The Pig-Faced Woman and the Limerick

In the early months of 1815 London was swept by reports of a pig-faced lady living in Manchester Square:

In the earlier part of this century, there was a kind of publication in vogue, somewhat resembling the more ancient broadside, but better printed, and adorned with a rather pretentious coloured engraving. One of those, published by Fairburn in 1815, and sold for a shilling, gives a portrait of the pig-faced lady, her silver trough placed on a table beside her. In the accompanying letter-press, we ore informed that she was then twenty years of age, lived in Manchester Square, had been born in Ireland, of a high and wealthy family, and on her life and issue by marriage a very large property depended. ‘This prodigy of nature,’ says the author, ‘is the general topic of conversation in the metropolis. In almost every company you join, the pig-faced lady is introduced, and her existence is firmly believed in by thousands, particularly those in the west end of the town. Her person is most delicately formed, and of the greatest symmetry; her hands and arms are delicately modelled in the happiest mould of nature; and the carriage of her body indicative of superior birth. Her manners are, in general, simple and unoffending; but when she is in want of food, she articulates, certainly, something like the sound of pigs when eating, and which, to those who are not acquainted with her, may perhaps be a little disagreeable.’ (The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities. Edited by R. Chambers. London and Edinburgh: W. & R. Chambers, 1832, v. 2, p. 256.)

Captain Gronow in his Recollections and Anecdotes (1863. London: John C. Nimmo, 1900, v.1, pp. 255-7) tells a different story:

Among the many absurd reports, and ridiculous stories current, in former days, I know of none more absurd, or more ridiculous, than the general belief of everybody in London, during the winter of 1814, in the existence of a lady with a pig’s face. This interesting specimen of porcine physiognomy was said to be the daughter of a great lady residing in Grosvenor Square.

It was rumoured that during the illuminations which took place to celebrate the Peace, when a great crowd had assembled in Piccadilly and St. James’s Street, and when carriages could not move on very rapidly, “horresco referens!” an enormous pig’s snout had been seen protruding from a fashionable-looking bonnet in one of the landaus which were passing. The mob cried out, “The pig-faced lady! the pig-faced lady! Stop the Carriage stop the Carriage!” The coachman, wishing to save his bacon, whipped his horses, and drove through the crowd at a tremendous pace; but it was said that the coach had been seen to set down its monstrous load in Grosvenor Square.

John Ashton, in Social England under the Regency (London: Chatto & Windus, 1899, pp. 219-22) adds a few details and also has a print, “Waltzing a Courtship” (1815), showing the supposed pig-faced woman dancing with a “short deformed man,” a caricature of Lord Kirkcudbright (as described under the title “Waltzing in Courtship” as no. 12630 in George. Catalogue of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum. Division I. Political and Personal Satires. v. 9, p. 602).

Waltzing a Courtship

The pose of the two dancers — and in particular their feet, as well as the man’s right arm — is the same Edward Lear would use thirty years later for his dancing characters, e.g.

The mingling of human and animal features, though never by simply juxaposing incongruous body parts as here, is also typically learian:

One of Lear’s limerick illustrations even includes a pig-faced woman, though she is not the protagonist:

On 15 March 1815 another print appeared which might provide further, more interesting clues on the rise of the limerick book in the early 1820s. This one was by George Cruikshank and put together two deformed figures, the hog-faced lady and the “spanish Mule of Madrid,” a reference to Ferdinand VII, king of Spain (see George, Catalogue of Prints and Drawings in the British Museum. Division I. Political and Personal Satires. v. 9, pp. 513-4, no. 12508, for an explanation):

© Trustees of the British Museum

What makes this print interesting for the history of the limerick is the fact that it contains all the elements of the early, and of Lear’s, collections except the metrical form itself: each picture presents a single peculiar character identified by geographical location, and the whole forms a gallery of lunatics, whose “story” is told in the captions below.

Studies of the origins of the limerick have mostly focused on the rise of the five-line poem, but — given the preponderance of illustration over text in all the early collections and, again, in Lear — it is perhaps time to look in other directions, and none appears more promising than the huge output of satirical prints in the early decades of the 19th century.

(For a full account of the myth of the pig-faced woman, which goes back to the beginnings of the 17th century, see Jan Bondeson, The Two-Headed Boy, and Other London Medical Marvels. Ithaka: Cornell University Press, 2000, pp. 95-119.)

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