Min Wild at the Times Literary Supplement:
By the closing years of the eighteenth century, well-to-do readers had at last become familiar with the astonishing fact that ordinary working people liked to sing, to make poetry, and even, sometimes, to write it down. Yet the sensation caused by Ann Yearsley’s first volume of poems in 1785 would not have been possible without her complacent editors having described her in its preface as a “poor illiterate woman”. After her death, Yearsley was scolded by Robert Southey in his essay on the “Lives and Works of our Uneducated Poets” for using “ignorant and vulgar” syntax, but she was neither illiterate nor uneducated; she merely worked at the “low” occupation of selling milk, and was female. Working women poets, however, were not new; in 1739, the washerwoman Mary Collier produced the combative “Woman’s Labour”, and the poetry of Mary Leapor, the brilliantly vivid maidservant, was published posthumously in 1748.
The Collected Works reviewed here can best be read as resulting from a spectacular car crash produced by Britain’s accident-prone, labyrinthine class system. In 1784, the impeccable Hannah More – the respectable, established poet and civic commentator – was told the story of an impoverished milkwoman who wrote verses in her own town of Bristol.