I am an irregular verb

Margaret Anne Doody

  • Memoirs of Laetitia Pilkington edited by A.C. Elias
    Georgia, 348 and 497 pp, £84.95, May 1997, ISBN 0 8203 1719 5

Laetitia Pilkington has been remembered chiefly as a source of information about Swift. In their happier days, she and her husband were friendly with Swift, whom it was in their interest to cultivate. She and her husband were rather small people, physically, socially and economically, but they were brave enough to have Swift as a visitor:

The Dean came to dine with us in our Lilliputian Palace, as he called it, and who could have thought it? he just looked into the Parlour, and ran up into the Garret, then into my Bed-chamber and Library, and from thence down to the Kitchen; and well it was for me that the House was very clean; for he complimented me on it, and told me: ‘That was his Custom; and that ’twas from the Cleanliness of the Garret and Kitchen he judged of the good Housewifery of the Mistress of the House; for no doubt but a Slut would have the Rooms clean, where the Guests were to be entertained.’

The word Lilliputian is rather endearing here, showing that Swift, like readers of Gulliver’s Travels, still found it an amusement long after it had been published.

When, some time later, he determined that Mrs Pilkington, no matter how clean, was really a ‘Slut’ in an important sense, Swift blamed Dr Delany for recommending Mr Pilkington and his spouse: ‘he proved the falsest Rogue, and she the most profligate whore in either Kingdom.’ But of all Swift’s acquaintances, Mrs Pilkington gives us the clearest impression of what it might have been like to meet him, to converse with him, to watch him in action in an ordinary domestic setting, as when, acting as host, he made them coffee:

the Dean set about making the Coffee, but the Fire scorching his Hand, he called to me to reach him his Glove, and changing the Coffee-pot to his Left-hand, held out his Right one, ordered me to put the Glove on it, which accordingly I did, when taking up Part of his Gown to fan himself with; and acting in Character of a prudish Lady, he said: ‘Well, I don’t know what to think; Women may be honest that do such things, but for my Part I never could bear to touch any Man’s Flesh – except my Husband’s, whom perhaps,’ says he, ‘she wish’d at the Devil.’

Swift’s fleshly remarks are doubly ironic, considering the later sexual history of both of the Pilkingtons, but the story also exhibits his capacity for mocking rules, proprieties and gender roles; it shows the Monty Pythonish aspect of Swift’s humour, his ability to be disconcerting and outrageous, his uneasy sexual consciousness – and his sharp eye for the failure of all socialised modes of behaviour and moral pretension. The disconcerting vitality, the touches of mystery, the bawdry, edginess and common sense are all imitated by Pilkington, as well as recorded by her. Swift is the reason the Memoirs were saleable in 1748. The era of Swift and Pope was just over (Pope having died in 1744, Swift in 1745): publishers and public realised that now was the time to collect the memories before they got stale – Pilkington cashed in on her acquaintance.

A.C. Elias, knowing that the Memoirs have been assiduously mined by Swift’s biographers, editors and critics, expected to find that a great deal of work had already been done on Pilkington, but in fact found the Memoirs full of puzzles no one had bothered to solve. Mrs Pilkington’s three volumes are all contained in the first of the two Elias volumes; the second is filled by extensive (and sometimes speculative) annotations. Some libraries and readers are undoubtedly going to complain about this arrangement but later scholars will have reason to be grateful to Elias for the spadework.

The Memoirs have been left unannotated for so long because they have always constituted an embarrassment. Mrs Pilkington is a scandalous figure, and thus was not to be held up for admiration. But she was always too useful, in her connection with Swift, to be banished from the literary scene. She has dwelt in the shadows of literature – which is indeed where she found herself. She was telling a story that was not palatable to most of her audience, and for which there was little or no precedent. The Memoirs are her story, in which Swift is important but not central. It is the tale of a terrible and abusive marriage – told aloud in an age when women were supposed to keep quiet. A wife was not allowed to fail in her duty, however grossly her husband failed in his. Laetitia Pilkington broke all the rules, even if she was not, contrary to what her husband alleged, the first of the pair to break the marriage vow. Feeling herself ill-used, she would not keep quiet, but dragged her husband’s name through the muck for the benefit of a scandalised and delighted audience. We think we are the only tell-all, tabloid generation, but we have many ancestors.

Laetitia was the daughter of a Dublin doctor of immigrant stock, the ‘Son of a Dutch Physician’, called Van Lewen. She fell in love with and married Mr Pilkington, an Irish clergyman – and thus a man with few good prospects. Defiantly nailing her patriotic colours to the mast, she explains why Irish churchmen could expect little money or favour: ‘An English Vice-roy, English Judges, English Bishops, with their long Train of Relations and Dependents, lay their hard hands on all Preferments.’ The Reverend Mr Pilkington was not above Laetitia’s touch, having no expectations and few possessions: ‘I found Mr Pilkington with my Father, his Harpsichord placed in the Parlour, which, with a Cat and an Owl, were all his worldly Goods.’

