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Essay

Modern Wit

Why the 18th-century Laetitia Pilkington is a heroine for today.

The defining incident of Laetitia Pilkington’s life, for better or for worse, came well after midnight. The poet was in her bedroom in Dublin late one evening in October 1737, accompanied by a dashing, philandering doctor who was very much not her husband. Pilkington later wrote that she was simply reading a book that belonged to him: “Lovers of learning will, I am sure, pardon me.”

Years later, Pilkington’s sensational memoir would depict what happened next as high farce. In reality, it must have been terrifying. A group of 12 armed men burst into the bedroom, breaking down the door even though it was unlocked. Pilkington’s husband, Matthew, was right behind them. A scuffle ensued in which Laetitia was knocked on the head and two of her fingers pulled out of their joints. While two men restrained the doctor, her husband “courageously” throttled him. Matthew then fetched a bottle of wine, drank to his wife’s health, and offered to perform a wedding ceremony for Laetitia and the doctor just as soon as Matthew divorced her. As his wife rushed out of the room, he tried to kiss her.

It was a dramatic and traumatic night, though one that might have led only to private turmoil for a different sort of couple. But for Matthew and Laetitia Pilkington, celebrated wits of Dublin and close friends of the beloved Jonathan Swift, it was a public affair. Laetitia lost everything, including financial stability, friendships, and her children. She also made her way to a bigger city, however, and eventually to bigger success as a poet and memoirist. Today she is largely unread. But even at a distance of four centuries, Laetitia Pilkington is recognizable as a type that still confounds many people today: an ambitious and righteously angry woman who refused to lose her sense of humor. And she used both her anger and her humor in her writing to spin gold out of the indignities and misfortunes—some of them of her own creation—that followed her all her life.

Pilkington was born Laetitia Van Lewen in 1708 or 1709, according to biographer Norma Clarke, though she liked to claim 1712. Her father was a respected Dublin doctor, an obstetrician at a time when childbirth was overwhelmingly left to midwives. After young Laetitia’s early bout with smallpox, her high-born mother forbade her from learning to read, for fear of worsening her weakened eyesight. But Pilkington was stubborn from the start. In her memoirs, she boasts of memorizing and reciting Alexander Pope’s 108-line poem “Messiah” at the age of five. “I was charmed and ravished with the sweets of poetry, all my hours were dedicated to the muses,” she wrote of that crystallizing moment. “From a reader, I quickly became a writer.”

By 16 or so, the flirtatious budding writer was married to Matthew Pilkington, a published poet who was in training to become a clergyman in the Church of Ireland. One of Matthew’s first poems, “A Pastoral Elegy on the Death of a Lady’s Canary-Bird,” named his love outright:

One Ev’ning mild as fair Laetitia sung,
And pour’d melodious Sweetness from her Tongue...

As Clarke notes, it turns out the canary in Matthew’s poem died of jealousy of Laetitia, an ominous hint of the couple’s eventual bitterness over each other’s successes. By the time their marriage officially ended, Laetitia had given birth to six children, three of whom survived infancy. Scandal seemed to follow this otherwise respectable family with unusual closeness: Laetitia’s sister and her daughter would both go on to have illegitimate children.

Early in Laetitia and Matthew’s marriage, before the scandal, the couple was swept up in a sophisticated Dublin literary circle. They were both devoted to their writing; Matthew, employed as the curate at St. Andrew’s church, oversaw the construction of a building behind their house that both of them used as a work space. Clarke points out that their group included an unusual number of women, including Frances-Arabella Kelly, Constantia Grierson, and Mary Barber, an older poet who specialized in light verse. The women of Dublin were acquiring a notable reputation: Jonathan Swift wrote to Alexander Pope in 1729 boasting of Dublin’s “Triumfeminate” of literary women, including Barber.

Soon enough, Matthew and Laetitia were introduced by a mutual friend to Swift himself, the great satirist who lived in a neighboring parish in Dublin. Swift was past 60, and his work as a wildly successful writer and pamphleteer had made him a hero of such standing in Ireland that his birthday was celebrated with bonfires and bell-ringings. He instantly took a liking to the young couple.

Swift was a delighted and supportive patron of the couple, but also treated them with casual cruelty. Laetitia wrote that he would often deliver a “deadly Pinch” to correct her. One Christmas he forced a pregnant Laetitia to take off her shoes and stand against the wall to be measured; he placed his hand on her head “till I shrunk under the Weight, to almost half my Proportion.” He then crowed that she was only three feet two. (Matthew and Laetitia were both small and short, and they wrung this fact for humor whenever possible. Clarke speculates that the couple emphasized their stature as a nod to the Lilliputians of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, which in turn reminded people of their connection to the great man.) Swift described the Pilkingtons’ type to Pope, in contrast to “great people,” as “a middle kind both for understanding and fortune, who are perfectly easy, never impertinent, complying in everything, ready to do a hundred little offices that you and I may often want, who dine and sit with me five times for once that I go to them, and whom I can tell without offence, that I am otherwise engaged at present.”

