrepresentations of reality, misogynous representations are a particular temptation even for Enlightenment discourses that are themselves engaged in critiquing sexism. I will show that the trope of the repugnant female body has been used in the rhetoric of empiricism to ground its own objectivity, and consequently has been a crucial component of progressivist discourses arising during the Enlightenment—including feminism itself. Reading Leapor's more explicitly feminist anti-blasons shows us that, unfortunately, the representational epistemology sustained by misogyny underpins feminist literary histories. I examine the difficulty generated by the almost inescapable fact that, in literary history at least, misogyny and feminism are interdependent: there is a temptation to misogyny in the writing of the particular feminist literary history that is being adumbrated here—in this paper itself. I say “almost inescapable” because, as the paper suggests toward the end, we are on the most solid ground, epistemologically and politically, when escaping this logic.


The anti-blason's critical power—and, as I will discuss later, that of feminism and new historicism—depends upon the visibility of its own literariness. We mistake anti-blasons for mere statements of misogyny insofar as we do not notice that the speaker of the poem is a satiric persona. In both Leapor and Swift, the satiric persona is an object of attack: he is one of those “empiricks”—one of those “quacks, … mountebanks, enthusiasts, and theurgics”14—suspect for delivering such a misogynous outburst. The “Cassy” of Swift's “Cassinus and Peter. A Tragical Elegy,” a speaker who no doubt observes the truth of Celia's bodily functions, is deeply suspect for being so interested in and affected by them; Swift is critiquing Cassy's empiricism, not Celia's body. Similarly, in “Mira's Picture,” Phillario's desire to actually see the beautiful “rural nymphs” he has read about reveals that he too is a suspect “empirick,” rather like the antiquaries who read classical texts as ethnographic descriptions rather than as art. Leapor's “The Visit” describes Mira begging entry into Artemisa's home that she might “'scape the penetrating Eye / Of Students in Physiognomy” (II.291). Empiricks such as Phillario and these Physiognomists practicing their “body criticism” (Stafford, 84) can be seen as blasonneurs gone mad, trying to read the body to see whether Petrarchan sonnets are true.15

But satires which portray scientists as mere “empiricks” and mad blasonneurs rarely get read that way.16 From Lord Orrery to Middleton Murry to Norman O. Brown, Swift's anti-blasons have been connected to disturbances in his sexuality and his mind (Doody, 68). Critics who try to normalize Swift's message, to see it as “universal,”17 often themselves purvey a certain amount of misogyny. For instance, according to Siebert, “critics agree that these [dressing-room] poems explode certain illusions surrounding romantic love”: “A Beautiful Nymph” represents a lover's necessary “realization that even beautiful women stink.”18 It is difficult to find critics who notice that the female body does not in general seem to be the object of Swift's attack:19 the picture of misogyny is too tempting.

One of the first readers of “Mira's Picture” obviously yields to the temptation of reading misogynous depictions literally. In the 1780s, a correspondent to The Gentleman's Magazine answers someone's query about “Molly Leapor” by describing her as “swarthy” and “crane-neck[ed].”20 No longer a satire on gentlemanly ways of imagining reality, the poem is read by this historicist corresponding to The Gentleman's Magazine as accurately describing what Leapor looked like when she was alive. Distressingly, the gentleman historicist who defuses the poem's political power on the one hand and Leapor herself on the other—both deploy the same rhetorical structure in their arguments: they both check literary figures against the real stuff of experience; they both take an empirical turn. But while Leapor uses ordinary experience to question the ideological stakes in conventional forms, and thus performs an act of demystification, the gentleman historian “confus[es] linguistic with natural reality. …”21 The aristocratic gentleman's “historical” account of Leapor's body reduces a swarthy figure to a swarthy body by conceiving her discourse and his own as purely referential. What tempts him to defigure discourse, his and hers, is the titillating attraction of imagining a disgusting referent “beneath” the poem. I am not assuming here that misogyny is “naturally” titillating, but will show below how, at Leapor's particular historical moment and still in ours, misogyny has been eroticized.

The gentleman historicist who reports to us how Leapor actually looked is what we would call an historicist of the positivist kind—an “old” historicist—insofar as he tries to look through language to historical actuality by ignoring the rhetoricity of language. But nonetheless he writes to the Gentleman's Magazine out of a progressive interest in a laboring-class woman poet. There is a critical power to be found even in old historicism. “New” historicism, one wants to say, surely has roots in progressivist Enlightenment discourses, but it does not read texts as pictures looking out onto the world. And yet the preceding statement fails to notice how difficult it is to avoid taking a referential view of language and a positivist approach to history. In “The New Historicism: Back to the Future,” Marjorie Levinson describes how much of the old is in the new: “It is precisely our failure to articulate a critical field that sights us even as we compose it, that brings back the positivism, subjectivism and relativism of the rejected historicist methodology.”22 The resurgence of positivism comes from the new historicist's failure to sight himself in the field—that is, from the historicist's failure to see himself as using rhetoric to construct objectivity rather than as himself an objective (impersonal, as good as absent) observer of reality.

Both new historicism and feminist historical materialism23 take the empirical turn—turn toward an objective place from which to critique, a place that gets called “experience,” in order to attempt what Leapor is trying to do in her anti-blason, that is, for the sake of demystification and critique. Unfortunately, if critics fail to see their own work as rhetorical, turning to experience in order to analyze the rhetoric of a past literary tradition ultimately (but not necessarily) subverts the political efficacy of their own criticism: like the gentleman historicist, they mistake the rhetoric used to critique for a description of an actual state of affairs. Because they share the empirical turn as method and then face the temptation to confuse methodological necessity with political reality, feminist materialists and new historicists risk importing into their accounts a narrative of the past that reads: “women, laborers, and colonized Others have disgusting, embrowned bodies.”

I am not concerned in this paper, as others have been, with the misogyny intrinsic to the world of experiment,24 nor simply with the misogyny, classism, and racism intrinsic to Enlightenment rationality.25 Instead, I am concerned to describe here the particular method used by literary historians writing during the Enlightenment, such as Leapor and the gentlman empiricist, and even “new” historicists, such as Catherine Gallagher and Michael McKeon, for demystifying the classism and sexism of patriarchal literary conventions because that method so easily collapses into an epistemology that grounds the real in filthy femaleness. Mistaking the politicized deployment of experience, a rhetorical strategy, for reality, an extradiscursive thing, is no mere paradox; it threatens to disable feminist literary history. I will here conduct a genealogy of “experience” as a rhetorical device and its misrecognition as reality26 as they have been handed down to us from the anti-blason tradition in order to show that the misogyny inherent in them threatens to undermine efforts to retrieve women's protest, and with it, threatens feminist literary history per se.


In Scriblerian satire against the new science,27 Swift, Pope, and others insist that the empiricist's object of study is really the dead, decaying, and “embrowned” human body.28 Thus, the empiricist Gulliver, like the “minute philosophers” described in Book IV of Pope's Dunciad, dutifully records the details of the disposing of his faeces and urine in Lilliput29 and in later Brobdingnag: “I hope the gentle reader will excuse me for dwelling on these and the like particulars, which, however insignificant they may appear to grovelling vulgar minds, yet will certainly help a philosopher to enlarge his thoughts and imagination, and apply them to the benefit of public as well as private life. …” (Swift, Gulliver, 76). Envisaging the empiricist's truth as excrement is not only an assault on ideal versions of the empirical object, it renders the point of empirical pursuit as absurd as possible: it's not at all clear how Gulliver's record of his daily defecations can be used for “the benefit of public as well as private life”; why, Swift makes us ask, are the Minute Philosophers so hot in pursuit of grotesque details?

Swift's satire operates not by perverting empiricism but rather by over-dramatizing it. The empiricist is just like Strephon of “The Lady's Dressing Room” who

Stole in, and took a strict survey
Of all the litter as it lay:
Whereof, to make the matter clear,
An inventory follows here.

