Dean Swift: The Politics of Satire


Conducted on 18-19/10/2005 at the Deanery of St. Patrick's, with Dr Robert Mahony in the Chair

Writing About the Small Fry

Norma Clarke (Kingston University, London)

Norma Clarke, as Professor of English Literature in Kingston University, has been associated with the UCLA Center for Seventeenth and Eighteenth-Century Studies and the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library. She has published 'The Rise and Fall of the Woman of Letters' (Pimlico Original, Random House, 2004), 'Dr Johnson's Women' (Hambledon & London, 2000), 'Ambitious Heights, Writing, Friendship, Love: the Jewsbury Sisters, Felicia Hemans and Jane Welsh Carlyle' (Routledge, 1990). Also co-authored with Helen Weinstein: 'Spinning with the Brain: Women's Writing in Seventeenth Century England' (1996 BBC Education pack), 'Anna Seward: Swan, Duckling or Goose?' in 'British Women's Writing in the Long Eighteenth Century: Authorship, Politics and History', eds Jennie Batchelor and Cora Kaplan, (Palgrave, 2005); also 'Bluestocking Fictions: Devotional Writings, Didactic Literature and the Imperative of Female Improvement' in 'Women, Gender and Enlightenment', eds Sarah Knott and Barbara Taylor, (Palgrave, 2005). She has recently completed a biography of Dublin-born Laetitia Pilkington (1709-1750), memoirist, literary biographer, poet and wit. It will be published by Faber & Faber.

Synopsis: The Rev Matthew Pilkington and his wife Laetitia were Swift's protegees and were closely involved with him from about 1729 until 1733. Irvin Ehrenpreis comments on their significance in Swift's life in the following way: 'How thoroughly the childlike couple mastered him, one may reckon from his exertions on behalf of the little husband'. Through Swift's patronage, Matthew was appointed chaplain to the Lord Mayor of London, John Barber, a one-year appointment which ended disastrously when Matthew and others were arrested for their involvement in the publication of Swift's inflammatory poems, On Poetry, A Rapsody, and Epistle to a Lady. A few years later, Matthew divorced his wife and Swift went through his papers scratching out their names wherever he found them.

The Pilkingtons do not figure largely in Swift biography. Both went on to produce work of considerable originality, however: Matthew as a connoisseur of painting and Laetitia as an autobiographer. In this paper I will reflect on Swift, power and corruption from the perspective of the small fry: the Pilkingtons and Mary Barber.


Mary Delany said that time went pleasantly in Swift's company though he was 'a very odd companion'. He talked all the time, she noted, 'and does not require many answers; he has infinite good spirits, and says abundance of good things in his common way of discourse'.

In the late 1720s an ambitious poetical curate and his no less ambitious wife , the Rev Matthew and Laetitia Pilkington, became Swift's regular companions. They were the sort of Dubliners Swift felt comfortable with at that stage in his life: not the high politicians he had mixed with in the glory days of Queen Anne, but 'people of middle understanding, middle rank, very complying, and consequently such as I can govern'.

In Swift biography, of course, the relationship is seen from Swift's point of view. The Pilkingtons do not come out well from this record. Many of Swift's friends, indeed, especially the London ones, commented negatively at the time - although much of what they said has a routine anti-Irish flavour to it; but later writers, too, have contributed their share of condescension, sneer and dismay. The Pilkingtons were neither the first nor the last of Swift's many protegees and some of the impatience emanating from London was from people sick to death of Swift's letters telling them that this person or that person was 'the most hopeful' to be seen, the most promising, the best - a string of superlatives ending with a demand for support. Swift was not subtle in his use of his position to gain interest for others; one can interpret his behaviour as a form of aggression towards an England that had exiled him to Ireland - though where getting on was concerned these were not subtle times - and/or as a measure of the intensity of his Irish patriotism.

