Queen Of The Wits, By Norma Clarke

Absorbing look at a woman living by her wits in 18th-century London
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"The life of a Wit is a warfare upon earth": Alexander Pope's comment is well chosen as epigraph to this biography, based on Laetitia Pilkington's Memoirs. A "Wit" meant an author. For a divorced Irishwoman trying to survive by her pen in the 1740s, the warfare was brutal.

A career driven by independent merit was seldom an option even for men. Success depended on finding a patron; Clarke richly conveys the resulting buzz of sycophancy, back-biting and extortion. As the young wife of a Dublin parson on the make, Pilkington learned to manage the bearish humours of Jonathan Swift, Dean of St Patrick's. Lilliputian, an urbane poet, she became his pet and first biographer. At this point she looks like a respectable bluestocking headed for the National Portrait Gallery.

But her husband was having an affair and wanted rid of her. With 12 night-watchmen as witnesses, he surprised her in her bedroom with an attractive surgeon and turned her out on to the street. Her divorce left her fair game for attempted rape by Dublin's wealthy thugs.

She lost her children, her friends dropped her, and she decided to try her luck in England. Clarke interweaves a huge cast of literary Londoners, some still famous like the novelist Samuel Richardson and the actor-dramatist Colley Cibber, both disinterestedly kind, others who sank without trace until Clarke dredged them up. Against a backdrop of foreign and threatened civil wars, an opposition led by Frederick, Prince of Wales, was gaining ground over Robert Walpole's corrupt ministry. Hacks from both sides fought on paper and in person. Pilkington brought charm into the mayhem; she found friends, patrons and some success.

Her novelty soon wore off. Deploying the strategies of the courtesan in her writing career, she sometimes was just a courtesan. She nearly died when imprisoned for debt. But as a Grub Street journalist she came to know London's underclass of "fallen" women, like herself but without her exceptional talent; she wrote letters for them and gave them her irrepressible company. Her politics crystallised into a feminism acerbic but less righteous than Mary Wollstonecraft's, later in the century. Clarke makes us love her and want to read more of her. Clarke's scholarship is phenomenal, but it's her own understated wit, played off against the sparkiness of Pilkington's Memoirs, that makes this biography so absorbing.