Laetitia Pilkington (1712-50)


[var. Letitia]; b. Dublin [prob. b. 1708 or 1709]; dg. John Van Lewen, MD, an obstetrician (‘midwife’); descended on maternal side from family of Patrick Sarsfield; m. Rev. Matthew Pilkington, 1729; the couple were friendly with Jonathan Swift up to their estrangement in 1732; though at first calling them ‘perfectly easy, never impertinent’, he afterwards called him ‘the falsest rogue and she the most profligate whore in either kingdom’; she discovered her husband’s philandering in London when she visited in 1733; she was herself found by him in bed with another man in Dublin and pleaded that they were ‘keeping warm’ while reading a book; divorced and moved to England;
she was employed by Benjamin Victor to write a ghost birthday ode for Princess of Wales; offered him An Excursory View, a satire; she was joined in London by an unmarried dg. with child and by her son Jack [John]; she set up a bookshop in St. James St., London, and was imprisoned in the Marshalsea for debt, where she attempted suicide and was rescued by the actor-manager Colley Cibber; wrote The Turkish Court; or, the London Prentice, a burlesque played at Capel Court, Dublin (1748), which was never printed; also a tragedy, The Roman Father (q.d.); returned to Ireland in 1747 and 1748;
her reminiscences written at that time and first printed in Dublin (Memoirs, 3 vols., 1748-54) made ‘something of a splash’ and served as one of the chief authorities for Swift’s last years and otherwise contains material devised by her, and posthumously by her son, to extract money from parties named in it; Vols. 1 & 2 were printed in Dublin and reprinted in London in 1748 and 1751, the latter with assurance that ‘no third volume would be published’ - presumably in view of her intervening death, though a third was edited by her son J. C. Pilkington in 1754;

The Celebrated Mrs. Pilkington’s Jests (1759) [var. 1751], issued posthumously, prob. by her son, contains ‘most brillant jokes, facetious puns, smart repartees, and entertaining tales [...] epigrams, epitaphs, connundrums, pleasant bulls, &c’, which purportedly amused Swift highly [the jests, perhaps, but not the book since he died in 1748]; she died in her lodgings at Pharper Lane, Dublin, after much travelling back and forth; her son Jack issued the third vol. of her memoirs, and himself was much in debt, dying in 1763; there is a portrait of Mrs. Pilkington by Nathaniel Hone in the National Portrait Gallery (London); a plaque was erected in St. Anne’s Church, Dawson St., Dublin, 1997; styles ‘adventuress’ in the DNB. ODNB DIW DIB FDA OCIL

[ top ]

  • “Poems” included in Poems by Eminent Ladies, 2 vols. (London 1755).

Memoirs, &c.

  • The Memoirs of Mrs Laetitia Pilkington wife to the Rev. Mr. Matth. Pilkington Written by Herself, Wherein are Occasionally interspersed, All her POEMS with Anecdotes of several eminent Persons, Living and Dead [vol. 1 title], 2 vols. (Dublin 1748), with an additional [3rd] vol. (London 1754); Do. (Dublin 1776)].
  • The Celebrated Mrs. Pilkington’s Jests (1751) [FDA var. 1764].
  • Iris Barry, ed. & intro., Memoirs of Mrs Laetitia Pilkington, 1712-1750, Written by Herself (London: G. Routledge & Sons 1928), vii, 487pp., 8°.
  • Memoirs of Mrs. Lætitia Pilkington, written by herself. with anecdotes of Dean Swift. [Facs. rep. of 1748-54 London edns.], 3 vols. (NY: Garland Publ. 1975), [1748] 302pp., [1749] 364pp., [1754] 268pp.
  • Bernard Tucker, ed., The Poetry of Laetitia Pilkington and Constantia Grierson (Lampeter: Edwin Mellen Press 1996), 189pp.
  • A.C. Elias, Jr., ed., Memoirs of Laetitia Pilkington, Vols. 1 & 2 (Athens: Georgia UP 1997), lxii, 845pp.; [called ‘magisterial’ in review of Victoria Glendinning’s Jonathan Swift, in Times Literary Supplement, 25 Sept. 1998].
For fuller listing of her own and related works - see attached.