Between 1729 and 1734 when it all went horribly wrong, the Pilkingtons made themselves available to Swift in a number of ways: listening to his monologues, ('as he was like another Nestor, full of Days and Wisdom, so like him, he was pretty much upon the Narrative') responding wittily whenever possible, not taking offence on the many occasions when he gave them cause - Laetitia Pilkington took pride in entering into what she called the Dean's 'peculiarly ironical Strain'. Matthew was less good at it and, according to her, was humiliated more often. They both had the knack of entering into Swift's play-acting: Matthew pretending to be grateful when offered the lees of the wine, unlike some other 'paultry Curate' who had dined with Swift a few days earlier who got offended 'and so walk'd off without his Dinner'. ('For,' says he, 'I always keep some poor Parson to drink the foul Wine for me'.) Or, visiting Swift at the Grattans' home at Belcamp where he was spending Xmas, and pretending that Laetitia (hiding her face) was some girl they had picked up on the road. She's a 'wench' or prostitute introduced into a parlour full of black-gowned clergymen. 'We were very merry on this odd Introduction', Laetitia wrote, recalling how Swift was in 'infinite humour', addressing her in his vigorous reversed way with compliments that sounded like insults, to which she retaliated with her famed 'Sauciness'. 'Pox on you, you Slut' said the Dean, and the parlour rang with laughter.

Physically, the Pilkingtons were both small. They were dubbed, 'mighty Thomas Thumb' and 'her serene Highness of Lillyput'. It's easy to assume they were childlike, willing playthings, the Lilliputian creatures of Swift's imagination sprung to life. Without doubt they are the small fry of literary history, swimming in the wake of an acknowledged genius. If it were not for Swift there would be little record of either of them, and yet Matthew went on to write a book which was an original in the realm of connoirseurship and which was not superseded until the late 19thC, and Laetitia, no less original and perhaps, given that she was female, against greater odds, produced a three volume work that mixed autobiography, literary anecdote, poetry, burlesque and witty satire to create a wholly original form. These were no small achievements; and they were not arrived at casually or in haphazard or childish ways.

As an Irish curate in the Irish church, at a time when places went almost always to Englishmen, Matthew Pilkington hoped for advancement through his friendship with Swift. There was nothing improper about that, nor any reason for us to feel superior. In 1732 Swift used his friendship with John Barber, ex-printer, wealthy City alderman and about to be Mayor of London, to gain for Matthew the one-year position of chaplain to the mayor. This is how things were done: favours begat favours. At this time Matthew had published a volume of poems and he was longing to get to the heart of literary London, Swift having stirred his imagination with visions of being entertained by Pope and Dr Arbuthnot and Lady This and Lord That. Swift had an agenda of his own, however. With Matthew in London, he could use him as his agent to see through the press some of the most inflammatory poems he wrote (with their innocuous titles): On Poetry, A Rapsody; and Epistle to a Lady. Matthew, along with Swift's other protegee, Mary Barber, was given this commission in 1733. Swift also encouraged him to print whatever of his own he chose, including a pamphlet imitating Swift's style and purporting to be by him. Anonymous, pseudonymous, parodic, and generally disguised writings flourished in this era of heavy-handed censorship of the press under Walpole. Matthew, vivid, energetic, high-spirited, eager, hungry and bombastic was good Grub Street material. He was more provincial, less shrewd, than he thought himself, and he was quickly out of his depth - especially when he tried his charms on Pope at Twickenham - but still, there was nothing intrinsically wrong in Swift's judgement of him except that Swift omitted to take into account the pull of the culture of libertinism, the sex-appeal of certain actresses, and Matthew's reckless disregard of politics.

By January 1734, Matthew, Mary Barber, the printer and the publisher were all in jail for those poems. Swift was untouched. Matthew, who was hoping for advancement from the PMs son, Edward Walpole, and was friends with him, co-operated with the government. Or, in the words of one writer, he became 'the government's star blabber'. As such, he was regarded as a traitor to the Irish cause, and as one who had 'betrayed the Dean'.

