“Severe and Horribly Adorn(ed)”: Reclaiming Masculine Space through Witchcraft and the Supernatural in Mary Leapor’s ‘Crumble Hall’

an-art-exhibitAt her University of Calgary lecture: “Why Write? Creativity and Refusal,” British writer Zadie Smith discussed writing as an accessible art form. It does not cost much in supplies, nor in tutoring, or in time. Writing and storytelling can even transcend literacy. With pseudonyms and ghost writing, the art of the written (and spoken) word transcends gender, race, class, and age. Mary Leapor, a working class poet who died of measles in 1746, is proof of Smith’s claim. (Markidou 163) At a time of great class division and gender prejudices, Leapor rose to acclaim among the local gentry. Encouraged by her first employer (Leapor worked as a maid) to write, she was later dismissed for writing instead of working (the irony is not lost). She died two months before the publication of her first poem.

As students of English literature, we read pastoral narratives and often fall into complacency with the very false ideals that Leapor writes to subvert. Crumble Hall is the house on the hill. The beautiful manner that reminds us of Downton Abbey and Jane Eyre. Crumble Hall should have secret passageways and a handsome man of the house. It should have pretty maids and delicious feasts; a large and eccentric family of noble origins. Crumble Hall, according to Leapor, is more of a “Hill House[1]” than a “Downton Abbey[2].” There are spectres, cobwebs, crying infants, and ornaments that stare on. According to Sharon Young, much scholarship has focused primarily on how Leapor’s biography relates to the poem, thus encouraging the reader to read within the context of labouring class women’s poetry. If we set these ideas aside, the poem opens as a gothic narrative with a striking reading of the occult, witchcraft, and the painful, swelling masculinity of the house’s architecture and inhabitants. The house has masculine features, and through attributing occult, supernatural, and “witchy” qualities to the home, Leapor feminizes a masculine space.

The Dryads Howling for their Threatened Shades: The Supernatural and Fantastical Keepers of Crumble Hall, or How Leapor Reclaims Masculine Space by Giving the Country House Magical Features

“Mira’s picture of the present country house is one of vast spaces, spectral aura, austerity, and darkness.” (Markidou 166) Throughout this poem, Mira, Leapor’s poetic persona is a tangible presence, wandering through the house after an unnamed visitor or stranger, and making observations; “along each wall the stranger blindly feels.” (Line 54) By positioning herself as guide, Mira becomes the “keeper” of the house; the guide, even though she is simply a kitchen maid. Mira explores the house, unfolding the sinister underbelly of upper class society with melodrama and satire. The narrator’s presence is overarching and as though it is something within the walls of the house itself that is speaking. Mira compares the feeling of the house in the sun “more charming than Armida’s wiles,” (Line 7), invoking the idea of the house and the presence within it as seductive. As Mira guides us through Crumble Hall, we are shown again and again features of the house that allude to mythology and the supernatural, such as in lines 31-33: “Tell how the building spreads on either hand,/ And two grim giants o’er the portals stand;/ Whose grizzled beards are neither combed nor shorn,”. Leapor compares the architecture of the house to giants, giving the entranceway a sense of foreboding. There is a long description of the house which invokes dark and allusion-heavy imagery: “Strange forms above present themselves to view;/ Some mouths that grin, some smile, and some that spew./ Here a soft maid or infant seems to cry:/ Here stares a tyrant, with distorted eye.” (Lines 39-42) Though the owner of the house is absent, Leapor writes of a “tyrant,” which can be read as an omnipresent being or sense in the house. The strange forms above can be read as more spectres, or perhaps architecture or even something drenched in metaphor such as secrets. The description of the house is heavy with allusions to mythology, describing tapestries and characteristics as though scenes from mythology are being enacted in front of her. In the following lines, it is difficult to ascertain whether Leapor is describing some sort of painting, an architectural quirk of the building, or attributing fantastical qualities to events as they occur in front of Mira: “There doughy George bestrides the goodly steed;/ The dragon’s slaughtered, and the virgin freed:/ And there (but lately rescued from their fears)/ The nymph and serious Ptolemy appears:/ Their awkward limbs unwieldy are displayed;/ And, like a milk-wench, glares the royal maid.” (Lines 74-79) Mira acts as an assumed omniscient guide in the home, giving her the quality of a sage, or older, magical presence. Mira is to Crumble Hall what Dumbledore is to Hogwarts. Not only is Mira occupying the space of a “wizard” with her female body, but she is giving the house qualities unlike other country house poems; by giving the house supernatural qualities; she is reclaiming the space as transient and uncertain, just as any space not meant for women is. Leapor paints a picture of a supernaturally frightening place in which a woman guides strangers and knows secrets; this is reflective of the precarious position of lower-class women in the 18th century. By positioning Mira in the marginalized body of an assumed witch, Leapor is demonstrating the uncertainty and liminality of simply being a woman.
The Muse for Vengeance Calls in Vain: Demonology and Witchcraft in Crumble Hall