(Poems, lines 7-10)

Like Strephon, the empiricist uses an ideal image or a descriptive term to cover a reality and render it attractive: Strephon takes an inventory of objects in the dressing room in order “to make the matter clear,” that is, to clean it up. The “matter” is now not only attractive but also can now be accused of hiding behind or beneath it “[t]hose secrets of the hoary deep” (Poems, line 98), secrets that the empiricist can then seek to discover. He does discover them, in horror, horrified as much by what “really” attracted him as by the falsity of the image that hides the actual “fact” of excrement.

One thing that Gulliver's Travels does through its attention to excrement is to recognize the genre of the Essay Concerning Human Understanding: Swift shows us that Locke's Essay is an anti-blason that first appears to be idealizing body parts, as a blason would, but then uncovers a filthy underside to them. Gulliver repeats, parodies, and mimics the moves made by Locke in his Essay in order to expose in empiricism this double movement. Gulliver in Brobdingnag discovers “that [his] sense was more acute in proportion to [his] littleness” (Gulliver, 95). Locke imagines that an Angel making its organs as small as possible would see minutiae independently of, and indeed as a replacement for, their total human significance: “What wonders would he discover, who could so fit his Eye to all sorts of Objects, as to see, when he pleased, the Figure and Motion of the minute Particles in the Blood, and other juices of Animals, as distinctly as he does at other times, the shape and motion of the Animals themselves” (Essay 2.23.13, 303). But the “wonders” Gulliver discovers upon becoming little are expressed in Gulliver's Travels in grotesque detail as several anti-blasons on the breast. Swift thus informs us that there is a generic connection between Locke's Essay and Marot's Blasons anatomiques du corps féminin, of which the panegyric on “Le Beau Tétin” is the most famous.

In Brobdingnag, Gulliver is horrified to see the “monstrous breast” of a nurse giving suck in front of him and tells us so in a passage that might be called “Le Tétin Repugnant”:

I must confess no object ever disgusted me so much as the sight of her monstrous breast. … It stood prominent six foot, and could not be less than sixteen in circumference. The nipple was about half the bigness of my head, and the hue both of that and the dug so varified with spots, pimples and freckles that nothing could appear more nauseous. … This made me reflect upon the fair skins of our English ladies, who appear so beautiful to us, only because they are of our own size, and their defects not to be seen but through a magnifying glass, where we find by experiment that the smoothest and whitest skins look rough and course, and ill coloured.

(Gulliver, 74)

“Experiment” with magnifying glasses reveals not wonders but monstrosities that make Gulliver nauseous, and reveals a fundamental difference between English men and “our English ladies”: the “fair skins” of English women would really appear “varified with spots, pimples, and freckles,” “ill-coloured”—no doubt “swarthy”—were we to see them up close. Gulliver's anti-blason on the monstrous breast carefully distinguishes English men from English women by their swarthy skins.

Later, the monstrous breast is associated with decay which disgusts the miniature Gulliver at the same time that he fantasizes immersing himself in it:

One day the governess [of the miniature Gulliver's caretaker, Glumdalclitch] ordered our coachman to stop at several shops, where the beggars, watching their opportunity, crowded to the sides of the coach, and gave me the most horrible spectacles that ever an European eye beheld. There was a woman with a cancer in her breast, swelled to a monstrous size, full of holes, in two or three of which I could have easily crept, and covered my whole body. There was a fellow with a wen in his neck … But the most hateful sight of all was the lice crawling on their clothes. I could see distinctly the limbs of these vermin with my naked eye, much better than those of an European louse through a microscope. … I should have been curious enough to dissect one of them, if I had proper instruments (which I unluckily left behind me in the ship) although indeed the sight was so nauseous, that it perfectly turned my stomach.

(Gulliver, 90-91)

The “European eye” magnifies the cancerous breast with a microscope precisely to turn the sight of decay into a titillating spectacle, into “the most horrible spectacle that ever an European eye beheld”: Gulliver's fantasy of creeping into the holes of the cancerous breast, of being surrounded and engulfed by decay, is, Swift claims, what the empiricist really wants.

Scientific empirical researches, the allegedly unmediated acquisition of knowledge through the senses, have as their real object disavowal of one's own death. Empirical description fragments bodies and idealizes the parts so that the decay examined is not something that seems to happen to a person; the instruments of empiricism, microscopes and dissecting tools, are a means for shifting oneself out of the realm of decay. Because Gulliver left these “proper instruments” aboard his ship, Swift deploys the rhetorical “instruments” necessary for such disavowal by figuring the decaying body as female. But decay and with it death become by this very disavowal eroticized: a narcissistic identification with the disgusting female body allows the empiricist to immerse himself in it, as Gulliver does in the cancerous breast. Such an immersion in the abject female body is a source of erotic pleasure—here we can see “the murky source … of our loves.”30

The decaying body that empiricism disavows and desires is not necessarily female—that is to say, empiricism is not necessarily misogynous—but it very often is. The empiricist wants to identify with but then at a crucial moment distance himself from decay. If the empiricist presumes himself to be “male,” then gendering the decaying body “female” allows him to distance himself from it by making it into a “her” and thus into an object of scopophilic desire. Gender difference allows for a dialectic of identification and disidentification.

But sometimes the dialectic doesn't work; sometimes gender difference is not enough to save the empiricist from an agonizing identification with dead and decaying matter. In moments of extreme instability, racial difference is mobilized for the sake of abjecting physical decay: Phillario and Corydon describe Mira's freckled face; the gentleman empiricist describes Leapor's “swarthy skin”; Swift describes the skin of a female “dug” as “so varified with spots, pimples and freckles” as to be “ill coloured.” Disidentification can work through the figure of woman, who, Freud says, is “almost the same but not quite”; but sometimes, as Homi Bhabha says, such a dialectic requires someone who is “almost the same but not white.31 Swarthiness as a signifier is ambiguous, pointing to what could be a racial or a class difference, since the lower classes had not yet “reformed” into adopting notions of cleanliness:32 in any case, this sign of minimal otherness allows the empiricist viewer and reader to revel in the dirt with the Other with whom he identifies while simultaneously disavowing any identification. If repugnant gender difference is one of the mechanisms that makes it possible for the empiricist blason to effectively represent a disavowal of and desire for bodily decay, why would a woman poet write an anti-blason? What is to be gained for her?


Use of the empirical turn is often a very effective mode of critique. Leapor's poem “Strephon to Celia. A modern Love-Letter” exposes the hypocrisy of upper-class discourses on “love”33 by figuring “Celia” as uglier “in reality” than conventions of love poetry allow. Because Strephon is such a bad poet—“Yet I can hardly spell my Letter”—we can see that his blason is financially motivated rather than prompted by “real” love:

You need not wonder at my Flame,
For you are not a mortal Dame:
I saw you dropping from the Skies;
And let dull Idiots swear your Eyes
With Love their glowing Breast inspire,
I tell you they are Flames of Fire,
That scortch my Forehead to a Cinder,
Your Cheeks that look as if they bled,
Are nothing else but Roses red.
Your Lips are Coral very bright,
Your Teeth—tho' Numbers out of spite,
May say they're Bones—yet 'twill appear
They're Rows of Pearl exceeding dear.


In order to critique the basis of upper-class love poetry, Leapor's poem veers toward the Swiftian grotesque blason. The fop speaker of this poem, like that found in Robert Gould's “The Playhouse,”34 equates Celia with bird-droppings which fall from the sky.35 The poem almost disfigures Celia's face. In order to show that Strephon's descriptions of Celia's teeth as pearls and her cheeks as roses depend upon her “Five hundred Pounds a Year,” the poem turns the “real” Celia's teeth into bones and almost depicts her face as if it were diseased—“bleeding.”

Reading this poem, the reader is fairly secure that Strephon—and not Celia—is being parodied: we are witnessing Strephon's inept use of pastoral convention, not the emergence of Celia's “real” picture from rhetoric. Leapor clearly gains critical power through deploying the anti-blason's misogyny—that is, what would be read as misogyny if we were to see the poem as a pure description of Celia. But often, revealing various ideologies to be class- and gender-specific by relying on the empirical turn—by showing that they fail to accurately describe experience—backfires.

