Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World


Jonathan Swift is best remembered today as the author of Gulliver’s Travels, the satiric fantasy that quickly became a classic and has remained in print for nearly three centuries. Yet Swift also wrote many other influential works, was a major political and religious figure in his time, and became a national hero, beloved for his fierce protest against English exploitation of his native Ireland. What is really known today about the enigmatic man behind these accomplishments? ...
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Jonathan Swift is best remembered today as the author of Gulliver’s Travels, the satiric fantasy that quickly became a classic and has remained in print for nearly three centuries. Yet Swift also wrote many other influential works, was a major political and religious figure in his time, and became a national hero, beloved for his fierce protest against English exploitation of his native Ireland. What is really known today about the enigmatic man behind these accomplishments? Can the facts of his life be separated from the fictions?

In this deeply researched biography, Leo Damrosch draws on discoveries made over the past thirty years to tell the story of Swift’s life anew. Probing holes in the existing evidence, he takes seriously some daring speculations about Swift’s parentage, love life, and various personal relationships and shows how Swift’s public version of his life—the one accepted until recently—was deliberately misleading. Swift concealed aspects of himself and his relationships, and other people in his life helped to keep his secrets.

Assembling suggestive clues, Damrosch re-narrates the events of Swift’s life while making vivid the sights, sounds, and smells of his English and Irish surroundings.Through his own words and those of a wide circle of friends, a complex Swift emerges: a restless, combative, empathetic figure, a man of biting wit and powerful mind, and a major figure in the history of world letters.

Winner of the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography
2014 Pulitzer Prize Finalist for Biography

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - John Simon
…Leo Damrosch's commanding new biography, Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, does ample justice to a figure for whom religion and politics—the world—were even more important than literature and especially the other arts…Damrosch is gifted with a fluent style, sturdy sense of humor and acute guesswork in the many cases where facts are sparse or missing. His book supersedes even that of his former colleague Irvin Ehrenpreis, whose three-volume, 2,000-page biography he frequently quotes but often compellingly refutes.
Publishers Weekly
In his latest, Harvard literature professor and veteran biographer Damrosch (Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius) recounts the life of satirist Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels. The outlines of Swift’s life are more or less familiar. To render a novel account of Swift’s biography, then, Damrosch investigates myths and assumptions about such vexed questions as Swift’s disappointed political ambitions, his moral and religious views, and his love affairs. These last come in for special scrutiny, as Damrosch carefully weighs the evidence of Swift’s romantic attachments and possible marriages. Just as importantly, the author analyzes the political landscape of early 18th-century England in order to illuminate how Swift transmuted contemporary events into biting satire in an era in which wit could have fatal consequences. While Damrosch is to be credited for entertaining alternatives to outdated biographical shibboleths, his polemics against previous biographers and his reliance upon hypotheticals lead to a work rather academic in scope and occasionally needling in tone. Nonetheless, this is an impressive feat of scholarship filled with insightful readings of Swift’s work, as well as extensive illustrations that help to vivify the world of this satiric master. Illus. Agent: Tina Bennett, William Morris. (Nov.)
Open Letters Monthly - Steve Donoghue
This “lively new biography” by “the immensely talented biographer Leo Damrosch” is “piercingly intelligent . . . [and] will surely be the definitive one-volume Swift biography of our time.”—Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Monthly
New Criterion - Pat Rogers

“Masterly in its control, . . . contriving to blend informality with solid argumentation. . . . What Damrosch has given us is superior to anything that has gone before, in . . . a work where everyone will find a fascinating store of information and enjoyment.”—Pat Rogers, New Criterion
Barnes & Noble Review

"A fine biography. . . . Damrosch is an ingenious, learned hypothesizer on matters lost to history and an adept guide to Swift's works. . . . Even Swift's contemporaries were, often enough, not sure what to make of them. One such called Swift 'my hieroglyphic friend.' And that's fine with me. Let the mystery continue, the interpretations and speculations flourish, and the greatest ironist in the English language continue to be read and puzzled over."—Katherine A. Powers, Barnes & Noble Review
Stephen Greenblatt