Mr Pilkington’s resemblance to the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo was not enough to render him amiable. After a promising beginning their marriage disintegrated. According to Mrs Pilkington, when her husband was fortunate enough to be made chaplain to Alderman Barber, he went to London, abandoning Laetitia, and lived openly with his mistress. When she came to England, he went back to Ireland, repudiating her. He divorced her in the consistory court, and married again, claiming that her children were illegitimate. She accuses him of a horrific plan to have them sold into slavery in America. Sometimes (if we are to believe her report) Mr Pilkington alleged that Laetitia was dead – a circumstance the more likely to be believed as she was in London, calling herself Mrs Meade. The role of a divorcee was that of a whore: her very name was too scandalous for daily use. In using it in the title of her book, she asserted the right to remain ‘Mrs Pilkington’.

The story of the Pilkington marriage is puzzling, disturbing and – as Laetitia tells it – grotesquely entertaining. The exact truth is probably impossible to fathom; whether or not his allegations were valid, it seems evident that Mr Pilkington tired of the marriage and got out of it. Laetitia was not a woman of family, and, after her father died, had no one to protect her or to make a claim for her, and no expectations. Even her father’s death was bizarre, occurring a few days after an inefficient but not inefficacious suicide attempt, in which he stabbed himself in the bosom or midriff. You, dear reader, should think how you would have described such an episode, and then look at the astonishing way Laetitia recounts it. Such a mixture of blood and bustle, authorial self-congratulation and familial quarrelling, of pathos and ‘Hock and Sack mix’d’ has not been compounded since literature began.

Mrs Pilkington’s story shows how easy it was for a man to commit all kinds of sins within a marriage, and in getting out of it – even to the point of bigamy. A female had to rely on male friends to get any kind of protection or justice from divorce and its consequences, including loss of all rights to her children. Mrs Pilkington lodged an appeal, but it was of no avail. If her husband married again after a consistory court divorce, he might be said to have committed bigamy. But the fact that bigamy was a capital offence made it all the less likely that any jury would want to convict, and the husband’s friends could both threaten and blackmail any plaintiff, who would have had to have powerful associates and expert legal advice to bring such a case. If she succeeded in doing so, she would be branded as a woman who wanted to murder her husband by means of the gallows.

In the second volume of her Memoirs, Laetitia includes the story of ‘a very genteel, pretty Woman’ lodging in the same house as herself. Obviously pregnant, this woman has fallen ‘into a deep Melancholy’ and, befriended by Laetitia, tells her story. She is a merchant’s daughter with a small portion who married ‘a wealthy Packer’. They lived together for four years, after which time her husband left for a long interval; at last the wife hears from an angry young gentleman that her husband has run away with the gentleman’s younger sister, an heiress. Either this young woman succeeds in persuading the courts that she is genuinely married (which makes Wife Number One a mere whore), or – as the heiress’s brother wishes – the first wife must claim her rights, convicting her spouse of bigamy. The too tender-hearted first wife is persuaded to visit her husband in Newgate, where he ‘used every tender, and prevailing Argument to keep me from appearing against him’. She behaves nobly, like the right-minded heroine in the story of Solomon’s judgment: ‘like the real Mother, I chose to give her all, sooner than divide him.’ Unlike the Biblical character, however, this poor woman is not rewarded; her disgusted friends will give her no further assistance. ‘I am now in the oddest Situation imaginable, even a kept Mistress to my own Husband; for, upon no other Terms, would he give me any Relief.’

The narrator of this apparently digressive and incidental tale seems less like an acquaintance of Laetitia’s than her alter ego, a character in an exemplary fiction. The story showed (without quite drifting into libel territory) why Pilkington could not reclaim her good name by prosecuting her husband. In the way in which it is told, we can detect the influence of Jane Barker’s strongly autobiographical novels. A Patch-Work Screen for the Ladies (1723), for example, examines (often ironically) a variety of patterns of female living: the heroine Galesia is a poet, a woman who has loved and lost, and a shrewd observer of human behaviour. It is not a great step from the fictional Galesia to the factual Laetitia, who, like Galesia, is a poet. Her narrative is full of poems, but instead of stringing them together as a conventional ‘Poems on Diverse Occasions’, she makes them so many plums in a lively prose pudding.

