- Ann Radcliffe, The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794)

Wednesday, 10 April 2019

'An Extempore Invitation to the Earl of Oxford, Lord High Treasurer. 1712.' - Matthew Prior

‘If weary’d with the great Affairs,
Which Britain trusts to Harley’s Cares,
Thou, humble Statesman, may’st descend,
Thy Mind one Moment to unbend.’

‘An Extempore Invitation to the Earl of Oxford, Lord High Treasurer. 1712.’

Matthew Prior (1664-1721)


Robert Harley, First Earl of Oxford
and Mortimer. Detail from portrait
after John Richardson,1804
(Parliament of the United Kingdom).
In 1712, British politics was in the grip of competing factions, all bitterly struggling to direct the future of the country: not altogether unlike today. Back then, the question was all to do with who should succeed the ailing Queen Anne (whom some of you might have recently made acquaintance with through Olivia Colman’s Oscar winning-portrayal in the film The Favourite). Questions of religion intermingled with those of politics, with some seeking to continue the bloodline of the Stuart family by inviting Anne’s Catholic half-brother James Edward Stuart to be king after her, whilst others wanted to secure the monarchy for the Queen’s Protestant Hanoverian cousins. The competing interests of the two main political parties, Whigs and Tories, led to the formation of social clubs including the Kit-Cat Club (most probably named after the owner of the establishment where they met and nothing to do with chocolate bars), and the Tory Brothers’ Club (so-called because the members called each other ‘Brothers’: women were not admitted as members). Back then, the post of ‘Prime Minister’ didn’t really exist yet, but the broadly equivalent role of Lord Treasurer was held by Robert Harley, First Earl of Oxford and Mortimer. Having started out as a Whig, Harley later shifted to the Tory side but appears to have remained committed to acting in the best interests of his country and monarch. He is very far from being an unproblematic figure though: he masterminded and was Governor of the South Sea Company, which was set up with the aim of reducing British national debt via the transportation and trade of people as slaves across the Atlantic (for more info on this, see John A. Richardson, Slavery and Augustan Literature: Swift, Pope, Gay, 2004).
This was not the reason why he wasn’t ever admitted to join the Tory Brothers’ Club though: they actually seem to have just though he was powerful enough already. But that didn’t stop them inviting him to join a meeting in 1712, and rather than sending a tired little RSVP the invitation was written in verse by one of the leading British poet of the day, Matthew Prior. This was not altogether an unusual choice – poems would often be written and circulated between friends in manuscript form, and the later Scriblerus Club sent multiple verse invitations to Harley. Prior’s invitation begins with the practicalities, stating when and where the meeting is to take place, followed by the object of the evening:
‘Our Weekly Friends To-morrow meet
At Matthew’s Palace, in Duke-street;
To try for once, if They can ine
On Bacon-Ham, and Mutton-chine:’
Then, having tempted Harley with talk of food, the poem suggests that if he is ‘weary’d with the great Affairs’ of statesmanship, he ‘may’st descend, / Thy Mind one Moment to unbend’. It’s an eighteenth-century way of asking him to leave work at the office to come and chill for a bit. The poem then becomes even more deferential, as Harley is invited so that he might ‘see Thy Servant from his Soul / Crown with Thy Health the sprightly Bowl’ – in other words, Prior is proposing to toast him in his presence. This, Prior goes on to claim, would be the most ‘Honor’ that ‘e’er [his] House / Receiv’d’.

You can find this poem:

(a fantastic website with heaps of eighteenth-century poems all superbly curated and free to all!)

You can find more about eighteenth-century British club culture, Robert Harley, and the Succession Crisis in these excellent books:

Anne Somerset, Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion (London: Harper Collins, 2012)
Ophelia Field, The Kit-Cat Club (London: Harper Collins, 2008, repr. 2009)


Sources used in writing this blogpost:

John A. Richardson, Slavery and Augustan Literature: Swift, Pope, Gay (London: Taylor & Francis, 2004)

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

'The Woman of Colour: A Tale' (1808) - Anon

‘…this was evidently meant to mortify your Olivia; it was blending her with the poor negro slaves of the West Indies! It was meant to show her, that, in Mrs. Merton’s idea, there was no distinction between us—you will believe that I could not be wounded at being classed with my brethren!’