“Leo Damrosch conjures up Jonathan Swift with hallucinatory vividness, allowing the contradictions of this baffling, elusive genius full rein. He recovers in rich detail the world in which Gulliver's Travels and other enduring masterpieces were created.  This is a brilliant and humane biography.”—Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
Robert Mahony

"Thoroughly researched, vividly written and convincingly argued, Leo Damrosch's new biography of Jonathan Swift more than holds its own among such great predecessors as Walter Scott and Irvin Ehrenpreis, and presents a standard that contemporary scholarly prose is rarely capable of matching."—Robert Mahony, The Catholic University of America
Washington Post - Michael Dirda

“An excellent book. Leo Damrosch . . . writes entertainingly and is comfortable with political and philosophical ideas as well as with literary matters."—Michael Dirda, Washington Post
James Wood

Praise for Tocqueville's Discovery of America

"[A] scintillating new book."—James Wood, The New Yorker

Louis Menand

"Immensely enjoyable and fast-paced."—Louis Menand, author of The Metaphysical Club
The American Prospect - Sean Wilentz

“The human young Tocqueville is much more impressive than the cold abstraction, and for helping to bring him to life we are in Leo Damrosch’s debt.” —Sean Wilentz, The American Prospect
Stacy Schiff

Praise for Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius

“The erratic, inventive urgency of the life is all here. A delight to read”—Stacy Schiff, New York Times Book Review

The Boston Globe - Alan Helms
“A magnificent accomplishment.”—Alan Helms, The Boston Globe
National book critics circle - NBCC

Winner of the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award in the category of Biography.
Critical Mass - Marcela Valdes

“Damrosch’s tolerance for mystery is one of the outstanding features of his spellbinding biography. . . . Such questions are a sign of scrupulous intellectual integrity. They also deepen Damrosch’s narrative, giving us a visceral sense of biography’s essential tasks, which are not only to solve a life’s puzzles but to remark them. . . . Swift’s passions still burn through Gulliver’s uncanny adventures, and in Damrosch’s exceptional book.”—Marcela Valdes, Critical Mass: The Blog of the National Book Critics Circle
New Yorker

"Damrosch writes with wit and constructs a compelling portrait of the Irish clergyman, whose satires delighted and scandalized eighteenth-century Britain." —New Yorker, "Briefly Noted"
Columbia University - Pulitzer Prize

Columbia University 2014 Pulitzer Prize Finalist in the Biography/Autobiography category.
Biographers International Organization - Plutarch Award

Finalist for the Biographers International Organization 2014 Plutarch Award for Best Biography of the Year, Selected by other biographers.
Books & Culture - Karen Swallow Prior
“Do read Leo Damrosch’s compelling biography. . . . Here is a book to delight and instruct both the general reader and the specialist. Damrosch masterfully fleshes out the fascinating and complex life of this Anglican clergyman, champion of the oppressed Irish, and brilliant satirist who lived in an age equally fascinating and complex.”—Karen Swallow Prior, Books & Culture
New York Times Book Review - John Simon

“[A] commanding new biography . . . Damrosch is gifted with a fluent style, sturdy sense of humor."—John Simon, New York Times Book Review (Editor's Choice)

New York Review of Books - Fintan O'Toole

“Damrosch tells this story . . . with great energy and elegantly worn erudition. He restores to Swift the dignity he deserves, reminding us that the really shocking things about him lie not in his life but in his work.”—Fintan O'Toole, New York Review of Books

Wall Street Journal - Jeffrey Collins

“[S]uperb. . . . Damrosch’s outstanding book has raised Swift’s provocative genius to life. . . . Damrosch has brought [Swift’s] vision into sharp focus and exposed its disquieting relevance.”—Jeffrey Collins, Wall Street Journal

