Biography of Mary Susanna Pilkington

94 Mary Pilkington port.jpg

Portrait of Mary Pilkington

By: Belle Eist


Our current knowledge of the long and interesting life of Mary Susanna Pilkington is impacted by a variety of discordant information. The variances between academic and historical sources engenders a need for intensive explanation and disputation over many of the events that characterized her life and authorship. In pursuit of clarity and veracity, the ensuing account of Pilkington’s life will be followed by a research-driven disentangling of the discrepancies that surround her birth, death, and familial relationships. 

Early Life

Born in 1761, Mary Susanna Hopkins was the first child of Allen Hopkins and Mary Thornhill,¹ who were married two years prior in 1759 (“Pilkington [née Hopkins], Mary Susanna” ODNB). She was well educated and raised for the anticipated “Independant, if not affluent” wealth she was to achieve (“Mrs. Mary Pilkington* 1766-1839 (Nee Hopkins)” Nineteenth Century Collections Online 3).² The comfortable simplicity of her young life was interrupted when Pilkington’s father, whom she described as “an eminent Surgeon at Cambridge,” died suddenly in 1777, leaving a young Pilkington and her mother to subsist off a small inheritance from her paternal grandfather.³ Pilkington, herself, never learned the exact circumstances that deprived her and her mother of Allen Hopkins’ assets; in a letter from Pilkington to Charles Lamborn, she writes that she was denied her patrimony “by an Error in the form of the title Deed of our Estate, or by the illegal Conduct of a Brother of my Father’s, it was Claimed by him, as Heir Male” (“Mrs. Mary Pilkington” 3). With their unforeseen loss of affluence, Pilkington described that her “amiable and tenderly attached” mother, “fell a prey to the most dreadful of all human infirmities Insanity [sic]” (“Mrs. Mary Pilkington” 3-4). Over the subsequent nine years, Mary Hopkins was “at length rescued by the kind attentions of Doctor [John] Monro,” and the mother and daughter nearly expend the entirety of the “trifling Legacy” left to Pilkington by her grandfather on medical treatment and general living expenses (“Mrs. Mary Pilkington” 4, 3). Mary Pilkington then married John Pilkington, a surgeon and the inheritor of her father’s business, in 1786 (ODNB). Pilkington’s self-professed precarious financial situation could imply that her marriage was a matter of economic necessity, rather than one of choice or desire. Though John Pilkington had a respectable career, he was not particularly successful in his business ventures; in her letter to Charles Lamborn, Pilkington writes, “Mr. P was...totally devoid of Worldly Prudence” and “in very short time [John] was compelled to resign his Situation & seek Support in the Navy,” leaving Pilkington to support her “poor” mother alone (“Mrs. Mary Pilkington” 4). Pilkington informs Lamborn that she then “obtained a desirable Situation as Private Governess”; this new employment and source of income became the inspiration for Pilkington’s entrance into authorship and her didactic texts that were “chiefly devoted to the improvement of the rising Generation” (“Mrs. Mary Pilkington” 5).

¹ Mary Hopkins (née Thornhill) was the daughter of Cooper Thornhill: merchant, innkeeper, “equestrian celebrity,” and original purveyor of Stilton cheese (“Once A Week,” An Illustrated Miscellany of Literature, Popular Science, and Art. Vol. I, 1866 666-667). Cooper Thornhill had several other daughters, including Frances, Susanna, Elizabeth, and Ann; the latter three names are repeated by Mary Hopkins for Pilkington’s middle name (Susanna) and in the names of her short-lived sisters. 
² This source refers to a collection of Pilkington’s letters, primarily to members of the Royal Literary Fund, held by the NCCO. All quotations are derived from my own diplomatic transcriptions of her letters.
³ Knowledge of Pilkington’s maternal grandfather, Cooper Thornhill, and his occupation, evidences that he was not the unspecified grandfather who provided Pilkington with a few hundred pounds; we can contextually deduce that it was Pilkington’s paternal grandfather, described as a “clergyman” by the ODNB, who bequeathed Pilkington the aforementioned sum.
Though Pilkington, nor any other source, does not state which specific Dr. Monro, of the “five generations of physicians,” worked with Mary Hopkins, only John Monro (1715-1791) was both alive and a practicing doctor at the Bethlem Hospital around the time that Mary Hopkins experienced her bout of “Insanity” (Macintyre and Munro, “The Monro Dynasty and their Treatment of Madness in London'' 116). Like his predecessors, John Monro’s medical advice was “popular and much sought-after”; however, his treatment of mental health was later recognized as archaic and inhumane, suggesting that the circumstances of Mary Hopkins’ recovery under Dr. Monro’s treatment are worth questioning (Macintyre and Munro 120).

