The Final Chapter. Chasing Mary Leapor: Friendships Bound through Time, in Gifts and Writing

Gather round, my friends, my faithful followers, and those of you who have dropped in unexpectedly (having fallen down some internet rabbit hole), and let me tell you about special friendships bound in writing and reading, literary friendships. Welcome to the final installment of my blog series started two years ago with “Page One of the Literary Tome: Antiquing—The Literary Way (A Book and Its Travels)” 

In the 1740s, Mary Leapor left her job as a maid to move to the town of Brackley to care for her father.

Nearly three centuries later, I wrote a chapter of my dissertation on Mary Leapor’s work, not her work as a working-class woman, but as a working-class poet.

A Poet and Her Muse: An 18th Century Gift of Friendship

Then comes Sophronia, like a barbarous Turk:
“You thoughtless baggage, when d’ye mind your work?
Still o’er a table leans your bending neck:
Your head will grow preposterous, like a peck.
Go, ply your needle: you might earn your bread…”
She sobbing answers, …
“What can I do?”
“–Not scribble.”
“–But I will.”
“Then get thee packing—and be awkward still.” (ll. 81-89)

from Mary Leapor’s “An Epistle to Artemisia”

Our neighbour Mary – who, they say,
Sits scribble-scribble all the day,
……………………………………………………..
She throws away her precious time
In scrawling nothing else but rhyme… (ll. 11-18)

from Mary Leapor’s “The Epistle of Deborah Dough”

From an early age, Mary Leapor was discouraged from writing–by her mother, by her employer, and by her colleagues–in favor of more appropriate work as a maid, as Leapor expresses in her poetry above. Leapor was even fired from a position as the line “then get thee packing” suggests, fired for throwing “away her precious time” in writing.

Yet Mary Leapor continued to write. She needed to write. My fellow bloggers, you understand this, I’m sure.

However, it wasn’t until her return to Brackley and her forging an important friendship with a local woman, Bridget Freemantle, that Leapor’s career as a poet became a reality. Freemantle encouraged Leapor to write and went so far as to give her friend a special present, a writing desk.

I can imagine the impact this gift had on Leapor, for a writing desk symbolizes Freemantle’s faith in Leapor’s talent, a physical space where Leapor could feel the freedom to write without the restrictive energy she had encountered for much of her life as far as her writing was concerned. Feemantle wanted, encouraged, Mary Leapor to write.

A Scholar and Her Bookbinder: A 21st Century Gift of Friendship

Fast forward three centuries later. Here we are in the final installment of this blog series, following my journey of self-discovery, an adventure where I would make a friend with whom I would embark on an adventure that would place me on a course in search of Mary Leapor.

Allow me to recap:

  • 1994–a stranger gives me the gift of a 19th Century edition of Shakespeare;
  • February 2016—Graham, the bookbinder, and I meet virtually through the Aphra Behn Society;
  •  we correspond, plan to meet,
  • and then in September 2016 upon meeting, dig through boxes of treasures at the National Leather Collection.

Now that you’re caught up, let’s proceed with Graham’s itinerary.

Stop two of our day trip was to Graham’s workshop where he introduced me to his workspace and to the tools of his trade, bookbinding. I was pleased to hand off my book of Shakespeare, for it had weighed down my luggage during my travels for weeks. However, Graham had other plans for my now lightened load—he surprised me with a gift so special–though extremely heavy, heavier even than my Shakespeare–I couldn’t help but think of Bridget Freemantle’s gift to Mary Leapor.


Graham had found my dissertation online, printed it and bound it. This beautiful book, this gorgeous symbol of friendship, of faith, of taking a chance in life, taking a chance with a stranger, opening myself up to all life could offer me, opening myself up to adventure. I am still in awe, still feel immense gratitude for this gesture, a combination of Graham’s bookbinding talent and my writing.

Imagining a Tour of “Crumble-Hall”

edgcote
Not familiar with Edgcote House? I bet you are… have you seen the 1995 Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth? Yep, Mr. Collins’s house is Edgcote House.

Tears shed (on my part) and books exchanged, Graham and I continued our day. The third stop of the day but first in chasing Mary Leapor was to Edgcote House.

nicole in front of edgcote

For me, the importance of this house was of a different literary sort. Edgcote was one of the residences where Mary Leapor lived, worked as a maid, and in her spare time, wrote. Her poem “Crumble Hall” is based on Edgcote and is the focus of Chapter 1 of my dissertation “Remodeling the Fragmented Estate: A Study of Home Space in Mary Leapor’s “Crumble Hall.”