In order to determine whether Mira can be read as a witch, we must first ascertain whether the piece displays the qualities attributed to witches in tradition. By looking at “The Literature of Demonology and Witchcraft” by Edward Peters, we can analyze tropes of witches and compare them to the piece, and more importantly, to Mira.

A witch is said to have made a pact with the devil, emphasizing a link between witchcraft and demonology: “Servants of the devil could, on their own or with the devil acting through them, harm or illicitly influence other people or property by occult […] means.” (Peters 1) This pact led to the “offence” of Witchcraft; the crime that (mainly) women committed in these times: “The Latin word that designated harm caused to others by these means was maleficium, and it constituted the crime of witchcraft, establishing a link between it and demonology.” (Peters 1) In Crumble Hall, we can interpret the following lines as a pact with the devil, or journey to hell: “From hence the Muse precipitant is hurled,/ And drags down Mira to the nether world.” (Leapor Lines 107-108) An unnamed “Muse” drags Mira to the nether world, or “underworld.” The Oxford English Dictionary describes the netherworld as “The world lying, or imagined as lying, beneath the earth; the abode of the dead, hell.” To further this claim that Mira has made a pact with the devil, her name has clear connections to demonology, as outlined by Peters: “[…] demons operated in natural realms beyond human intelligence, they could appear to work “wonders” and in doing so tempt humans, sometimes with God’s permission. This was how the devil elicited homage of a kind properly paid only to God, and entered agreements with humans: by exhibiting and granting powers over nature and others not attainable by any other means, by performing acts that were not miracles, miracula, but rather mira, “wonders.” All of these were ways of winning support from humans whose flawed perceptions and flexible wills would allow them to be led astray.” (1) Mira, Leapor’s name in this work, is borrowed from the term for the “magic” of demons, drawing a clear link between the poem’s speaker and witchcraft and demonology. We can take this in a literal sense, or we can look at Leapor’s foray into witchcraft as a comment on the demonization of women and lower classes. As we find ourselves into the kitchen, where the servants dwell, in the stanzas that follow, the allusions to hell can be read as a play on upper class ideas that being a servant would be equivalent to being in hell.

Another central character promotes a reading of witchcraft; the Muse. The muse remains unnamed throughout the poem, and the point in which the muse drags Mira into the “netherworld” is the shift in the poem: we look at the underbelly of Crumble Hall; the servants and laypeople that keep the house for the absent homeowners. If we read this as a supernaturally influenced text, we can read these characters as people or demons in hell, as the unnamed Muse as the devil, and Mira as the witch that bridges the gaps between these people and the noble people of the house (Leapor was known for having her employer become her patron).

Further literary tropes indicating the presence of a witch exist in the poem; in literature, according to Peters, most witches have a “familiar,” or an animal companion.[3] When Leapor describes the first hall of the house, she speaks of “the pleased spider [who] plants her peaceful loom:/ Here weaves secure, nor dreads the hated broom.” (Lines 46-47) Creature not usually sought after as pets often become the familiar of a witch. Ravens, spiders, cats, etc. fit this description. Leapor describes the spider as “pleased” and “peaceful,” words not commonly associated with arachnids, therefore attaching to it a sense of familiarity and camaraderie.

All of this textual evidence supports a clear link to witchcraft, however to complete this reading, we must look at the reasoning behind these aspects of the text.

The Injured Nymphs Shall Haunt the Ravaged Plain: The Significance of Witchcraft in the Cultural Context of Crumble Hall

Cultural anxieties about Witchcraft declined towards the beginning of the 18th century, and people were no longer being convicted of witchcraft. (Peters 3) If Crumble Hall is to be read as a text that prominently features witchcraft and the supernatural, a reasoning behind this must be inferred. The poem is usually read as a satirical piece, where Leapor subverts the conventions of the country house poem to criticize the lavishness of the property and overconsumption of its noble inhabitants. When read through the lens of witchcraft and the supernatural, metaphors and images that permeate the text become a quasi-feminist display of satire. By utilizing the tropes of a witch, Leapor makes a brave and intriguing case for the female writer. Decades before, the practice of witchcraft was a punishable offence in England, and Leapor uses this to take back the genre of the country house poem, rendering it gothic and feminine through writing with conviction as a character who would be cast out of society mere decades ago. Leapor feminizes masculine space through constant references to feminine mythology, furthering her feminist drive behind the supernatural nature of the work.