Pilkington, Mary. A Mirror for the Female Sex. Historical Beauties for Young Ladies. 1798. Vernor and Hood, London. ECCO, ESTC T104149.

Literary Career

As is included in the full title of Pilkington’s early work, A Mirror for the Female Sex, her educational and juvenile literature was created to “lead the female mind to the love and practice of moral goodness” (A Mirror for the Female Sex. WPHP). Though Pilkington’s views were largely religious and conservative, this did not impact her protofeminist view that all women deserved equal access to education and were capable of learning to the same extent as men (ODNB). Pilkington’s conservative views made her writing very compatible with Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe’s periodical, the Lady's Monthly Museum. Pilkington worked on the Museum between 1798 and 1810 (and published or sold many of her works with that same firm), and was largely underpaid and undervalued for all of her contributions and editorial work on the magazine (ODNB). Never granted the raise she repeatedly requested from Ann Vernor (who replaced her husband, Thomas Vernor, after his death in 1793), Thomas Hood, and Charles Sharpe for her work on the Museum, Pilkington lived and cared for her elderly mother on 24 guineas per year from the magazine, income, likely small, from her own publications, and several paltry grants (usually no more than fifteen pounds) from the Royal Literary Fund obtained between 1810 and 1825. A letter from Pilkington to Charles Sharpe in 1810 details the impact of her illness on her periodical contributions and requests his prompt payment for her work; this communication is entirely polite, but nowhere near as complimentary or deferential as many of Pilkington’s other letters (she ends this letter with, “I am Dear Sir / Yours sincerely,” instead of a variation of her more commonly used, “Dear Sir / your truly Grateful Hum[ble] Serv[ant],” found in her letters to members of the Royal Literary Fund), highlighting the veiled hostility that she appeared to feel for her longtime publisher’s irreverence (“Mrs. Mary Pilkington” 30). Though Pilkington’s contributions to the Museum were largely anonymous or credited under an initial (such as in the May 1809 edition’s credit to a “Mrs. P” as the author of “Highland Characters,” buried within the Answers to Correspondents section), she received greater recognition and credit for her work on George Robinson’s The Lady’s Magazine. For example, Pilkington’s tale, “The Resuscitated Mariner,” appeared in the October 1809 edition of Robinson’s magazine, where she is fully credited as “Mrs. Pilkington” and described as an “ingenious lady” (The Lady’s Magazine: Volume 40 459).

Pilkington was more well known for her works of poetry, biography, and juvenile fiction that sought to edify and improve the religious and moral virtue of her readers. Two of her most popular moral texts, reprinted several times over, were A Mirror for the Female Sex. Historical beauties for Young Ladies (first published in 1798) and Memoirs of Celebrated Female Characters, who have Distinguished Themselves by their Talents and Virtues in Every Age and Nation (first published in 1804). Pilkington’s ultimate objective for her many didactic texts, directed at young women and their teachers (because the lessons and “manners of the world…cannot be more indispensable to one sex than another”), can be seen in the Preface of Historical Beauties, where Pilkington writes about her desire to change “that the exterior of female education is cultivated…at the expence of qualities more valuable…a showy outside leaves hardly any taste for mental excellence" (A Mirror for the Female Sex vi, viii-ix).

