Mary Delany, the Triumfeminate and other Dublin Women: Swift’s “Female Senate”

This post originally appeared on my personal blog. However at the recent conference on Irish Philosophy in the Age of Berkeley, Christine Gerrard gave a fascinating presentation on What the Dublin Women of the ‘Triumfeminate’ did with John Locke”. I have therefore moved this post here to serve as an introduction to these women.

In 1752 John Boyle (5th earl of Cork and Orrery), erstwhile friend of Jonathan Swift, wrote in his life of the Dean, “You see the command which Swift had over all his females, and you would have smiled to have found his house a constant seraglio of very virtuous women, who attended him from morning til night”. Boyle blamed Swift’s women for Swift publishing papers he would have been wiser to withhold, since “he communicated every composition as soon as finished, to his female senate.”

Patrick Delany, who had been close friends with Swift since meeting him in 1718, wasted no time in defending the reputation of Swift and his friends in Observations Upon Lord Orrery’s Remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr. Jonathan Swift. As well as giving explanations of Swift’s relationships with Esther Johnson (‘Stella’) and Esther Vanhomrigh (‘Vanessa’), he insisted that women almost never visited the Dean’s house, and then only by invitation. Delany had every opportunity of knowing this: “[Delany’s] house at Glasnevin was the scene of the weekly meetings at which Swift and his circle would read poems to each other and submit them for correction” (Andrew Carpenter, 2004). The house, Delville, has since been demolished but stood on the site of the present Bon Secours Hospital, Dublin.

The style of house originally built on Jervis St and Stafford St (public domain)
The style of house originally built on Jervis St and Stafford St (public domain)

Before the meetings at Delville, it seems that regular meetings took place at Delany’s house in Stafford St (now Wolfe Tone St). Mary Pendarves wrote to Swift in 1735 saying, “I am sorry that the sociable Thursdays, that used to bring together so many agreeable friends at Dr Delany’s, are broke up; though Delville has its beauties it is more out of the way than Stafford St.” The “agreeable friends” were not solely female – they included Patrick Delany, Thomas Sheridan, Richard Helsham and members of the Grattan and Rochfort families.

However the core of this circle was Mary Barber, Constantia Grierson and Elizabeth Sican, described by Swift as his “triumfeminate”. All three were writers before they met Swift and had formed a literary circle with Laetitia Pilkington.

Constantia Grierson (née Crawley) was highly intelligent and mostly self-educated. Aged 18 she came to Dublin to train as a midwife under Dr. Van Lewen, Laetitia’s father. Laetitia and Constantia were friends by 1721. However Constantia met the printer George Grierson, decided to abandon her training and instead used her editing skills in her husband’s business. By the time she met Swift in 1728, she had already edited editions of Virgil (1724) and Terrance (1727), the latter prefaced with an epigram she had written in Greek. She gained a great reputation for editing and poetry, though little of her poetry survives. Swift praised her to Pope as “a very good Latin and Greek scholar, and hath lately published a fine edition of Tacitus, and she writes carmina Anglicana non-contemnenda [English poetry not to be despised].” She died in 1732.

Mary Barber was also a friend of Constantia (though 15 years older), and was given the responsibility of publishing her poetry after Constantia’s death. (The poems were included in the 1755 Poems by eminent ladies, which included Mary Barber’s work.) Mary and her husband Rupert (draper and artist) were introduced to Swift in 1728 by Patrick Delany. Mary had started by writing poetry for her children, but moved on to write and publish “The Widow’s Address” (1725) in support of an officer’s widow and her blind child. This drew the attention of Lady Carteret, wife of the lord lieutenant, who became her patron. In 1728 she published “A Tale Being an Addition to Mr. Gay’s Fables” (Dublin, 1728), which though the tale of a mother reading “Gay’s Fables” to her son makes an appeal for a royal pension for Gay.

Swift regarded her as the most talented of the circle and encouraged her. At his urging she went to England to get subscribers for a book of her poems. He provided introductions and wrote the dedicatory epistle to her Poems on several occasions (1734). However she was still in dire straits financially and Swift gave her the English rights to his Complete Collection of Genteel and Ingenious Conversation (1738). By 1744 she was living in Glasnevin near Mary Delany who remarked that Rupert Barber “cares not a pin for his family, who if they had not met with better friends than himself, might have starved’ (Delany, iii, 327–8).

Elizabeth Sican on the other hand was, according to Swift, “the wife of a surly husband who checks her [poetic] vein” (letter to Pope, 1730). (A well-off man, John Sican had served on one of the juries that refused to indict John Harding, printer of the Fourth Drapier letter.) Nothing is recorded of her output, though Swift said that “her Taste is almost as refin’d as her Wit” in the poem “On Psyche”. A note to the poem records that Elizabeth had been a favorite of Stella’s, so was one of Swift’s earlier female friends.