The experience was traumatic and it ruined Matthew's hopes of preferment in the church (never specially high). Through his libertine connections, he moved into the world of art and connoirsseurship and there we'll leave him so far as his professional career is concerned. It was his private life that, for Swift biographers, justified the suspicions with which he was regarded by Swift's London friends [Bolingbroke's 'Pray Mr Dean, be a little more cautious in your recommendations ...the fellow wants morals and decency'] and Swift's own categorical rejection of the Pilkingtons in 1738. This came in a letter to John Barber, who must have smiled at it - and whose involvement with Swift and the Pilkingtons is one of the great untold stories (because mostly invisible - Barber was too canny a politician to let anything much out). Swift blamed Delany for introducing him to them and described Matthew as 'the falsest rogue' and Laetitia as 'the most profligate whore in either kingdom'. He went to the trouble of scratching their names out wherever he found them in his correspondence. From Swift's point of view, it seems fair enough that he should distance himself from a curate who had apparently discovered his wife in bed with another man, and evicted her from the house, and sued for divorce. But for later commentators not to take a more capacious view of the matter seems surprising. But biographers' and literary historians' investments in the major subject - literary genius, author of works we know and love - does tend to lead to moral judgements that favour the subject. In any case, for most of history, sexual misdemeanours automatically put people on the wrong side of moral judgements, so the fact that Matthew, and most likely Laetitia, engaged in sexual acts with others, was enough for retrospective condemnation. It would be good to think that doesn't have to be the case nowadays; that sex can be included amongst a range of behaviours we don't necessarily blame. This is particularly important in assessing Laetitia Pilkington's life.

It is/would be important in any woman - because sexual reputation determined so much. But Laetitia took the issue of sex and played with it. She made jokes about it. She made fun of men through their narrow and limited attitudes towards women and sexuality. She was witty on the subject of her fall and excoriating on the double standard of sexual morality. In this respect she resembles (and consciously parodied) dramatists of the time whose comic subject matter harped on cuckoldry, adultery, lust for sex and money (rich widows, nubile young heiresses and the like). People went to the theatre, and read play texts, knowing they would be provided with humour that turned on sex. Why not in prose? Or why not extend the audience for drawing room wit? When she went to London in 1738, to fend for herself as a writer, Laetitia Pilkington turned herself into a sort of stand-up comedian whose lodgings, right across the street from White's club in St James's, operated as a sort of ante-chamber to the club. Just as gentlemen took it for granted they could saunter backstage at the theatre and mingle with the actresses, so her lodgings were like the Green Room. Gentlemen came, she amused them with her entertaining speech, and they showed their appreciation when they left.

This was very like what courtesans provided, just as being an actress might be very like being a courtesan, but it was not quite. The key difference (which it is easy, given our prurience about sex, to forget) lies in the professional element and the demands it made: Laetitia Pilkington had no ambition to go into keeping and, since she could not re-marry, was not even tempted by dreams of netting a duke for a husband. Her ambitions were directed towards literary reputation. She spent long hours reading and writing. It was her intellectual quickness and commitment that had attracted Swift, a feminist after the fashion of his time who believed passionately in the power of education to improve women. Laetitia Pilkington easily acquired Swift's friendship and esteem because she was an eager reader and quick learner.

Towards Laetitia, Swift took on the role of tutor. She attributed her skills as a writer to 'the Pains he took to teach me to think and speak with propriety'. She recognised that his attentions were a compliment - 'had he thought me incorrigibly dull, I should have escap'd without Correction' - but he was 'a very rough sort of a Tutor'. Swift cared passionately about language and had no patience with woolly thinking. He also enjoyed hurting her. When she used an inelegant phrase he pinched her so hard she ended up 'black and blue', often without knowing what she had said or done wrong.

