Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Landscape, Labor, and the Ideology of Improvement in Mary Leapor's "Crumble-Hall"

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Landscape, Labor, and the Ideology of Improvement in Mary Leapor's "Crumble-Hall"

Article excerpt

Most of the criticism on Mary Leapor's "Crumble-Hall" has focused on the ways in which the poem subverts the tradition of country-house poetry by its behind-the-scenes-look at domestic labor from the perspective of one of its workers. (1) The poet's sociopolitical stance, I suggest, stems from her perception of what is happening on the grounds outside the house as well. If we chart the movement of the poem as a whole, it is clear that the poet's portrayal of issues of class and labor is bound up with her outrage over the landowner's proposed landscape renovations. As Donna Landry suggests, the

landscape in "Crumble Hall" is basically a "site of conflict" in which the country house "can no longer serve as a locus of social harmony or of harmony between human interests and a more complex ecology." (2) Indeed, the poet's brief depiction of the landscape viewed from the leads of the roof, before the speaker is tossed to the "nether World" of the kitchen, represents a crucial shift in the poem--a turn from a depi ction of the hall's history and architecture and the work required for its upkeep to concerns about the landowner's plans to modernize the house and grounds. (3) The poet decries the landowner's plans to clear cut a grove of old oaks for the "Slopes, and modern Whims" of a more fashionable landscape design (121). For the poet, the present landscape represents a repository of traditional rural values, and the proposed improvements will despoil the land and disrupt the rural community. In this essay, I argue that Leapor's critique of the landowner's plans demonstrates how complex socioeconomic changes on the country estate were being negotiated through the landscape in the eighteenth century. Specifically, Leapor reveals how the aesthetics of landscape improvement were implicated in the dislocation of the laboring poor from the land.

By 1700, the term "improvement" meant "both improved farming methods and the laying out of estates as landscape gardens. "(4) The decline of small farms and commons in many regions of England as a result of enclosure and the consolidation of piecemeal farmland meant that landowners were able to rework larger chunks of land around the country house as part of the landscape garden. The opportunities for "manipulating the appearance of the landscape to display the extent of [landowners'] possessions" (5) arose from intensive and profitable agricultural cultivation and estate management. Land improvement, especially enclosures, tended to highlight the economic individualism of landowners, disrupting traditional social relations between the local gentry and the rest of the village. (6) The imperatives of making the farm or estate pay overturned traditional notions of agrarian life by confronting the "doctrine of manorial stewardship with the logic of absolute property." (7) When the gentry displayed their power b y reshaping the landscape around the country house solely for aesthetic purposes, the growing gap between landowners and rural laborers became more pronounced and controversial.

It is precisely this type of display of propertied power that Leapor calls into question. Leapor's authority for speaking out against these changes is unique. Richard Greene points out that Leapor would have observed the beginning phases of enclosure in the area around her home in Northamptonshire, since her father was a nurseryman, hired for landscaping projects in several counties. (8) Not only does Leapor, as a laborer herself, understand the effects of enclosure on the laboring population, but, because of her father's work, she also grasps the relationship between the reorganization of the land around the country house and the larger agricultural landscape. In order to highlight this relationship, the poet locates "Crumble-Hall" in a particular historical moment, right before the landlord transforms the medieval hall and its old-fashioned gardens into a more stylish showcase. Poised at the brink of massive restructuring, the estate is positioned awkwardly between feudalism and capitalism; both the landow ner and those who work on the estate inhabit a sort of "halfway country house. …

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