The great thing about the days on which Christmas and New Year happened, this time around, was the way it provided a week-long holiday.
So readers gained a good chunk of time in which to address fictional goings on, or slide briefly into the lives of others, like Brian O’Driscoll and Ivan Yates. This year’s crop of autobiographies was particularly good, but not one of them, bestsellers or not, can compare with the three-volume job turned out by Laetitia Pilkington, an 18th century bright spark.
If you haven’t heard of her, your loss is attributable to the fact that history tends to focus on monarchs, soldiers, politicians, aldermen and villains, leaving women in the drawing room.
Whether in Cork, where she was born, or Dublin, where she was raised, Laetitia should have a bust somewhere in public, because she was a great bit of stuff who managed to earn her own living, in the middle of the 1700s, by her pen, having had a spectacularly miserable life.
For some reason never clear to the daughter, her mother gave her hell as she was growing up, while all the while showing off the daughter’s precocious learning. Her father, an accoucheur or obstetrician, doesn’t seem to have paid much attention to his wife’s power-games directed against his daughter, which included refusing to countenance any of the suitors Laetitia would have been delighted to be married to, since her priority, once she reached her teens, was to get out of her misery.
Laetitia wasn’t goodlooking, but she was “well-dressed, sprightly, and remarkably well-tempered, unapt to give or take offence.” A catch, in other words. But her mother turned down all offers until she decided to consign her daughter into the arms of a Church of Ireland clergyman, Matthew Pilkington who turned out to be a spousal disaster royally deserving of his wife’s description of him as a viper.
Years later, Laetitia, understandably but not wholly inaccurately extrapolating from her own marital experience, noted that “ambition, avarice, lust and cruelty” reigned within the clergy. “They are generally the first seducers of innocence,” she wrote, “as the holiness of their office gives them free admittance into every family.”
The clerical specimen who appealed to her mother as a suitor did not appeal to Laetitia, who became so upset at the prospect of marrying him that her father intervened and was about to send her off to live with a relative for a year or so when the news came that, hearing of her impending loss, the young cleric had stabbed himself with a pen knife.
Self-harm clearly endeared him even more to the peculiar mother, who invited him around to the house. Laetitia didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when he arrived.“My wounded swain came to us in perfect health,” she noted bitterly. “He had indeed given himself a scratch, on purpose to terrify us, and had just such a desperate wound as I have frequently received from the point of a pin, without complaining.”
The mother, however, sat her daughter down and told her that her father - who was to become President of the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland— was not in a position to settle a fortune on her and so she should accept the invitation to marry the pin-scratcher, who — he claimed— was wealthy.
Even before the nuptials, this proved false, as he brought to her house his entire worldly goods, which consisted of a harpsichord, a cat and an owl. Not daunted, her parents pressured her into marrying in a hurried private wedding they later, publicly, condemned.
For a time, the young couple socialised with Dublin eminences of the time, including Jonathan Swift. The writer of Gulliver saw talent in Matthew he demonstrably didn’t have. Swift arranged that Pilkington get a good job in London as chaplain to the Lord Mayor.
Laetitia soon found that her husband wasn’t just a melodramatic liar. He was an envious control freak who devoted considerable energy to such diva tantrums when she showed him any of her poetry that she threw it in the fire to indicate that the house held but one poet and he was it.
Matthew then got involved with a bunch of political plotters and inevitably was found out, which put paid to the day job. At the same time as he was wrecking the couple’s future by halfwitted conspiracy, he was also unfaithful to Laetitia with a young woman acting with the Drury Lane Theatre company. His wife then ventured into infidelity herself with a surgeon.
While Matthew stepping out was fine, his wife doing the same thing was societally unacceptable, so he divorced her, leaving her disgraced and forced to earn her own living at a time when well-born women never worked outside the home.
Laetitia rose to that challenge, too, by ghost-writing. Long before the term was invented, she spotted that a lot of men wanted to be known as poets but didn’t have the intellectual wherewithal to achieve it, so she wrote secretly poetry for them for money.
Coming back to Dublin, she decided if she could make money by writing under other people’s names, she might make even more money by writing under her own name and revealing all about her scandalous life.
In 1748, when she was in her late 30s, and two years before her death, she published the first autobiographical volume of three, which, as well as telling her own story, give matchless insights into the quotitian behaviour of some of the great men of the time.
Jonathan Swift, for example, is revealed as having positioned a huge mirror directly behind and above the side-board at which food was plated for the table, in order to catch servants nicking morsels of food or drink.
Laetitia portrayed Swift as the boss from hell: “during mealtimes he was ever more in a storm; the meat was always too much or too little done, or the servants had offended at some pont, impereptible to the rest of the company; however when the cloth was taken away, he made his guests rich amends for the pain he had given them by the former part of his behaviour.”
No amends were made to the cook who sent up the overdone meat, or to the butler caught sneaking a sip of ale. Nor was any kindness shown to Laetitia, returning to Dublin from her London disgrace. Instead, he spurned her.
“But she was able to rescue herself through the printing press and the reading nation, and in publishing her memoirs she secured a measure of revenge and redemption,” says TCD’s Professor David Dickson in his monumental recent history of Dublin.
Since we are still a reading nation, this retains a sweet option for revenge by those who have had the opportunity to closely observe the rich and powerful.
An option somewhat under-utilised by women in recent times.
She spotted lots of men who wanted to be poets but didn’t have the intellectual wherewithal to achieve it
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