Swift was the most famous writer in the kingdom, and he teased her, allowed her to browse his unpublished manuscripts, invited her comments, and praised her wit. She understood well the combination of reverence, intelligence and docility required to keep the door of the deanery open to her. Through it she tripped for three or four years, playing the prattling child within and boasting about it elsewhere. Sexually experienced, she had her own views about the Dean which were those of a grown woman not a child. Remarking that there was no risk to her reputation in spending hours closeted with Swift because of his advanced years she added a word about what she called 'love' but by which she clearly meant lust: 'to speak my Sentiments, I really believe it was a Passion he was wholly unacquainted with, and which he would have thought it beneath the Dignity of his Wisdom to entertain'. The observation, interesting for what it suggests about Swift and physical desire, is also a reminder that Swift's companion was a woman shrewdly observing the world of men, making comparisons and drawing conclusions. Serving as a Stella-substitute in the deanery, she was no more an actual child than Esther Johnson had been, though as with Stella Swift took pleasure in treating her like a child.

Laetitia Pilkington stored up her observations and memories, used anecdotes about Swift as part of her entertaining monologues, and later - much later - wrote it all down in her 1748 Memoirs, long recognised as 'a minor classic of the 18thC', appreciated by all leading Swift scholars, and now available in a truly wonderful edition edited by A.C.Elias. She was the first to write about Swift, who had died in 1745. She offered what Johnson later ruled to be the most interesting kind of biography: that which was built upon personal knowledge and observation. The Memoirs was enthusiastically received and read at the time. Classified then and since as a 'scandalous memoir' it occupies a category that does not do justice to its richness nor the originality of the form Laetitia Pilkington invented for herself. She is bracketed with courtesans like Constantia Phillips, and with actresses who also wrote their lives, and with fictional, semi-pornographic 'Memoirs' such as The Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure or Fanny Hill by John Cleland which also came out in 1748. It is important to question this category, not to save her sexual reputation but to lay proper emphasis on the literary qualities which she worked hard to attain. (The same might be said of Fanny Hill, of course, which is a wonderful piece of writing.) There were very few examples of personal memoir such as Laetitia Pilkington began writing some time in the 1740s, certainly not memoirs of the lives of ordinary people. What model was there for an Irishwoman to tell the world about her parents, her upbringing, her life? It was beginning, in fictionalised form, but one publisher at least expressed surprise that she should think anyone would be interested. What made it commercial was her unusual scandalous experience, as a divorced woman, and her inside knowledge of Swift. She used these ingredients but built something much bigger out of them, incorporating her poetry, which she had been hoping to publish separately, by subscription, along with a powerful critique of the sexual double standard.

Swift's friendship with the Pilkingtons was the most significant in their careers, for good and ill. His judgement about them, after he abandoned them, has been definitive. That's the power of his great name against their little ones. But if we think about power and corruption, it does not seem to me that there was anything corrupt in this. Swift wanted to promote Matthew as an Irishman, to push him onward; and he wanted to encourage Laetitia, as a woman, to cultivate her mind. When their lives ran out of control, when Dublin turned against them, he dropped them.

On the other hand, the ascription of corruption to both Pilkingtons, by virtue of their inferiority to the great man, is highly questionable - the more so for the fact that it bubbles up unthinkingly. Irvin Ehrenpreis, for example, in his great biography of Swift, suggests that the Pilkingtons wielded an improper power over him. He writes: 'How thoroughly the childlike couple mastered him, one may reckon from his exertions on behalf of the little husband'. The power, of course, ran all the other way. Laetitia Pilkington expressed it more accurately when she explained that as people 'sans consequence', she and Matthew were but a cut above the servants. Swift suffered from Meniere's syndrome which caused periodic fits of deafness and giddiness, symptoms he hated to display and which were worsening as he aged. Often morose, in company he needed to feel free to ask people to speak up, repeat what they had said and generally submit to his bad temper. 'It was owing to this' Mrs Pilkington candidly explained, 'that Mr Pilkington and I frequently pass'd whole Days with him, while Numbers of our betters were excluded'. She was under no illusion about her status, but nor did she have greater or lesser power than a servant. Far from 'mastering' Swift, he made use of them. One would like to think that the ferocity with which he denounced them and scratched out their names from his letters had in it some sense of responsibility, at least for Matthew's fate as carrier of his inflammatory poems, but somehow I doubt it.

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