Queen of the Wits: A Life of Laetitia Pilkington, by Norma Clarke, Faber and Faber, 384pp, £20.00, ISBN: 978-0571224289
Can you imagine a very extraordinary cross between Moll Flanders and Lady Ritchie, between a rolling and rollicking woman of the town and a lady of breeding and refinement? Laetitia Pilkington (1712-1759) was something of the sort – shady, shifty, adventurous, and yet, like Thackeray’s daughter, like Miss Mitford, like Madame de Sévigné and Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth, so imbued with the old traditions of her sex that she wrote, as ladies talk, to give pleasure. Throughout her Memoirs, we can never forget that it is her wish to entertain, her unhappy fate to sob. Dabbing her eyes and controlling her anguish, she begs us to forgive an odious breach of manners which only the suffering of a lifetime, the intolerable persecutions of Mr. P—n, the malignant, she must say the h—h, spite of Lady C—t can excuse. For who should know better than the Earl of Killmallock’s great-granddaughter that it is the part of a lady to hide her sufferings? Thus Laetitia is in the great tradition of English women of letters. It is her duty to entertain; it is her instinct to conceal … Her language is a trifle coarse, perhaps. But who taught her English? The great Doctor Swift.
Thus Virginia Woolf in The Common Reader (1925), in her chapter on Lives of the Obscure. Laetitia Pilkington’s Memoirs had been out of print since 1776, having been first published in 1748-54, but were reprinted in 1928 in an English Library edition, edited by J Isaacs, with an introduction by Iris Barry. A new annotated edition, edited by AC Elias Jnr, was published in 1997, and the first biography of Laetitia Pilkington, by Norma Clarke, has now appeared. Woolf’s rescue mission has taken a long time to bear fruit, but we are now fully provided with scholarly information about a highly intriguing woman who flourished and suffered in Dublin and London in the early eighteenth century.
Woolf had her dates wrong: Pilkington was probably born in Cork in 1709, and definitely died in Dublin in 1750. She came into an Ireland in a state of solidifying Protestant power in the aftermath of the Williamite wars and the Treaty of Limerick, of increasingly repressive anti-Catholic legislation (which also affected Dissenters), of incremental land dispossession for the Catholic gentry and corresponding aggrandisement of the Protestant Ascendancy, and of the beginnings of the unique cultural project of Ireland’s eighteenth century, starting with Berkeley and Swift and ending with Burke and Sheridan, and including Gandon, Johnson, Burgh and Lovett Pearce. The political culture was one of resentful deference to England, from whence flowed most appointments and patronage. (Swift pretended to believe that very good men were chosen in England to be Irish bishops, but were invariably set upon by bandits before they arrived, who then took their places in the episcopal palaces.)
The War of the Spanish Succession was dragging interminably on, not to conclude until 1713. Queen Anne was on the throne, to be succeeded by her Hanoverian cousin, George I, in 1714, bringing the Whigs back into power. George I spoke no English and preferred to stay in Hanover, thus leaving power in the hands of the government. The modern system of prime-ministerial government dates from this time, as developed by Sir Robert Walpole, prime minister from 1721 to 1742. Two Jacobite invasions took place in the first half of the century, one in 1715, the second in 1746. Both ended in ignominious defeat. Jethro Tull invented the seed drill in 1701, the Act of Union between England and Scotland was passed in 1707, the South Sea Bubble burst in 1720 and John Wesley started preaching in 1739. It was a period of relative peace, stability and prosperity, of the rapid development of popular newspapers and pamphlets, and of frequent agricultural crises.
Laetitia’s father, John Van Lewen, was the son of a Dutch physician who had settled in Ireland, and her mother descended, according to herself, from the Earl of Kilmallock. Her father was a “man-midwife”, a very rare specimen in those days, who became popular with pregnant Ascendancy women, and prospered to the extent of being able to move house constantly to the most fashionable areas of Dublin, ending up in Molesworth Street. Laetitia was an only child for six years; she recounts bad treatment from her mother – “she strictly followed Solomon’s advice, in never sparing the rod” – but gentleness and encouragement from her father, who gave her access to his library and provided her with a literary education. She claims to have been able to read Pope at the age of five, “charmed and ravished by the sweets of poetry”.