In the Memoirs the narrator’s life is harsh, but Laetitia (or at least the persona she adopts) seems always full of high spirits, determined not to be cast down, full of wit, ingenuity and laughter. She never quite claims that she sustained her chastity after her husband abandoned her, and it must be evident to the reader of her narrative that she did not. One seldom receives so many helpful gifts from gentlemen without giving a little something in return. Laetitia, of course, has many ‘excuses’. A young gentleman, ‘now the Lord Chief Justice E-----e’, comes only to talk about literature. Laetitia and this gentleman meet in her room, but virtuously keep the door open until her landlady and the landlady’s new lover, ‘some drunken Swabber, or Boatswain’, make so much rowdy noise with their ‘Tarpaulin Compliments’ and indecent talk that the bookish couple, formerly so prudent about the door, are ‘in point of Decency’ obliged to shut it. Their conversation is so animated they forget time, breaking only for ‘a slight but elegant Repast, with a Flask of Champaigne’ before dawn arrives. Honi soit. What alternative did she have?

But I have been a Lady of Adventure, and almost every Day of my Life produces some new one: I am sure, I ought to thank my loving Husband for the Opportunity he has afforded me of seeing the World from the Palace to the Prison; for had he but permitted me to be what Nature certainly intended me for, a harmless household Dove ... I should have rested contented with my humble Situation, and, instead of using a Pen, been employed with a Needle.

We prefer her – and she no doubt prefers herself – as ‘a Lady of Adventure’. In narrative style and energy, her tale resembles Defoe’s first-person novels: Laetitia as she presents herself has some of the fun of Moll Flanders and much of the sophistication of Roxana.

Pilkington’s narrative serves (among other things) as a strong reminder that there was no model for female autobiography in her time. Even the redoubtable Duchess of Newcastle had written her husband’s biography, subordinating incidents in her life to those in his; Fanny Burney much later edited the Memoirs of her father, Charles Burney, introducing material related to herself as incidental. The best models of female autobiography were fictional. Delariviere Manley, who came closest to writing a (defensive) autobiography, produced her short and juicy work under a light fictional veil, as The Adventures of Rivella, or, The History of the Author of Atalantis (1714), which pretended to be ‘Done into English from the French’. But Manley was a novelist and Mrs Pilkington was not, although she had the ability, and had obviously studied the work of female novelists. Pilkington can give the kind of vivid character description that readers of the period delighted to find in novels, as in this passage on a dirty landlady:

She told me herself she had not combed her Head for three Years which I believe, was true, because she was not Mistress of a Comb, except when she made free with mine, than which nothing could be more offensive to me, so that her Hair, though naturally fine, being quite matted ... seemed to be a Composition of raw Silk and Moss, such as I remember to have stolen a Lock of from the Head of Good Duke Humphry, at St Albans, three hundred Years after his Death.

This has the poetic touch of the Augustan age in its evocation of the sensuously disgusting; the hair becomes a subject in itself, both ornament and organism, male and female, dead and alive. Pilkington’s work was probably an inspiration to novelists who came after her. Consider this passage in the third volume:

   Well now, Mrs Pilkington, says, perhaps, my Reader, What, in the Name of Wonder have we to do with all this?

   Why, truly, no more, I think, than with a Buff Jerkin, or mine Hostess at St Albans; but I am no Methodist either in writing or Religion; sometimes Irregularities please ... I am, in short, an Heteroclite, or irregular Verb, which can never be declined, or conjugated.

Surely we have here one of the influences on that great irregular fictional autobiography, Tristram Shandy.

To be openly a writer of fiction would have ruined Pilkington’s project – she was already accused of lying and romancing. She had to stay factual, but factual female autobiography was largely restricted to private documents (as with conversion narrative), or to stories told by criminals in the face of the gallows. Pilkington borrows a little from the female criminal narrative, by making herself a comic character, rather like the more appealing of sly female sinners such as Jenny Diver, the gifted pickpocket. She is ‘streetwise’, in a way that women with her real claim to literacy seldom are. She delights in getting off a good retort, and the best retort to those who have abused her are the Memoirs themselves, her riposte to all who have despitefully used her. They thus coincide oddly with Richardson’s Clarissa (1747-48), though in that instance the heroine has to trust that the posthumous editing of collected papers will do her justice. Both Mrs Pilkington’s Memoirs and Clarissa are works of vindication, retorts to a cruel and wrongheaded world. Mrs Pilkington patently wants her readers to notice that the Memoirs are a way of getting even. She is at liberty to describe people as she chooses – and she does so, apparently without fear, though often with favour to those who have been generous to her. These (the Archbishop of York, Colley Cibber, Samuel Richardson) come off well; those who have been mean or abusive (often clerical personages of the Church of England) come off very badly indeed.