The Woman of Colour: A Tale (1808)


This week, I want to tell you about a recent new favourite of mine, something I hadn’t even heard of until just last year. When I finally read it, I was sorry I hadn’t found it sooner because it’s absolutely tremendous! Published anonymously in 1808, The Woman of Colour is a romance novel that resists cliché, and that has much to teach us about eighteenth-century society and issues surrounding diversity and inclusivity.

Attributed to Jean-Étienne Liotard,
Portrait of a young woman, c. 1790s
(Saint Louis Art Museum)
There has long been a completely inaccurate assumption in popular culture that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British society was almost totally populated with white people. Fortunately, this notion is finally beginning to be challenged, not least through a more accurate, representative approach to casting in TV dramas and films (albeit dented by insidious suggestions that this kind of casting is for “political correctness” rather than because the absence of a variety of skin-tone in eighteenth and nineteenth century society is just plain wrong). The other trap of popular belief is to assume eighteenth-century roles for black people must either be slaves or servants – whilst there were sadly very many people of colour who were enslaved during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it is also very wrong to assume that people of colour were always and only victims of labour exploitation. In The Woman of Colour, a mixed-race heiress recently orphaned by the death of her white slave-owner father sets sail for England. Her name is Olivia Fairfield and her plan is to follow her beloved father’s last request and marry the younger of her two cousins, Mr. Augustus Merton. On the boat journey she meets an attractive single gentleman and his elderly mother, and you might be thinking that this is all starting to sound quite Austenian – it absolutely is of course, but it doesn’t turn out at all the way you might be expecting it to.

Once ashore and introduced to her uncle and his family, Miss Fairfield becomes the target of the social snobbery of her older cousin’s wife, Mrs Merton, something that would also be quite Austenian were it not for the fact that Mrs Merton’s campaign of snide and malevolence is barbed with the most obnoxious racism. That Miss Fairfield is able to rise above Mrs Merton’s wilful offensiveness is only a further indication that she is a heroine in the truest and best sense of the word. Attempts by Mrs Merton to categorise her ‘with the poor negro slave of the West Indies’ for example, fail simply because a presumption that this would be insulting relies upon a perception of race-based inferiority– something that Miss Fairfield roundly and quite rightly rejects when she describes these people living in slavery as her ‘brethren’.

As the novel progresses, it continues to blend romance with a humanitarian assertion of the rights of all people to equality and freedom. Olivia Fairfield gets married (no, I’m not going to tell you who to), but things don’t always go to plan, and it all wraps up with a final outcome that perhaps shouldn’t be as unexpected as it is. Throughout, Olivia Fairfield is a witty, intelligent, affectionate young woman, deeply committed to liberating and improving the lives of people living in slavery. We don’t know who wrote this book – perhaps we never will. In Lyndon B. Dominique’s introduction to his superb edition of the text, he theorises that it might have been authored by one of two sisters whose lives partially reflect that of the novel’s heroine – but there is no absolute proof. Whoever it was, though, the novel’s biting insight into the experience of being the target of racist abuse, together with the comparatively unusual presentation of a genuinely independent woman who does not consider marriage to be the only means of achieving happiness, must surely make it extremely likely that the author of this extraordinary work was, like its title, a woman of colour.

Happy Reading everyone!

You can find this novel here:

The Woman of Colour: A Tale, ed. by Lyndon J. Dominique (Broadview Press, 2007)
(available at most good bookstores – if they haven’t got a copy, they should be able to order it in).

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

'A Nocturnal Reverie' - Anne Finch

‘In such a Night let Me abroad remain,
Till Morning breaks, and All's confus'd again;
Our Cares, our Toils, our Clamours are renew'd.
Or Pleasures, seldom reach'd, again pursu'd.

‘A Nocturnal Reverie’ (published 1713)

Anne Finch, Countess of Winchelsea (1661-1720)


Anne Finch, Countess of Winchelsea.
Portrait by Peter Cross, c. 1690,
(National Portrait Gallery, London). 
A quick search online will soon tell you that Anne Finch’s ‘A Nocturnal Reverie’ is very far from being unknown. The most basic of surveys will rapidly uncover various readings of the text and historical material relating to Finch herself. I have chosen this poem to look at this week not because it hasn’t been written about much, but rather because of its essentially cathartic quality, and for its sense of finding peace in a chaotic, troubled world.