A comprehensive account of Pilkington’s works is somewhat hindered by her many anonymous contributions to the Museum, but public response to and demand for her published works appears largely positive until 1815, when she was compelled to explore writing novels for the first time as public interest in her educational works waned (ODNB). The literary power of Pilkington’s allegorical themes is explored in the reviews section of the 1808 edition of Monthly Literary Recreations, Or, Magazine of General Information and Amusement. This review for Ellen; Heiress of the Castle declares that “[Pilkington’s] moral is good, and… captivate[s] our attention,” and significantly alleges that “if the nature of man could be altered by the pen of the novelist, and the lover of vice, deaf to the powerful voice of his own conscience, could be made to [change]... this book would be able to produce that desirable effect” (Monthly Literary Recreations 72). This review’s praise became mixed when Ellen is described as stylistically "too often common-place" and when the reviewer notes that “Ellen will always be read with pleasure, and this is perhaps the greatest praise which can be paid to it" (72). As well, a more personal response to Pilkington’s 1799 juvenile fiction, The Spoiled Child; or, Indulgence Counteracted, can be seen in the diary of Elizabeth Sandwith Drinker, who plainly calls the text, “-a pretty little piece,” in her April 6, 1805 entry (The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker, Vol. 3 399). Her diary also includes several other references to having purchased and read other titles by Pilkington, but Drinker does not follow these citations with any further praise or critique. 

The Oxford History of the Novel in English states, “In 1810…[Pilkington] transferred her services to the Lady’s Magazine” (463). However, the appearance of Pilkington’s writing in the Lady’s Magazine in 1809 evidences that Pilkington worked for both Robinson’s and Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe’s periodicals simultaneously. 

Financial Instability and “Lowering” Disease

Pilkington’s finances were never particularly secure or flourishing, even before her husband’s death (traced to sometime before 1810) and her many bouts of severe illness. The expenses associated with the caretaking of her “aged Mother…now upwards of fourscore who in great measure depends upon my Exertions for the necessities of Existence,” characterized the economic instability that Pilkington experienced throughout her whole adult life (“Mrs. Mary Pilkington” 20). Her circumstances worsened considerably after the turn of the nineteenth century; she lost 30 pounds to a publisher’s bankruptcy and relinquished her small salary from the Museum when she transferred her employment to the Lady’s Magazine, where writers were “mostly amateur and unpaid” (The Oxford History of the Novel in English 463). She also began to experience the first of many violent periods of illness in 1810 (ODNB). Pilkington’s illness directly impacted her ability to obtain an income from writing and became the topic of most of her letters penned after 1810. In her numerous letters of application to members of the Royal Literary Fund, Pilkington generally cites both her own ailments and those of her elderly mother to explain her need for financial assistance; the following quotation is a diplomatic transcription of part of a letter sent from Pilkington to Charles Symmons, on June 22, 1810, about the status of her application to the Literary Fund:

                                                                   ...the disease

           under which I labour is of so Lowering a nature that

           I am led to consider it as Incurable, though the Medical

           Gentleman assures me Time will restore me to Health.—

           should they be mistaken Sir my poor Aged Mothers Situation

           will be truly Pitiable, & the idea of her Sufferings 

          [illegible deleted word] affect me so deeply that I believe it increases

           my Complaints. (“Mrs. Mary Pilkington” 10-11)

This quote affirms the debilitating intensity of Pilkington’s illness and highlights how her obligation to care for her elderly mother made Pilkington’s situation even more fraught. After Mary Hopkins died in 1817, Pilkington’s illnesses (both physical and mental) did not abate and she continued to require assistance from the Royal Literary Fund through 1825, the likely year of her death.