In her country-house poem Crumble-Hall, Leapor overturns the conventions of that form described by Raymond Williams in The Country and the City. Usually the owners appear in a landscape and home devoid of laborers and servants: nature, these poems usually say, furnishes forth its riches of its own accord (Williams, 32). In contrast, Leapor absents the owners of the house and describes only the servants. When about to take in a prospect from the top of the house, “Mira” (Leapor's muse) is hurled into this “nether world” of the servants where she records a “mournful” kitchen maid's lament to her husband Roger. Ursula's lament36 begins by describing Roger, exhausted after a day's labor and a huge meal:

          O'er-stuffd with Beef; with Cabbage much too full,
And Dumpling too (fit Emblem of his Skull!)
With Mouth wide open, but with closing Eyes
Unwieldy Roger on the Table lies.
His able Lungs discharge a rattling Sound:
Prince barks, Spot howls, and the tall Roofs rebound.
Him Urs'la views; and with dejected Eyes,
“Ah! Roger, Ah!” the mournful Maiden cries:
“Is wretched Urs'la then your Care no more,
“That, while I sigh, thus you can sleep and snore?
“Ingrateful Roger! wilt thou leave me now?
“For you these Furrows mark my fading Brow:
“For you my Pigs resign their Morning Due:
“My hungry Chickens lose their Meat for you:
“And, was it not, Ah! was it not for thee,
“No goodly Pottage would be dress'd by me.
“For thee these Hands wind up the whirling Jack,
“Or place the Spit across the sloping Rack.
“I baste the Mutton with a chearful Heart,
“Because I know my Roger will have Part.”
          Thus she—But now her Dish-kettle began
To boil and blubber with the foaming Bran.
The greasy Apron round her Hips she ties,
And to each Plate the scalding Clout applies:
The purging Bath each glowing Dish refines,
And once again the polish'd Pewter shines.


In the anaphora “For you” and “For thee,” Ursula says that she does all of her work only for Roger. Ursula attempts to transform her labor into what female labor will become for growing numbers of middle-class women: “mere epiphenomena of wifely devotion” (Landry, 179). However, because Ursula and Roger work for the absent owners of Crumble-Hall, because Ursula works in the kitchen with Sophronia to feed not only Roger but “Grave Colinettus” and “surly Graffo,” Ursula's lament “render[s] the contradictions of [bourgeois] romantic ideology, and its powerfully imaginary status as ideology, particularly obvious” (Landry, 180): Ursula's repetition of “For you” and “For thee” is belied by her statement that she makes a dinner of which Roger will only “have Part”; she labors for pay, not “love.”

In Crumble-Hall, Leapor parodies domestic ideology; she is trying to show that the ideal which represents women as working only for the love of men cannot be applied to women of the laboring classes such as Ursula. But here the parody slips out of her control: rhetoric and parody slip into realism and misogyny. Ursula's lament potentially tells us that the idea of romantic love comes from women; Ursula is stupid, the poem might be saying, to apply her notions of romantic love to that particular husband, to the Roger lying on the table who resembles a stuffed pig, dressed and ready to eat. Leapor's portrait of Ursula can be read as locating this cultural corruption in female desires and demands.37 It is difficult to tell in Crumble-Hall whether Ursula satirizes romantic expectations or whether conventional images of love in fact satirize Ursula (she is stupid to expect love from the swinish Roger) or satirize Ursula and Roger as laboring buffoons, “clowns” like the gravediggers in Hamlet, who cannot manage to get love right. Once again, critique can be recuperated as mere reiteration of the status quo: Ursula's mimicry, her repetition of bourgeois love with a difference, undecidably parodies either hegemonic ideals or Ursula herself.

As with Swift's anti-blasons, Mary Leapor's love poetry potentially either reveals her own misogynous attitudes or criticizes social practices; in the case of Crumble-Hall in particular, whether she parodies or repeats the stylized laborer-as-buffoon is undecidable. Her biography makes it less undecidable. Because expressions of misogyny and classism would be less “natural” in her poetry than they allegedly are in Swift's, it is more obvious in her poems that the project of demystifying aristocratic ideals by relying on “experience” pulls her work in the direction of misogyny, that she is not trying to express misogyny but is rather forced to do so. Are we to read Crumble-Hall then as evidence of the inevitable failure of critiques launched from within literary conventions to undermine the classist and sexist bias of those conventions?


The insight that the conscious desire to perform radical political actions can be coopted because the forms of protest are always already contaminated is fundamental to new historicism. Although people have argued that the view of contaminated or coopted protest comes from certain strands of Marxist theory38 or from the Foucault of Discipline and Punish,39 in Catherine Gallagher's view, the experience of that insight came to new historicists primarily from seeing the results of feminist activism. She recalls the moment that certain feminists arrived at this insight, after the failure of consciousness-raising to achieve its intended political effects: “Was it possible, we asked, that certain forms of subjectivity that felt oppositional were really a means by which power relations were maintained?”40 This realization fundamentally altered feminist modes of interpretation:

by focusing attention on our gendered individuation as the deepest moment of social oppression, some of us called into question the political reliability of our own subjectivity. We effectively collapsed the self/society division and began regarding our “normal” consciousness and “natural” inclinations as profoundly untrustworthy. We, along with our erstwhile politial optimism, became for ourselves the objects of a hermeneutics of suspicion.41

Gallagher here provides one of the most compelling accounts of the ideological formation of one's own subjectivity, a phenomenon of which naive feminism remains unaware. Similarly, the ideological construction of literary conventions renders possible, indeed likely, betrayal by liberatory discourses relying on those conventions, even if only to react against them.

This hermeneutics of suspicion has provided insight into exactly what compromises any project of demystification. Insofar as consciousness is ideologically constructed, it is untrustworthy; and in Leapor's work, insofar as her critique relies upon ideologically inflected conventions, it cannot help but being anti-feminist and classist. However, notice that the insight into individuation as fundamentally social provided by this hermeneutics of suspicion relies upon the very category of experience constructed by the eighteenth-century British empirical tradition; it too relies upon the rhetoric of experience that both enables and disables Leapor's protest against the oppression of women.42 Because Gallagher relies on experience at the moment that she discovers the cooptation of modes of “subjectivity [which] felt oppositional,” her “discovery” is like the gentleman historicist's revelation that Leapor really had swarthy skin: our oppositional subjectivities, she discovers, “really” are not oppositional. Such a “discovery” needs to be taken for what it is: the rhetorical strategy necessary for demystification, for analyzing what kinds of forces defuse or contain that oppositionality, should not mistaken for reality—an empirical fact that subjectivity cannot be oppositional. To conclude that Crumble-Hall's critique inevitably fails, then, is to mistake a rhetorical for a real predicament.

Moreover, the fatal moment when critics discover how opposition to hegemony has been coopted by hegemonic forms—even though it does provide insight—puts us in an intellectually indefensible as well as politically reactionary role of dominance over the past writer whose articulation of protest we are trying to retrieve. Frederic Jameson has noticed that, in certain historicist accounts, “power”—and he is speaking of power in the sense of “power to contain protest”—often becomes an “increasingly total system or logic” that gives the critic herself complete mastery over the past. But if power indeed were so total, then where does the critic stand in order to see power operate? An epistemologically untenable mastery is purchased at the price of “fatalism,” Jameson says: “Insofar as the theorist wins, therefore, by constructing an increasingly closed and terrifying machine, to that very degree he loses, since the critical capacity of his work is thereby paralyzed, and the impulses of negation and revolt, not to speak of those of social transformation, are increasingly perceived as vain and trivial in the face of the model itself” (5-6). In proclaiming power omnipotent, the critic does not simply find Leapor's protest contained but rather enacts that containment for the sake of achieving mastery.

