Laetitia Pilkington (c. 1709–50): scandalous woman and memoirist

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2009), Volume 17

James Worsdale’s painting of the Hell-Fire Club, Dublin. Mrs Pilkington’s triumph was to catch the attention of the leisured gentlemen who frequented such clubs. (National Gallery of Ireland)

James Worsdale’s painting of the Hell-Fire Club, Dublin. Mrs Pilkington’s triumph was to catch the attention of the leisured gentlemen who frequented such clubs. (National Gallery of Ireland)

There is an irresistible passage in Laetitia Pilkington’s 1748 Memoirs. It is her version of the dramatic moment when she was discovered by her husband, in the marital bedroom, with another man. The door was broken down (unnecessarily, since it wasn’t locked) and twelve witnesses piled in.

‘I own myself very indiscreet in permitting any man to be at an unseasonable hour in my bed-chamber but lovers of learning will, I am sure, pardon me, as I solemnly declare, it was the attractive charms of a new book, which the gentleman would not lend me, but consented to stay till I read it through, that was the sole motive of my detaining him.’

Few women caught in flagrante made fun of the situation. That night in October 1737 marked the end of Mrs Pilkington’s life as the respectable wife of a curate in the Church of Ireland. Banished from her home at 2am, she was not allowed to see her children, given no money, had no possessions (everything legally belonged to her husband) and was not even offered a change of linen. Her husband was triumphant; he had the excuse he had wanted all along and was now able to apply to the church courts for a formal separation.
Mrs Pilkington’s Memoirs were a sensation. Many Dublin readers remembered the scandal and they enjoyed being shocked all over again while at the same time relishing the author’s delicious wit. The Memoirs were also informative. Disgraced wives had not until then put pen to paper and told the world their woes; they had been shamed into silence. What really happened? What did it feel like? These questions reflected new appetites inspired by the new habit of novel-reading. A sympathetic interest in characters such as Pamela (Samuel Richardson’s Pamela appeared in 1740) and Clarissa (1747) carried over to the even more exciting real-life story of ‘the celebrated Mrs Pilkington’.

Truth and fiction
But the question of veracity troubled many people. Like the novel, the memoir was a new form and it wasn’t clear how it should be read. Known individuals stalked the pages, even if sometimes, in eighteenth-century style, there was a dash in place of a name—this was part of the thrill. But if a sex act and not a reading act had taken place in the bedroom and Laetitia Pilkington ‘solemnly declared’ the opposite, and the still-living witnesses told a different tale, what implications did that have for the rest of what she said?
During the ten years between her banishment from the family home and the publishing of her Memoirs, Laetitia Pilkington had honed her rhetorical skills. She was a sophisticated writer. Driven out of Dublin, she had taken the familiar path to London and established herself there as a poet: a long poem, The Statues, a vindictive tale about male sexual inconstancy, accepted by Pope’s publisher, Dodsley, had garnered his usual payment of ten guineas and, more importantly, literary credibility and status. She had begun collecting subscriptions for a volume, and lived in the meantime on what she collected.

Jonathan Swift, her one-time bosom friend, renounced her after the divorce, damning her as ‘the most profligate whore in either kingdom’, a label that stuck. (National Gallery of Ireland)

Jonathan Swift, her one-time bosom friend, renounced her after the divorce, damning her as ‘the most profligate whore in either kingdom’, a label that stuck. (National Gallery of Ireland)

Mrs Pilkington’s triumph was to catch the attention of the leisured gentlemen who frequented White’s Club in St James’s, London’s leading gambling and drinking club. She accomplished this by taking lodgings directly opposite and engaging them in witty combat as they loafed about outside. Her facility in impromptu verse—from the panegyrical to the scurrilous—was widely admired. The ‘little Irish muse’ also entertained with anecdotes about Jonathan Swift, dean of St Patrick’s, her one-time bosom friend. Swift had renounced her after the divorce, damning her as ‘the most profligate whore in either kingdom’ (a label that stuck), but he could not take away her most valuable property: knowledge of his eccentricities, stored in her powerful memory. Was it true that Swift preferred horses to humans, as the representation of the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels seemed to suggest? Mrs Pilkington recounted an exchange that amusingly confirmed this. Was it true that he and Pope were great rivals as well as friends? Mrs Pilkington had many stories to tell of the complicated relationship of these, the towering geniuses of the age. Anecdotes, drawing on the devices of fiction, rendered a real person ‘a character’. Such a move is all too familiar to us now, in our celebrity-obsessed times, but it was novel then. For readers of Mrs Pilkington’s Memoirs, there was a freedom in realising that they could enjoy the representation for its own sake. Laughing at what she wrote about herself and the bedroom scenes of October 1737, they received her as not either but both: adulteress and avid reader.

Sir Robert King: ‘a vile young rake’