A Timeline of Pilkington’s Death

The exact date of Mary Pilkington’s death is widely disputed by varying sources and is an event that deserves clarification. Her Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry states that she was born in 1761 and died, after a fourteen-year period wherein “nothing is known of her,” in 1839. This account is challenged by The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Hammersmith, Thomas Faulkner’s compilation of parish church records that articulate a different timeline for Pilkington’s death. Faulkner dismissively describes Pilkington as “the author of a small volume of poems” and details the location of her burial, writing, “Near the tomb of Lady Cromie lies Mrs. Pilkington, the governess of her Ladyship’s daughter, Mrs. [Louisa] West, at whose house she resided many years; from thence she removed to Grove Place, Hammersmith, where she died Nov. 1825, aged 65 years.” (163, 164). Faulkner also notes that the churchyard contained a memorial of “Mary Hopkins, 83, 1817,” but does not mention the familial connection between Pilkington and her mother (164). Faulkner’s text is lent credence by Pilkington’s own references to her address in Hammersmith that occur in many of her letters to the Royal Literary Fund, Charles Symmons, and Charles Lamborn (“Mrs. Mary Pilkington”). In a letter written by Pilkington to an unknown male recipient (whom she implies was involved with the Literary Fund) in January 1825, Pilkington writes, “Mr. West Surgeon Hammersmith,” next to her own name, reinforcing Pilkington’s connection to the aforementioned “Mrs. West” (“Mrs. Mary Pilkington” 30). Further examination of her letters shows us that Pilkington’s communication with the Literary Fund ceased abruptly in 1825, after fifteen years of applications for support. With no historical records of a change in financial circumstances that would have enabled Pilkington to stop writing and support herself till 1839, and with no records to corroborate the ODNB’s claim that she was alive until 1839, it can be reasonably assumed that Pilkington died fourteen years earlier in 1825.

The Jackson Bibliography of Romantic Poetry states that Pilkington spent “many years at Brook End, Hammersmith” as a governess to Mrs. West’s children; this address appears to be a small typo, as three of Pilkington’s collected letters in the Nineteenth Century Collections Online include her address as “Brook Green Hammersmith” (“Author: Pilkington, Mary”; “Mrs. Mary Pilkington”).

The Contested Circumstances of Pilkington’s Birth and her Father's Death

Pilkington’s birth is also not consistently recorded and warrants further examination. The NCCO and The Osborne Collection of Early Children's Books: 1476-1910, for example, are two of several sources to list her birthdate as 1766, rather than 1761, as is more commonly listed. The Cambridge Antiquarian Society’s 1891 edition of The Register of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials in St. Michael's Parish, Cambridge (1538-1837), proves a valuable resource in determining Pilkington’s genealogy and lifespan. This text confirms that Mary Pilkington was born to Allen and Mary Hopkins on April 5, 1761 and appears to be the only source to mention Pilkington’s siblings, Anne (Nov. 6, 1762–Dec. 5, 1762) and Elizabeth (June 10, 1764–Nov. 9, 1768) (49-50, 153-154). The Register of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials in St. Michael's Parish can be used in conjunction with a letter sent from Pilkington to Charles Lamborn in 1810 to endorse that Pilkington’s birth occurred in 1761 and to challenge the current timeline for Allen Hopkins’ death. While both the ODNB and The Jackson Bibliography of Romantic Poetry list Allen Hopkins’ death in 1773, her letter to Charles Lamborn, sent to inquire about application to the Royal Literary Fund and to provide a description of her life and writing, notes that after her father’s death “at the age of fifteen I was…destitute upon the World with only a few Hundred Pounds the Legacy of my Grandfather to support me” (“Mrs. Mary Pilkington” 3). Though Pilkington does not provide a date for her father’s death, it is clear that she had not yet been born in 1758 (fifteen years before 1773). The Register pinpoints Allen Hopkins' burial to “Feb. 6, 1777,” a veritable fifteen years and ten months from Pilkington’s 1761 birth. 