The poem is essentially one huge sentence, all describing an imaginary night spent savouring the beauties of the natural world:

‘In such a Night, when every louder Wind
Is to its distant Cavern safe confin’d;’
(lines 1-2)

The reference to every ‘Wind’ being held within a ‘Cavern’ is an allusion to the cave of the wind god Aeolus in classical Greek mythology; instead of violent winds ‘only gentle Zephyr fans his Wings’. Meanwhile, the nightingale (represented by ‘lonely Philomel’) either softly sings, or from the vantage of ‘some Tree’ she raises her melodic voice to guide ‘the Wand’rer right’ (lines 4-6). The night is mostly clear, since the ‘passing Clouds give place’, or else only ‘thinly vail the Heav’ns’ (lines 7 & 8). The viewer’s gaze returns to earth via a reflection ‘in some River, overhung with Green’ of the ‘waving Moon’ (lines 9 & 10). The riverside grass is now ‘freshen’d’ by the moist night air and the ‘cool Banks’ of the river now ‘invite’ the wanderer to rest (lines 11 & 12). Within this tranquil oasis, various country flowers bloom including the ‘Woodbind, and the Bramble-Rose’ alongside the ‘sleepy Cowslip’ and the ‘Foxglove’ (lines 13-16).

The personification begun with the idea of the Cowslip being ‘sleepy’ is now continued through the likening of the ‘scatter’d Glow-worms’ to ‘trivial Beauties’ in society who must ‘watch their Hour to shine’; the inference is that only the most ‘perfect Charms’ can withstand the unforgiving light of day, and the whole thing is turned into a clever compliment to Finch’s friend the Countess of Salisbury whom, she writes ‘stands the Test of every Light’. It’s an unusual detour in a poem that focuses primarily upon nighttime as beautiful, and thus offers the possibility that some of the appeal of the night is owing to the limitations it imposes upon visual perception.

Now, sweet ‘Odours’ can wander ‘uninterrupted’ through the air, and shadows are softened because they offer less contrast within the ‘darken’d Goves’. This is a world of shadows now, where the ‘lengthen’d Shade’ or shadow of an ambling horse becomes an object of ‘fear’ until the sound of ‘torn up Forage in his Teeth’ is heard (lines 29-32). From this momentary glimpse of the fearfulness of the dark, Finch returns us swiftly to the peacefulness of twilight as sheep and cows eat, and birds call in a ‘shortliv’d Jubilee’ of tranquillity enjoyed ‘whilst Tyrant-man does sleep’ (lines 33-38). Sharing in this idyllic, untroubled condition Finch identifies this nocturne as a space in which to experience ‘a sedate Content’ that nonetheless does not inhibit the ‘silent Musings’ that prompt ‘the Mind to seek / Something, too high for Syllables to speak’ (lines 39-42). By becoming immersed within the natural world, a sense of sublimity is achieved and the wanderer’s soul is finally, for a moment, ‘free’. ‘In such a Night,’ Finch writes, ‘let Me abroad remain, / Till Morning breaks, and All’s confus’d again’ (lines 47-48).

Happy Reading everyone!

Other poems by Anne Finch can be found here:

(A superb and totally free database of eighteenth-century poetry – there’s a beautifully presented copy of Finch’s poem here, as well as hundreds of other eighteenth-century poems throughout the site.)

(Poetry Foundation online: great free resource!!)

Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, Selected Poems, ed. by Denys Thompson (Carcanet Press Ltd, 2003)
(this is pretty much what it says on the tin: selected poems by Anne Finch)

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), Eighteenth-century women poets: an Oxford anthology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990)
 The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

(both are available from numerous book shops online and on the high street, and both are truly excellent volumes! There are plenty of economical priced second-hand copies of this available online too)

You can find out more about Anne Finch here:


(Wikipedia – usually a good starting point, and it’s free!)