The Daily Beast

A Best Book of 2013, The Daily Beast, literary editor Lucas Wittmann
The Daily Beast - Lucas Wittmann

“We live in an age when we sorely need a Swift; instead we have Jon Stewart. Modest recompense is to be found in Leo Damrosch’s new life of Swift.”—Lucas Wittmann, The Daily Beast
The Tablet - A. N. Wilson

“The enigma of Swift’s life and character continues to tease us. This magisterial biography reminded me how much, in his writings, there is to relish – even outside the mainstream of the great, the immortal, works.”—A. N. Wilson, The Tablet
Irish Times - Andrew Carpenter
“Leo Damrosch's. . . wonderful and absorbing biography of Swift . . [is] by far the most balanced, nuanced and persuasive biography of Swift so far. Damrosch is a fine scholar who knows Swift’s works and his age very well indeed. . .It should remind the reader what a wonderful writer Swift is and send us enthusiastically back to the texts – something few biographies ever succeed in doing.”—Andrew Carpenter, Irish Times
American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence - PROSE Awards

Received an Honorable Mention for the 2013 American Publishers Awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence (PROSE), in the Biography & Autobiography category.
Literary Review - Paul Johnson

'Leo Damrosch has written a conscientious and worthy book, full of meat and handsomely illustrated.'—Paul Johnson, Literary Review
Library Journal
Jonathan Swift (1667–1745), Irish novelist, essayist, satirist, cleric, and poet, was a man of mystery and great intellectual heft, as Damrosch (Ernest Bernbaum Research Professor of Literature, Harvard; Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius) demonstrates. He asserts that while Swift's best-known work, Gulliver's Travels, is universally recognized, it is often mistaken for a fairy tale when in fact it masks a revolutionary political view of Swift's native Ireland. Damrosch seeks here to round out the version of the author presented in Irvin Ehrenpreis's Swift: The Man, His Works, and the Age, asking questions about his private affairs: Did Swift have a secret marriage to his housekeeper's daughter? Damrosch raises issues about Swift's life and clarifies fact from fiction, providing insight into the writer and the time and place he inhabited. VERDICT Irish history buffs and literati alike will need to read this work.—Elizabeth Heffington, Lipscomb Univ. Lib., TN
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-12-19
A feisty, first-class life of the sage and scourge of English Literature. Besides being a great essayist, satirist, novelist and poet, Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) was a very public man: a social-climbing Anglican minister, a friend to Alexander Pope, a competitor of Daniel Defoe and Laurence Sterne, a stalwart nationalist of Ireland--where he would be consigned to live--and a man whose shifting political allegiances forced him to publish his fiercest critiques anonymously (if only just barely). He masked himself in other ways, as well, leaving behind enough private contradictions and obscurities to keep biographers busy to this day. Damrosch (Literature/Harvard Univ.; Tocqueville's Discovery of America, 2010, etc.) is bent on both correcting the record and adding to it, creating a fresh and vivid life even as he wrestles with previous biographers--namely Irvin Ehrenpreis--along the way. Damrosch explores the mystery of Swift's parentage as well as his concealed Betty-and-Veronica relationships, one with the loving and devoted "Stella" (Hester Johnson)--whom he may have secretly married and who is buried next to him--and one with the temptress "Vanessa" (Esther Vanhomrigh). Damrosch also amply scrutinizes Swift's inner life: Was this preacher who absolutely insisted on churchly tithes even a true believer? Was Gulliver's Travels misanthropic or, as Methodist founder John Wesley suggested, an honest examination of mankind at its worst? Damrosch gets close to Swift as both a talented author and a man, detailing his frustrations, habits and multiple physical torments from deafness, vertigo and a variety of odd ailments. ("The spots increased every day and had little pimples, which are now grown white and full of corruption, though small…I cannot be sick like other people," he wrote, "but always something out of the common way.") This is the kind of biography where you come to feel you know the subject personally. A rich and rewarding portrait of an irreplaceable genius.
Guardian - John Mullan

