A Study in Contrasts: Mary Collier and Mary Leapor's Diverse Contributions to Eighteenth-Century British Laboring-Class Women's Poetry
Fellers, Kathy G 1973-
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Mary Collier and Mary Leapor (two of the first laboring-class female authors) share many characteristics, least of which is their desire to be writers and to depict and comment on gender and class dynamics more accurately than had been done before. This artistic focus on “the gap between the ideal and the real” (Messenger 172-174) is partly rooted in the mode of satire where writers create irony by contrasting more realistic images or situations with idealized ones (often implicitly). Part of satire’s purpose is amusement, but equally important is its social critique. Hence, Collier and Leapor are very much writers of their age, yet while they both reflect the writing impulses of the eighteenth-century, they draw from a mixture of different writing traditions. Moreover, their differing economic, creative, and educational circumstances make for significant differences in their writing, despite their common laboring-class backgrounds. Resultantly, the differences in their work are considerably more pronounced than most discussions of it lead us to believe. These life circumstances include Collier’s limited access to reading materials and critical guidance versus Leapor’s extensive access to culturally dominant works and active mentorship. In addition, Collier was able to devote considerably less time to writing as she supported herself as a washerwoman. In contrast, Leapor worked several years as a kitchen-maid and then returned to run her father’s household and assist him in his nursery business (he had been a gardener). They also chose different poetic models: Stephen Duck for Collier and Alexander Pope for Leapor. As result their aesthetic choices are considerably different. These include Collier’s use of the georgic versus Leapor’s extensive deployment of the pastoral; Collier’s limited experimentation with poetic forms versus Leapor’s experimentation with mixing poetic forms and techniques; as well as Leapor’s revision of the country-house poem and the mock-epic. These textual and aesthetic differences correlate with two different models of the laboring-class female writer, established by authors writing within ten years of each other. Collier and Leapor’s life circumstances and aesthetic choices also force scholars to reconsider how we evaluate the significance of historically marginalized authors in literary history.