Title: Queen of the Wits A Life of Laetitia Pilkington
Author: Norma Clarke
Year Published: 2008 (Faber and Faber Limited)
Year Purchased: September, 2012
Source: My mom bought it for me in Ireland.
About: If emotions could flash across time, whether born of sympathy or distaste, then Laetitia Pilkington would be knocked over by waves of righteous indignation sent her way from 21st century readers of Norma Clarke’s compelling biography. It would be all too easy to write off what happened to the 18th century writer and wit as just another example of the appalling, often violent double standard facing women of the time. It’s not that simple. She was a pet favourite of Jonathan Swift, a precocious young writer, budding intellectual, wife, mother, and beloved daughter. Whether she had an affair or not (and it is hard to tell if her explanation was pure cheek or plain truth) doesn’t matter within the context of her place and time; the fact that her ill-tempered husband, a curate with literary ambitions, was allowed to carry on dalliances without punishment or even censure, whilst she was publicly castigated as a whore, is the central theme of what became an extended nightmare for his wife. As a fallen woman, her services were automatically assumed to be for sale; men climbed in through windows and broke down doors in efforts to rape her. Swift, himself a Dean of St. Patrick’s cathedral in Dublin, and a man with a peculiar, often distasteful character, couldn’t push her under the carriage fast enough. (He venomously spoke of her as “the most profligate whore in the kingdom.”) She escaped, barely, with her pen and wit, sans her children, to an attenuated life in England. A few years later, after a relentless series of professional and personal ups and downs that would have broken a lesser person, her memoirs made her more famous than ever, though hardly the richer. Queen of the Wits serves a purpose other than to be merely entertaining: it makes the inhumanity of women’s traditional and collective experiences of violence and subjugation within the majority of Western history personal. Laetitia Pilkington was a real woman, better off than most of her contemporaries, and do you know what? She was still treated like shit, and she was not alone. If it wasn’t for the famous, mostly male company she kept (when they would have her, that is) and her gift for composition, she would be lost under the weight of centuries like all of the others, unfairly used, mistreated, dead before her time. Forgotten. Her story is extraordinary because, talented or not, she was just an ordinary woman.
Motivation: Hmm, let’s see if we can figure this out. Woman writer? Check. Dead woman writer? Check. Independent-minded dead woman writer? Check. Inspirational independent-minded dead woman writer? Check. I’ll stop here, as I am pretty sure you get the idea.
Times Read: 1
Random Excerpt/Page 114: “For the husband and wife, it was not a happy reunion. Matthew was in a towering rage, and she soon knew why. There had been an exceptionally violent quarrel with the Van Lewens, and he now came to issue instructions: in obedience to him, she was to break off all connection with her family. Matthew commanded her, if she had any regard for him, never to set foot inside Molesworth Street again.”