In reading Leapor's anti-blasons, how can we prevent the mode of critique—a mode that exerts a misogynous pull—from becoming the anti-feminist conclusion that Leapor has no power to protest? In using theoretical insights into the functioning of power, how can we prevent the mode of critique—belief in “the attentive malevolence that turns everything to account”—from becoming a fatalist conclusion that the power to contain is omnipotent and resistance impossible?43

Some recent attempts to overcome this problem don't work. The desire for critical mastery will not be eluded by accounting for one's own position: self-disclosures have no effect on the critical work to which they are appended.44 Nor can a feminist literary historian try to be hyperconscious, more conscious than Gallagher, for instance.45 To avoid enacting dominance and containment, Bhabha says, we need to rediscover “a ‘colonial’ countermodernity at work in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century matrices of Western modernity …”:46 we need to find those places where the countering of Enlightenment forms of oppression is visible. Historians of difference must ask how desires subversive of the existing social order can be represented in conventional forms which helped to build and sustain that order: we cannot see the blason and the pastoral as only instruments of the dominant ideology; if so, we will fail to hear in these forms moments of protest or contestation, just as hegemonic forces always fail to hear protest against them. We are under an “ethical imperative,” David Spurr asserts, to retrieve the “history of dissent” from colonial hegemony, a project “from which one is not excused by theoretical objections” to the possibility of other cultures adequately representing themselves.47

This “ethical imperative” is not a moral one but rather an imperative comprising an ethics of reading. Spurr is not advocating, as part of this ethic, a return to the naive view that historical and/or colonial others can unproblematically and directly represent themselves within literary and linguistic conventions that have until that moment sustained hegemony. Jean Howard describes this naive view among literary historians as analogous to naive feminists' sense of themselves as truly oppositional subjects, described by Gallagher above: in “the study of women as actors in history,” “women's writing [is] expected automatically to yield evidence of resistance or of an alternative to patriarchal discourse” (Howard, 151-2, emphasis added). Gayatri Spivak has uncovered just such “an unquestioned valorization of the oppressed as subject” in Foucault and Deleuze's “Intellectuals and Power” (Spivak, 274). In this account of class struggle, a sovereign subject of history mirrors a sovereign historian or theorist: by representing the oppressed as “self-knowing, politically canny subalterns,. … intellectuals represent themselves as transparent” (275); although explicitly claiming not to “speak for” subalterns, such rhetorical representations (Darstellungen) do indeed politically represent (Vertreten) subalterns in the sense of appropriating their voices (275-7).

But if the naive view is epistemologically untenable, so is the allegedly more sophisticated, fatalist view of seeing historical and/or colonial Others as unable to represent their political agendas within Western, hegemonic discourses, another approach to be abandoned in this ethics of reading. As S. P. Mohanty has shown, cultural criticism's belief in the unknowability of the Other posits epistemologically an extreme relativism that is both philosophically and politically problematic. Grounded philosophically in a now defunct postivism,48 such fatalism involves politically the constriction of diverse interests to “debilitatingly insular spaces” (Mohanty, 15): if “you”—i.e., the Other—cannot represent yourself to me in hegemonic Western discourses, “I cannot—and consequently need not—think about how your space impinges on mine, or how my history is defined together with yours. If that is the case, I may have started by declaring a pious political wish, but I end by denying that I need to take you seriously” (Mohanty, 14). The “pious political wish” that started the intellectual's declaration as to the theoretical impossibility of representing resistance to hegemony would be the refusal to appropriate the other's voice. But in fact both the naive theorist who does appropriate the other's voice by claiming to have “found” it, as if the critic's and the writer's discourses were transparent, and the sophisticated theorist who claims not to be able to find such a voice—both of them effect the same foreclosure: the subaltern goes unheard. It is for this reason that Howard wants “to promote an historical analysis that, on the one hand, refuses naiveté about what produces difference and enables an oppositional subjectivity and, on the other hand, refuses a fatalism about the possibility of seeing, even within dominant discourses, the traces of genuine social struggle” (153). What is needed is a critic who refuses to represent—to herself stand for—interests of the oppressed but also refuses to declare those interests illegible, a critic who takes part in the oppressed group. Only through partisanship, only by “think[ing] about … how my history is defined together with yours” (Mohanty) can we avoid enacting an epistemologically untenable critical mastery either through proclaiming our own transparency, the naive view, or our own impermeability, the fatalist one.

For the historian, partisanship must involve granting as much agency to the subject of the past as one imagines oneself to have: both subjects are situated in a context that gives symbolic acts an historically specific significance, but both subjects' symbolic actions are not limited to a simple reiteration of that context. The literary critic has to be able to envision in literary traditions and forms the possibility of contradictions and ruptures interrupting their ideological work. Paradoxically, the critic's own ideologically suspect projection is interrupted rather than facilitated, as one might expect, by the admittedly partisan effort to grant historical others this limited kind of discursive agency. To think about how discursive agency can be recovered through partisanship is precisely not to efface the requisite “critique of ideological subject-constitution within state formations and systems of political economy” erased by the naive view (Spivak, 275); rather it is to extend that critique to one's own discourse. To insist upon the capacity of historical others to represent themselves in the ironic spaces of what are sexist, classist, and racist modes of representation, ideally, leads to heightened awareness of how those conventions determine criticism as well, as has happened here. That Leapor's feminist and anti-classist critique of the oppression of country-house laborers can be recuperated as a misogynous depiction of Ursula is a result of her reliance upon the rhetoric of empiricism as a strategy for demystification; but to read Crumble-Hall as evidence that protest is inevitably contaminated is to join the gentleman empiricist's camp and partake of its epistemological blindness by mistaking rhetoric for the real.


In the picture of the sonnet lady, figure 1,49 we can see once again that the “experience” used to demystify aristocratic conventions presents us with a degraded, disfigured female body. The picture portrays in mimetic images all of the figures used in blason poetry: a cupid sits on her brow, her breasts are globes, her eyes suns, her hair nets and hooks to catch hearts, her lips coral, her teeth pearls. This picture originally appeared in 1654, in John Davies's English translation of Le Berger Extravagant by Charles Sorel. The Extravagant Shepherd satirizes Lysis for falling in love with his own rhetoric; Anselme draws Lysis this picture to show him how ugly the woman described by such rhetoric “really” is.50 She is hideous, a monster. The attempt to turn rhetoric into description has a misogynous effect, serving in Sorel's tale as remedia amoris. This picture illustrates for us that there is a difference between metaphors and mimetic images, figures and pictures, language and reality. But it is tempting to see this picture as just a picture of a monster rather than as a satire on literalizing readers.51

Misogyny is a most effective means for forgetting literariness. Thus, in a recent feminist and marxist argument entitled “Historicizing Patriarchy,” Michael McKeon describes and celebrates the very “empirical turn” I have been analyzing here as it occurs in Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees. “Mandeville, in 1723,” McKeon writes, “unmasks as an acculturation the apparent naturalness of female modesty.”52 “The brilliance,” he continues, of Mandeville's analysis of “modesty” in Remark C of the Fable “is characteristic of an age that may justly be seen as witnessing the birth of the sociological imagination, which demystifies what appears given by recognizing it as, not natural, but social or cultural. What must be recognized as well, however, is the flip side of this insight: its dependence on a knowledge of what is truly given, without which the demystification loses all coherence” (McKeon, 303). McKeon rightly notices that “what is truly given” for Mandeville is a modern and oppressive conception of “gender difference” (300). But McKeon misses the virulent misogyny in Mandeville's “brilliant” analysis of the sociocultural; as in the long tradition of Medieval misogyny preceding it, Mandeville's text identifies “women with the illusory.”53 According to Mandeville, women represent themselves as “virtuous” through the practice of “modesty.” But underneath that veneer, Mandeville says, women are really “Savage Monster[s]” who will do anything, even employ a “killing wet-nurse,”54 to protect their reputations: “The same Woman that Murders her bastard in the most execrable manner, if she is Married afterwards, may take care of, cherish, and feel all the tenderness for her Infant that the fondest Mother can be capable of. … Common Whores, whom all the World knows to be such, hardly ever destroy their Children … ; not because they are less Cruel or more Virtuous, but because they have lost their Modesty. …”55 Mandeville will later expand these views in A Modest Defence of Publick Stews, a pamphlet that describes women's bodies as “blown” or spoiled meat:56 the reality Mandeville unmasks is the filthy female mind and body. The objective, impersonal stance necessary for sociocultural critique requires unmasking repugnant difference.

