Little is known of Maria de Fleury’s early life. Most likely she was the daughter of middle-class French emigrants (Huguenots) who settled in London. She may have been born in England, but certainly immigrated at a very young age, for she writes in the preface to her 1790 poem on the French Revolution that she had come to possess “an English heart.” Her writings exhibit a level of education beyond the norm for most women of her day, an education that took her beyond the typical ornamental skills (letter writing, drawing, music, dancing, and French) to literature, theology, and apparently a reading knowledge of Latin. She had at least one brother, an artist, to whom she addressed a poem in honor of his wedding in 1773. Although she never married, she did not live with her brother, as many single sisters would have done. Instead, she remained an independent woman, serving for a time as a schoolmistress before settling in London at No. 2, City Mews, White-Cross Street, and later at 31 Jewin Street, Cripplegate. She shared the second dwelling with another woman, earning an income by means of her pen as well as the operation of a kind of general store from which she sold her inexpensive (most were priced at two-pence) volumes of poetry and prose. During her years in London, she worshiped among the Particular Baptists and Independents. Some of her favorite ministers were John Collett Ryland, Andrew Gifford, John Langford, and a few members of the London Evangelical Association, a group heavily influenced by the preaching of George Whitefield.
De Fleury’s first significant publication was Poems Occasioned by the Confinement and Acquittal of the Right Honourable Lord George Gordon, President of the Protestant Association (1781), the same year she published some poems and hymns in the short-lived Protestant Magazine (1780-82). Shortly after Gordon presented a petition to Parliament opposing the proposed Catholic relief bill, rioting broke out across London from 2 June through 9 June 1780, led by members of the Protestant Association, of which Gordon was president. The riots caused considerable damage to homes and businesses of both Catholic and Protestant supporters of the relief bill, resulting in the loss of nearly 300 lives. During the interval between the arrest of Gordon for allegedly instigating the riots and his acquittal the following February, de Fleury, a proud supporter of the Association and an ardent anti-Catholic, composed a series of poems praising Gordon and his followers as England’s true “Sons of Freedom” who had defended their country from “that foul beast” and “Scarlet Whore,” the “Anti-Christ” church of Rome. The Methodist leader Charles Wesley, however, did not share de Fleury’s enthusiasm about the mob’s riotous behavior and criticized them and their leader in his poem The Protestant Association, Written in the Midst of the Tumults, June 1780 (1781). De Fleury responded to Wesley in her poem, Unrighteous Abuse Detected and Chastised (1781). She showed no signs of intimidation:
So, Charles, thy mighty malice rages,
Thou wisest of our modern sages:
Great Poet, little elves like me,
Must from thy presence surely flee,
Or frighted stand, to hear thee tell
The dark conspiracies of Hell …
De Fleury impugned Wesley’s reputation, calling him a “writer of scurility” who, inspired by the Devil, has finally sold his “conscience” and “bow’d before a god of gold.” De Fleury’s response, like her later controversy with Huntington, demonstrated that she was more than capable of holding her own with prominent ministers of various denominations.
The following year de Fleury dedicated her sacred poem, Henry, or the Triumph of Grace (1782), to Gordon, and followed the next year with another religious poem, An Ode Occasioned by the Death of Mrs. Elizabeth Dowland (1783). Dowland, a member of the Baptist congregation in Rose Lane, near Ratcliff Cross, London, died at the age of twenty-four while giving birth to her second child. Most likely, de Fleury was herself a member at that time either at Rose Lane or the Baptist congregation at Red Cross Street, where her next work, a collection of hymns on believer’s baptism, was sold. This small pamphlet contained twelve hymns for adults and two designed for children, all focusing on the one ordinance that most distinguished Baptists from all other Dissenters at that time. De Fleury’s most ambitious literary project, however, was her Divine Poems and Essays on Various Subjects (1791), a large volume containing numerous poems and prose pieces composed between 1773 and 1791. Included in this collection were some of her earlier publications (Henry and the poem on Mrs. Dowland), several elegies (including one on Andrew Gifford, pastor of the Baptist congregation at Eagle Street in London [1735-84] and assistant librarian at the British Museum [1757-84]), a long poem titled Immanuel celebrating the deity of Christ, and a collection of hymns, meditations, odes, occasional poems, and personal letters to family members and friends.
Prior to her publication of Divine Poems and Essays, de Fleury composed her final political poem, British Liberty Established, and Gallic Liberty Restored; or, The Triumph of Freedom (1790), a work praising the French Revolution and its implications for Protestant religion and political freedom throughout the world. As she writes in her Preface, the events of 1789 had “fixed the attention, animated the passions, and deeply impressed almost every heart,” especially “Lovers of the Protestant Religion and of Civil and Religious Liberty.” During this transformation from servitude to freedom, however, women played a key role:
In Female bosoms see the flame arise,
Glow in their hearts, and sparkle in their eyes:
With Amazonian courage, lo! They quit
Domestic trifles, and the still retreat,
For noise and bustle, all the din of war,
Where wounds and terrors, death and dangers are;
To curb the bounding steed, to wield the spear,
And all the thunders of the fight to hear.
