Pilkington, Laetitia (c. 1708–1750)

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Pilkington, Laetitia (c. 1708–1750)

British writer and memoirist. Born Laetitia Lewen around 1708 in Dublin, Ireland (some sources cite 1712); died on August 29, 1750 (some sources cite 1759), in Dublin; daughter of John Lewen (a physician); mother's maiden name was Meade; married Matthew Pilkington (a vicar and poet), in 1725 (divorced 1738); children: three, including son John Carteret Pilkington.

Selected writings:

The Statues: or The Trial of Constancy: A Tale for Ladies (1739); An Excursory View on the Present State of Men and Things (1739); Memoirs (vol. 1, 1748); The Turkish Court: or The London 'Prentice (play, produced 1749); Memoirs (vol. 2, 1749); Memoirs (vol. 3, finished by son John Carteret Pilkington, 1754); The Celebrated Mrs. Pilkington's Jests; or The Cabinet of Wit and Humour (1764).

Laetitia Pilkington, whom Virginia Woolf called "a very extraordinary cross between Moll Flanders and Lady Ritchie (Anne Isabella Ritchie [1837–1919])," was born in the early 18th century in Dublin, Ireland. Her father, an obstetrician and physician of Dutch extraction, encouraged her interest in poetry. In 1725, she married Matthew Pilkington, the vicar of Don-abate and Portrahan in the Dublin area. Her husband also wrote poetry, and some time after their marriage the couple were introduced into the literary circle around celebrated Irish writer Jonathan Swift. Swift edited some poetry for Matthew and made sure that he received an appointment as chaplain to the Lord Mayor of London. Matthew, however, was a disappointment, failing to perform his job satisfactorily and apparently engaging in adultery. This seemed to be no secret in London, and, after Pilkington joined him there, relations between them became strained. Rumor in Dublin had it that she, too, was involved in extramarital activity, and her reputation had been damaged by the time she left London, without her husband, and returned home.

Pilkington and her husband were divorced in 1738, and with money scarce she moved back to London with her three children, hoping to live off earnings as a writer. Although she published both The Statues and An Excursory View on the Present State of Men and Things in 1739, she was not able to support herself at that time. She had a number of "questionable" relationships with men and for a while moved in with James Worsdale, a painter. Her fortunes declined again, and she was imprisoned for debt. Later (perhaps after escaping from debtors' prison), she opened a book shop and a print shop, producing letters and pamphlets to order. She was for a time befriended by writer Samuel Richardson.

Back in Dublin in 1748, Pilkington produced the first volume of her Memoirs, the work for which she is best known. Among other things, the book describes the intimate details of the domestic life of Swift during the time she knew him, and thus has become an authoritative source for information on Swift's later life. (Her reputation never quite recovered from her earlier lifestyle, however; even the 1992 edition of the British Concise Dictionary of National Biography identifies her as an "adventuress" rather than as a writer.) Pilkington and her ex-husband had a running battle over the unflattering portrait she had painted of him in the Memoirs. He issued a pamphlet, Seasonable Advice to the Publick Concerning a Book of Memoirs Lately Published, in 1748, and she added her response, An Answer to Seasonable Advice to the Publick … shortly thereafter. She wrote two additional volumes of memoirs, the last of which was published after her death with additions by her son John Carteret Pilkington. She also is thought to have been the author of a comedy, The Turkish Court, produced on the stage in Dublin in 1749, though never published. After her death, her witty sayings were collected in a book, The Celebrated Mrs. Pilkington's Jests, and her poems were included in Poems by Eminent Ladies in 1755.


Buck, Claire, ed. The Bloomsbury Guide to Women's Literature. NY: Prentice Hall, 1992.

The Concise Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Shattock, Joanne. The Oxford Guide to British Women Writers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

suggested reading:

Messenger, Ann, ed. Gender at Work: Four Women Writers of the Eighteenth Century, 1990.

Sally A. Myers , Ph.D., freelance writer and editor