McKeon might have noticed the role misogyny plays in “the birth of the sociological imagination” had he looked at the figures that are used by Mandeville to represent “what is truly given”—the figure of woman as savage monster. Describing Remark C as “brilliant” imports some of Mandeville's misogyny into McKeon's own account. Both McKeon's and Mandeville's texts try to be analytic and devoid of figures. As in the picture of the sonnet lady, misogyny accompanies and shores up the two texts' claims to be objective, to accurately depict reality.57 But objectivity has its value: Mandeville's Remark C is recognizing cultural forms as constructed rather than natural and eternal. Does demystificatory power such as that found in Mandeville's text—and McKeon's as well—always require misogyny as its price?

At a certain moment, Leapor is indeed able to expose interest in oppressive conventions without unconsciously taking on the interests, contrary to her own, inhering in the empirical method of demystification. Leapor's poem “Man the Monarch” recognizes and tries to overcome how repugnant gender difference has been marshalled to define monarchy in Sir Robert Filmer's Observations Concerning the Original of Government, Upon Hugo Grotius (1652), used with Filmer's Patriarcha to represent the Tory position in favor of absolutism, and in John Locke's Two Treatises on Government (1690), a Whig attack on Filmer's work that favors constitutional monarchy.58 Not surprisingly, although they are opponents, both Filmer and Locke use the unquestioned naturalness of woman's subordination to man in order to prove what government can or cannot be. They both say, in effect, we know that God and/or Nature wants women to be powerless; we can decipher God's/Nature's intent simply because we know that no edict of God's would grant power to women. Thus Filmer reiterates throughout his Observation Upon Grotius that the power of kings comes from the commandment, “honor thy father and thy mother,”59 completely free of any apprehension that this commandment could support a dyarchy rather than a monarchy. Locke calls him on the use of this commandment by pointing out that the “Apocriphal Words,” “and Mother … are always left out.”60 But unfortunately, Locke only restores the missing apocryphal words to the commandment upon which Filmer wishes to base the divine right of kings in order to show that the fifth commandment is not about political power: “Honour thy Father and Mother cannot possibly be understood of Political Subjection and Obedience” because Mothers couldn't possibly be granted political power by God (First Treatise, 65, 188). Leapor's “Man the Monarch” fantasmatically reconstructs the dyarchy that Filmer ignores and Locke pronounces impossible. “Nature” explicitly designs woman to rule with man, Leapor says, until

[Man] view'd his Consort with an envious Eye;
Greedy of Pow'r, he hugg'd the tott'ring Throne;
Pleased with Homage, and would reign alone;
And, better to secure his doubtful Rule,
Roll'd his wise Eye-balls, and pronounc'd her Fool.


“Man the Monarch” shows why “mother” got left out of political rule in the first place.

In addition to the eruption of the words “and mother” back into Filmer's Upon Grotius and Patriarcha, Filmer's patriarchal system is interrupted by the notion of matriarchal lineage when he attacks Grotius's radical use of a rhetorical structure and legal device, the “negative pregnant”:

[Grotius] tells us he “rejects the opinion of them, who everywhere and without exception will have the chief power to be … the people's, that it is lawful for them to compel and punish Kings as oft as they misuse their power.” And “this opinion,” he confesseth, “if it be altogether received, hath been and may be the cause of many evils.” This cautelous rejection [by Grotius of the people's right to revolt against unjust monarchs] qualified with these terms of everywhere, without exception, and altogether, makes but a mixed negation, partly negative and partly affirmative (which our lawyers call a negative pregnant). Which brings forth this modal proposition, that in some places with some exception, and in some sort, the people may compel and punish their Kings.61

Here the negative form is “pregnant,” like a mother would be, with the power to disrupt the monarchical power of Filmer's text: Grotius has not pictured a democracy, but his negative pregnant leaves space for its possibility; the revolutionary power of this space is pointed to by the word “pregnant,” a word that brings up the dependence of patriarchy on matriarchs. Interestingly, in the 1679 and 1696 editions of Upon Grotius, there is a misprint: instead of the current legal term “negative pregnant” (O.E.D.), “negative repugnant” has been substituted; “repugnant” could mean simply “opposed,” but it could also mean calling forth antipathy or disgust.62 It might be possible, for either an eighteenth-century or a twentieth-century reader of Upon Grotius well enough aware that “negative pregnant” is the correct legal term, to see this misprint as fortuitous: repugnant or aversive descriptions of the female body, one might begin to think, are pregnant with possibilities excluded from conventional discourse.

In “Man the Monarch,” Leapor again makes use of blason conventions to describe the beautiful woman that Nature has made. After making the being she favors more than men, Nature grieves to see woman become merely “A Set of useless and neglected Charms” (II.9). Female charms are useless; but surely, as the blason form being used by Leapor at this moment obstreperously asserts, such charms are not neglected in lyric poetry, where they are incessantly described as things (coral lips, teeth that are pearls). Some other kind of female charms, charms not described by the blason, are neglected. In woman's present dejected state, Leapor says, “Then her pale Lips no pearly Teeth disclose” (II.9, emphasis added). Notice the difference between Leapor's teeth and the female teeth that appear in Mandeville's Remark C: “[T]he Modesty of Women is the Result of Custom and Education. … [N]otwithstanding this, the most Virtuous Young Woman alive will often, in spite of her Teeth, have Thoughts and confus'd Ideas of Things arise in her Imagination, which she would not reveal to some People for a Thousand Worlds” (Fable, 65). “In spite of her Teeth” is a figure, of course, meaning literally “despite her opposition”; Mandeville sees through those teeth to the filthy thoughts hidden by Custom and Education. Here misogyny sustains his demystification, as it sustains Leapor's own feminist demystification quoted at the beginning of this essay, “Mira's Picture,” in which Mira's teeth “look decay'd with Posset, and with Plumbs, / And seem prepar'd to quit her swelling Gums.” In “Man the Monarch,” Leapor's line works differently than it does in Mandeville's Remark C and “Mira's Picture”: in the line “Then her pale Lips no pearly Teeth disclose,” woman dejectedly shows the world no pearly teeth, teeth she may indeed have. An experiential demystification of the ideal would say that a woman's teeth are not pearls—they are really decayed with Posset—or that her modesty isn't genuine—she is really a hypocrite. The undecidability of the line, whether it says that the teeth are or are not pearls, moves us away from an ideal picture without substituting a picture of decay. Leapor effectively resists the misogynous pull of such demystifications: woman does not disclose her pearly teeth, but she does not not have them either.

In Leapor's poem “Man the Monarch,” we find not a negative pregnant—in which case the line would tell us that her teeth are not “everywhere, without exception, and altogether” pearls—but rather what we might call a pregnant negative: this mouth contains no pearly teeth; what it does contain is part of a woman's body that is imperceptible, unknowable, not pictured. If we take “Teeth” in the figurative sense in which Mandeville uses it, the oppressed woman's mouth contains no opposition, but it does not not contain it either. The line “Then her pale lips no pearly teeth disclose” is pregnant with that which radically disrupts a misogynous and classist empiricism. Do we have a better way now than the negative pregnant to put Grotius's formulation of how opposition is possible under democracy? Or a less sexist way than the pregnant negative to write the female body?

In this reading of “Man the Monarch,” Leapor impregnates a repugnant rhetorical structure by using it to depict indescribable, pearly-or-not teeth, and thereby criticizes an oppressive ideal image without stepping into an empirical reality that degrades the female body. Leapor is elsehwere: not in the world where teeth are pearls and not in the world where they are bones, but in an as yet only ironic space between the two where the female body is neither idealized nor degraded. The space of negativity, pregnant with disruptive power that does not slip into yet another empirical positivity, is the space that feminist, historicist discourse needs continually to recover.

