Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pilkington, Lætitia

PILKINGTON, LÆTITIA (1712–1750), adventuress, born at Dublin in 1712, was second child of Dr. Van Lewen, a man-midwife of Dutch origin, who was educated at Leyden under Boerhaave, and settled in Dublin about 1710. Her grandmother, Elizabeth, who married a Roman catholic officer in James II's army, was one of the twenty-one children of a Colonel Mead by a daughter of the Earl of Kilmallock. A precocious child, Lætitia was greatly indulged by her father, whom, in 1729, she persuaded to allow her to marry a penniless Irish parson named Matthew Pilkington [see below], the son of a watchmaker. They lived upon the bounty of Van Lewen, until Pilkington obtained the post of chaplain to Lady Charlemont. Shortly after this event, about 1730, with the help of Dr. Delany's influence [see Delany, Patrick] Pilkington and his wife pushed themselves into Swift's favour. Swift was then in residence at Dublin as dean of St. Patrick's, and he seems to have been taken by Lætitia's wit, docility, and freedom from affectation. The story of her introduction to the dean, as told afterwards by Mrs. Pilkington, is full of humorous entertainment. ‘Is this poor little child married?’ was Swift's first remark. ‘God help her!’ In the evening Swift made her read to him his own ‘Annals of the Four Last Years of Queen Anne,’ asking her most particularly whether she understood every word; for, said he, ‘I would have it intelligent to the meanest capacity; and if you comprehend it, 'tis possible everybody may.’ For a time she was undoubtedly a great favourite of Swift, and her sprightly reminiscences, in spite of the disdain with which they are treated by some of Swift's biographers, constitute one of the chief sources of authority as to Swift's later years. It is Mrs. Pilkington who tells us of Swift's personal habits, of his manners with his servants, of his dealings with roguish workmen, of his memory of Hudibras, so accurate that he could repeat every line from beginning to end. Thackeray was quite justified in the extensive use he made of her anecdotes in his sketch of Swift in ‘English Humourists,’ for the internal evidence of their authenticity is quite conclusive. The apologetic portions of her memoirs are much less worthy of credence.

The latter half of Mrs. Pilkington's life was extremely unfortunate. In 1732 Swift procured her husband an appointment in London, whither he proceeded without his wife. Literary jealousies are said to have alienated the pair. Later, however, Mrs. Pilkington joined her husband, and, according to her own account, found him living a life of profligacy. She soon returned to Ireland, with her own reputation somewhat tarnished. Her father died in 1734, and she shortly afterwards gave her husband a good pretext for disembarrassing himself of his wife, being found entertaining a man in her bedroom between two and three o'clock in the morning. Swift, writing to Alderman Barber [see under Barber, Mary], put her case in a nutshell: ‘She was taken in the fact by her own husband; he is now suing for a divorce and will not get it; she is suing for a maintenance, and he has none to give her.’ After strange adventures she came to England and settled in London. Colley Cibber interested himself in her story, and she managed for a time to beg sufficient for a livelihood. In 1748, however, she was sued for debt and imprisoned in the Marshalsea. Upon her release, again owing to the good offices of Cibber, she set to work to compile her ‘Memoirs,’ and doubtless did not spare any efforts to blackmail some of her old patrons. The work first appeared at Dublin, in two volumes, as ‘Memoirs of Mrs. Lætitia Pilkington, wife to the Rev. Matthew Pilkington, written by herself. Wherein are occasionally interspersed all her Poems, with Anecdotes of several eminent persons living and dead’ (1748). The work attracted a fair amount of attention, and the portions relating to Swift were extensively pillaged by newspapers and magazines; a third edition appeared at London in 1754, with an additional volume edited by her son, John Carteret Pilkington. After launching her ‘Memoirs,’ Mrs. Pilkington started a small bookshop in St. James's Street, but the venture does not seem to have succeeded, for she once more made her way over to Ireland, and died in Dublin on 29 Aug. 1750. Among those who befriended her in her last years were Samuel Richardson, Sir Robert King, and Lord Kingsborough. ‘The celebrated Mrs. Pilkington's Jests, or the Cabinet of Wit and Humour,’ was published posthumously in 1751; 2nd edit., with additions, 1765. It was claimed for this curious repertory of the broadest jests that when in manuscript it had been perused by Swift, and had elicited from him a laugh. In her ‘Memoirs,’ however, Mrs. Pilkington explicitly states that she had never seen Swift laugh. Her ‘Poems’ were included in ‘Poems by Eminent Ladies’ (2 vols. London, 1755). Her burlesque, entitled ‘The Turkish Court, or the London Prentice,’ which was acted at Capel Court, Dublin, in 1748, was never printed.