Barbara McGovern, ‘Finch, Anne, countess of Winchilsea (1661-1720)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/9426 [accessed 16 July 2015]
(sadly, this resource is accessible by subscription only)

Resources used in the composition of this blogpost:

Claire Pickard, Literary Jacobitism: The Writings of Jane Barker, Mary Caesar and Anne Fich, DPhil Thesis (Oxford, 2006) https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:85514fc9-6f0c-4992-ae8c-2666dc1f7ede/download_file?safe_filename=602157226_Redacted.pdf&file_format=application%2Fpdf&type_of_work=Thesis

Katherine M. Quinsey, ‘Nature, Gender, and Genre in Anne Finch’s Poetry: “A Nocturnal Reverie”’, Lumen, 26 (2007), 63-77

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

'The Banished Man' - Charlotte Smith

In losing every thing but my honour and my integrity, I have learned, that he who retains those qualities can never be degraded, however humble may be his fortune.’

The Banished Man (1794)

Charlotte Smith (1749-1806)

If you’ve heard of Charlotte Smith at all – and a lot of folks sadly still haven’t – then it will probably be because of her poetry. Her rather more famous contemporary William Wordsworth (the chap who most people will have heard of thanks to a certain poem about clouds and daffodils) described her as ‘a lady to whom English verse is under greater obligations than are likely to be either acknowledged or remembered’. I could write a lot about how amazing her poetry is; but during her writing career Smith also wrote ten novels and it’s upon one of these that I want to focus today. Published in 1794, The Banished Man is a startlingly modern narrative following the adventures of the French aristocrat D’Alonville during the time of the French Revolution. Fleeing persecution in his own country, he journeys through Europe where he faces continual and humiliating suspicion and rejection. Even when the people he meet don’t actually suspect him of being a dangerous revolutionary travelling in the disguise of a refugee, they are often unwilling to involve themselves in assisting a penniless exile: it’s a concept that is as bitingly relevant today as it was two hundred years ago.

The tale’s first audiences believed that the novel’s sympathetic portrayal of an aristocratic main character indicated a shift in Smith’s political allegiance. Smith had initially been a vocal supporter of the French Revolution’s aims of liberty and equality for all. In fact, the truth is rather more nuanced. Rather than expressing overt political support or disdain for either faction, Smith instead focuses her anger upon the selfish and violent individuals who have exploited the Revolution for their own personal gain. A Polish Revolutionary is able to establish a close friendship with the French aristocrat D’Alonville because, even if the two have different opinions, each is willing to listen to and to respect the other’s point of view. Smith’s hero even acknowledges the fact that, had their situations been switched, ‘I might have thought and have acted as you have done’.

Intertwined with the stark realities of D’Alonville’s experiences as a persecuted refugee, is the life of the British woman Arabella Denzil. She is the daughter of an impoverished gentlewoman who supports her family through her writing, and who is widely believed to be an autobiographical portrait of Smith herself. Like Smith’s own husband, Arabella’s father has long since left the scene, and without any significant male relatives the family is left vulnerable to the machinations of sexual predators interested in Arabella’s beauty. Her inevitable romance with D’Alonville is likewise hampered by the unpopularity that attends such a cross-national relationship in the then deeply nationalistic British society.

At the time, one of the most popular genres of novel was the Gothic mode, in which heroes and heroines frequently faced both real and supernatural dangers in exotically portrayed European locations. Smith had written Gothic novels before and would do so again, but in The Banished Man she draws upon the conventions of the Gothic only to twist them around into a realistic portrayal of the genuine hardships suffered by those caught up in the all-too-real horrors of the French Revolution. She even underscores the originality of the novel by including a short section entitled ‘Avis Au Lecteur’ or ‘Advice to the Reader’, in which she points out her avoidance of a boy-meets-girl romance narrative. She writes that she believed ‘the situation of [her] hero was of itself interesting enough to enable [her] to carry him on for sometime, without making him violently in love’.1 Even though D’Alonville’s and Arabella Denzil do inevitably become involved with each other, this romance remains very much a subplot to the novel’s main aim of presenting and exploring ideas of cultural dislocation, and exile inflicted by civil conflict. The depth, subtlety, and acute perception that Smith demonstrates here make this novel one of her best and most riveting.