It is impossible not to cringe on the Pilkingtons’ behalf upon reading that. But despite her youth, her sex, and her lesser fame, Laetitia took pride in matching wits with Swift. During one visit, he teased her by saying Matthew would have been smarter to keep a horse instead of marry her, which “would have given him better Exercise and more Pleasure than a Wife.” Laetitia, heavily pregnant, parried, “Pray how can a bachelor judge of this matter?” And it wasn’t all japery: Swift recommended Matthew for a plum job in London, regaled the couple with entertaining stories of his early life, and allowed Laetitia to read his letters from Pope, John Gay, and others in their circle, experiences she would later take rich advantage of.

Meanwhile, however, Matthew and Laetitia’s relationship was souring. Laetitia wrote a pointed three-stanza poem about sexual rejection around this time, which begins with unmistakable bitterness:

Strephon, your breach of faith and trust
    Affords me no surprise;
A man who grateful was, or just,
    Might make my wonder rise.

After her escapade with the doctor in 1737—Matthew had his own mistress at the time—the marriage exploded spectacularly. Swift dropped them both, calling Matthew a rogue and Laetitia “the most profligate whore.” Her reputation as such spread terrifyingly fast; her memoirs recount that she was subject to astonishing brutality in Dublin in the months following, including an attempted rape by an earl. In 1738 she moved alone to London, where her first work to be published was a long, vindictive, and funny poem titled “The Statues: Or, the Trial of Constancy,” a direct rebuttal to Swift’s and her husband’s “eternally satirizing and ridiculing the Female Sex.”

For several years Pilkington struggled just to survive. At her lowest points, she pawned her valuables and spent several months in debtors’ prison. But she was building connections, including with the much-mocked playwright and poet Colley Cibber, and Pamela author Samuel Richardson. Eventually she returned to Ireland to drum up further support for the publication that would make her name: her three-volume “Memoirs of Mrs. Laetitia Pilkington,” which included heavy doses of her own poetry and what was effectively the first biography of Jonathan Swift. It’s delicious that the woman Swift dismissed as a whore mined their relationship for information and anecdotes that profited generations of Swift scholars—and herself.

The memoirs capture everything delightful and dangerous about Laetitia Pilkington. Her stories have a boastful wit that suggests unflappability, but she rants against her philandering husband in juicy detail and implicates the system that punished her but left him unscathed. The Matthew she depicts is jealous, conniving, and cruel. “I could scarcely after regard Mr. P----n as a husband,” she writes about one incident, “but rather a man whose property I was, and who would gladly dispose of me to the best bidder. Shocking thought!” She used his weaknesses as evidence for a larger problem with men, who “commonly choose for mates the most illiterate and stupid of the sex, and then bless their stars their wife is not a wit.”

Female memoirists were not unknown in the 18th century, and Clarke writes that Pilkington was also lucky “to be born in a time and place which rewarded wit in women.” Indeed, the first two volumes, published months apart in 1748, were an immediate smash, inspiring a flurry of reactionary poetry and broadsides. A scathing pamphlet titled “Remarks on the Second Volume of the Memoirs of Mrs. Pilkington, with some particulars of that lady’s life which she has omitted,” for example, hauled out that old familiar question about feminine success: “’Tis a likely Story, that People would give their Money to a young, single Woman, without asking a Favour.”

Pilkington had only a few years to enjoy her new life as a bona fide literary celebrity; she died in 1750. Ralph Griffiths, who had recently published the scandalous novel Fanny Hill, republished the first two volumes of her memoirs the next year. The third volume was published postmortem with the help of her son, Jack. (Matthew had been given custody of the children, though Jack and daughter Betty later spent time with Laetitia in London.)

Fourteen years later, her reputation was still compelling enough to prompt the publication of a collection titled “The Celebrated Mrs. Pilkington’s Jests: Or the Cabinet of Wit and Humour.” But although her anecdotes about Swift have been recycled into countless other biographies, Pilkington’s own life and work faded from public view by the 19th century. Virginia Woolf attempted to resuscitate her in her 1925 collection of essays The Common Reader, comparing her sympathetically to Moll Flanders. The first annotated version of her memoirs was published in 1997, and Clarke’s biography arrived in 2008. Her story feels remarkably relevant. She took painful, embarrassing raw material, gave it an artful gloss, and turned it into farce that the public was eager to consume and critique—much as comic female memoirists such as Ephron and Dunham have done today.

Woolf, as usual, captured it best. “All had been bitterness and struggle,” she wrote, “except that she had loved Shakespeare, known Swift, and kept through all the shifts and shades of an adventurous career a gay spirit, something of a lady’s breeding, and the gallantry which, at the end of her short life, led her to crack her joke and enjoy her duck with death at her heart and duns at her pillow.”

Essay

Modern Wit

Why the 18th-century Laetitia Pilkington is a heroine for today.

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