Laetitia Pilkerton © National Portrait Gallery, London
Laetitia Pilkerton
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Laetitia Pilkington (née van Lewen) was (as already noted) the daughter of a physician. She married Matthew Pilkington in 1725 and was introduced to Swift that year. He described them as “a little young poetical parson, who has a littler young poetical wife”. Swift tried to assist them, obtaining a post in 1732-3 for Matthew Pilkington in London. This proved bad luck for Mary Barber who delivered six poems to Matthew Pilkington in 1733 to be published. One was Swift’s supposedly subversive Epistle to a lady, and based on Pilkington’s testimony she was arrested and held for two weeks for her role in its publication. It was equally unfortunate for Laetitia, who visiting earlier in 1733 found her husband having an affair and deeply involved in political schemes. The story only gets more scandalous from there: Laetitia’s own affair, her break with Swift and her adoption of writing to support herself is described in History Ireland‘s Laetitia Pilkington (c. 1709–50): scandalous woman and memoirist.

anne donnellan
Anne Donnellan from “The Autobiography…of Mrs Delany”

The other important memoirist of the circle was Mary Delany (previously Mrs Pendarves, née Granville). She had had an excellent education, with the aim of establishing her as a lady-in-waiting in the court in London. This plan failed, though she did become close friends with Handel and develop artistic interests as a result.

Forced into marriage with Alexander Pendarves at a young age, after her husband’s death she became her own mistress, despite financial trouble due to her husband leaving her nothing in his will. She visited Ireland with her close friend Anne Donnellan in 1730 and met Swift and Delany. She continued to correspond with both. In a letter to Anne in 1731 she mentioned having made friends “among the wits” including Pilkington, Scian and Grierson and that she has visited Delville. (Anne Donnellan is an interesting person in her own right: a sister of Katherine Clayton, wife of the Arian bishop Robert Clayton, and recipient of a marriage proposal from George Berkeley, the Trinity College Dublin Donnellan Lectures were established in 1794 through her initiative and generosity.)

Mary Delany (public domain)
Mary Delany (public domain)

After the death of his wife in 1742 Patrick Delany asked Mary to marry him. She moved to Ireland, ran Delville and exercised her artistic bent, including gardening, embroidery, painting and paper-cutting. After her husband’s death and her move back to London she produced incredibly detailed, botanically accurate paper flowers. She was also part of the Bluestocking Circle – one of the chief hostesses of the circle was her friend Elizabeth Vesey who she met in Ireland.

This circle of talented women, many of whom were “self-made women”, is remembered both through the patronage, encouragement and praise of Swift, and through the memoirs of Laetitia Pilkington and Mary Delany. Like the later Bluestockings they were not the passive “seraglio” imagined by Boyle, but active, self-motivated women. Mary was just as “angry at the unfriendly, ungenerous manner of Swift’s being treated by one who calls him his friend” (Memoirs) as her husband and just as capable of replying, as this “squib” to a friend shows:

A disease this scribbling [itch] is
His Lordship on his Pliny vain
’Twas Madam Pilkington in stitches
And now attacks the Irish Dean

Libel his friend when laid in ground
Pray good Sir, you may spare your hints
This parallel I’m sure is found
For what he writes George Faulkner prints

Had Swift provoked to this behaviour
Sure after death resentment cools
And his last act bespoke [a favour?]
He founds a hospitable for fools

Featured Image: Delville, from “The Autobiography…of Mrs Delany”


Mary Delany’s squib, from Autobiography and Correspondence, Vol. 3, p.79; quoted in Robert Ward, George Faulkner (1972). Boyle had published a translation of Pliny the Younger’s letters earlier that year. The mention of Madam Pilkington may refer to Boyle remaining on friendly terms with Laetitia – he sent her a jokey letter as late as 1747. Faulkner printed Boyle’s work (the only way Boyle managed to copy the Dean?) But, Mary says, Swift bears no grudge, he even provided a favour for Boyle to avail of: a hospital for fools.

Margaret Ann Doddy (2003) “Swift and Women” in Christopher Fox (ed) The Cambridge Companion to Jonathan Swift

Andrew Carpenter (2004) “Delany, Patrick” in Dictionary of Irish Biography

Helen Andrews (2004) “Barber (Barbor), Mary” in Dictionary of Irish Biography

Rebecca Minch (2004) “Delany, Mary” in Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Paula Backscheider (2004) “Inverting the Image of Swift’s ‘Triumfeminate'” in Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Volume 4, Number 1, Spring/Summer 2004, pp. 37-71. (JSTOR)

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