Jonathan Swift: A Portrait by Victoria Glendinning. Henry Holt, 324 pp., $35.00
June 13, 1999        

Forty years after the death of Jonathan Swift, his godson remarked: “Perhaps there never was a man whose true character was so little known.” Apparently the subsequent two hundred years have not cleared things up; a 20th-century historian observes that Swift “has been the occasion of more nonsense than any other writer except Shakespeare.” Judgments like these are bound to intrigue a seasoned literary biographer, and Victoria Glendinning is as seasoned as they come, having produced lives of Anthony Trollope, Rebecca West, Vita Sackville-West, Edith Sitwell, and Elizabeth Bowen, along with two novels and several other books. Jonathan Swift is not a full-scale, grimly ambitious, three-and-a-half pound definitive biography after the contemporary fashion. It is casual and chatty, literate and discriminating, adequately documented but not scholarly, and concerned to answer not all possible questions about Swift but only the ones that interest Glendinning. This is a civilized approach, and it yields a modest but rewarding book.

What is puzzling about Swift? It starts with his upbringing. Jonathan Swift was born in 1667, seven months after the death of his father. When he was a year old, his nurse left Ireland for England, surreptitiously taking little Jonathan, of whom she was, Swift later wrote, “extremely fond.” She kept him there (with his mother’s after-the-fact consent) for two years, and when she brought him back to Ireland, Mrs. Swift had herself left the country. Jonathan and his sister were raised by aunts and uncles, and he apparently met his mother for the first time on a visit to England when he was twenty. As Glendinning observes, all this may have seemed less strange in an age when the extended family was stronger, but it is still very strange.

Jonathan attended Trinity College, Dublin, but left for England to avoid the Jacobite Wars. (James II, a Catholic and a Stuart, returned from exile in France, landed in Ireland, and tried to win back the British crown from the Protestant William of Orange, but was defeated at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.) Swift joined the household of Sir William Temple, a friend of the family. He became a clergyman and then an author. “A Tale of a Tub” (1704), his first major work, is a satire on contemporary religion, literature, and manners, written in an almost bewilderingly extravagant style. It gained him notice and – when he arrived in London on a mission from the Church of Ireland – an introduction to many writers and politicians.

Eventually Swift acquired some very powerful friends. In the swirling factional politics of the time, his brilliant polemics helped keep the Tory government of Lords Oxford and Bolingbroke in office; his poems and essays brought him the friendship of Addison, Steele, Pope, Gay, and other leading authors. But he never won the high ecclesiastical position he always hoped for. His sarcasms made too many enemies, and his friends lost power before they could reward him. In 1714 he returned to Ireland, disappointed and embittered, as Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin.

England’s loss was Ireland’s and literature’s gain. Swift became, if not an Irish patriot – he seems to have equally detested all nations and races – at least an Irish partisan. English neglect and oppression of Ireland goaded him to new heights of polemic and satire, culminating in the immortal “A Modest Proposal.” And then he turned his eyes on the whole of humankind: in 1726 “Gulliver’s Travels” appeared – that children’s classic suffused with an old man’s weary disgust for humanity – and was an immediate international success.

This did not bring him much pleasure – nothing did, after he returned to Ireland, except his curious friendship with Esther Johnson, known to literary history by Swift’s pet name, “Stella.” She was eight when he met her, the daughter of Sir William Temple’s steward. Swift tutored her, and she developed a serious crush on him. In 1701, when she was twenty and Swift was vicar of a parish in Ireland, she moved to Dublin, with an older woman as chaperone, in order to be near him. During his years in London he wrote her almost daily (a now-famous collection of letters called “Journal to Stella”); and after he returned in 1714, she was the most important person in his life. Some of Swift’s biographers (Glendinning included) believe that they were married secretly in 1716, though they never lived under the same roof and never even – so strict was Swift’s sense of the proprieties – were alone together.

Stella was not the only young woman who was passionately devoted to the cranky genius. Hester Vanhomrigh (known to literary history as “Vanessa”) also left England for Ireland to be near Swift. He was less fond of her than of Stella, though apparently fond enough to cause Stella agonies of jealousy. Both women died young, and in his later years Swift attracted (according to one of his first biographers) “a seraglio of very virtuous women who attended him from morning till night, with an obedience, and awe, and an assiduity, that are seldom paid to the richest, or the most powerful lovers.”

Swift’s actual relations with women were peculiar enough. His imagination of women, which was tainted by his obsession with dirt, smells, and excrement, could be truly startling. Glendinning has a chapter entitled “Filth,” which treats Swift’s scatological obsession graphically but judiciously, supplying historical context. Laetitia Pilkington, another young woman whom Swift fascinated and tyrannized, remarked that her respectable mother, on reading some of Swift’s satirical love lyrics, “instantly threw up her dinner.” They had nearly the same effect on this reviewer.

The final puzzle about Swift is the incongruity between his sensibility and his beliefs. He was a conservative: he practiced a fervent but conventional Protestant piety; he adhered loyally to the monarchy and the established Church; he respected social hierarchies; and he distrusted philosophical and political radicalism. But his irony was so fierce and destructive that it unsettled minds and undermined traditional social reflexes. The medium, in Swift’s case, proved to be the message: his savage hatred of cruelty and cant has outlived the causes – Whigs vs. Tories, Establishment vs. Dissent – in which he enlisted it.