“Convincing and vivid. . . . Damrosch has . . . let us glimpse the human roots of Swift’s sometimes inhuman irony.”—John Mullan, The Guardian
The Times - George Walden

“Damrosch’s approach is forensic. . .For me the Swift who emerges from these patient investigations is a more rounded personality.”—George Walden, The Times
New Statesman - Jonathan Bate

'[Damrosch] writes elegantly, has exactly the right mix of empathy and detachment, and is admirably open-minded in his approach to complex evidence – some of it the product of very new scholarship. . . this will be the definitive life of Swift for years to come.'—Jonathan Bate, New Statesman
History Today - Brean Hammond

‘. . .an oxygenated account that blows fresh air on Swift, the most readable account in recent times’ —Brean Hammond, History Today
The Irish Times - Claire Looby

'The book, far from being a dry academic analysis based on sketchy records, is a romp through the years when Britain became established as a world power. . .Damrosch writes with wry humour and clarity of detail, often cuttingly disputing the theories of previous Swift biographers. To read this hefty book is to get a highly enjoyable education.’—Claire Looby, The Irish Times
London Review of Books - Thomas Keymer

‘If Damrosch follows Ehrenpreis in anything, it’s in the ambition, indicated by his ‘life and world’ subtitle, to ground biography in social context. He does that job with efficiency and a sure touch.’—Thomas Keymer, London Review of Books
The Sunday Times - John Carey

'Damrosch is incisive about Swift’s personality . . . and writes with fine Swiftian clarity, but does not simplify. He acknowledges that, investigating Swift, you run into a revolving door of contradictions. . . . But Damrosch sees him, rightly, not just as a tragic figure but as a fearless thinker whose works are an antidote to optimism's happy lies.' — John Carey, Sunday Times
The Barnes & Noble Review

The questions that cannot be answered about Jonathan Swift number so many that I wonder how his biographers keep their spirits up. Just to begin with, essential and insoluble mysteries surround his parentage, his marital status, and the nature of his relationships with "Stella" and "Vanessa," the two great loves of his life. There are complete gaps, too, sequences of years during which there is no evidence at all as to what Swift was up to. Even his writing is an exercise in sustained ambiguity: What precisely is the meaning of A Tale of a Tub? What really is the message of Gulliver's fourth journey? And what, in the name of all that is euphemistic, did this man of the cloth mean by the expression "coffee" in his letters to Vanessa? (It was something, it would seem, to bring a blush to the cheek of a young person.)

Leo Damrosch begins with some of these questions in Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, a fine biography that is also a running engagement with other students of Swift. Chief among those is Irvin Ehrenpreis, whose massive three- volume work, Swift: The Man, His Works, and the Age, might have been thought the last word on the great man if scholars were not the ceaseless burrowers and malcontents that they are. In this respect, Damrosch takes particular exception to Ehrenpreis's presumption in furnishing Freudian interpretations of Swift's motives. ("There is not the slightest evidence for this quite offensive interpretation.")

So, what is there evidence for? Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin on November 30, 1667, seven months after his father's death. When he was around one year old, his wet nurse absconded with him, taking him to England and only returning him to Ireland "several years" later — at which point his mother herself left for England, leaving him with his uncle. If all this seems pretty odd, it also may be untrue. There are no baptismal or other records or documents to confirm it. Rather, it is the story that the notoriously evasive and inventive Swift claimed to have been told. Looking into these matters, Damrosch presents various hypotheses offered by earlier inquirers, including those concerning the identity of Swift's actual father. One of these puts Swift in a close blood relationship to Hester Johnson, or "Stella," whom he either did or did not marry, and whom he fell out with shortly before her death, possibly because he would not publicly acknowledge the union — if indeed there was one.

You see what I mean?

