Queen of the Wits: A Life of Laetitia Pilkington by Norma Clarke - review by Frances Wilson

Frances Wilson

A Champion of Women

Queen of the Wits: A Life of Laetitia Pilkington


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As break-ups go, this was a bad one; on a level with Lord and Lady Byron in the following century, and worse even than Paul McCartney and Heather Mills. Matthew and Laetitia Pilkington looked the ideal couple: pocket-sized poets – ‘a little young poetical parson, who has a littler young poetical wife’, said Jonathan Swift, who adored them – who were set to scale the heights of Dublin literary society. Laetitia was sixteen when they married in 1775 and Matthew about twenty-four; they lived in a Lilliputian house in Dublin where she kept the owl and the pussy cat that he had given her as wedding gifts. Matthew used the Church as a ladder for his dizzy ascent (Swift, who patronised them both, was Dean of St Patrick’s), and Laetitia used her abundant wit, a commodity as valued in the eighteenth century as thinness is today. He played, she sang and together they cleared the various verbal hurdles erected by Swift in order to keep him entertained during dinner. Where did it all go wrong?

Laetitia Pilkington’s life began to unravel when Matthew, against all advice, departed for London in order to spread his genius. By the time she joined him he had succeeded only in boring Swift’s friend Pope half to death and falling in love with an actress. Matthew was now committed to

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