Edgcote is currently a private residence, so Graham and I sufficed to admire it from outside the gate. I could only stand and look on, think of what lay within, dream of climbing the stairs where the narrator of “Crumble-Hall,” Leapor’s Mira, warns us, you must “Be careful how you tread/Up these steep Stairs — or you may break your Head” (ll. 96-97), imagine myself dancing around the lake where “the pleas’d Swans along the Surface play;/ Where yon cool Willows meet the scorching Ray” (ll. 163-64).

While I could not see the insides of Edgcote House, I could hear Leapor’s Mira as she guided me on a tour of her version of the house, her “Crumble-Hall.”

Of Trust and Serial Killers: Marston St. Lawrence

Continuing our drive through this village to our next destination, Graham and I chatted continuously, the conversations rarely lulled, if at all.

At one point, driving down a narrow, tree-lined road, I stared out the car window, seeing no sign of life, no other cars, no houses. I commented, “It’s amazing how trusting I am in this moment. I have no idea where we are, where we are going. You could be a serial killer for all I know. No one will hear from me again…”

I quickly followed this realization with, “or maybe you should be worried. I could be a serial killer.”

We laughed. We continued to chat. We didn’t worry.

marston st lawrencechurch at marston st lawrence

And then we were in Marston St. Lawrence, the birthplace of Mary Leapor. We stopped at the parish church, found it open, and entered, discovering a brochure with the history of the church, including a mention of Mary Leapor’s father as the parish gardener and of his daughter who was a poet.

It All Began (and Ended) with Shakespeare

roverGraham and I completed our literary journey appropriately in Stratford-upon-Avon where I explored Shakespeare’s home and then Graham and I attended the production of Aphra Behn’s “The Rover.”

Everything was connecting, Shakespeare, Behn, Leapor, Graham, and I. From my book of Shakespeare to Shakespeare’s home and the writers, friendships, and gifts in between.

Driving home late in the evening our conversations were quieter, so much to take in, promises were exchanged–of future visits and continued correspondence. The day was done, but the story unfinished.

My Shakespeare Returns Home

Weeks after returning home from my sabbatical, I received a package in the mail.

My rebound Shakespeare had arrived together with a small booklet Graham had printed, Edmund Blunden’s 1936 work about Mary Leapor entitled “A Northamptonshire Poetess: Glimpses of an Eighteenth-century Prodigy” from the Northamptonshire Natural History Society & Field Club journal. From left to right: how the book had looked before and the book after being bound as well as the Blunden booklet.

Re-visiting Graham: The Mary Leapor Quest Continues

Two years later, mere weeks ago now, in July 2018, I returned to the UK and made plans to see Graham. For this visit, I had two requests: I wanted to see how the leather museum had progressed and I wanted to meet Graham’s family.

Graham had a few places he wanted to visit first. Since I missed Bloomsday by a few weeks, Graham took me to see James Joyce’s daughter Lucia Anna, or at least her grave. We also took a tour of 78 Derngate, a lovely museum/home designed by Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

Plans were set for dinner with Graham’s family, traditional pub fare. When the family picked me up, I commented on how nice to finally meet everyone: Rhys, Graham’s quiet, teenage son, and Graham’s wife Carol.

Carol replied to this with, “for all you know Graham could have hired us to play his family.”

Yep! These were my kind of people.

And to top it off, Carol—well, she is a teacher like me, so of course, we had much to talk about.

After dinner in the village of Stoke Bruerne, the four of us continued to enjoy each other’s company, walking up and down the canal outside the pub, chatting, and stopping to take a picture to commemorate the expanded story of this friendship.

Then on Monday, Graham and I revisited the leather collection. What a transformation. It had become a museum!