In her teens, she met Matthew Pilkington, a clergyman with no money but with an interest in poetry. Matthew ingratiated himself with her family, and despite his poverty married Laetitia in 1725, when she was sixteen. His lack of worldly goods is represented by his possessions on marriage – a harpsichord, a cat and an owl. The next few years were pleasant and interesting: Matthew and Laetitia became friendly with Dr Patrick Delany, who was the centre of a literary set which included women like the poets Mary Barber and Constantia Grierson, and who was friendly with the biggest celebrity in Ireland at the time, Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Laetitia and Matthew were both writing poetry at this stage and were very keen to meet Swift. Laetitia accomplished this with a blatantly flattering poem for the dean’s birthday, comparing him to Cato and Plutarch.
Swift referred to the Pilkingtons, who were both small in stature, as “a little young poetical parson, who has a littler young poetical wife”, or “mighty Thomas Thumb and Her Serene Highness of Lillyput”. He was genuinely kind to the young couple, helping Matthew with his career as a clegyman and including them in his peculiar dinner parties at the deanery, which always involved contretemps with the servants over the quality of the food or their alleged purloining of beer. He treated Laetitia almost like an intelligent doll, to be played tricks on, pinched, smacked, forced to take her shoes off, quizzed on her knowledge of literature, and expected to listen to him for hours on end. She willingly put up with all of this, rather like a groupie with a rock star, as she was keenly aware of the value of her connection with him in a world where connections led to patronage and wealth. At this point in her life, her literary aspirations did not include her memoirs, but her account of her relationship with Swift later became a major selling point for them.
In 1732, Swift’s patronage procured for Matthew the chaplaincy to the Lord Mayor of London, John Barber, and he decided to go despite Laetitia’s protests that a year’s absence from her and their three children (mentioned almost in passing) would be too hard for her to bear. When she asked to go with him, he responded that he “did not want such an encumbrance as a wife, that he did not intend to pass there for a married man, and that, in short, he could not taste any pleasure where [she] was”. The marriage was obviously in trouble, some of it caused by Matthew’s jealousy of Laetitia’s literary gifts, which had led to a number of people stating that she wrote better than he did. Laetitia finally got to London three months before Matthew’s chaplaincy expired, to find him having an affair with an actress and attempting to pimp his wife to the portrait painter James Worsdale, a transaction which she claims to have resisted.
Returning to Dublin alone (Matthew ended up temporarily in jail in London for trafficking some of Swift’s treasonable poetry), Laetitia found herself the object of censure “both traduced for going to London, and for returning from it”. And things got worse: Matthew, on his return to Dublin (at his father-in-law’s expense), soon began an affair with a wealthy widow, and thus had a motive for divorcing Laetitia; Laetitia’s father managed to stab himself accidentally with a scalpel and died soon afterwards, leaving her with no male protection; Laetitia took up with Robert Adair, a young surgeon, when Matthew moved in with his widow, and thus facilitated Matthew’s darker purpose. The story of the discovery of Laetitia with Adair in her bedroom at midnight, reading a book – by Matthew and no less than twelve members of the night watch – is one of the dramatic high points of the Memoirs.
Matthew, delighted to have finally achieved a cast-iron reason for divorce, called for a bottle of wine to drink the health of Laetitia and Adair, and declared that he would marry them as soon as the divorce was finalised. He then threw them out, Laetitia with nothing but the clothes she was wearing, and nowhere to go but Adair’s lodgings. She was pregnant, destitute and disgraced. Her family would not help her, Swift referred to her as “the most profligate whore in either kingdom”, and as an unprotected woman, she was pursued by rakes and madams, to the point of having to barricade herself in her room at night. She lost her children. After two years of a truly horrible existence, she decided, in 1739, to go to London and begin again, using an alias but also capitalising on her dramatic story and parlaying her conversational and literary skills into some kind of a living.
Her time in London was eased considerably by her friendship with Colley Cibber, poet laureate, one of most famous actors of the period, and the author of an autobiography which had sold extremely well. It was Cibber who first planted the idea of writing a memoir in Laetitia’s head. She set herself up in lodgings opposite White’s club, where the aristocracy gathered regularly, and proceeded to gather subscriptions for her yet-to-be-published book of poetry. She also worked as a jobbing writer, producing poems, prologues and petitions to commission. She established herself as a well-known writer and conversationalist, but her life would always be precarious, without a husband and dependent on uncertain sources of income. Norma Clarke takes her at her word that she never gave sexual favours in return for money, but it is highly unlikely that this was the case. She comes close to admitting to such behaviour on a number of occasions, and her determination to survive very probably demanded a bit of genteel prostitution.