[ top ]

  • B. G. MacCarthy, The Female Pen, Women Writers and Novelists 1621-1818 (CUP 1994) [with others in Chap. IX, ‘The Oriental Novel’].
  • Bernard Tucker, ‘“Swift’s Female Senate”: Three Forgotten Poets’, in Irish Studies Review, 7 (Summer 1994), pp.7-10 [incl. port. by Nathaniel Hone].
  • Lynda M. Thompson, The “Scandalous Memoirists”: Constantia Philips, Laetitia Pilkington and the Shame of “Publick Fame” (Manchester UP 2000), 256pp. [see infra].

[ top ]

Peter Kavanagh, Irish Theatre (1946), Laetitia Pilkington, 1712-59; The Turkish Court or the London Prentice (Capel St., 1748), sat. burl.; The Roman Father, trag., printed in Memoirs. See Virginia Woolf entered a plea in defence of L. Pilkington in The Common Reader, 1st ser. (1929), pp.160-67.

Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defore, Richardson and Fielding (London: 1957; Univ. of California 1957), quotes Laetitia Pilkington: ‘in 1748 another erring matron, Laetitia Pilkington, asked, ‘Is it not monstrous that our seducers should be our accusers?’ (Memoirs, 1748; London, 1928 edn., p. 103; Watt, Chap. V: ‘Love and the Novel: Pamela’ [q.p.].)’

Esther K. Sheldon, Thomas Sheridan of Smock Alley (NJ: Princeton 1967): gives account of how Letitia [sic] writes gages for her son John, who acts the part of the second Atall to bate Woodward; and that John was arrested by Sheridan for forging tickets, inspiring Letitia to write a vicious satirical poem about him (Memoirs, p.438f.) in which his family are obscenely denigrated. (Sheldon, p.126, ftn.)

J. Ardle MacArdle reviewing A. C. Elias, Memoirs, in Books Ireland (Sept. 1998), which quotes Swift on the Pilkingtons: an amusing poetical Lilliputan couple ‘of the 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.’ (p.218.)

Lynda M. Thompson, The “Scandalous Memoirists” (Manchester UP 2000), reappraises Constantia Phillips and Laetitia Pilkington and overturns scholarship's traditionally derogatory view of them; credits the memoirists with sharply accurate criticism of their society’s double standards and opportunistic stirring up of public debate, making an important contribution to early autobiography and increasingly sophisticated rendering of subjectivity in the novel. [Publisher’s note.]

[ top ]

D. J. O’Donoghue, Poets of Ireland (Dublin: Hodges Figgis 1912), notes that her son John Carteret Pilkington (?1728-1763) was author of The Poet’s Recantation (London n.d); published memoirs, the first edn. being called The Memoirs of Luckless Jack; the second printed in Dublin, 1762; treated Goldsmith badly; contrib. poems to last volume of his mother’s memoirs, which he edited; said she died in 1751 and that she was buried in St Anne’s, Dawson St., beside her father, Van Lewen; she called herself a niece of Patrick Sarsfield, he being ‘the eldest son of Lord Kilmallock’, and described Catholicism as a ‘religion that P. S.’s niece can never hate’.

Brian Cleeve & Ann Brady, A Dictionary of Irish Writers (Dublin: Lilliput 1985) lists Memoirs, 2 vols. (Dublin 1748); The Turkish Court, or London Apprentice (Dublin 1748), play; The Roman Father, trag.; also The Celebrated Mrs. Pilkington’s Jests (1751). Poetry admired by Pope.

