Biography 25.2 (2002) 394-396
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Lynda M. Thompson's new book contributes to the ongoing discussion of "scandalous memoirs," the life writings of notorious women published in Great Britain during the eighteenth century. Focusing on two mid-century writers, Constantia Phillips and Laetitia Pilkington, Thompson uncovers the biases that have prevented many scholars from attending to these women as closely as they deserve. As she shows, instead of researching their memoirs rigorously, many critics have "raided" them for information about the prominent men they knew, dismissing the memoirists themselves as unreliable and then repeating factual errors about them (113). Thompson corrects these errors, and examines the "scandalous memoir" as a subgenre worthy of serious study. Phillips and Pilkington "made a significant if controversial contribution to the genre of autobiography," Thompson argues, "for, while confessing to a much-disapproved-of sexual adventuring, these memoirists also insisted on their own form of integrity and honour (and the lack of it in those who criticized and moralized) and their right to speak out in their own defence" (ix).
Thompson begins by situating her book in relation to feminist studies by scholars such as Vivien Jones and Felicity Nussbaum, but she marks new territory by attending to the memoirists' ambivalent "engagement with prescriptive patriarchal strategies," and to their integration of aspects of different [End Page 394] genres, particularly the figures of "the sentimental courtesan" and "the libertine whore" (6). Drawing upon J¨urgen Habermas's theories about the formation of the bourgeois public sphere, Thompson further differs from previous scholars in emphasizing "the memoirists' exploitation of contemporaries' uncertainties about women's proper relations to public and private spheres" (6). The memoirists were scandalous in attempting to "have it both ways"—portraying themselves as victims, and asserting their right to defend themselves against unjust husbands, unfair laws, and corrupt booksellers' cartels.
Chapter One focuses on the Apology for the Conduct of Mrs. Constantia Phillips (1748), which famously details Phillips's rape by "Mr. Grimes," and her legal battles with her husband, Henry Muilman. While nineteenth- and twentieth-century critics assumed that "Mr. Grimes" was Lord Chesterfield, Thompson presents persuasive evidence that it was actually Lord Scarborough. Thompson also contests the standard claim that Phillips's Apology was written by Paul Whitehead, a well-known rake and political satirist. While she admits a connection between Whitehead and Phillips, Thompson characterizes their relationship as mutually beneficial, with Whitehead using Phillips's "publick Fame" as a vehicle for promoting his political agenda, and Phillips using Whitehead's political connections to help advertise her Apology (60). Thompson posits that "those parts of Phillips's memoirs which savage Fielding, and which have directly political implications, may have been written or influenced by Whitehead," but she does not entirely clear up this complicated—and critical—issue (29-30).
Thompson's next chapter discusses Laetitia Pilkington's Memoirs (1748- 1754), which began appearing in the same year as Phillips's Apology, and even allude to that work. Thompson does not explore these allusions, which actually work to distance Pilkington from Phillips. Instead she focuses on how Pilkington's work is preoccupied with "definitions of 'character', and the difference between the 'inside' and the 'mere outside'" (81). Pilkington's Memoirs fill the gaps about private life: "her attempt to integrate private and public behaviour countered the emerging ideology of 'separate spheres', and made her a troubling and anomalous figure for the times" (81). Readers unfamiliar with Pilkington or book history may be interested in Thompson's discussion of how Pilkington's Memoirs capture the workings of patronage, a system then in decline.
The final two chapters place the life writings of both Pilkington and Phillips in a broader context. Chapter Three investigates their relationship to the eighteenth-century book trade, first considering why Phillips and Pilkington chose to place their names on works which would subject them certainly to ridicule and...