- Mary Leapor and the Poem as Meeting Place
In the library of Weston Hall in Northamptonshire, there are three sets of Mary Leapor’s poems, including one with the following annotation on its title page: “Once Kitchen maid at Weston.”1 The handwriting on the page is a material reminder of the physical presence of both the book’s owner and author. Leapor is given an embodied form, one that labored within the country house that now holds her poetry. The book itself belonged to Susanna Jennens, who owned Weston Hall while Leapor worked there, and she became the poet’s friend as well as her employer. Richard Greene identifies Jennens as one of the main supporters of Leapor’s poetic ambitions and suggests that she gave Leapor access to her library.2 In this sense, the annotation in the book also acts as a reminder that Leapor once occupied the same physical space that now holds her book.
Jennens occasionally wrote poetry herself, and Weston Hall’s library includes a portfolio of verses written by her and other female friends.3 The library’s manuscript collection also contains transcripts of both Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s and Mary Astell’s poems on the death of Eleanor Bowes.4 Jennens was a friend of Montagu’s sister Frances, Countess of Mar, who visited Jennens at Weston Hall in 1741, when Leapor was most likely employed there.5 Greene and Ann Messenger surmise it is possible that Leapor may have read one or both of these poems. Thus, Jennens allows us to locate Leapor within a network of literary women, in which the material links connecting Leapor to Montagu and Astell are both human (Lady Mar and Jennens) and textual (Montagu’s and Astell’s poems). Although Leapor’s own role at Weston Hall was a subservient one, it nonetheless manages to be a place of connection for her, putting her into contact with people and texts that she might otherwise not have encountered. Weston Hall acts as a physical meeting place for female friends (Jennens and Mar/Leapor) and a metaphorical meeting place for poet and reader (Montagu/Astell and Leapor). The textual page itself becomes a space for the formation of a community of readers and writers.
In this article, I argue that Leapor conceptualizes the material poem as a [End Page 365] meeting place for a diverse group of people. Her poetry exhibits a strong sense of place as it is variously defined by human geography. On its most basic level, place is a physical location in the world. In her poetry, Leapor frequently mentions the home she shared with her father, the country houses she worked in, her friend Bridget Freemantle’s house, her hometown of Brackley, and London. She is highly conscious of the materiality and practice of everyday life in these places, recording the clothing she wears, the food she eats, her few possessions, how she moves within these locations, and the people she encounters in them. Her poetic characters are given conventional pastoral names, but they also represent people she actually knew, such as Jennens and Freemantle (referred to as Parthenissa and Artemisia, respectively). Other characters most likely represent other people she knew, though their identities are long lost to us. Leapor herself appears as Mira, the persona she uses throughout her poetry. Her sense of place as a physical location in the world is specific and detailed, recording the habits of everyday life.
Leapor’s attention to how places are inhabited, their lived-in quality, is comparable to the phenomenological approach to human geography, which defines place as an “idea, concept and way of being.”6 In Leapor’s case, the circumstances of her own material existence are largely dictated by her class, her position as a servant in the social hierarchy of the eighteenth-century country house. To be employed in service is referred to as having a “place” and to lose one’s position is to be “out of a place,” phrases that mark employment for a servant as situated in a specific house, providing room and board in addition to a salary; but they are also suggestive...