Pilkington’s Memoirs are obviously a model for that other autobiography of a loose female, the Memoirs of Harriette Wilson (1825). Wilson, former mistress of Lord Craven and a celebrated courtesan, wrote her book in revenge against the Duke of Beaufort, who had failed to live up to his promises, but she let it be known to her male acquaintances that she was writing her Memoirs: the contribution of a suitable number of guineas would cause her to forget to mention the donor, or to mention him in complimentary terms, or include him only as a distant acquaintance. Wilson’s blackmail scheme was successful, though not against Wellington. It’s on this occasion that he’s said to have remarked: ‘Publish and be damned!’ She did, and he was.

Laetitia was up to the same caper, and her second and third volumes exhibit the conscious manipulation of her acquaintance into anxious donors. Her writing talent is the one weapon she has – and she uses it without much mercy, although, strangely enough, at one point she announces her pride in having used her God-given gift well: ‘as I never sold, nor prostituted it to unworthy Ends’. It is hard to see how she can quite say that. Not only was she proud of being able to write better poems (or light occasional verse) than most of her male acquaintances: she was also willing to ghost-write for them, to prostitute her useful pen in writing light verses that they could pass off as their own. Ghost-writing for educated males did not add to her respect for their ability. How could she regard their talents with awe when, like Swift, she had gone to the garret and the kitchen, inspected their intellectual housekeeping, and spied on their slender resources?

Pilkington also lets us in on the added joke of seeing how greedily men can be made to swallow praise, especially if a woman seems a good and humble listener, willing to be instructed. Dr Delany comes off as the sort of pompous bore a woman learns to put up with:

For no sooner did the Doctor perceive that I knew Mark Antony from Julius Caesar, and Brutus from both, but he related a great Part of the Roman history to me, even from the first Punic War to the Death of Julius.

   My Readers may venture to believe it was not new to me ... I have often successfully practised the same Art, and gained many Friends by seeming to take their Instruction with Pleasure; to acknowledge their Superiority of Understanding, on which even Fools pride themselves ... Very few People are Virtue-Proof there.

One of the joys of reading the ever-new Pilkington is that she will say what other women are not allowed to say. Women are not supposed to talk about bad marriages, marital abuse, the inequity of the law. Neither are they supposed to chat about the boorishness and pomposity of males of good position, or to discuss openly what it feels like to be on the receiving end of acceptable masculine behaviour, whether sexual or social. Pilkington, doing everything that a good woman is not supposed to do, seems liberated to tell rarely-heard truths.

It is not that Pilkington does not like men, however. She evidently does, and she can enjoy some genuine masculine manners in male gatherings where men are free from the restrictions and dullness of the supposedly proper conversation between men and women in the drawing-room. Pilkington’s louche position is also a privileged position. Women are not supposed to have the real knowledge of manners that makes the writer, because so much of ‘real life’ is barred from them. But Pilkington gets to hear the really funny dirty jokes that men know and women are not meant to, and not only knows but repeats them. Mr Rooke tells her about the Duke of Wharton:

you are to know, he had an Intrigue with Mrs Pulteney, now Countess of Bath; one Morning, as they were in Bed together, he recollected that he had promised to write a Letter to a Friend – so he called for a Pen, Ink and Paper; but being at a Loss for a Writing-Desk, made the Lady turn up her Posteriors, and dated his Letter from sweet Peggy Pulteney’s, &c. &c. &c.

  Here entered our kind Host, and brought us in a Paper called the Champion, in which was a very humourous Piece of Advice to all who went to Court, to wear Shields on their Bums, this was so Mal a propos that it raised our Mirth.

Having been so badly burned by proper relationships, Pilkington no longer quite believes in them. The pleasure in reading her is the pleasure of rule-breaking, of stepping beyond a boundary. Even had she not engaged in sexual activity outside of marriage, whether for love, money or friendship, Laetitia, the unconjugal ‘Heteroclite’, would always have been called ‘a whore’. If liberties have been taken with her, she herself takes liberties.

The ‘whore’ aspects of the persona allow the author both to complain and to joke, so that she seems tough rather than whining. An important aspect of that persona is that it is an Irish one. Laetitia Pilkington consciously but not dishonestly espouses a patriotism and serves her Irish nation in making it serve her. Her defiant and open Irishness proclaims her right to hold aloof from the power structure that has not done well by her. She is not to be deluded by the power structure at work in Ireland, the panoply of viceroys, judges and bishops and the whole pompous settlement. What England has done to Ireland is what a husband like Mr Pilkington does to his wife. Women and the Irish would be wise not to pay too much attention to rules that have not been made by them, or laws that are in force with anything rather than their happiness in mind. It seems perhaps far-fetched to think of Mrs Pilkington as a kind of Cathleen ni Houlihan, and yet that is how she appears in some aspects – or at least as a Wild Irish Girl. Like Stephen Dedalus, she says: ‘Non serviam.’ Hers was not an easy road to go on. One hopes there were many jokes along the way, and many a glass of good ‘Champaigne’.