You can find Smith’s The Banished Man:

Charlotte Smith, The Banished Man (Dodo Press, 2009)
(An affordable, printed copy of this almost-out-of-print novel: despite the occasional typo, this is a very useful edition for a general reader and is available from many popular online stores)

Charlotte Smith, The Banished Man, in Works of Charlotte Smith, ed. M. O. Grenby, gen. ed. Stuart Curran, vol. 7 (London: Pickering, 2006)
(An excellently edited copy of the text, though rather pricey for a general reader)

You can find more information about Charlotte Smith here:

(Wikipedia: always a useful starting point) 

(Encyclopaedia Britannica – a valuable free resource)

1 Wordsworth's note to "Stanzas Suggested in a Steamboat off Saint bees' Heads," from ‘Poems Composed or Suggested during a Tour, in the Summer of 1833’, in The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, ed. by E. DeSelincourt and Helen Darbishire, 5 vols (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1949), IV, p. 403.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

'Saturday' - Lady Mary Wortley Montagu

‘How am I changed! alas! how am I grown
A frightful spectre, to myself unknown!’

‘Saturday’ (published 1747)

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762)

Portrait of Lady Mary Wortley
Montagu by Johnathan Richardson,
1725 (held at Sandon Hall, Stafford).
If you’ve never heard of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu then you’ve seriously been missing out – as well as being a talented poet and writer, she also played a key role in dispelling British suspicion of inoculation against small-pox and thus ultimately contributed to the preservation of countless lives. Although her father had wanted her to marry a wealthy heir called Clotworthy Skeffington, Lady Mary instead eloped with the lawyer and MP Edward Wortley Montagu in 1712. Later, she accompanied her husband during his appointment as ambassador to Constantinople at the heart of what was then the Ottoman Empire, and it was during her time here that she first learnt of the Turkish practice of inoculation. The subject was of particular importance to Montagu, for she had herself survived a potentially fatal case of small pox in 1715.

The poem I’ll be looking at today forms one of Montagu’s Six Town Eclogues, a series of short poems in which there is one for every day of the week except Sunday. The series was written around 1715-16 but was not officially published until 1747 (three of them were pirated by the publisher Edmund Curll in 1716, but ‘Saturday’ was not one of these). The poem is written from the perspective of a society lady whose beauty has been affected by small pox, and so it begins:

The wretched Flavia on her couch reclined,
Thus breathed the anguish of a wounded mind. 
A glass reversed in her right hand she bore,
For now she shunned the face she sought before.
   ‘How am I changed! alas! how am I grown
A frightful spectre, to myself unknown!
(lines 1-6)

The shift from external narrator to the actual voice of Flavia here allows Montagu to convey the psychological impact of the physical scarring.  Her appearance irrevocable altered, Flavia is now ‘to [her]self unknown’, and the rest of the poem is narrated from her perspective as she is overwhelmed by the loss of self-worth that she equates with the loss of her beauty.  In particular, this worth is defined through the influence her good-looks had given her over men from many different walks of life.  She lists her former triumphs:

‘For me the patriot has the House [i.e. the Houses of Parliament] forsook,
And left debates to catch a passing look;
For me the soldier has soft verses writ;
For me the beau has aimed to be a wit.
For me the wit to nonsense was betrayed;
The bashful squire, touched with a wish unknown,
Has dared to speak with spirit not his own:
Fired by one wish, all did alike adore;
Now beauty’s fled, and lovers are no more.
(lines 28-32, & lines 37-40)
Remember that the poem’s opening highlighted that Flavia perceives her appearance as indistinguishable from her identity when it stated that she is now to ‘[her]self unknown’. The ‘me’ in these lines does not so much refer to Flavia herself but to her physical features. It is her beauty which the politician wants ‘to catch a passing look’ of, and it is for her beauty that ‘the soldier has soft verses writ’.  No hint is given in the poem of Flavia possessing any other qualities beyond her physical attractiveness. We are told how in the past Flavia has gazed into her dressing room mirror:  
 While hours unheeded passed in deep debate,
How curls should fall, or where a patch to place
 (lines 48-49) [just in case you don’t know, the ‘patch’ referred to here is a beauty patch, usually a small fancy shape in black that was intended to draw attention to the most attractive feature of the face]
Later in the poem Flavia throws spiteful shade upon women she deems ‘meaner beauties’ (meaning those less beautiful than she had been) claiming that ‘Tis to my ruin all your charms ye owe’, and that if ‘pitying heaven’ would return her to her former glory her now successful rivals ‘still might move unthought of and unseen’ (around line 60). But this is actually the closest the poem comes to allowing Flavia an opportunity to expose herself to ridicule.  Montague’s crucial, unspoken question here is whether Flavia has allowed herself to be defined by her appearance, or whether it is the everyday sexism of her time that has caused her to equate her personal value solely with her physical appearance. 