The historicist insight as to the always already coopted nature of opposition is crucial in debunking a view of the subject as capable of simply declaring her own conscious resistance to the misogynous, classist culture in which she lives, and in debunking oppositional histories that operate without attention to the effect of literary conventions on the kinds of ideas that can be articulated within them. However, the contemporary literary historian's fatalist vision of an historical text's necessary cooptation is itself just as much a product of those conventions as is the alleged containment of past protest. Thus, if it is necessary for historians of difference to avoid simply seeing assertions of protest as efficacious, it is equally necessary to avoid seeing such protest as always already undercut by inherently misogynous conventions. I have tried here to displace the desire for critical mastery offered by both views onto a partisan interest in recovering a limited kind of agency, in discovering the means by which feminist interests might be articulated within discourses designed to render them inaudible. Leapor uses the negative pregnant as a figure and as a strategy—a strategy of denegation—for speaking within hegemonic discourses; similarly, this essay has tried to be not not oppositional. Both of those tactics are ways of confronting the problem that misogynous representations surface frequently in demystificatory discourses such as feminism. These tactics require attention to figuration: insofar as the oppression of women has been used to support the emergence of a realist bias in which discourse is seen as primarily designed to accurately picture reality, feminist interests and rhetorical analysis are allied. In short, feminist literary historians need to find something else and something more that can be said by women writers of the past despite those realist, misogynous conventions—in the very “elsewhere,” the space opened up by rhetoric, that all literary conventions contain. It may seem that this argument expects feminists to be able to do very little in working toward overturning oppressive social structures—mere textual analysis! As Marge Piercy puts it in her feminist novel Small Changes, “This waiting has teeth.”63


  1. Mary Leapor's poetry appears in the two volumes of her collected works, Poems Upon Several Occasions (London: J. Roberts, 1748), Vol. I, and Poems Upon Several Occasions (London: J. Roberts, 1751), The Second and Last Volume, both of which will be referred to in the text by volume and page number, as here (II.296-7). A large selection of Leapor's poems appears in George Colman and Bonnell Thornton, eds. Poems by Eminent Ladies, particularly Mrs. Barber, Mrs. Behn, Miss Carter [etc.]., 2 vols. (London: R. Baldwin, 1755); a smaller selection appears in Roger Lonsdale, ed., Eighteenth Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).

  2. Leapor was popular enough during the eighteenth century to have her works listed at the Bath lending library 40 years after her death (A Catalogue of Meyler's Circulating Library, in Orange-Grove, Bath; [etc.] [Bath, England: Meyler, Printers, [1790?], 38, item #1305). Lately, she has received a great deal of critical attention: see Donna Landry, The Muses of Resistance: Laboring-Class Women's Poetry in Britain, 1739-1796 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Richard Greene, Mary Leapor: A Study in Eighteenth Century Women's Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993); Betty Rizzo, “Molly Leapor: An Anxiety for Influence,” The Age of Johnson 4 (1991): 313-343; Margaret Anne Doody, “Swift Among the Women,” The Yearbook of English Studies 18 (1988): 68-92 (later published in Frank Palmeri, ed., Critical Essays on Jonathan Swift [New York: G. K. Hall, 1993]: 13-37); and Jocelyn Harris, “Sappho, Souls, and the Salic Law of Wit,” in Anticipations of the Enlightenment in England, France, and Germany, eds. Alan C. Kors, Paul J. Korshin (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987), 232-258. As Martin Wechselblatt has pointed out to me, it is amazing that Leapor has received so much critical attention without a modern edition of her works being available. Ann Messenger was in the process of editing a collection of her poems for Oxford University Press when she passed away. It is possible to get online a selection of her poems, including the full text of Crumble-Hall, at:

  3. On Duck, see Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 32; on Collier, see Landry, 59-60.

  4. At roughly the same time that Petrarch wrote his sonnets, the Pléiade wrote their hymnes-blasons praising parts of women's bodies. The first collection of blasons, written by Clément Marot, Maurice Scève, Saint Gelais and others, was called Blasons anatomiques du corps féminin (written in 1536, collected in 1543) precisely because each poem described one body part, a foot, breast, or tooth, Marot's “Le Beau Tétin” being only the most famous. The French collection of blasons is reprinted by Albert-Marie Schmidt in Poètes du XVIe Siècle (Paris: Gallimard, 1953), 291-364. For some reason, Schmidt leaves the word “anatomiques” out of the title.

  5. John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H. Nidditch (1689; reprint Oxford: Clarendon P, 1975), 104. The Essay will hereafter be cited in the text by Book, chapter, section, and finally page number, or by title of the part of the Essay referred to and page number.

  6. Locke's Essay thus, as Charles Taylor points out, radically redefines “experience,” “transposi[ing] first-person experience into an objectified, impersonal mode” (Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989], 163).

  7. “What is Enlightenment?” in Paul Rabinow, ed., The Foucault Reader (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 38.

  8. The term “histories of difference” comes from Joan Scott's analysis of the problematic reliance on “experience” of those historians engaged in identity politics (“Experience,” in Feminists Theorize the Political, eds. Joan Scott, Judith Butler [New York: Routledge, 1992]: 22-40). My essay might be seen as examining a less visible, and so perhaps more insidious, reliance—among poststructuralist historians eschewing identity categories—upon “experience” as the ground for performing criticism (see Diana Fuss, Essentially Speaking: Feminism, Nature & Difference [New York: Routledge, 1989], 129, n. 2).

  9. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. John Cumming (New York: Continuum, 1993), 4.

  10. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, ed. Ian Campbell Ross (1759-67; reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), 70.

  11. Thomas Sprat, History of the Royal Society, eds. Jackson I. Cope, Harold Whitmore Jones (London 1667; reprint, St. Louis Mo.: Washington Univ. Studies, 1958), 113.

  12. See Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision (London: Verso, 1986), 105. Naomi Schorr talks about how “femininity [has been] constituted [out] of the refuse of masculine transcendence” (“This Essentialism which is Not One,” Differences 1 [Summer 1989]: 40)—and “refuse” cannot be taken too literally.

  13. See Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979); Stanley Cavell, The Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979).

  14. Barbara Maria Stafford, Body Criticism: Imaging the Unseen in Enlightenment Art and Medicine (Boston: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1991), 362.

  15. A science that grew up with empiricism, physiognomics so literalizes the rhetoric of the blason tradition as to physically mimic the metaphoric contemplation of body parts in the objectifying practices of phrenology and dissection. This practice, like all empiricisms, has its demystificatory moment, as is obvious from Johann Caspar Lavater's description of the purpose of the art: “To pierce through all these coverings, [the coverings of “rank, condition, habit, estate, dress”] into [a person's] real character, to discover in these foreign and contingent determinations, solid and fixed principles by which to settle what the Man really is” (Lavater, Essays on Physionomy [1792] I, I, 24-5, quoted in Stafford, 95). Physiognomics is progressive insofar as it posits a universal human essence as disconnected from “rank, condition, habit, estate, dress.”

  16. Bette London is the only reader of Frankenstein, I believe, to have recognized Victor as a mad blasonneur (“Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, and the Spectacle of Masculinity,” PMLA 108.2 [1993]: 261-2).

  17. For an intense debate over the universality of Swift's scatological vision, see the Forum in PMLA 91 (1976): 464-7.

  18. Donald T. Siebert, “Swift's Fiat Odor: The Excremental Re-Vision,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 19 (1985): 21, 24.

  19. Laura Brown notices that the female body is absent from the dressing-room poems and convincingly argues that these satires are attacks on cultural corruption for which women's clothes are a synecdoche (“Reading Race and Gender: Jonathan Swift,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 23 [1990]: 425-443. Later published in Ends of Empire: Women and Ideology in Early Eighteenth-Century English Literature [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993], 170-200). Margaret Doody notices Swift's curiously empowering relations with women friends and writers (see note 3 above).

