- The Works of Mary Leapor
It is poignant to contemplate the difference between Mary Leapor's near-complete obscurity in life and the care with which her biography and works have been preserved over two hundred and fifty years after her death. The cook-maid of Brackley, as she was known to the readers of her first, posthumous volume, has metamorphosed into 'the most distinguished and the most significant poet' to emerge from late twentieth-century revisions of the eighteenth-century British poetic canon, as Richard Greene observes in his preface to her collected works.
Roger Lonsdale can justly claim to have rediscovered Leapor's poems. He included a substantial selection in two Oxford anthologies published in the 1980s. Donna Landry then captivated fellow scholars on Leapor's behalf in her groundbreaking study of labouring-class women poets, The Muses of Resistance (1990). Struck by Leapor's verve and precocity, succeeding scholars such as Betty Rizzo gently corrected Landry's less historical claims for Leapor as a proto-Marxist and began reconstructing her life and career. Richard Greene himself contributed a superb biography (Mary Leapor: A Study in Eighteenth-Century Women's Poetry, 1993), a masterpiece of archival research. But scholars wishing to write seriously about Leapor's poetry were still confined to rare book libraries and micro-reading rooms. Lonsdale's anthologies, while useful, contained too many emendations and omissions for scholarly purposes.
This volume amply fulfils scholarly needs, complementing Greene's biography with a meticulous record of Leapor's publications, including over one hundred poems. Leapor has been fortunate in her editors. The late Ann Messenger, whose His and Hers (1986) was among the first critical studies to recognize women's crucial role in eighteenth-century British literary culture, initiated the project. Her collaborator, Greene, completed this record of an intense young poet, including the history of her critical [End Page 274] rediscovery. Within the canon, Leapor's poems resemble Keats's in manifest appropriation of her models' styles and rapid progress towards maturity. Unfortunately, Leapor died of measles at twenty-four, never reaching Keats's degree of stylistic independence. And as Greene observes, it is difficult to track her precise growth because none of her manuscripts survive, only the works printed in her two posthumous collections.
But those writings amply demonstrate Leapor's facility with language, astounding in a marginally educated servant who was encouraged first by a benevolent female employer and later by another patroness who arranged for her publication by subscription. Leapor's poems, mostly in the heroic couplets of her beloved Alexander Pope, transfer his style and attitudes to her observations of local characters and society. It is fascinating to observe the patina of sophistication, the classical allusions and dry wit of her poems, gleaned from fairly narrow reading but absorbed into a recognizably distinctive style. 'You shew't the more, / That none may wonder when they find me poor,' she joked in 'An Epistle to a Lady.'
Although it is impossible to follow Leapor's development by dating her poems, Greene and Messenger include Leapor's tragedy, The Unhappy Father, from the second volume published by Leapor's patrons to capitalize on the modest critical success of her first. Rejected by Colley Cibber and returned to its author stained with claret, The Unhappy Father is truly awful, a pastiche of plots, characters, and speeches from Shakespeare's time forward. The play's roster of deaths, worthy of a Jacobean revenge-tragedy, is capped by the apparent loss of its eponymous hero's youngest son, fallen off his ship and 'Made the Provision of a hungry Shark.' A fate so lugubrious might have provoked audiences' chuckles instead of tears. But The Unhappy Father allows us to glimpse Leapor learning her craft, absorbing available models and reassembling them into a crude but coherent play. Leapor's polished verses must at some point have resembled this tragedy in lack of finesse. We surmise from the comparison how swiftly and completely Leapor taught herself to write poetry, a mastery that likely inspired...