Matthew Pilkington (fl. 1733), the husband of Lætitia, was also a poet, having published in 1730 ‘Poems on Several Occasions’ (Dublin, 8vo), of which a second edition, revised by Swift, and containing some additional pieces, appeared in London in 1731, with commendatory verses by William Dunkin. Swift, who afterwards had occasion to change his opinion of Pilkington, wrote, in July 1732, to his old friend, Alderman Barber (then lord-mayor elect), soliciting the post of chaplain to the lord-mayor for his protégé, and as soon as this request was complied with, Swift wrote strongly on his behalf to Pope: ‘The young man,’ he wrote of Pilkington, ‘is the most hopeful we have. A book of his poems was printed in London. Dr. Delany is one of his patrons. He is married, and had children, and makes about 100l. a year, on which he lives decently. The utmost stretch of his ambition is to gather up as much superfluous money as will give him a sight of you and half an hour of your presence; after which he will return home in full satisfaction, and in proper time die in peace.’ On the strength of this exordium, Pope asked Pilkington to stay with him at Twickenham for a fortnight, but subsequently had occasion, in conjunction with Bolingbroke and Barber, to remonstrate with Swift upon his lack of discrimination in recommending such an ‘intolerable coxcomb.’ In the same way as his wife (than whom he had far less wit), Pilkington seems to have won Swift's good graces by his seeming insensibility to the dean's occasional fits of ferocity. Thus, when Swift emptied the dregs of a bottle of claret and told Pilkington to drink them, as he ‘always kept a poor parson to drink his foul wine for him,’ Pilkington submissively raised his glass, and would have drunk the contents had not Swift prevented him. In 1732 Swift presented to Mrs. Barber his ‘Verses to a Lady who desired to be addressed in the Heroic Style,’ which the lady conveyed to the press through the medium of Pilkington. When, however, some expressions in the poem provoked the wrath of Walpole, Pilkington had no scruple in betraying both Barber, the printer, and Benjamin Motte [q. v.], the bookseller. This completely opened Swift's eyes as to the real character of his protégé, whom he subsequently described to Barber as the falsest rogue in the kingdom. This view of his character is confirmed by Pilkington's treatment of his wife, even if we do not accept the conjecture that he forged some offensive letters written to Queen Caroline from Dublin in 1731, and purporting to be from Swift. The latter certainly came to regard Pilkington as the author of these letters, which prejudiced him greatly in the eyes of the court, and which he warmly but uselessly disclaimed. In 1733 Pilkington inveigled Motte into issuing a counterfeit ‘Life and Character of Dean Swift, written by himself,’ in verse, which was a further source of annoyance both to Swift and his publisher. During his year of office as chaplain to the lord mayor, Pilkington managed to extort more from his master and the aldermen than any of his predecessors (see Barber's Letter to Swift); but when his devious courses estranged influential patrons, such as Swift and Barber, he fell into evil habits and obscurity, from which he only emerged to write a few tirades against his wife. After his separation from his wife his son, John Carteret Pilkington, espoused the cause of his mother. Nothing further appears to be known about Matthew, who must be carefully distinguished from the author of the ‘Dictionary of Painters,’ and from Matthew Pilkington, prebendary of Lichfield, with both of whom he has been confused.

[Gent. Mag. 1748, 1749, 1750, passim; Chalmers's Biogr. Dictionary; Monck Mason's Hist. of St. Patrick's, 1820; Webb's Compendium of Irish Biography; Lady's Monthly Museum, Aug. 1812; Nichols's Lit. Illustrations; Craik's Life of Swift, pp. 443, 469; Swift's Works, ed. Hawkesworth and Scott; Pope's Works, ed. Elwin, v. 332; Baker's Biogr. Dramatica; Didot's Biographie Générale; Mrs. Pilkington's Memoirs, and various squibs relating to her husband's action for divorce in the British Museum; J. C. Pilkington's Memoirs, pp. 3–5.]

T. S.