Laetitia Pilkington 1709-1750

Laetitia Pilkington, née Van Leewen, was born in Cork, the daughter of a doctor and obstetrician who became president of the College of Physicians for Ireland. The family moved to Dublin in 1711. In 1725 she married Matthew Pilkington, an Anglican priest. Here she got to know Jonathan Swift who was clearly impressed by her talent and who was instrumental in securing a position for her husband as chaplain to the Lord Mayor of London in 1732. When Laetitia joined him there a year later she discovered he was having an affair with a Drury Lane actress. She then became acquainted with the painter James Worsdale who was supplementing his income by publishing poetry written for him by others and she started to write for him as well.

In 1734 Matthew was arrested for political shenanigans and sent back to Ireland. She sought comfort with a young surgeon Robert Adair and Matthew divorced her after she was found together with Adair in her bedroom. Thereafter she remained in London, mingling with writers and journalists including the ageing Colley Cibber, the poet laureate, who introduced her to fellow writers for whom she wrote verse for them to pass off as their own. She became friends with Samuel Ricardson and assisted him with his novel Clarissa. In 1742 she was briefly imprisoned for debt which was settled by Richardson.

In 1747 she returned to Dublin to complete the writing of her memoirs, the first two volumes of which were published in 1748, the final volume being published by her son after her death. Her memoirs included much colourful gossip and scandal associated with the social circle in which she had moved and proved to be a sensation. For the historian they are also an interesting eye-witness account of the times.

Not much of her own poetry has survived although she undoubtedly wrote much for other people. Some of what does exist, for example, Dol and Roger, is quite bawdy and sexually explicit.for a woman writer of that period who was obviously more emancipated than most. Other poems such as A Song: Lying is an Occupation are quite perceptive. For most of her time in London she seems to have enjoyed a certain amount of patronage but to what extent her behaviour was scandalous is open to question as it is possible that she was popular and enjoyed men’s favours on account of her wit and entertaining personality.

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