This is thy triumph, sacred Liberty;
Women and Priests, inspir’d by love of thee,
Lay by their weakness and timidity;
They shine in arms, and let the Nations know
They shun no danger, and they fear no foe.
“Sweet Liberty” was now descending from Heaven; in her light, de Fleury writes, “no more shall fetters bind, / And chains of darkness hold th’ immortal mind.” The seventh trumpet will soon announce the reign of “fair Freedom” in which all “mortals prove the joys of Liberty.”
In nearly all her Prefaces, de Fleury employs the rhetorical device of “affected modesty,” a technique not uncommon to women writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In Unrighteous Abuse Detected and Chastised, she closes her poetic tribute to the Protestant Association with a description of herself remarkably similar to that used by the early American poet Anne Bradstreet in her “Prologue” to “The Four Monarchies of the World.” “Forgive the Muse her artless song,” de Fleury writes,
Her warmest praise must do thee wrong:
That shining worth her feeble lyre
Cannot describe; she must admire
And own how weak her numbers be,
O! Gordon! when she sings of Thee.
In her “Dedication” to Henry, or the Triumph of Grace, she resorts to the same technique, admitting her “inability” to do “justice to the important truths” she wishes to illustrate in the poem, a skill that would require the pen “of an Angel.” She did not originally intend the poem for publication, only for viewing by her friends, but at their insistence and with Gordon’s permission, she has brought her poem before the public, knowing that Gordon will not “peruse it with the severity of a critic, but … will forgive the improprieties of the author. My pen is rude and unpolished; my abilities very small; yet, such as they are, I desire to devote them to him who is the giver of every good and perfect gift.” In her Preface to British Liberty Established, dated 6 January 1790, she declares that the poem “was not written with a view to acquire either gain or applause; but as the divine Goodness has honoured me with the friendship of many most respectable and valuable persons, who condescend to be pleased with the little effusions of my unworthy pen, it was composed to oblige them.” She trusts the public “will suffer the propriety of my intention in writing to cover the many improprieties they may discover in the Poem; and that they will do me the justice to believe, that, if I possessed the brightest genius and greatest abilities in the world, instead of the little half talent God has bestowed upon me, it would be my highest delight to lay them out for the improvement of the rising generation, and to express my gratitude to my God, my Friends, and my Country.”
Though she consistently employs self-deprecation as a means of engaging her readers, she nevertheless insists on her right as a woman, despite her disadvantages in education and social status, to write about religious doctrines and matters of religious controversy. In her Preface to Divine Poems and Essays on Various Subjects, she admits that “it may appear somewhat like presumption in a woman to exercise her pen upon such a subject” as the Trinity and the deity of Christ, but the nature of the times have compelled her to do so:
Impressed with a deep sense of the importance of the subject, and conscious of my own utter inability to defend so illustrious a truth, fearing to darken council by words without knowledge, I wished, but durst not for several years, attempt any thing of this kind, though requested by several friends to do it; however, an unexpected solicitation from a gentleman at that time a perfect stranger, to me, prevailed upon me to take up my pen – I viewed it as the voice of providence, and therefore durst not refuse … Conscious as I am of the many improprieties of language and deficiencies in point of grammar, which are very discernable in these poems and tracts, I feel myself constrained to put in a humble claim to the candid attention of my readers, from the consideration that I am a Woman, that I have not enjoyed the advantages of a liberal education; that some of the pieces were written many years ago, and that I have not had the kind assistance of any judicious friend in preparing them for the press, or even in correcting and revising the proof sheets, but have gone through the whole fatigue of this work myself, and that in the midst of much weakness and indisposition of body. – When these facts are duly weighed, I flatter myself that the soft and gentle hand of candour will draw a veil over the inaccuracies of the following pieces, and skreen them from the severity of the keen eye of criticism. However, such as they are, I commit them to the care and blessing of heaven; and I am encouraged to do this, because I know the Lord of Hosts is a God of unlimited power, he can not only bless the labours of his great and eminent servants, but he can also bless the feeblest attempts for his glory, and own the weakest instrument; he is pleased sometimes to make use of weak and contemptible things to confound the mighty and the wise.
Despite her self-deprecation, de Fleury developed a reputation between 1780 and 1792 as the most prominent woman poet among the orthodox Dissenters, a reputation that was significantly enhanced in 1787 when she turned her talents toward polemical writing, engaging one of London’s most controversial Dissenting ministers in a five-year pamphlet war is which she did indeed “confound the mighty and the wise.”