Hints as to the answer to this question are given in various subtle ways throughout the poem, for example when Flavia begs her servants to remove the portrait of herself before her illness:

Far from my sight that killing picture bear,
The face disfigure, or the canvas tear!
That picture, which with pride I used to show,
The lost resemblance but upbraids me now.
(lines 43-46)

Perceiving herself to be mocked by the portrait of her former self, the choice of the term ‘upbraid[ing]’ here indicates Flavia’s assumption of blame for the situation, as if she herself is somehow at fault.  This is of course totally untrue, and having suffered an illness like small pox she is genuinely lucky to still be alive; but the fact that she even unconsciously absorbs blame or fault for what has happened to her contains within it the implication that it is somehow a duty or responsibility for her to look beautiful.  Her success or failure as an individual, her whole worth as a person, is defined by her appearance.  As the poem draws to its conclusion, the problem that Flavia now feels she faces is the inability to reclaim a life for herself in a society that prioritises surface appearance over substance. It is not just her sense of identity which she has lost, but her capacity to influence others and be respected as an individual.  Flavia exclaims:
But oh, how vain, how wretched is the boast
Of beauty faded, and of empire lost!
What now is left but weeping to deplore
My beauty fled, and empire now no more?
(lines 61-64)
The syntactic repetition of the clause structure – ‘Of beauty faded […] of empire lost’ – solidifies the link between the two terms still further.  As a woman, Flavia’s power has been derived from her appearance. It’s especially worth keeping in mind here that this pessimistic self-expulsion from society is not, of course, the approach Montagu took in her own life – the very existence of this poem (written after Montagu’s own experience of small pox) obviously belies the sense of uselessness that Flavia has fallen prey to here. All that Flavia believes is left for her is to ‘Forsake mankind, and bid the world adieu’ since she believes she is now fit only for the mockery of those men who previously worshipped her beauty.  Although she refers briefly to some visits from male admirers come to console her, she is painfully conscious of what their eventual attitude towards her will be when their predictions of her swift recovery and resumption of beauty are not fulfilled: ‘Men mock the idol of their former vow’, she notes darkly. What Montagu draws attention to here is actually that Flavia is only worth less because of her illness if the society in which she lives considers her to be so. There is also an implicit critique of a society in which women like Flavia are made to feel that physical beauty is the only way in which they can contribute. That Montagu was able to use her own experience to fuel her passion for promoting better standards of health-care owed much to the privileged position she occupied, and to her own determination to use that position to best effect.  As her most recent biographer Isobel Grundy notes, ‘Lady Mary had more of a life outside her family than most women of her class’ (p. 261).

You can find this poem:

(Eighteenth-Century Poetry Archive – a nice free copy with added notes and information)
(Poetry Foundation – a nice free copy)
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, ‘Saturday’, from Six Town Eclogues, in Roger Lonsdale (ed.), The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pages 143-6(A fantastic collection of poetry, highly recommended!!)

You can find out more about Lady Mary Wortley Montagu:

(Wikipedia – often a useful first stop for general information)

(Eighteenth-Century Poetry Archive – includes links to many of Montagu’s poems, and a short biographical note; also details editions of her poems and writings in case you want to delve further)

Resources used in writing this blogpost:

Paula Backscheider, Eighteenth-Century Women Poets and their Poetry: Inventing Agency, Inventing Genre (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005)

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

'An Essay on Woman' - Mary Leapor

‘...with ten thousand follies to her charge
Unhappy woman’s but a slave at large.’

Mary Leapor (1722-1746)

‘An Essay on Woman’ (written before 1746)

Although her life was cut tragically short by an attack of measles at the age of 24, Mary Leapor left behind a splendid array of excellent poetry. One of her most brilliant works is ‘An Essay on Woman’, a fiery feminist attack on the narrow role allotted to women in eighteenth-century British society. It begins with delicious sarcasm by playing directly into the stereotypes:

   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.
‘Tis wealth alone inspires every grace,
And calls the raptures to her plenteous face.