A. N. Jeffares & Anthony Kamm, eds., An Irish Childhood, An Anthology (Collins 1987), extract from ‘A Forward Miss’.

Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day 1991), Vol. 1, gives bio-dates c.1707-50; selects “The Happy Pair, A Ballad” [468-69]; Advice to the People of Dublin” [‘Is there a Man, whose fix’d and steady Soul / No Flatt’ry can seduce, no Fear controul; / Constant to Virtue, resolutely just, / True to his Friend his Country, and his Trust ... O Stannard!’ [see under Eaton Stannard Barrett, supra; 483]; and Memoirs [the passage in which she recounts her first meeting with Swift in fulfilment of a strong ambition achieved by enclosing to Dr. Delany lines “To the Rev. Dr. Swift, on his Birthday” [‘Behold in Swift reviv’d appears / The virtues of unnumber’d years’, 993-96]; notes that Swift finally wrote of the Pilkingtons: ‘He proved the falsest rogue and she the most profligate whore in either kingdom’], with notes at 419 [under Constantia Grierson], 497 [Grierson], 463 [ed. Carpenter & Deane: ‘one of the gossips and scribblers who laid the foundations of the great writer’s mythological reputation in Ireland’]; 492, Bibl.; The Memoirs of Mrs Laetitia Pilkington (Dublin 1776), in which “The Happy Pair”, p.p.174-75, and “Advice”’, p.93]; BIOG, 1009 [as above], and note, Thackeray drew heavily on her Memoirs for his view of Swift in English Humourists. Bibl., Memoirs &c. (2 vols., Dublin 1748, 3rd vol. London 1754), published subsequently as Memoirs of Mrs Laetitia Pilkington, 1712-1750, written by herself, intro. by I[an]. Barry (London: Routledge 1928); ‘Poems’ included in Poems by Eminent Ladies, 2 vols. (London 1755); The Celebrated Mrs Pilkington’s Jests, or the Cabinet of Wit and Humour (London 1764).

Anthologies: A. N. Jeffares & Peter Van de Kamp, eds., Irish Literature: The Eighteenth Century - An Annotated Anthology (Dublin / Oregon: Irish Academic Press 2006), selects “Song” [192]; from The Memoirs [192]: “To the Rev. Dr SWIFT, on his Birthday” [192]; First Meeting [193-96]. See also extract in Liam Harte, ed., The Literature of the Irish in Britain: Autobiography and Memoir, 1725-2001 (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2009), 301pp. Note: no extracts in The Cabinet of Irish Literature, ed. Charles Read (1867) or in Irish Literature, ed. Justin McCarthy (1905).

Belfast Central Public Library holds Memoirs of Mrs. Laetitia Pilkington, 3 vols. (1748-54); also Memoirs &c. (1928).

[ top ]

Jon. Swift: ‘The Dean could not abide the thought of being like other mortals, forgot as soon as his venerable dust was convey’d to the earth; and therefore be always endeavour’d to render himself worthy of a grateful remembrance in the hearts of the people.’ (Memoirs of Mrs. Pilkington, London. R. Griffiths 1754, III, 54).

[ top ]

Affectation? Dictionary of National Biogaphy [ODNB] speaks of her freedom from affectation as the secret of her attraction to Swift.

Commemoration: The plaque erected in St. Anne’s Church, Dawson St., Dublin, reads: ‘in the crypt of this church, near the body of her honoured father, John Van Lewen, Laetitia Pilkington, whose spirit hopes for that peace thro’ the infinite merit of Christ, which a cruel and merciless World never afforded her.’

Kith & Kin?: Henry Lionel Pilkington, author of Land Settlement for Soldiers [...] with introductory notes by the Right Hon. Sir Horace Plunkett [...] and Lt.-Col. the Hon. Sir Newton Moore (London: W. Clowes & Sons 1911), xv, 101pp.; also Mallender’s Mistake (London: Chatto & Windus 1903), viii, 386pp., and Purple Depths (London; Westhoughton 1904), vi, 275pp., novels[ top ]

[ top ]