Pilkington, Laetitia (c.1709–1750), author, was born in Dublin or Co. Cork, eldest child of John van Lewen (1684–1737), physician and obstetrician, and his wife Elizabeth Corry (d. c.1742), niece of Sir John Meade (qv), former attorney general of Ireland. John van Lewen – arguably Ireland's first obstetrician – had a successful practice and was eventually president of the K&QCPI. Laetitia described herself as a precocious child who taught herself to read and had Pope's poems by heart at the age of five. She grew up ‘not handsome . . . but well-drest, sprightly and remarkably well-temper'd’ (Pilkington, Memoirs, 14) and married young (31 May 1725) a clergyman and poet, Matthew Pilkington (qv). He had ambition but no wealth and was not a great match for Laetitia, who was connected through her mother to the earls of Clanwilliam. She seems to have married against her parents' wishes, though in her memoirs she accuses her mother of fostering Pilkington's suit.
The couple settled in Lazer's Hill, Dublin, where Matthew was curate of St Andrews. Both wrote poetry – Mrs Pilkington, like other women of her class, addressed her verse to friends and initially intended it for private circulation only. A poem to ‘Dr Swift on his birthday’ helped to obtain her an introduction (c.1729) to its famous addressee. Jonathan Swift (qv) took immediately to the young couple, whom he described affectionately as ‘the mighty Tom Thumb and her serene highness of Lilliput’ (Swift, Correspondence, iii) – both Pilkingtons were tiny, with childlike mannerisms. They quickly became part of Swift's intimate circle and in July 1732 he recommended Matthew as chaplain to the incoming mayor of London, the printer John Barber. Mrs Pilkington remained in Dublin with their children. She visited London after a year but found her husband had fallen out with Barber and taken up with an actress, so returned home. Within a few months he had followed her back in disgrace, having been arrested and released in connection with one of Swift's poems. The marriage survived another three years till the death of John van Lewen, who left his daughter debts instead of the anticipated fortune, so persuading Matthew into the arms of a wealthy widow. Mrs Pilkington claimed he was desperate to divorce her and tried to force her on male friends; in October 1737 he finally found her in a compromising position – alone in her bedroom with a surgeon, Robert Adair (qv). The ensuing scandalous divorce finally succeeded in alienating Swift; he had stood by the Pilkingtons against the advice of friends, but now condemned both, Matthew as ‘the falsest rogue and she the most profligate whore in either kingdom’ (Correspondence, v, 95).
Mrs Pilkington, penniless and ostracised, turned to her pen. She persuaded her husband's friend (and probably her lover) the notorious libertine painter, James Worsdale (d. 1767), to pass off her work as his own – she sold him poems and wrote a feminist prologue for his one-act opera, ‘A cure for a scold’. She also apparently wrote the farce ‘No death but marriage’, acted at Smock Alley, 3 May 1738. However, her reputation worked against her in Dublin and attracted potential seducers, so she left in winter 1738 for London, where she spent the next eight years as ‘Mrs Meade’. She lost custody of her three surviving children. In London her circumstances were desperate; her only livelihood came from hack writing and she was reduced to moving between miserable lodgings, socialising with laundresses and footmen, and in October 1742 was imprisoned in Marshalsea gaol for a £2 debt. However, she was fortunate in two patrons: the playwright Colley Cibber, who got her commissions, and the novelist Samuel Richardson, who gave her money. Her position was not helped by the arrival in December 1745 of her 16-year-old pregnant, unmarried daughter, whom she received, however, with compassion. Urged by Cibber to write as she talked, she put together her memoirs but could find no publisher, so in May 1747 returned to Dublin, where she advertised for subscriptions. The first volume appeared in Dublin c.February 1748 and in London four months later. The second volume was published in December of that year. They caused a stir and sold well although their content shocked many, including Richardson, who termed Mrs Pilkington ‘a wretch, wishing to perpetuate [her infamy]’ (unpublished letter; see Elias, xlvii). She used the memoirs to decry her husband, who attempted to prevent their publication. The book's other selling point was the inimitable portrait of Swift, who had died just eighteen months earlier. Her style was easy and engaging and unusual, in that she included not just anecdotes but whole conversations. Although her reliability is sometimes questioned, she clearly possessed a remarkable memory.
Remaining in Dublin, she rented in April 1748, with her son Jack (see below), the Capel Street theatre, for which she wrote a comedy, ‘The Turkish court’, and one or more satiric monologues which Jack performed. She was engaged on preparing the third volume of her memoirs when she died at her lodgings in Phraper Lane, Dublin, on 29 July 1750. Less than a month later her former husband remarried. Jack finally published the third volume of her memoirs in June 1754. They are a rehashing and padding out of her earlier volumes, and more sensationalist in tone.
Mrs Pilkington's name was long synonymous with scandal – the first edition of the DNB described her as ‘adventuress’ rather than author, and as late as 1989 the Oxford anthology of women poets suggested she was a prostitute, who possibly committed incest with her son. Virginia Woolf, who termed her an ‘extraordinary cross . . . between a rolling and rollicking woman of the town and a lady of breeding and refinement’ (Woolf, Essays, 127), triggered the feminist revival of interest in her career. Recent decades have seen numerous critical studies, which tend to see her as significant for sociological rather than literary reasons. Her biographer A. C. Elias has made the case for her as a stylist and calls her the best of Swift's contemporary biographers, comparing her method of describing her subject through domestic details to Boswell's a generation later.
Her son, John Carteret Pilkington (1730–63), always known as ‘Jack ’, attempted to recreate his mother's success with his own memoirs. He was her second child and was baptised in Dublin on 1 May 1730. After the divorce he and his younger sister lived with their father (the eldest, William, was brought up by his paternal grandparents). Unhappy and mistreated, Jack escaped in 1741 and lived for a time with his mother's uncle in Cork before taking to the stage as a boy soprano. He made his debut with Thomas Arne's troop on 7 May 1743 at the Aungier St. theatre, Dublin, singing the title role in Arne's ‘Tom Thumb’. After a series of picaresque adventures in which he took up with an eccentric inventor, and a nobleman, Charles O'Neill of Shane's Castle, who offered him a lifetime annuity but dropped him when his voice broke, Jack made his way to Scotland in 1744 and became a naval volunteer before joining his mother and sister in London in April 1746. After serving briefly (September–October 1746) in the regiment of his cousin John Meade, he accompanied his mother to Dublin in May 1747 and there helped her get her memoirs published and put on shows in the Capel St. theatre, in which he acted. After his mother's death, he remained in Dublin, occasionally singing at benefits and married (7 July 1753) Ann Smith. A few months later he left for London to arrange publication of his mother's third volume of memoirs. He was successful in this but was unable to manage his finances and followed his mother into Marshalsea prison for debt three times, in November 1754, December 1755, and September 1760. That year his memoirs, The real story of John Carteret Pilkington, were published. They deal with his very early life (ending in 1744) and are less amusing and reliable than his mother's He died on the continent some time in summer 1763.