The situation of women is, she suggests, impossible: they are ‘too soft’ and ‘too weak’ for any useful work, but their sole asset of beauty is only ever ‘short-lived’. Good-looks are also a curse leading to the ‘bondage’ of marriage or the betrayal of a seducer, but without them a woman will only be ‘despised’. The only way a woman can gain social advantage is through marriage, and thus the archetypal woman herself is presented as only interested in securing ‘wealth’ in a future partner, since it is this ‘alone’ which ‘calls the raptures to her plenteous face’. A catalogue of attractive feminine attributes follows, raising this model woman to the level of a ‘sparkling Venus’: until Leapor warns, marriage ‘Dissolves her triumphs, sweeps her charms away, / And turns the goddess to her native clay’ (line 10 & lines 17-18).  The total potential of her life fulfilled, there is nothing left for woman to do but to decline.

Examples of classical women are then used to further demonstrate the hopeless limitations of women’s position in society, for example the clever Pamphilia:

 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 vexed to find a nymph so wise:
And wisdom only serves to make her know
The keen sensation of superior woe.

Whilst the ‘men’ here are described through a term that solidly embraces their gendered humanity, the woman is denoted as a ‘nymph’, an idealised and ethereal being derived from classical mythology (typically female and very attractive).  If Leapor’s vexed ‘men’, like the Flavia’s male admirers in Montagu’s ‘Saturday’, are only interested in a woman being beautiful then for them intelligence in a woman would only be an unnecessary and thus irksome addition.  The point of the poem is not that Leapor herself believes woman to be ‘a pleasing but a short-lived flower’; rather it is an expression of profound frustration that this is the function to which they are limited. It’s a frustration with which Leapor would have been only too familiar, as her own mother had felt obliged to try to curb her poetic talent as a child because of fears this kind of clever behaviour would only make her a social outcast (in Leapor’s case not just because of her gender but also because of her working-class background).

The final section of Leapor’s Essay on Woman represents a weary capitulation as she feels herself to be ultimately powerless in combat against such firm and deeply held social oppression of women.  She writes:

[…] whether sunk in avarice or pride,
A wanton virgin or a starving bride;
Or wond’ring crowds attend her charming tongue,
Or, deemed an idiot, ever speaks the wrong;
Though nature armed 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. (lines 53-60)

The symmetrical balance of ‘wanton virgin’ with ‘starving bride’ is a powerful expression of these terms as ultimate antithetical signifiers.  A woman is either one or the other, married or unmarried, her whole usefulness and function defined by her marital status.  Addressing the stereotypical ‘cunning’ and wilfulness of women Leapor suggests that this was nature’s way of ‘arm[ing] us’ against social oppression.  Yet in spite of such ‘follies’, Leapor sadly admits, ‘Unhappy woman’s but slave at large’.  Always defined by their relationships with men, women are here allowed only a delusion of freedom.

Obliged to work as a kitchen maid during her teenage years, Leapor was keenly aware of the restrictions she faced because of both her gender and her class. Fortunately for us, she did not let this stop her from writing poetry, and when she later returned home to keep house for her widowed father the efforts of her new friend Bridget Fremantle meant that the publication of her poetry became a real possibility. The production of  two-volume anthology was funded via subscription publishing, a system through which interested patrons could basically preorder one or more copies of a work before it ever went to the press, with the money then being used to fund the printing costs.  Sadly Leapor herself died of measles before their plans could come to fruition but, in accordance with Leapor’s dying request, her poems were published after her death ‘for the benefit of her father’.  The posthumous subscription garnered almost 600 signatories.    


You can find this poem:

You can find scans of Leapor’s original volumes of poetry on Archive.org here:
https://archive.org/details/poemsuponseveral01leapiala (Volume 1)

Modern typed versions of some of Leapor’s poetry are available on this fab free resource, Eighteenth-Century Poetry Archive. A short biographical note is also included, along with some information about additional reference works if you want to find out more:

Sources used in this blog post:

Roger Lonsdale (ed.), The New Oxford Book of Eighteenth-Century Verse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)
(This fantastic resource should be on the shelf of every eighteenth-century poetry enthusiast!)

Saturday, 20 May 2017

'Hamlet's Soliloquy: Imitated’ - Richard Jago

To print, or not to print — that is the question.
Whether 'tis better in a trunk to bury
The quirks and crotchets of outrageous Fancy,
Or send a well-wrote copy to the press,
And by disclosing, end them.

