My Faults, My Follies

Helen Deutsch

  • Queen of the Wits: A Life of Laetitia Pilkington by Norma Clarke
    Faber, 364 pp, £20.00, February 2008, ISBN 978 0 571 22428 9

‘If ever a woman wanted a champion,’ Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘it is obviously Laetitia Pilkington.’ Norma Clarke intends to vindicate both the author and her Memoirs (she pays tribute to A.C. Elias’s invaluable 1997 edition). Correcting the long-standing categorisation of Pilkington as a ‘scandalous memoirist’ (her story was advertised alongside Cleland’s Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure), Clarke persuasively describes the Memoirs as a remarkable hybrid: as innovatively mock heroic as the Dunciad; as winningly frank and ramblingly anecdotal as the autobiography of her patron, the comic actor and poet laureate Colley Cibber; as dizzying in its inversion of perspective as Gulliver’s Travels; and as sentimental as the novels of Samuel Richardson, a patron for whom Pilkington provided inside information on the workings of the female heart and the doings of London libertines, and from whom she learned to write to the moment, and to keep in mind new possibilities for a woman’s story.

Clarke describes the Memoirs according to a series of oppositions that also characterise the generic panoply of 18th-century literature. Pilkington, she says, mixes ‘fact with fiction, prose with poetry … sincerity with artifice and satire with panegyric’; she looks ‘askew’ at the couplet of ‘respectable Dublin’ and ‘rakish London’, exposes hypocrisy and reverses the reader’s moral expectations. The joining of Cibber and Richardson’s influences signals the confluence of the novel and the theatre in Pilkington’s life and writing.

Pilkington played a variety of roles: young poetic prodigy, disobedient daughter (a part forced on her by her parents, who agreed to let her marry her persistent suitor, the charming aspiring poet Matthew Pilkington, as long as the couple pretended to have eloped against her parents’ wishes); respectable matron, favoured member of Swift’s literary circle (he taught her the good use of English by pinching her black and blue when she misspoke), Grub Street hack and ghostwriter for hire who figuratively hung out her sign – a literary version of Aphra Behn’s courtesan Angellica – across the street from that famous haunt of ‘titled drunks and dimwits’, White’s; enterprising shop-owner; collector and championer of women’s stories and ‘expert in female distress’; vituperative satirist and, repeatedly, virtuous woman in dire straits. Masks are everywhere in Pilkington’s world. Like Richardson’s Clarissa, she takes what she thinks to be respectable lodgings and finds herself in a brothel. She finds kindness on the street and abuse in the highest places. The lord high almoner, Bishop Sherlock, ‘fat and carbuncled, his face “all Knobs and Flames of Fire”’, rejects her plea for royal charity, calling her a foreigner (a claim she disputes, retorting that Ireland was ‘equally a Part of his Majesty’s Dominions with Great-Britain’), a liar and a ‘saucy, proud, impertinent Person’. Her husband, Matthew (literary rival, deserter and possible pimp, ‘something of a stage villain’ in Clarke’s phrase), is just one of many men of the cloth whose morals disappoint. John Wesley, silent and dour at a respectable gathering, is rakishly charming when he visits her alone.

Take for a final example the renowned physician, collector and charitable benefactor Richard Mead. When Pilkington first approached him for assistance – she was a distant relation of the Irish branch of the Mead family and was going by the name ‘Mrs Meade’ at the time – he humiliated her, deflating her literary aspirations and dispensing the measly sum of two guineas. On returning home she flung the two coins in the air and one rolled into a crack in the floorboards, never to be retrieved. Months later, imprisoned for debt in the Marshalsea, she learned to her dismay that an affiliation with the name Mead would do her no favours. Mead was a ‘hair fetishist who kept a seraglio of beautiful women who posed naked for him in a variety of “attitudes”, usually combing their hair’; he had rid himself of a cast-off mistress who might have been blackmailing him by having her imprisoned for debt, sustaining her in the Marshalsea with the familiar sum of two guineas a week. Pilkington had first seen this woman ‘lying dead drunk in a Puddle’; she subsequently led an angry mob against Pilkington, believing her to be Mead’s wife. Pilkington then wrote to Mead asking for assistance, and may well have mentioned her illicit knowledge of his affairs (blackmail was a motif in her life, and people subscribed to the Memoirs in order not to be named in them). Mead sent her one final guinea and refused further contact. Clarke’s comment on the incident is characteristic:

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