She remained in London until 1747 and had mixed experiences. When she had exhausted her aristocratic connections she quickly found herself in debt, and was imprisoned in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison for two weeks. On her release, she managed to set herself up in a shop in St James’s, selling books and prints and continuing her work as a commissioned writer. This enterprise ended when the shop was robbed and all her clothes were stolen; her landlord seized what stock remained in lieu of rent. Her maid then ran off with her linen. She wanted to go back to Dublin, but couldn’t raise the fare. Just as things seemed to be at their worst, her daughter Betty, whom she hadn’t seen since she was a small child, turned up at her lodgings, nineteen, pregnant and unmarried. The reaction of her “saintly methodist landlady” was to evict them both, just before Christmas. They had no choice but to stay in doss-houses, constantly fearful that Betty would give birth in squalid and dangerous surroundings.
They were saved by Colley Cibber, who managed to raise some money from friends, enabling them to get basic lodgings; Betty’s child was born in February 1746. Jack, Laetitia’s son, also arrived at this time, destitute, charming and needy. She got him work at Drury Lane theatre and spent some of her scarce resources on fitting him out with decent clothes. Jack ended up in the British army, and nearly died as a result of a fever caught while enlisted, but recovered and was responsible for the posthumous publication of Laetitia’s final volume of memoirs, as well as for his own autobiography, a useful corroboration of some of Laetitia’s assertions.
Laetitia was very happy to be reunited with her children and did everything she could for them, in spite of her own near-destitution at the time. Betty’s baby was put out to nurse, and Betty went into domestic service. Both children recounted stories of abuse and neglect at the hands of their father, which further confirmed Laetitia’s low opinion of him. James Worsdale came back into her life, and for a period they shared lodgings together. She describes their living arrangements in the Memoirs:
We had four Play-bills for a tablecloth, Knives, Forks, or Plates, we had none … The Butter, when we had any, was deposited in the cool and fragrant recess of an old shoe, a Coffee pot of mine served for as many uses as ever Scrub had, for sometimes it boil’d Coffee sometimes Tea, it brought small Beer, and I am more than half afraid it has been applied to less noble Uses.
(Scrub is the servant in Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem.)
By 1747 she had had enough of London, and decided to return to Dublin with Jack and try to shame Matthew into doing something for his son. She engaged in a final round of begging letters, getting some vicious responses from previous “friends”, and largely due to Patrick Delaney, who was in London at the time, got the fare together. After a long journey at the cheapest rate, they landed at Ringsend, made their way to the city, and got lodgings in Aungier Street. She then laid siege to Matthew, who had abandoned his widow and taken up with the younger Nancy Sandes, whom he wished to marry. Laetitia’s inconvenient presence was a major obstacle to this ambition. Despite threats of legal action she failed to extract from Matthew the money he had agreed to in their divorce settlement.
Swift had died in 1745, having left his entire fortune to establish St Patrick’s Hospital, his “home for fools and mad”. Laetitia knew that her account of her relationship with him would be interesting to many people; she also knew that the implied threat of appearing in the Memoirs in a bad light would be enough to persuade many people to subscribe to them in the hope of being treated favourably. She arranged with a printer to open subscriptions, and resumed work on the two volumes she intended to publish, with Jack as her amanuensis. She found a patron in the twenty-three-year-old Sir Robert King, Lord Kingsborough, who accepted her offer to dedicate the Memoirs to him and was to give her a great deal of money before their acrimonious parting a year later.
Laetitia had only three years to live after her return to Dublin, but she turned them to good account, promoting and publishing her Memoirs, making life difficult for Matthew, helping Jack with his career in the theatre, renewing some old acquaintances and generally amusing herself. After some difficulty getting appropriate lodgings, due to a friend of Matthew’s reviling her to prospective landlords, she found a house in Golden Lane, near St Patrick’s Cathedral. The first volume of the Memoirs, published in early 1748, had proved immensely popular and had created an appetite for the second. Money, for the first time in many years, was plentiful.
Volume II appeared in late 1748, to much interest, acclaim and refutation. During this time she met John Wesley, and had a long conversation with him on “every subject that could convince me he was a man of taste and true breeding”. Wesley gave her two guineas and asked her not to mention their meeting in her memoirs. She agreed, and kept her word; we only know of their meeting because she described it in a letter to Lord Kingsborough.
In the summer of 1749, Laetitia’s health began to fail; she had always had stomach troubles – she may have suffered from ulcers, or perhaps she had cancer. She continued to work on Volume III of her memoirs, but was losing weight and getting weaker. She and Jack moved to Beresford Street, where she increasingly stayed in bed. Jack’s autobiography has a touching account of a final outing to Chapelizod, where she was able to eat duck and peas and drink some white wine. She died two days later. Matthew paid for her funeral, at St Ann’s in Dawson Street, and married Nancy Sandes a month later.
