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Bennett, Lyn. Women Writing of Divinest Things: Rhetoric and the Poetry of Pembroke, Wroth, and Lanyer. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2004. Bevington, David. "A. L. Rowse's Dark Lady." In Aemilia Lanyer: Gender, Genre, and the Canon, edited by Marshall Grossman, 10-28. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998.
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LEAPOR, MARY (1722-1746) Born in Marston St. Lawrence in Northamptonshire, Mary Leapor would become one of the first English working women to produce poetry. Although none of her verse was published in her lifetime, it would later give critics and historians an astounding view of the working woman's world, in which a life lived as an outsider to privilege remains a dominant theme. Nothing is known of Leapor's mother, but her father, Philip, served prominent families as a gardener, including the family of John Blencowe, a member of Parliament. Philip Leapor's name appears in various business notations and especially in The Purefoy Letters 1735-1753, edited by George Eland. Henry Purefoy was another of Philip Leapor's employers, and his accounts reflect Leapor's income as comfortable.
Most facts about Leapor's life are from a letter written by Bridget Freemantle, Leapor's mentor as well as friend, to a London gentleman, believed to be either John Duncombe or John Blencowe, which served as a preface to the second volume of Leapor's verse (1751). Freemantle's letter describes Mary Leapor as a voracious reader and writer, so much so that her preoccupation troubled her parents. She probably attended Free School in the town of Brackley. The school was operated by Magdalen College School and resided in that school's chapel. As the biographer Richard Greene explains, the note about Leapor that prefaced the first version of her poems minimized her reading experience, probably to support the idea of Leapor's being a natural genius, in order to promote book sales. While Leapor owned works by both Alexander Pope and John Dryden, along with volumes of drama, she likely read many more than the fewer than 20 books that belonged
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to her. She became a servant employed by a woman named Susanna Jennens, probably related to John Blen-cowe. The library of Weston Hall at Northamptonshire contains three original volumes of Leapor's works, and the first volume bears the line "One Kitchen maid at Weston." Jennens and her family apparently engaged in informal writing, allowing Leapor to work in an atmosphere that appreciated language.
Leapor left Jennens to take a job described in a letter published in the Gentleman's Magazine, 1784. The note in the periodical answered a previous query as to the location of Mary Leapor, describing her as a "some time cook-maid in a gentleman's family." It also describes her "fondness for writing." The identification of her place of service may be revealed from one of her poems, "Crumble Hall," as Edgcote House, an estate containing carved heads described in Leapor's verse. In addition, the poem describes Sopronia, who appeared in other of Leapor's poems as well, as making cheese cakes. The number of domestic positions occupied by Leapor remains unknown, but, according to evidence in her "Epistle to Artemisia. On Fame," Leapor describes her dismissal from what must have been her final work position at Edgcote House.
Leapor returned home to Brackley to care for her father and lived there the remainder of her brief life. Her move to Brackley proved crucial, as she met Freemantle, who encouraged her poetry. Leapor named herself Mira and Freemantle Artemisia in her poetry, the use of classical names a common 18th-century poetry trope. Freemantle's first reading of Leapor's work was a play, which so impressed her that she asked to see additional work. She urged Leapor to consider printing some of her works through subscriptions that Freemantle felt confident she could help sell. Greene assumes Freemantle to have been well read, the daughter of an oxford don and a woman who would know how to pursue publication. While a play by Leapor submitted first to the poet laureate Colley Cib-ber was never performed, subscriptions for a publication of Leapor's poetry were mounting shortly before her death. She had a lingering illness about which she wrote, but a swift infection of measles killed her. one of her final requests of Freemantle was to use subscriptions to her work to support her aging father, who she feared to be in poor physical condition. Ironically her father would outlive Leapor by many years.
Two months after Leapor died, The London Magazine printed her poem "To Lucinda." In January 1746-47 the proposal for a printing by subscription of her works was issued and attracted more than 600 subscribers. Leapor's work was praised by the novelist Samuel Richardson, who wrote of one poem that it "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." Richardson's friend the poet Thomas Edwards decided to issue a second volume, delivered in March 1751. Less than half the number of subscribers to the first volume could be interested, probably because the appeal of poetry by a kitchen maid had run its course. Although no longer a novelty, Leapor's poetry did appear in a second volume, which some critics agree confirmed her reputation. Leapor eschewed popular forms, such as the ode, and included few abstractions in her poetry. Instead she focused on a life of exclusion from polite society, one that resulted in an even stronger gender discrimination than that experienced by even the wealthiest female in 18th-century society. She stresses poverty and injustice suffered by the poor. Her position as an outsider to the culture that would read her poetry resulted in a compelling poetic voice.
That her work appeared in Poems by Eminent Ladies (1755), edited by George Colman and Bonnell Thornton, proved its worth, particularly as Leapor's verse occupied more pages than any other poet's; the same was true of the 1775 edition. She was praised by Robert Southey and William Cowper, and her poems remained available through the 20th century in various forms. By the 1980, she began to receive the attention she deserved, particularly in research by Betty Rizzo. Feminist critics consider her a true discovery, as she demonstrated that poets of the laboring class could tackle formal verse with the same accomplishment as the best-known Augustan poets. An example of Augustan graveyard poetry is her "Mira's Will," which critics have compared to Swift's "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift." A shift in 18th-century studies to admit lesser known poets, particularly those whose works represent women and the poor, has worked to Leapor's benefit. Because so few women poets published in 18th-century
England as a result of gender discrimination, Leapor's works remain particularly important. While a modern critical edition of Leapor's poetry has yet to be written, Greene's biography proves highly informative.
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