We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Women's Poetry: Mary Collier, Poet and Washerwoman · 29 June 05

My dear Fanny,

As an example of the sort of thing I put onto my small Eighteenth Century Worlds list, I thought I’d cross-post what I wrote this morning and sent on to both ECW and Women Writers Through the Ages (as it’s relevant there too).

In the eighteenth century there was an opening up of the arts to people below the gentry level. Education had spread, and the cultural ideals of the time included an ideal of inclusiveness and respect for working people. We’d call it the common man—or common woman. Famously, Stephen Duck, a working man (1705-56), was patronized by George II’s Queen Caroline: she even built him a hermitage in her gardens.

Such patronage would include much condescension and the
person so patronized would probably find him or herself having to be grateful to the patron or visitors and might also feel intensely stranded in a milieu he or she didn’t belong to. Alongside the attempt to widen "le monde" was a punishing caste arrogance among the upper classes (to the lower) too. We see this presented in Austen’s Emma. These realities are made visible in Duck’s case by how his life ended: he committed
suicide. They become evident when you look at the conflicts that would occur between patron and poet. Anne Yearsley, a dairy woman who wrote at least one powerful novel and some good poetry found that Hannah More (a moral horror of a woman who spent her life proselytizing vehemently to keep the "lower orders" down and women disciplined) expected Yearsley to "know her place" when with More. More also tried to keep Yearsley’s earnings from Yearsley and control them herself. Finally, sadly and ironically, the working and laboring poets would bite at one another in public.

The following excerpt from a long poem was occasioned by one such conflict. In a poem called The Thresher’s Labor, Duck had criticized women for idleness. So Mary Collier who worked as a washerwoman (was the term) responded:

from The Woman’s Labour. An Epistle to Stephen Duck.

When bright Orion glitters in the skies
In winter nights, then early we must rise;
The weather ne’er so bad, wind, rain or snow,
Our work apointed, we must rise and go,
While you on easy beds may lie and sleep,
Till light does through your chamber-windows peep.
When to the house we come where we should go,
How to get in, alas! we do not know:
The maid quite tired with work the day before,
O’ercome with sleep; we standing at the door,
Oppressed with cold, and often call in vain,
Ere to our work we can admittance gain.
But when from wind and weather we get in,
Briskly with courage we our work begin;
Heaps of fine linen we before us view,
Whereon to lay our strenth and patience too;
Cambrics and muslim, which our ladies wear,
Laces and edgings, costly, fine and rare,
Which must be washed with utmost skill and care;
With holland shirts, ruffles and fringes too,
Fashions which our forefathers never knew.
For several hours here we work and slave
Before we can one glimpse of daylight have;
We labour hard before the morning’s past,
Because we fear the time runs on too fast.

At length bright Sol illuminates the skies,
And summons drowsy mortals to arise;
Then comes our mistress to us without fail,
And in her hand, perhaps a mug of ale
To cheer our hearts, and also to inform
Herself what work is done that very morn;
Lays her commands upon us, that we mind
Her linen well, nor leave the dirt behind.
Not this alone, but also to take care
We don’t her cambrics nor her ruffles tear;
And these most strictly does of us require,
To save her soap and sparing be of fire;
Tells us her charge is great, nay furthermore,
Her clothes are fewer than the time before.
Now we drive on, resolve our strength to try,
And what we can we do most willingly;
Until with heat and work,’tis often known,
Not only sweat but blood runs trickling down
Our wrists and fingers; still our works demands
The constant action of our labouring hands.

Now night comes on, from whence you have relief,
But that, alas! does but increase our grief.
With heavy hearts we often view the sun,
Fearing he’ll set before our work is done;
for, either in the morning or at night,
We piece the summer’s day with candlelight.
Though we all day with care our work attend,
Such is our fate, we know not when ‘twill end.
When evening’s come, you homeward take your way;
We, till our work is done, are forced to stay,
And, after our toil and labour past,
Sixpence or eightpence pays us off at last;
For all our pains no prospect can we see
Attend us, but old age and poverty.

Mary Collier (1690?-1762) is said to have been a daughter of "poor, but honest Parents" in Sussex. She was taught to read, but when both parents died she moved to Hampshire where "my chief Employment was, Washing, Brewing and such labour, still devoting what leisure time I had to Books" when she could buy or borrow them. She apparently never married. Although a later book, Poems on Several Occasions (Winchester, 1762) was supported by local subscribers and included a convincing autobiography ("Remarks of the Author’s Life, drawn by herself," from which all the quotations in this paragraph are taken), many people could not believe she was the author of her poems. She worked as a washerwomen until 63, then ran a farmhouse until she was 70 when "the infirmities of Age" forced her to retire "to a Garret."

I used to do the above poem with the classes I had for the First
Half of British Literature. When I attended Queens College, CUNY, in the 1960s, this course and the Second Half were required "threshold" courses for English major; when I came to to teach where I am now, this two-course sequence had become a general education literature course for sophomores and could fulfill the literature requirement for all sophomores. I taught the First Half several times and would take out the time to discuss this poem.

The poem is pleasant in feel and imagery. It gave me a chance to talk about the real conditions of women’s and laborer’s lives. I would stress the sad and ironic public conflict between Duck and Collier and also point out how her life ended too. I’d talk about Mary Leapor (who wrote fine poetry at mid-century too; she was a housekeeper whose mother had beat her to prevent her from reading) and later laboring poets (there were a number of women like Anne Yearsley at the time), how Burns was really part of this group (though he may stand out to us today) and the patronizing of working class poets at the turn of the 19th century. (There’s recently been a study of this poetry but the author’s name and title of the book escapes me just now.)

About 4 years ago the two parts of English literature as a course were abolished where I teach. A small epitome of how in our era those who control what is learned or put into the media are as a group are dismissing, erasing, throwing out (choose your verb) the older heritage of literature in our era. There were protests in the English department and even heated meetings. I remember one woman saying if we don’t teach this course to people who are going to become high school teachers, the canon will be lost. To this another woman replied, "But that’s what I want."

It will be said this kind of material is not wanted by the average college student, especially in a large state-supported school whose values are vocational, practical, professional—all about money and getting jobs. Going to college today in many, perhaps most institutions is for many students a matter of buying a certificate, punching a ticket. Such students take as many credits per term as time will allow in a schedule that often also includes full-time work. Ask them why, and some will say, "I want to get ‘it’ over with." They are hurrying up so they can "succeed."

I did each term have a few students who really appreciated the course I used to give. I used also to do the Second Half of English Literature upon occasion. Much less frequently for I had many more senior colleagues (remember, Fanny) who actually were willing or liked to do the Second Half.

When I posted the above to ECW and WWTTA, I was today struck by the determined cheerfulness of Collier’s tone. I’ve never thought about that before.

I find it jarring.

I suppose Collier felt she had to present a cheerful face or she’d
never get her poem into print. She probably also had to present
a cheerful enough face to her employers or they wouldn’t hire
or countenance her (treat her semi-decently).

Like today, it was not then enough to have to allow oneself to be ground down, to live as witness to manifest injustice and impoverishment in every way of vast numbers of people’s lives, you had to play the smiling game while doing it.


Posted by: Ellen

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