Leapor emphasizes Crumble Hall’s entrance and past as a way of claiming and identifying feminine space. Vassiliki Markidou states: “In its function as feeder of the needy, the past estate emerges as a maternal force, a female “body” that has nurtured a community. On the contrary, the contemporary household, with its dark, dusty, sterile images, is linked to death and alluded to as a masculine presence.” (168) The reading presented in this paper resists the reading of the contemporary house as an overwhelmingly masculine; this reading challenges conventions of masculinity in that this darkness doesn’t simply shift the gender binary, but shows a different side of femininity; the cast aside narrative of subversion and autonomy that led to the persecution of women deemed “witches.” Instead of complaining about upper classes and men feeling threatened by or demonizing lower class women, Leapor gives them reason to feel anxiety about the “modern” woman.
In conclusion, Leapor takes the reader on a proto-feminist tour through Crumble Hall. She does not see the past as feminine and the present as masculine, but the changing culture and scope of the home as transient femininity. She uses tropes of witchcraft to explain to her audience her marginalized but in-control position within the house, and weaves allusion to mythology through the narrative as a way of reclaiming the home (which is essentially also her home) from the upper-class, masculine masters. Leapor feminizes a masculine space by showing the reader the complexities of femininity and class through a nuanced text ripe with occult and mystical references.

Works Cited

Jackson, Shirley. The Haunting of Hill House. New York: Viking, 1959. Print.

Leapor, Mary. “Crumble Hall.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Ed. Joseph Laurence Black. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2008. 49-51. Print.

Levack, Brian P. New Perspectives on Witchcraft, Magic, and Demonology. New York: Routledge, 2001. Print.

Markidou, Vassiliki. ““And Let the Grove, If Not the Parlour, Stand”: Home, Memory, and Gender in Mary Leapor’s “Crumble-Hall”.” Home Cultures 6.2 (2009): 163-78. Web. 1 Mar. 2016.

“netherworld, n. and adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 8 March 2016.

Peters, Edward. “The Literature of Demonology and Witchcraft.” Cornell University Library Witchcraft Collection. Cornell University, 1998. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.

Sax, Boria. “The Magic of Animals: English Witch Trials in the Perspective of Folklore.” Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals Anthroz Jour Inter Peo Ani 22.4 (2009): 317-32. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.

Young, Sharon. “Visiting the Country House: Generic Innovation in Mary Leapor’s “Crumble Hall”” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 34.1 (2015): 51-64. Project MUSE [Johns Hopkins UP]. Web. 1 Mar. 2016.

[1] The Haunting of Hill House (1959) by Shirley Jackson is a psychological thriller. The novel centers around a woman named Eleanor who signs up for a lengthy stay at a “Haunted Mansion” with a paranormal team. Eleanor begins to act strangely compared to her companions, and all supernatural phenomena are described vaguely by different characters. The house transforms Eleanor, and the novel leaves the reader wondering if Eleanor has been possessed by specters or if she is simply psychologically unstable.

[2] A historical period drama set in England. The show shows the (mostly amicable) dynamics between an upper class family and their servants as they interact in and manage the large manor, Downton Abbey.

[3] Boria Sax explains the significance of Familiars in her work, “The Magic of Animals: English Witch Trials in the Perspective of Folklore”: “Stories of witches and familiars are in the mainstream of European folklore, and their sole novelty lies in the fact that those figures were demonized. One result of the witch trials in England was that stories of animal sages, guides, and protectors were largely eliminated from English folklore, since these too closely resembled familiars. The persecution of those who consorted with familiars helped deprive animals of all intrinsic significance, thus opening the way for their exploitation as livestock and their humanization as pets in the centuries to come. Even today, however, familiars continue to be significant, exemplifying an intense communion between animals and human beings.” (2)

One thought on ““Severe and Horribly Adorn(ed)”: Reclaiming Masculine Space through Witchcraft and the Supernatural in Mary Leapor’s ‘Crumble Hall’

  1. artophile says:

    I really liked your interpretation and ideas concerning Mary Leapor’s “Crumble Hall”. I am also studying this particular poem in the context of a class concerning women’s poetry belonging to the 18th century labouring class and Vassiliki Markidou is actually the lecturer of this class.The interpretation of Mira as a witch hadn’t occurred to me so thank you for sharing it. 🙂

    Like

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