Mrs Pilkington returned to Dublin in May 1747, her manuscript barely begun, her purse empty and her health giving cause for concern. Her first task was to write, her second to find a patron. Both were accomplished with her characteristic speed and aplomb.
Sir Robert King was, at 23, an Irishman of extremely dissipated habits as well as great wealth. He was ‘a vile young rake’, according to Mary Delany. His vast estates in County Roscommon were neglected, and he was interested in little besides drinking, fornicating and spending money. In December 1747 he ran off with the pretty sixteen-year-old daughter of one of his tenants, a Captain Johnston. He did not intend to marry her, of course, but Captain Johnston pursued them, caught up with them, ‘held a pistol at the knight’s head’, as Mary Delany wrote to her sister in England, and swore he would ‘shoot him through the head if he did not instantly marry his daughter, which rather than die he consented to do’. Captain Johnson summoned a parson, who quickly arrived, but before the formalities began Sir Robert’s servants rushed in, armed to the teeth, and extracted him.
It was a libertine age. Laetitia Pilkington had known many men of Sir Robert’s stamp in London and had learned ways of handling them. Sir Robert—who soon became Lord Kingsborough (probably buying himself the title)—was, on his side, infatuated with the glamour of libertinism and eager to hear all he could be told of the famous denizens of White’s Club. When Mrs Pilkington sent round to Sir Robert’s town house a general-purpose eulogy in his praise, lauding him as a young man ‘singularly good’ who had ‘a Tear for Pity, and a Hand open as Day for melting Charity’, he was pleased with what he read, accepted the dedication to volume one of the memoirs, and paid her £20 for the compliment.
And thus began what is surely the oddest patron–client relationship in literary history.
There are some, but not many, examples of women poets of the period who acquired patrons, usually older women. Is there any other instance of a middle-aged woman whose patron was a young man? With his spendthrift habits Lord Kingsborough was ideal. He relieved Mrs Pilkington’s distress in handsome fashion. She was invited to ask his agent for ‘any money’ she wanted. ‘You cannot more effectually oblige me,’ Kingsborough explained in proper lordly fashion, than by ‘commanding my fortune.’ His agent was instructed to supply her ‘without limit’.
In return, her task was to entertain. Kingsborough enjoyed playing the poet-patron. When in Dublin, he visited her in her lodgings and she amused him with gossip. He may have expected sexual favours, she may have provided them, they may have been carrying on an intrigue, but it seems implausible. At his estate in Boyle, he pictured himself stealing from ‘company who can be happy with a bottle’ to write a letter and ‘enjoy the more rational felicity of conversing with Mrs Pilkington’.
Kingsborough’s boredom threshold, however, was low. When he received from her what she called a ‘true’ letter, explaining that repeated grief had overcome her spirit and that she was ‘incapable of enjoying anything on this side of the grave’, he was aghast. ‘Madam’, he replied,

‘Your letter found me alone, I expected a fund of humour and entertainment on the receipt of it; but, good God! How much was I affected at your alteration of stile. Surely, Madam, you are troubled with vapours, and this must be the effect of them. When I last had the honour to see you, you were in full health and spirits; neither did I ever see more vivacity in any person living. For heaven’s sake, Mrs Pilkington, be yourself, and think no more of quitting the world, wherein the longer you live the more you will be admired.’

James Worsdale’s painting of the Hell-Fire Club, Limerick, which includes a self-portrait of the artist—the short man far left making eyes at the woman. Mrs Pilkington claimed that Worsdale tried to seduce her. (National Gallery of Ireland)

James Worsdale’s painting of the Hell-Fire Club, Limerick, which includes a self-portrait of the artist—the short man far left making eyes at the woman. Mrs Pilkington claimed that Worsdale tried to seduce her. (National Gallery of Ireland)

She had told him that she was worried about her son Jack, her ‘only joy’, nursed at her bosom and ‘cruelly abandoned’ by his father. She had described her feelings, a mixture of guilt and fear, and shared with him the duty she felt to work her contacts—of whom he, of course, was chief (‘prayers to heaven . . . interest upon earth’)—to put something in place for Jack’s future. Fatigued by so much information, Kingsborough reverted to his favourite subject: the old rakes at White’s Club. He needed amusement. He reminded her of a blisteringly callous letter she had received from one of her gallants and which had made him laugh. ‘I shall take it extremely kind, Madam, if you will, at a leisure hour, send it to me’; and in case he had not made himself absolutely clear he added a PS: ‘I beg, dear Madam, you’ll send something to raise my spirits, which your last has much depressed’. She replied:

‘My Lord,
As you desire me to be merry, whether I will or not, my duty obliges me to comply with your injunction, and rattle out everything I think entertaining, without once considering who I am prating to. I assure you, my Lord, if I was not old enough to be your mother, the world would say we carried on an intrigue; nay, those who have not seen how roughly master time has handled me give shrewd innuendoes, that it is not for nothing some people are so great. Your Lordship’s hand and seal is already known in the post-office; and, but for the causes aforesaid, there might possibly be an action of damages against you . . . Why, forsooth, if a reverend gentleman of the gown chose to distress his wife, why should any flirting young nobleman take upon him to protect and defend her?’

Why indeed? Kingsborough adored the libertine ‘character’ as dramatised in Lovelace, who rapes Clarissa in Samuel Richardson’s novel, a man of ardent feelings, whose passions begin in virtue even if they end in vice. He thought himself warm-hearted, witty and benevolent. But keeping him amused was a full-time job.

Kingsborough’s patronage ends

Jack was a bumptious lad who adored the fine new suits that Kingsborough’s money made possible. It was probably his bragging that brought matters to a head and Lord Kingsborough’s patronage to an end. A rumour reached the noble lord that the Pilkingtons had spoken disrespectfully of him, and that Jack had boasted that he would print Kingsborough’s letters one by one in halfpenny sheets and have them cried by hawkers in the streets.
Kingsborough demanded his letters back. Laetitia was stunned. She managed to retain composure and hand over to him just a handful from a drawer. He took them ‘abruptly’ and left, telling her to find the rest and have them ready for his messenger next morning.
Letters of this sort were a valuable commodity. Mrs Pilkington and Jack spent the evening and much of the night transcribing all that they had not already copied. The originals were returned. Ten years later, Jack was able to publish them as an appendix to his autobiography, The Real Story of John Carteret Pilkington, a book that has never been reprinted and has remained unread even by specialists. These letters tell an extraordinary tale.

Norma Clarke is the author of Queen of the Wits, a life of Laetitia Pilkington (Faber and Faber, 2008).

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