  20. Gentleman's Magazine 54 (1784): 807, quoted in Greene, 14-15.

  21. Paul de Man, “The Resistance to Theory,” in The Resistance to Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 11.

  22. Marjorie Levinson, “The New Historicism: Back to the Future,” in ed. Marjorie Levinson, Rethinking Historicism: Critical Readings in Romantic History (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), 20.

  23. “Materialism” means simply “the proposition that the origins of all forms of existence, including human activity, can be explained in terms of physical being” (Donna Landry and Gerald MacLean in Materialist Feminisms [Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1993], 3). Competing forms of materialism are proliferating (see David Simpson, Introduction in Subject to History: Ideology, Class, Gender, ed. David Simpson [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991], esp. 15-18). There is a movement among feminist critics to confine applications of the rubric “materialist” only to feminists who are not sympathetic with poststructuralism (see Teresa Ebert, “The Romance of Patriarchy: Ideology, Subjectivity, and Postmodern Feminist Cultural Theory,” Cultural Critique 10 [Fall 1988]: 91-57), but all of the feminist materialists referred to in this paper are thoroughly postmodern; the designation here thus refers to all of those “Feminisms” discussed by Landry and MacLean.

    “New historicism” refers only to the group of Renaissance and Romantic scholars customarily designated by that term. On the thorny problem of the differences and similarities between new historicism and cultural criticism, see Patrick Brantlinger, “Cultural Studies Versus the New Historicism,” in English Studies/Culture Studies: Institutionalizing Dissent, eds. Isaiah Smithson and Nancy Ruff (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 43-58. The term “historicism” itself is defined below.

  24. Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1989); Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985; Sandra Harding, “Feminism, Science, and the Anti-Enlightenment Critiques,” in ed. Linda Nicholson, Feminism/Postmodernism (New York: Routledge, 1990), 83-106, The Science Question in Feminism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986), and Whose Science? Whose Knowledge: Thinking from Women's Lives (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

  25. See Adrian M. S. Piper, “Higher-Order Discrimination,” in Identity, Character, and Morality, eds. Amerlie O. Rorty, Owen Flanagan (Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1990), 285-309, and “Xenophobia and Kantian Rationalism,” The Philosophical Forum, Special Triple Issue: African-American Perspectives and Philosophical Traditions, John Pittman, 24.1-3 (1992-3): 188-232; Susan Bordo, “The Cartesian Masculinization of Thought,” Signs 11 (Spring 1986): 439-456, and “Feminist Scepticism and the ‘Maleness’ of Philosophy,” The Journal of Philosophy 85.11 (1988): 619-26; Linda Nicholson, Introduction to Nicholson, ed., Feminism/Postmodernism, 1-16; Louis M. Antony and Charlotte Witt, eds., A Mind of One's Own: Feminist Essays on Reason and Objectivity (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1993).

  26. The kind of “experience” being analyzed here is a rhetorical construct fabricated out of an implicit claim that some state of affairs objectively exists and can be experienced or observed. It is precisely not that personal, subjective experience discussed in relation to identity politics; on that issue, see Joan Scott (note 9 above); Elizabeth J. Bellamy and Artemis Leontis, “A Genealogy of Experience: From Epistemology to Politics,” Yale Journal of Criticism 6.1 (1993): 163-84.

  27. For a summary and bibliography of views as to the relation of the Scriblerians to the new science, see Douglas Lane Patey, “Swift's Satire on ‘Science’ and the Structure of Gulliver's Travels,ELH 58 (1991): 809-40. Swift was of course “an ancient,” “hostile to modernity and indifferent to the claims of history …” (Joseph M. Levine, The Battle of the Books: History and Literature in the Augustan Age [Ithaca: Cornell University Press 1991], 3.)

  28. Jonathan Swift, “Cassinus and Peter,” in The Complete Poems, ed. Pat Rogers (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), line 18. All of Swift's poems will be cited in the text from this edition by line number.

  29. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, in Gulliver's Travels and Other Writings, ed. Louis A. Landa (1726; reprint Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1960), 23.

  30. Julia Kristeva, “Freud and Love: Treatment and Its Discontents,” Tales of Love, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987), 43.

  31. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” October 28 (Spring 1984): 130.

  32. Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986). Henry Abelove describes resistance to Wesley's claim that “cleanliness is next to Godliness” (The Evangelist of Desire: John Wesley and the Methodists [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990], 101), and demonstrates that Wesley used personal hygiene as one of “the usual counters of genteel conduct” in order to inspire deference among his followers (24, 32).

  33. Erica Harth, “The Virtue of Love: Lord Hardwicke's Marriage Act,” Cultural Critique 9 (1988): 123-154.

  34. Gould's poem opens:

    “MADAM! by Heav'n You have an Air so Fine,
    It renders the least thing You do—Divine!
    We dare not say You were Created here,
    But dropt an ANGEL from th' AETHEREAL SPHERE.

    Quoted in full in Appendix 1 of Montagu Summers, The Restoration Theater (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1934), 301. Hudibras contains a similar parody of fop poetry.

  35. For the excremental meaning of “dropping,” see The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary: Complete Text Reproduced Micrographically (reproduction of the 13-volume Oxford English Dictionary published in 1933; New York: Oxford University Press, 1971), “Dropping” vbl. sb. 6.

  36. That portion of the poem Crumble-Hall which Landry has called “Ursula's Lament” (178) is reprinted in Lonsdale (see note 2), 210-211. Landry's chapter on Mary Leapor analyzes Crumble-Hall in depth and quotes more of it than is available in Lonsdale. The full text of the poem is available online at:

  37. Similarly, Swift's “Phyllis, or the Progress of Love” locates in a Phyllis stupid enough to elope with a servant the new ideology of romantic love that, as described by Harth, allows for economic transfer between classes.

  38. Richard Terdiman describes “what Fredric Jameson has called the ‘strategy of containment.’ Dominant discourse, when it is fully functional, projects the most airtight strategy of containment of any discourse. Through it a censorship is imposed which brackets any questioning of the very content and form of the dominant; counter-discourses are simply rendered invisible” (Discourse/Counter-discourse: the Theory and Practice of Symbolic Resistance in Nineteenth-Century France [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984], n. 55, p. 60.

  39. Walter Cohen, “Political Criticism of Shakespeare,” in Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, eds. Jean E. Howard, Marion F. O'Connor (New York: Routledge, 1987), 35; Jean E. Howard, “Feminism and the Question of History: Resituating the Debate,” Women's Studies 19 (1991): 149-150; and Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991), 5-6, discussed below.

  40. Catherine Gallagher, “Marxism and the New Historicism,” in ed. H. Aram Veeser, The New Historicism (New York: Routledge, 1989), 42.

  41. Gallagher, 43. The phrase “hermeneutics of suspicion” comes originally from the work of Paul Ricoeur.

  42. On the surprisingly self-critical aspect of empiricism, on its status as a critique (in the Kantian sense of the word) as opposed to, as it is often portrayed, precritical thinking, see Cathy Caruth, “The Face of Experience,” in Empirical Truths and Critical Fictions: Locke, Wordsworth, Kant, Freud (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 4; Jules David Law, The Rhetoric of Empiricism: Language and Perception from Locke to I.A. Richards (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993), 1-5. Our critical thinking is entwined with empiricism.

  43. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan (1975; trans., New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 139; the method here named is “genealogy” (Arnold Davidson, “Archeology, Genealogy, Ethics,” in Foucault: A Critical Reader, ed. David Couzens Hoy [Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell, 1986], 224). My implicit argument here is that Foucault's Discipline and Punish is only fatalistic, only produces a vision of power as omnipotent, insofar as the reader mistakes his method for his conclusion.

  44. Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, eds. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1988), 271.

