Laetitia Pilkington (born Laetitia van Lewen) (c. 1709 – 29 July 1750) was a celebrated Anglo-Irish poet. Her Memoirs are the source of much of what is known of the personalities and habits of Jonathan Swift and others.
Laetitia was born of two distinguished families. Her father was a physician and obstetrician, eventually the president of the College of Physicians for Ireland, and her mother was the niece of Sir John Meade. She was born either in Cork, where her parents lived at their marriage, or Dublin, where they moved by 1711. She married Matthew Pilkington in 1725, a rising priest in the Church of Ireland, and the couple were introduced to Jonathan Swift at St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin in 1725. Swift enjoyed their company immensely, and he sought to benefit them in 1730 with the monies from a Miscellany of Irish wit that was never published. At that point, Swift already noted the literary skill of both Pilkingtons, calling them "a little young poetical parson, who has a littler young poetical wife" (Elias 322). Swift continued to try to help the Pilkingtons, and he got Matthew a position as chaplain to the Lord Mayor of London for 1732–1733.
The assignment to London was a turning point for the couple. When Laetitia visited in 1733, she found her husband in love with a Drury Lane Theatre actress and involved in numerous political schemes. Matthew sent her to spend time, instead, with James Worsdale, a painter and rake. Her correspondence shows that she was introduced to the Grub Street hacks who made up the political and fashionable journalistic literary world, and she noted that Worsdale employed a number of worthy wits to furnish him with poetry that he could claim, including Henry Carey. In 1734, Matthew was arrested for his politically maladroit actions and sent back to Dublin. Three years later, it was Laetitia's turn to be unfaithful. Matthew found her alone in her bedroom with a young surgeon, Robert Adair (who would later be surgeon general of England). The two divorced in great bitterness, and the divorce cost Laetitia money as well as the friendship of Jonathan Swift.
She began to write and sell her productions at this juncture. She sold Worsdale poetry that he could claim for himself. Also in 1737, she wrote a feminist prologue for Worsdale's A Cure for a Scold as well as a performed but unpublished opera farce called No Death but Marriage. To escape her suitors and fame, she moved to London and lived under the name of "Mrs. Meade" in 1739.
In London, Colley Cibber, the old and wealthy poet laureate, and Samuel Richardson the publisher and, later, novelist, began an acquaintance with her. Cibber advised her on how to make money from the press, as he had previously done with his Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber, Comedian. She began to sell verse to Cibber's friends to pass off as their own, and she attempted to set up a print shop and bookseller's in St. James's. In 1742, she was arrested for a two pound debt and imprisoned in the Marshalsea gaol. She was aided by Richardson.
In 1743, she began seeking, on Cibber's advice, subscribers for her Memoirs. Samuel Richardson, who had been a benefactor of hers and who had consulted with her on Clarissa, would not publish the work. Further, no other London publisher would accept the work, and Matthew Pilkington worked hard to ensure that the Memoirs would find no home. Indeed, most of the book sellers and publishers, as well as many of the notables of the day, were afraid of their publication and afraid of having their private foibles exposed to the public. Therefore, Laetitia went back to Dublin in May 1747 and began the publication of the Memoirs. The first two volumes appeared in 1748, and a third volume was unfinished at her death, although her son, John Carteret Pilkington, had it published in 1754. She died on 29 July 1750, most likely of a bleeding ulcer, and was buried in Dublin.
The Memoirs are virtually the sole source of Laetitia Pilkington's fame; they included nearly all of her published works. They provide insight into Jonathan Swift, in particular, who is revealed as a reverse hypocrite, always pretending to gruffness but actually quite pious and tender hearted. Personal, physical, and conversational details also emerge about Colley Cibber, Samuel Richardson, Charles Churchill, John Ligonier, Edmund Curll, and the young William Blackstone.
- Clarke, Norma. Queen of the Wits: A Life of Laetitia Pilkington (Faber and Faber, 2008), ISBN 0-571-22428-8. (Reviewed by Helen Deutsch in LRB, 17 July 2008: review, transcription.)
- Elias, A. C., Jr. "Laetitia Pilkington," in Matthew, H.C.G. and Brian Harrison, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. vol. 44, 321–323. London: OUP, 2004.