In 1739, a diminutive woman, identified as "an ingenious Lady" from Dublin, took up lodgings directly opposite White's Chocolate House in London. As a female, Laetitia Pilkington was, naturally, not permitted to join the exclusive club that met there, particularly as she had recently been notoriously cast off by her husband on the grounds of adultery. But as a renowned poet, raconteur and wit, as well as a figure of scandal and gossip, she was almost as much of an attraction to the fashionable gentlemen who frequented White's as was the club itself. Her latest satirical poems were discussed there, whereupon the men would visit her or admire her at her window. As Norma Clarke comments, despite Mrs Pilkington's apparent exclusion from literary society, she "became part of the conversation".
The complexity of Laetitia Pilkington's situation depicted here is typical of the colourful yet deeply troubled life presented in Clarke's new biography of the poet. Pilkington was married to a clergyman, yet he appeared to prostitute his wife for favours from friends and, ultimately, as a means of ending their marriage. The story of "the duel between the cassock and the petticoat", as Clarke terms it, became widely known; according to the actor, playwright and Poet Laureate Colley Cibber, Mrs Pilkington's career was a "frolicksome Farce of Fortune", lurching from the top of fortune's wheel to the bottom and back again.
Her life began with enormous promise - the precocious five-year-old Laetitia was apparently able to recite the whole of Dryden's Alexander's Feast - but later she was to find, as her contemporary Mary Barber also discovered, that poetry's "mighty Empire" produces a "Revenue" that is "wondrous small". Though she wrote memoirs, poems, petitions, plays, billets-doux and even sermons, much of this was ghost-writing for her male associates, and the living she earned was so precarious that at one point the debtors' prison became her less-than-fashionable lodging. Virginia Woolf rightly observed that Mrs Pilkington was "a very extraordinary cross between ... a rolling and rollicking woman of the town and a lady of breeding and refinement".
The dramatic story of this queen of wit who was so often at her wits' end is told in rich and absorbing detail by Clarke. The cast includes some of the greatest male characters of 18th-century London and Dublin: Swift (of whom she was the first biographer), Pope, Walpole, Cibber, Richardson, Fielding, Johnson and Boswell. Caught in the satirical crossfire between these rivals, it must have been difficult for Pilkington to avoid being hurt. But was she a victim, or a Grub Street manipulator playing their game? It may well be true, as Clarke suggests, that in Pilkington's London print shop it was the poet herself who was the major item on display and available for purchase. In the course of the elaborate self-construction and vindication offered in her prose Memoirs, Pilkington describes herself as a "Noun Substantive, obliged to stand alone"; this magnificent grammatical metaphor implies the defiance as well as the isolation of her position.
It is clear that Clarke has considerable sympathy for Pilkington the woman of letters, portrayed by Bishop Sherlock in 1744 as "a saucy, proud, impertinent Person". The ironies of her life are thoroughly highlighted, including the fact that her failed marriage was originally only agreed to by her parents in private provided they could condemn it in public. The literary contexts for her Memoirs are astutely sketched with reference to the craze for pseudo-autobiographies such as Pamela and Moll Flanders.
However, the relative absence of references to other marginalised females who wrote autobiographies in the guise of romance (or vice versa), such as Mary Carleton and Delarivier Manley, is a missed opportunity, as is the failure to pursue thoroughly the interesting juxtaposition of motherhood and wit. Instead, there is a danger of being carried away with the idea of Pilkington as "a woman in a story about sex", and therefore of compounding that image rather than fully interrogating it.
The biographer's main source is Laetitia Pilkington's own extensive Memoirs; this is, in the end, both the limitation and the fascination of the book.
Queen of the Wits: A Life of Laetitia Pilkington
By Norma Clarke
Faber & Faber
Published 21 February 2008