Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Memoirs of Laetitia Pilkington

If ever a woman wanted a champion, it is obviously Laetitia Pilkington. --Virginia Woolf

Laetitia Pilkington was my constant companion in Ireland because I packed her memoirs to be my main read on our trip. And how appropriate, because she was Irish. (I know, WHEN am I going to shut up about Ireland?  Right after this post, I promise.)

Laetitia Pilkington (1709-1750)

Mrs. Pilkington's memoirs caught my notice after reading about them in Virginia Woolf's Common Reader.   She was born into a respectable upper middle class Dublin family with aristocratic connections.  In her teens, she caught the eye of Matthew Pilkington, a young clergyman who courted her, although without the support of Laetitia's parents.  Or so she says, but then reports being rushed into a marriage with him.  One wonders if Laetitia is entirely a reliable narrator.  

Anyway, they settled down into what appears to be a charming domestic life.  Laetitia and Matthew were both diminutive in stature and they occupied a little house in Dublin with a sweet little garden and a tiny summerhouse in the back.  (I tried to find it in Dublin, but could find no clue online as to what the address may have been.)  They were friends with Jonathan Swift and Laetitia appears to have been the model wife, as she describes herself as "always breeding."  Five tranquil years passed.

Unfortunately it wasn't a good idea in the 1700s to be smarter than one's husband. Because of her quick wit, talent for verse, and ability to provide a snappy answer, she became a great favorite of Jonathan Swift.  One suspects that Matthew became disgruntled over being outshined by his wife's wit.  And here the marriage breaks down.  Matthew spends some time in London and Laetitia takes it upon herself to visit him there and discovers she isn't wanted.  I won't go into all the details.  It suffices to say that Matthew Pilkington turns out to be a right shit.

Here's another thing about the 1700's:  if you end up divorced because your husband has accused you of infidelity, men will just show up at your house and think you're going to have sex with them on the spot.  You're officially a whore now.  (Her former friend Jonathan Swift called her "the most profligate whore in either kingdom.")

Was Laetitia Pilkington unfaithful to her husband?  Her side of the story is that she wanted to borrow a book from a gentleman, who wouldn't part with it, so she was forced to stay in his bedroom late into the night, reading the book to its end.  At any rate, Matthew was certainly unfaithful to Laetitia.

Anyway, there she was, divorced, penniless, homeless, and in the late stages of pregnancy. All she had were her wits, which she used to her advantage, eventually moving to London and earning a meagre living selling her poems to gentlemen who then passed them off as their own.  This isn't a super stable way to support oneself, and Laetitia becomes more and more distressed, going without food, moving into a progression of cheaper apartments and eventually, prison.

The book reads like a long catalog of all the ways that people suck, but it's not entirely hopeless.  You have to hand it to Laetitia, she had spirit. For a woman in her time and situation, the only available path to survival was prostitution, and she managed to use her brains and hang on, though barely, to respectability.  That was a triumph. 

A note about the book:  It's not particularly easy to find, although UVA's Alderman library has a copy.  When I went to the library, it wasn't on the shelf, which was a huge disappointment.  I almost resorted to google books, but returned to the library to search again. I suspected that it was simply misshelved.  I will often find books that are off by just a few places.  I worked as a library "page" in high school and one of my responsibilities was "reading" the shelves and putting all the books in proper Library of Congress order.  My grandmother was a librarian and my mother was an activist on behalf of public libraries, so I'm really into libraries and rely on them for most of what I read.  Anyway, on this second trip to the library, I searched more thoroughly and found Laetitia!  She was more than a few places away from the correct spot.  She wasn't even on the wrong shelf, but in an entirely wrong bookcase.  Now, when I return it, she'll be shelved correctly and others will be able to find her.  On the OCD satisfaction meter, this scores at about a 10,000 for me.


  1. I love this victory of yours!

    I'm currently reading a biography of Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl. The author is quite enamored of the Marx family, but I'm having a hard time slogging through some of the historical contexts she provides.

    1. I had no idea Karl Marx even had children.

  2. aaagh...... what happened after prison? I fear no happy ending?? I love the fact that you're a gorilla librarian rearanging books by stealth!!!

    1. She was released from prison, but didn't really have a great life after. It looked hopeful for a bit because she opened a shop and went into business writing letters for the illiterate, but it wasn't quite enough.

  3. Wow. What a life. What a rotten time to live. Fascinating.
    I am learning all about Beryl Markham these days.