  45. Rey Chow, “Ethics After Idealism,” Diacritics 23.1 (1993): 8.

  46. Homi Bhabha, “Freedom's Basis in the Indeterminate.” October 61 (Summer 1992): 48.

  47. David Spurr, The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993), 189.

  48. S. P. Mohanty, “Us and Them: On the Philosophical Bases of Political Criticism,” The Journal of Criticism 2.2 (1989): 14; s.a. Hilary Putnam, “Objectivity and the Science/Ethics Distinction,” Realism with a Human Face by Hilary Putnam, ed. James Conant (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990).

  49. Figure 1 appears in Thomas P. Roche, Jr., Petrarch and the English Sonnet Sequences (New York: AMS Pres, 1989) and comes from [Charles Sorel,] The extravagant shepherd; or the history of the shepherd Lysis, [Trans. John Davies.] (London: T. Newcomb, 1654) where I obtained the picture.

  50. The Extravagant Shepherd is reprinted in Roche, Appendix B, 523-33.

  51. The empirical insistence that language be read as referential, as if it were referring to an extra-linguistic reality, is anti-feminist, as is suggested by the pictured lady's monstrosity. Shakespeare's sonnet “My Mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun” is not misogynous precisely to the extent that it is an avowedly rhetorical exercise, the deployment of descriptio to outdo other sonneteers, rather than an attempt to describe reality.

  52. Michael McKeon, “Historicizing Patriarchy: The Emergence of Gender Difference in England, 1660-1760,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, 28.3 (1995): 302.

  53. R. Howard Bloch, “Medieval Misogyny,” Misogyny, Misandry, and Misanthropy, eds. R. Howard Bloch and Frances Ferguson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 15.

  54. On the murder through neglect of illegitimate children among the poor, see Lawrence Stone, “The New Eighteenth Century,” New York Review of Books 31.5 (29 March 1984): 46.

  55. Bernard Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees: Or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits, 2 vols., ed. F. B. Kaye, (1714, 1723, 1724, 1725, 1728, 1729, 1732; reprint, Oxford: Clarendon P, 1924), 75.

  56. A Modest Defence of Publick Stews [etc.], ed. Richard I. Cook (1724; reprint Augustan Reprint Society 162. Los Angeles: Clark Memorial Library, 1973), xi.

  57. The misogynous basis of McKeon's and Mandeville's “gentlemanly empiricism” is visible only to a partisan criticism, to a feminism which, as Howard says, “acknowledges that the knowledge produced under its banner is linked to a present goal: the amelioration of oppression and exploitation based on gender and sexuality” (151).

  58. Jocelyn Harris and Richard Greene propose that “Man the Monarch” is Leapor's response to reading Locke's Two Treatises (Jocelyn Harris, Samuel Richardson [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987], 18 qtd. by Greene 53). It is not unlikely that Leapor had access to texts by Filmer toward the end of her life, when she had befriended Freemantle, considering the Freemantle family's Jacobite sympathies (Greene 20).

  59. Sir Robert Filmer, The Free-holders Grand Inquest, … To which are added OBSERVATIONS Upon Forms of Government (London, 1679; reprint, Early English Books F913, Reel 1383), 59ff.

  60. John Locke, First Treatise, in Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1960, 1987), 60, 184.

  61. Sir Robert Filmer, Patriarcha and Other Political Works, ed. Peter Laslett (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1949), 68-9. This excerpt of Observations Upon Grotius actually appears in the Cambridge manuscript of Patriarcha (see Laslett, Introduction to Patriarcha 8, 45, 63, 278).

  62. For instances early enough of the word being related to disgust, see Repugnance sb. 3 in the O.E.D. (see note 36 above).

  63. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1973.

Heidi Van de Veire (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 969

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 Spenser's Fairy Queen (London, 1751):

The company agreed in commending in general Mr. West's design, though Sir LIONEL justly remark'd, that they could not well form an opinion of it 'till he had compleated his plan, and publish'd his other canto. For my part, said POLITIAN, if I am not partial to my countrywoman, I can promise the company at least equal pleasure from the native wood-notes wild of Molly Leapor. She indeed seems to me a remarkable exception to Mr. West's position, being the daughter of a gardener at Brackley in Northamptonshire, and unassisted by art or culture, was indebted for most of her sentiments and poetry to the strength of her own genius, and the flights of her own imagination.


As it turned out, West never completed his plan for Education, a Poem: In Two Cantos, and only the first canto was published.3 That Leapor is ‘a remarkable exception to Mr. West's position’ is based on the Magazine of Magazines' quotes from West's poem in which Britannia argues for the moral reformation of the ‘noble, opulent and great’ who, because of their superior cast, are destined to be ‘the head, the intellectual mind / Of this vast body politick, whose base / And vulgar Limbs, to drudgery consign'd, / All the rich stores of science have resigned / To you’ (368). Mary Leapor's native genius and poetical talents are then substantiated by full quotation of two poems, ‘the one of a serious, and the other of a humorous turn’ (369) from Poems upon Several Occasions. By the late Mrs. Leapor, of Brackley in Northamptonshire. The Second and Last Volume (London, 1751).

The serious poem is the first one in the volume, ‘On Patience, To Stella’ (369-70). The humorous poem is ‘Corydon. Phillario. Or, Mira's Picture. A Pastoral’ (370-1), a self-portrait of the author and probably the most satirically self-mocking poem in the volume. The Magazine of Magazines emphasized the sensational nature of the publication by dwelling at length on the proviso which accompanied this poem upon publication. A postscript to the introduction of the volume had added a caveat against printing ‘Mira's Picture’ because 'tho she may be suppos'd to have made very free with herself … it may give the Reader a worse Idea of her Person than it deserv'd, which was very far from being shocking; tho' there was nothing extraordinary in it’ (Poems upon Several Occasions, xxxi-ii; quoted in the Magazine of Magazines, 370). The Magazine of Magazines also quotes but does not acknowledge the final part of the postscript which reads:

The Poem was occasioned by her happening to hear that a Gentleman who had seen some of her Poems, wanted to know what her Person was.

(ii; quoted, 370)

Finally, the Magazine refers to the editor's note at the end of the poem: ‘Note, This Description of her Person is a Caracature’ (Poems upon Several Occasions, 298).

Like the second volume of Poems upon Several Occasions which ends with an epitaph (attributed to Christopher Smart) on Mary Leapor, the notice in The Magazine of Magazines ends with its own (rather inferior) tribute a ‘SONNET on the late Mrs. LEAPOR’ which echoes Thomas Gray's ‘Elegy’ in its appraisal of secluded genius:

What pity, Mira, that on rural plains
From cities far remote thy tuneful tongue
In artless guise its dapper ditties sung,
Unheard, unheeded, save by Brackley's swains;
Since now (ah me!) an early urn contains
That lyre dame nature's boon, which thou among
The courtliest bards right deftly could'st have strung.
With strength unknown to learning's polish'd strains
Thus of hy-tinctur'd hue the violet dwells
In some sequester'd vale, alone reveal'd
To ruddy milkmaids, yet no tulip shows
Such beautoous tints, and thro' the neighb'ring field.
It scatters a perfume that ev'n excells
The boasted fragrance of the garden rose.


  1. R. Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology (Oxford, 1990), 194-5, 525; B. Rizzo, ‘Christopher Smart, the “C.S.” Poems, and Molly Leapor's Epitaph’, The Library, Sixth Series, v (1983), 22-31, and ‘Molly Leapor: An Anxiety for Influence’, The Age of Johnson, iv (1991), 313-43; R. Greene, Mary Leapor: A Study in Eighteenth-Century Women's Poetry (Oxford, 1993), 22-37; D. Landry, The Muses of Resistance: Laboring-Class Women's Poetry in Britain, 1739-1796 (Cambridge, 1990), 78.

  2. The copy which I consulted is kept in the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge. I wish to thank the Librarian, David McKitterick, for his kind assistance.

  3. See ‘Gilbert West’ on the ESTC, Record 21 of 22. Thanks to Librarian Robert Petre, of the Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, for assisting me by researching the ESTC database.

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