‘Hamlet's Soliloquy: Imitated’
Richard Jago

Whether or not you're a fan of Shakespeare (or a 'Bardolater' as the 20th century playwright George Bernard Shaw termed the most zealous Shakespeare enthusiasts), you've probably heard something of the famous soliloquy from his play Hamlet.  Even if you don't know off the top of your head where it's from or what it's about, the opening lines will probably strike a chord: 

'To be or not to be, that is the question.
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing, end them.'
(Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1…and yes, I’m afraid I did basically type it from memory!)

And having read that, I'm sure you'll see at once what Jago is doing with his 'Imitation'.  Although there might be a serious side to his reworking, it's difficult to see Jago's soliloquy as anything other than a huge, hilarious joke.

Richard Jago 1715-1781
Just to start by clarifying the jargon here, a 'soliloquy' is a speech in a play delivered by one character talking to themselves, rather like someone thinking out loud.  In the original Shakespeare play, the famous speech is said by Hamlet as he debates whether or not he should attempt to bring his uncle to justice for the murder of his father and usurpation of his and his father's crown (through marriage to Hamlet's mother) - the 'sea of troubles' he considers 'tak[ing] arms against'.  Jago replaces this with an author’s dilemma – ‘To print, or not to print’ (line 1).  ‘To print’, Jago wittily argues, is ‘to doubt / No more’ (lines 5-6), since once a manuscript is committed to print it cannot be changed and the ‘head-ach, and […] thousand natural shocks / Of scribbling frenzy’ are over (lines 7-8): as my very dear brother once rather wittily quipped, ‘novels are never finished, they just get sent to the publisher’.

The next section – still mimicking the original structure of Shakespeare’s immortal words – continues with the pros and, more importantly, the cons of publishing.  The aspiring writer’s work might ‘beam / From the same shelf with [Alexander] Pope, in calf [leather] well bound’ (lines 9-10), one of the finest satirical poets of the eighteenth-century and an enviable bookshelf companion for any author.  Or, more realistically the aspiring work may ‘sleep, perchance, with Quarles – Ay, there’s the rub’ (line 11).  The ‘sleep’ of which Shakespeare’s Hamlet speaks is the sleep of death, but here it is the probable fate of the millions of forgotten authors who ‘sleep’ in disregarded silence.  Francis Quarles (1592-1644) was an English religious poet whose popularity does not seem to have extended very far beyond his own lifetime.  On one of the rare occasions when his name is mentioned in the latter half of the eighteenth century it is in a letter to the popular journal The Gentleman’s Magazine, in which the correspondent bemoans the fact that ‘[p]oor sleeping Quarles is at length disturbed’ by critics such as William Jackson who discussed the poet’s work favorably in his Thirty Letters on various subjects.  The threat of infamy here is very real, and one to strike fear into the heart of every aspiring author.

Detailing the numerous disadvantages of being a published author Jago also includes ‘th’impatient thirst of fame’ (line 16), i.e. the longing for continued popularity after even the smallest taste of it; and ‘[t]he tedious importunity of friends’ (line 18), doubtless hectoring for details of the next great work.  The ‘undiscover’d country’ of Shakespeare’s soliloquy is the unseen land of death, but here Jago redirects the term to refer to the mystic ‘Parnassus’ hill’ (line 22), in Greek mythology the home of the nine Muses who serve as guardians and inspirations of the arts.  Once again, however, it is the fear of criticism that is the strongest deterrent, as Jago writes of how preferable it is to ‘bear to live unknown, / Than run the hazard to be known, and damn’d’ (lines 25-6).  It is this fear which makes ‘the healthful face of many a poem’ sicken within the pages of ‘a pale manuscript’ (lines 28 & 29) and that deters many writers from sending their work to publishers such as the famous Robert Dodsley (1704-1764) that Jago here mentions by name.  We can only be thankful that this fear didn’t deter Jago himself!

Happy Reading!!

You can find this poem:

(eighteenth century poetry archive – a fantastic new resource of freely available poetry by all our favourite eighteenth-century poets, and quite a few less well-known ones too! 

You can find out more about Richard Jago:

(Wikipedia!! Always a useful starting point…)

(If you’re lucky enough to have access to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography then this gives a more sophisticated account of Jago’s life.)


Sharp, ‘Letter’ in The Gentleman’s Magazine: and historical chronicle, 56.6 (Dec 1786), p. 1106.