Queen of the Wits: A Life of Laetitia Pilkington


In 1739, a diminutive woman, identified as "an ingenious Lady" from Dublin, took up lodgings directly opposite White's Chocolate House in London. As a female, Laetitia Pilkington was, naturally, not permitted to join the exclusive club that met there, particularly as she had recently been notoriously cast off by her husband on the grounds of adultery. But as a renowned poet, raconteur and wit, as well as a figure of scandal and gossip, she was almost as much of an attraction to the fashionable gentlemen who frequented White's as was the club itself. Her latest satirical poems were discussed there, whereupon the men would visit her or admire her at her window. As Norma Clarke comments, despite Mrs Pilkington's apparent exclusion from literary society, she "became part of the conversation".
The complexity of Laetitia Pilkington's situation depicted here is typical of the colourful yet deeply troubled life presented in Clarke's new biography of the poet. Pilkington was married to a clergyman, yet he appeared to prostitute his wife for favours from friends and, ultimately, as a means of ending their marriage. The story of "the duel between the cassock and the petticoat", as Clarke terms it, became widely known; according to the actor, playwright and Poet Laureate Colley Cibber, Mrs Pilkington's career was a "frolicksome Farce of Fortune", lurching from the top of fortune's wheel to the bottom and back again.
Her life began with enormous promise - the precocious five-year-old Laetitia was apparently able to recite the whole of Dryden's Alexander's Feast - but later she was to find, as her contemporary Mary Barber also discovered, that poetry's "mighty Empire" produces a "Revenue" that is "wondrous small". Though she wrote memoirs, poems, petitions, plays, billets-doux and even sermons, much of this was ghost-writing for her male associates, and the living she earned was so precarious that at one point the debtors' prison became her less-than-fashionable lodging. Virginia Woolf rightly observed that Mrs Pilkington was "a very extraordinary cross between ... a rolling and rollicking woman of the town and a lady of breeding and refinement".
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