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.

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