In honor of National Poetry Month, this two-parter opens with a look at a nearly forgotten but remarkable young poet.
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Anyone well acquainted with me knows that persistence is hardly one of my strong points when it comes to writing. While I dashed off short stories at the drop of a hat as a child, it took me decades to begin turning one written at fourteen into my first full-length novel, or to finally complete my first poetry chapbook, not to mention those six years between blogs. Still, if I was proud of my unusual tenacity during NaNoWriMo 2012, pounding out 53,000 words in 27 days, I was soon to be humbled by a young woman I’d never heard of, discovered by chance in a poetry seminar assignment.
Her name was Mary Leapor, and she knew something about persistence.
Fate wasn’t especially kind to Mary, with the exception of a gift for writing bestowed on her at birth. The only child of a gardener, she was, not surprisingly for her time and class, discouraged from her “scribbling, sometimes in Rhyme” by her mother, who wanted to see her more gainfully employed. That wish was answered when Mary was hired as a kitchen maid by Susanna Jennens, who also wrote poetry and not only encouraged Mary’s writing, but even allowed her the use of the family library. Considering that the role of kitchen maid was one of the lowest in the servant hierarchy and probably paid under £10 year, I imagine she might have considered herself fortunate.
But if my eye was first caught by the brevity of Mary’s life, I felt a stirring of connection with her when I read that her father had described her as having begun to write “tolerably” by the time she was ten years old, the same age at which I produced, on a whim, my first short story at my family’s kitchen table. What inspired the childish Mary? Unfortunately, those early works have not survived. Was her father also of the opinion that a child of her rank could be more usefully employed, or bestowing a genuine compliment?
As has always been the case, whether a woman was artistically talented or tolerable, born into leisure or the working class, society placed a high premium on feminine beauty, and from various sources it seems clear that Mary was as little blessed with looks as she was with material wealth. Her last employer, Sir Richard Chauncy, supposedly labeled her “extremely swarthy” and emaciated, with “a long crane-neck and a short body,” comparing her shape, in fact, to “a bass-viol.” The description is curious. Perhaps a glandular condition was to blame. Or simply hard work and poverty.
Or did Chauncy have a bone to pick with Mary? The story goes that she was dismissed from his family’s service due to her inability to keep poetry out of the kitchen, “sometimes taking up her pen while the jack was standing still, and the meat scorching . . .” Did a burned roast bring on a measure of indignation, if not indigestion, which jaundiced Chauncy’s eye?
Poor, plain, and partly self-educated, Mary applied her only real weapon – her pen – not just to the temporary nature of female beauty and the folly of judging women by it, but to the limited outlook facing women of her time:
WOMAN-a pleasing but a short-lived flower,
Too soft for business and too weak for power:
A wife in bondage, or neglected maid;
Despised if ugly; if she’s fair-betrayed. (from “An Essay on Woman”)
Like many artists, Mary struggled against societal expectations and barriers for public validation of her work, but didn’t live to enjoy fame or see her words in print, though she continued to write after leaving household service to care for her widowed father, and was fortunate enough to secure a friend and mentor in Bridget Freemantle, who may have helped circulate Mary’s poems and plays through the town where she lived. Her distinctive voice was silenced by measles in 1746, when she was just twenty-four years old. “The Rural Maid’s Reflexions,” her first published poem, appeared in a London periodical two months after her death, but her first collection of poems was not issued until two years later (courtesy of Freemantle). One wonders what her mother, who had predeceased Mary, might have thought of her daughter’s “scribbling” by this time, or if her father had come to describe it as more than tolerable.
I like to think that if Mary were alive today, she would still be a determined and incisive voice, appearing at poetry readings and workshops whenever she could and perhaps teaching at a college or university (a primary theme of her work is the importance of education for women). It’s not hard to imagine her as a mentor to young female artists trying to find their voice in the world, while continuing to protest social inequities.
Nor can I help but think she’d be pleased to know that, more than two centuries after her death, she and her work would be remembered in verse. Special thanks to Jill Domschot for allowing me to reprint some of her thoughts about Mary here:
The Short, Sad Life of Mary Leapor
Mary is a watcher without windows,
and I hear that under her disguises
hides a maid that stirs pea soup for servants
in the kitchen with the melted candles.
Who is like you, little Mira-Mary?
Turn the meat; don’t scribble in the shadows,
waiting for Cordia’s greasy clutches.
Stir the pot and stop your constant dreaming!
Out the door with nothing but your verses,
run from her, and leave behind her curses!
Mary runs to Brackley, hiding rashes
where her cap strings meet her woolen layers.
In her broken hands she clutches volumes,
wilted papers streaked with new pastorals.
Who has taught the serving girl her letters?
Better—who has led her to the pastures?
Pope and Swift together could not couple
thoughtful lines like you, my Mira-Mary.
When it’s morning, tend your father’s garden;
in the night, accept his wine and pardon.
Mary faints. She falls by sparking embers;
spots are blazing on her pearly brow bone,
as adornment for her plain complexion,
beauty without gold, nor paint for blushes.
Mary, blind now, where are all your letters?
From your drowsy fever-words, drop riches
never heard from spinster serving ladies
sick at twenty-four with Peter waiting
at the gate–his ear to your oration,
kneeling down with words of your salvation.
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How about you? Have you ever sacrificed work to art – left “the jack standing still, and the meat scorching” because the creative fire was burning more brightly? Had family members who wanted to see you “more profitably employed”? Had an artistic mentor, or served as one? I’d love to hear your story.
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Next week I’ll be talking more about persistence, in a time and place far removed from Mary Leapor’s England, but in a form I’m sure she would champion. Please join me for Part II, “When Poetry Equals Punishment.” See you then!