The NCCO erroneously dates this letter to 1811, as June 2nd 1810 is clearly indicated in the upper right corner, in Pilkington’s hand. This correspondence is accompanied by a letter from James Anderson (who writes that he received Pilkington’s letter from Lamborn, the original recipient) to Charles Symmons written June 15 1810, that further recommends Pilkington for assistance from the Literary Fund (“Mrs. Mary Pilkington” Nineteenth Century Collections Online 2-9).


The survival of Pilkington’s letters to the Royal Literary Fund and her truly prolific number of print publications have provided plentiful information to shape our modern knowledge of her life. However, much of the biographical information available on Pilkington’s life is repeated across databases and does not sufficiently take her personal communications into account. Considering the many sources that list her birth or death incorrectly, that only one primary document (The Register) mentions Pilkington’s sisters, and that little consideration is given to the prolonged role Pilkington played as a nurse to her mother, as she dealt with her own ill health, even principal aspects of Pilkington’s life deserve further examination and research by some of the most reputable historical and literary sources cited in this biography.

Works Cited

“Author: Pilkington, Mary.” Jackson Bibliography of Romantic Poetry. University of Toronto Libraries, author/details/pilkington-mary/11281. Accessed 16 Oct. 2021.

Faulkner, Thomas. The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Hammersmith Interspersed with Biographical Notices of Illustrious and Eminent Persons, who Have Been Born, Or who Have Resided in the Parish, During the Three Preceding Centuries. Nichols & Son, 1839, Paris/JVMPAAAAYAAJ. Accessed 16 Oct. 2021.

Garside, Peter, and Karen O’Brien, editors. The Oxford History of the Novel in English: English and British Fiction 1750-1820. Oxford University Press, 2011. books/edition/The_Oxford_History_of_the_Novel_in_Engli/2iRUBgAAQBAJ.

Macintyre, Iain and A. Munro. “The Monro Dynasty and their Treatment of Madness in London.” Neurosciences and History, 2015, pp. 116-124, abstract/NAHV3N32015116_124EN.pdf. Accessed 1 Nov. 2021. 

Monthly Literary Recreations, Or, Magazine of General Information and AmusementVolume III. The University of Chicago Library, 1808, Monthly_Literary_Recreations_Or_Magazine/sWY3AQAAMAAJ. 

Once a Week. Volume I. United Kingdom, Bradbury and Evans, 1866, Accessed 17 Oct. 2021.

Pilkington, Mary. A mirror for the female sex: historical beauties for young ladies: intended to lead the female mind to the love and practice of moral goodness: designed principally for the use of ladies' schools. By Mrs. Pilkington. The Women's Print History Project, 2019, title ID 10811, Accessed 17 Oct. 2021.

Pilkington, Mary. Mrs. Mary Pilkington* 1766-1839 (Nee Hopkins). n.d. MS Archives of the Royal Literary Fund: Archives of the Royal Literary Fund 256. World Microfilms. Nineteenth Century Collections Online, Gale Document Number: AEMUVC545227217, AEMUVC545227217/NCCO?u=sfu_z39&sid= bookmark-NCCO&xid=d59b6555&pg=11. Accessed 15 Oct. 2021.

Pilkington, Mrs. (Mary), 1766-1839. A Mirror for the Female Sex: Historical Beauties for Young Ladies, Intended to Lead the Female Mind to the Love And Practice of Moral Goodness. Designed Principally for the Use of Ladies' Schools. The 3d ed. London: Printed by J. Wright, for Vernor and Hood, 1804, Accessed 17 Oct. 2021.

The Register of Baptisms, Marriages and Burials in St. Michael's Parish, Cambridge (1538-1837). Cambridge Antiquarian Society, 1891, edition/The_Register_of_Baptisms_Marriages_and_B/KP8UAAAAQAAJ. Accessed 15 Oct. 2021.

Skedd, S. J. "Pilkington [née Hopkins], Mary Susanna (1761–1839), educational and children's writer." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, Accessed 15 Oct. 2021.