IMG_0149I have mentioned before how much fun it was for me, digging through the boxes to see what leather wonders lay within (Chapter III. Aged 45. Sabbatical, September 2016. The Meeting of New Friends, Feeling Like Old Friends). So spending seven hours actually contributing to the museum was my idea of paradise. Graham left me to help out where I could while he worked on his own projects. I even helped set up and came up with ideas for the museum’s new sports exhibit.

stained glass window
“Too soft for business and too weak for power” –Mary Leapor’s “An Essay on Woman”

On my last day in Northampton, Graham added an unexpected visit to continue our search for Mary Leapor. I had heard the town of Brackley (where Leapor met Bridget Freemantle) was renovating their town hall. As part of this project, they had held a contest seeking designs for stained glass windows commemorating Brackley history. Carolyn Hunter’s design in honor of Mary Leapor was among the winners.

On my last day in Northampton, Graham drove me over 20 miles, over a half hour, to Brackley just to catch a glimpse of this window.

stained glass window with painter tapeThe town hall was not yet open to the public; the scaffolding hid much of the building, but the stained glass windows were visible from the streets below. Graham and I found the Leapor window on the far side, and it was—appropriately enough—decorated with a piece of painter’s tape. Why wouldn’t the woman who had a copy of her play returned to her with a wine stain carelessly painting her words have painter’s tape stuck carelessly on her window?

The town hall closed to the public.
The painter’s tape.
All this did little to impede my pleasure.

I was pleased to see Mary Leapor being remembered and honored, pleased to know I had connected with Mary Leapor over time. I relished the feeling of standing in the town where two friends once met, the town responsible for unwittingly launching a literary adventure spanning nearly three centuries, but most of all, I felt blessed to have found a new friend to share the madness of my literary adventures.

 

5 thoughts on “The Final Chapter. Chasing Mary Leapor: Friendships Bound through Time, in Gifts and Writing

  1. Just read your blog re Mary Leapor. So pleased the stained glass window gave you pleasure despite the scaffolding and the tape and the Town Hall being closed. If you look at Mary’s Wiki page you’ll also see a memorial to Mary which has been placed in St Peter’s church in Brackley. It seems we may feel the same way about Mary as what you say about her resonates very strongly with me. Kind regards, Carolyn Hunter

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  2. Hi Nicole

    It’s been a very long time coming, due to an interregnum and then covid, but I’m pleased to let you know that this Saturday, 26th February 2022, exactly 300 hundred years after Mary Leapor’s birth, we will be holding a service in the Lady Chapel of St Peter’s Church in Brackley to dedicate her memorial plaque and commemorate such an important date.

    We have a couple of Poetry Groups in Brackley and they will be represented at the service as well as other members of the congregation. Their will be flowers to decorate the chapel and refreshments for everyone afterwards.

    I thought you might like to know, as a fellow admirer of her life and work, that she is being remembered here in Brackley.

    best wishes,
    Carolyn

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    1. I forgot to mention, that as part of the Dedication/Memorial Service, we will be reading a Tribute to Mary Leapor. This will mention that ‘a woman’ (i.e. you) came to England all the way from America to see the places where Mary lived and worked, which included a visit to Brackley to see her stained glass roundel in the refurbished Town Hall. So although many miles and many years may separate you and Mary – you will become part of the ceremony celebrating her life and achievements.
      best wishes
      Carolyn

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  3. Carolyn,
    My apologies for not responding to your messages earlier. It’s been a long time since I’ve even looked at my blog (sadly). I couldn’t even remember the password, so I had to reset it to be able to respond to your messages!

    I am so incredibly excited to hear of a celebration for Mary Leapor! I wish I could be there. And I am absolutely touched to hear I will be a part of this celebration (“a woman” I am!).

    I look forward to seeing pictures (perhaps videos?) of the tribute. How amazing that a poet can bring people into my life, first Graham and now you.

    Thank you for reaching out! Be well!
    Nicole

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  4. Hi Nicole

    Likewise, I am so pleased that you picked up my comments, because I wasn’t sure you’d ever see them. I just put them ‘out there’ in case you were still able to view them.

    It is strange isn’t it, that Mary can bring two people together who live on different continents. Really quite amazing.

    Of course, I can send you some photos of the event, but sorry, we’re not taking any video. But how can I send them to you, because I guess both of us wouldn’t want to disclose email addresses on a blog? Do you have my email address, as I have to fill it in each time I make a comment? If you do, just send me a message on that. If not, are you on Facebook as perhaps we can do something with that instead?

    By the way, if you haven’t guessed, this has made my day. Thank you.

    best wishes,
    Carolyn

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