Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Mrs Pilkington's Jests

Queen of the Wits: A Life of Laetitia Pilkington by Norma Clarke (Faber & Faber).

Norma Clarke's scholarly biography takes a clear-eyed view of the life of Laetitia Pilkington: a Dublin poetess and wit whose sensational, ramshackle life would form the basis of her celebrated, three-volume Memoirs. Petted by Jonathan Swift and frequently competing for literary laurels with her curate-husband Matthew, Laetitia seemed destined for a respectable, literary life in 1730s Dublin.

That was until one fatal night in 1737 when Matthew burst into her bedchamber with a group of watchmen, discovering his wife alone in the arms of a dashing young surgeon. He cast her off, branding her an adultress and suing for divorce. Yet Laetitia's side of the story was somewhat different (not to mention a little glib): she was merely reading a book that belonged to the gentleman and he was waiting for her to finish it. She also claimed that this was one of many attempts by her husband to ruin her reputation so that he could run off with the wealthy Widow Warren.

One of the most interesting aspects of Clarke's book is the way in which she tries to upick the real Laetitia from her many different literary personas: 'poor Laetitia... the Foot-ball of Fortune' and 'genuine Successor of... immortal Swift', who enjoyed lampooning her male counterparts as the 'bastard Sons of Wit'. Clarke's descriptions of the young poetess, writing at the window of her London apartment, in full view of the wealthy patrons of White's club, are a joy. Her later years, marked by poverty and bitterness, find her working as a scandalous memoirist, struggling against a society of gender double-standards, where, as she put it, 'our seducers' are also 'our accusers'. Clarke's is a worthwhile and entertaining portrait of a true survivor.

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