Laetitia Pilkington is interesting for a number of reasons: her story is dramatic; her connections were famous; her capacity to survive vicissitudes was remarkable; her ability to turn hardship to good account was admirable. As a female writer in an expressly patriarchal society, she made the very best of her situation. As a woman without male protection, when such vulnerability usually led to seclusion, she defied the customs of her time to live a public, independent life, earning her own living, albeit often by begging. She understood, at the end of her life, that her knowledge of society, allied with her scathing style, provided her with a powerful and lucrative weapon which she could exploit to her advantage; the pity is that she did not act sooner.
The Memoirs are a lively mish-mash of gossip, reported conversation, quotes from Milton, Shakespeare and Swift, all of her own poetry, which had never appeared before in one collection, imprecations against her enemies, and particularly the Established Church, eulogies of her friends, and copies of letters sent and received (including an hilarious one from Matthew’s widow, to whom she cheekily wrote asking for a subscription to the Memoirs: “It is not in your power to defamatonous my Corrector in your wild Memboirs”).
Laetitia is one of the original unreliable narrators: her recall of conversations beggars belief, she has many axes to grind, and the paying off of old scores features far too prominently for the health of the narrative. Nonetheless, considerable veracity is attested to by her benign portrait of Matthew as a young husband; she does not paint him as a villain from the start. It is also probable that her recall of her conversations with Swift is pretty accurate: she was young and impressionable, with a very good memory, and he was distinctly memorable. Her account of their meetings still has a kind of freshness and fun that makes it invaluable in any assessment of that most interesting man.
The Memoirs are also often very funny. Laetitia had plenty of wit, and knew how to spice it up with malice. Here she is on a number of subjects which exercised her: on Mrs Warren, Matthew’s widow: “Old enough she was to be my mother, and big enough to make four of me”; a vengeful poem against a man who tormented her in Mallow, on what a friend did with his impenetrable philosophical writings: “These Sybil leaves, oh spite and shame! / In pieces torn he takes / And wipes a part not fit to name / And plunged them in a jakes”; on clergymen: “Those who want to look further into the deceits of priesthood may trace it even up to the Nile, from whence superstition and the crocodile first sprung, both alike destructive to mankind”; on the Bishop of Salisbury, who refused her alms: “ … an old man with a most unprelatical countenance – for it was full of bubuckles and knobs and flames of fire”.
She had no real interest in her surroundings: the account of her circumstances with Worsdale is untypical. Her main interests were in relationships, conversation and literature. She rarely tells us what street she is living in, or what clothes she is wearing, or what food she is eating. She is oblivious to the widespread horrors of poverty in two of the most unequal cities in Europe, except when her own luck is down. To be fair, she understands that life is utterly precarious for many people, but can only look after herself and her immediate family. She is almost equally oblivious to the unfolding city of Dublin, in the process of being completely transformed by the Wide Streets Commissioners into a spacious, architecturally beautiful construct, from a provincial capital into the second city of the United Kingdom. Our sense of period from the Memoirs comes from her language and ideas rather than a rich evocation of her physical circumstances.
The early eighteenth century was a period of improvement for women, fuelled by the expansion of the Irish woollen and linen trades and maintained by the widespread use of single women and widows in the burgeoning service industry, as domestic servants, milliners, seamstresses, and similar occupations. Women, for the first time, could achieve financial independence and married women could become contributors of cash to their household economies. Laetitia, still, was unusual in her success as a divorced woman in a world of serious disapproval of such people. Dr Delany and his wife would not publicly acknowledge her after her divorce, although Delany did send her money through intermediaries. The Memoirs give us a picture of someone often struggling against great odds to survive with her self-respect intact.
Norma Clarke, in this well-researched and well-written biography, points out that Laetitia had, perforce, to deal with libertines, and that libertines were profoundly contemptuous of women. Even good male friends, like Cibber, could refer to her in carelessly dismissive terms, and she had to swallow this kind of treatment in order to stay alive. The last volume of the Memoirs is coarser and more vituperative than the first two; it is likely that as her strength and vitality failed, her bitterness at the palpable injustice of her life increased.
Clarke was lucky to have such an engaging primary source for her biography. Laetitia’s voice comes down to us, curious, funny, plucky and well-informed, with great story-telling skill and a dash of pleasant malice. It is to be hoped that this biography will send readers back to the Memoirs, to experience this unique woman’s voice for themselves.
Catriona Crowe is a senior archivist at the National Archives of Ireland. She is a former president of the Women’s History Association.