We do know for certain that Swift went to Trinity College, Dublin, and became a secretary for William Temple, hoping that the influential Tory statesman would further his career in England — either in the church or in politics. No such luck, and Temple was only the first of Swift's patrons to disappoint him. Swift's political writing on behalf of the Tories was powerful, but his career was stymied at many junctures thanks to dilatory patrons, the entanglement of many Tories with the exiled Stuarts, the arrival of Whig political dominance with the reign of George I, and his own outrageous publications (notably A Tale of a Tub). He was also a lifelong victim of Ménière's disease, the resulting vertigo and nausea incapacitating him both physically and mentally for grueling stretches of time. Swift, who had longed for a well- endowed English bishopric, ended up as dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, where he presided for thirty-two years. There, he became so admired and loved that his (putative) birthday was celebrated every year by a citywide pealing of bells. Even today in Dublin he is familiarly known as the Dean.

The first line of Swift's first book, The Battle of the Books, shows, as Damrosch points out, the two elements characteristic of Swift's important writing: "a probing, ironic, skeptical intelligence" and "a reactionary commitment to an idealized past." Even so, Swift's views on everything are the farthest thing from straightforward. He was an Anglican opposed to radical Protestantism, nominal Christianity, and the Church of Rome, but he was an Anglican who despised the Church of England's founder, Henry VIII. ("I wish he had been flayed, his skin stuffed and hanged on a gibbet, his bulky guts and flesh left to be devoured by birds and beasts for a warning to his successors forever. Amen.") He was a Tory, and yet he was a tireless social striver who resented the Tory understanding of natural ranks, a system that left him suffering the lot of the nobody when it came to advancement. He disliked the Irish, which is to say the Catholic populace, for their servility and failure to help themselves, yet he was their most vigorous and influential (if anonymous) champion in the Drapier's Letters and their most scathing, outrageous one in "A Modest Proposal." He was an exponent of a plain writing style and yet indulged in the most cloying baby talk in his letters to Stella. He was clean in his person and dress, and yet he is the author of some of the most unseemly poems in English — usually called "scatological," though Damrosch prefers to call them "disgusting" — in which foulness is seen to be the universal truth of humanity.

Damrosch is an ingenious, learned hypothesizer on matters lost to history and an adept guide to Swift's works and what we may call the "known knowns" of his life. He shows the man in all his traits: secretive; given to impersonation; easily offended by slights, real and perceived; charitable; and outraged by exploitation and cruelty. He was drawn to female friends, a collector of conversational banalities, and a tremendous wit. He was terrified by madness, to which he fell victim in his old age, and he died as he feared and predicted he would, "in a rage, like a poisoned rat in a hole."

But we can never really know Swift. For some 300 years, different keys and clues — political, religious, psychological, textual, and contextual — have been employed to spell out his motivations and what precisely he meant in many of his works. If that had ever been possible, which I doubt, it is no longer. In the case of Swift's more oblique works — and I am thinking most particularly of Gulliver's fourth journey — the language and the worldview of the early eighteenth century are simply too alien to be accessible to us in their every nuance. Some people would disagree with this: perhaps Damrosch himself would, for he is scrupulous in noting the changed meaning of words and otherwise putting his younger (or less historically minded) readers in the picture. But even if language were not the problem, the most important of Swift's works are so thoroughly imbued with irony that even Swift's contemporaries were, often enough, not sure what to make of them. One such called Swift "my hieroglyphic friend." And that's fine with me. Let the mystery continue, the interpretations and speculations flourish, and the greatest ironist in the English language continue to be read and puzzled over.

Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

Reviewer: Katherine A. Powers

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300164992
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 11/5/2013
  • Pages: 592
  • Sales rank: 420,387
  • Product dimensions: 6.60 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Leo Damrosch

Leo Damrosch is Ernest Bernbaum Research Professor of Literature at Harvard University. He is the author of nine books, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius, a National Book Award Finalist. He lives in Newton, MA.


Leo Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard University. He has written widely on 18th-century writers.

Author biography courtesy of Houghton Mifflin.

Good To Know

Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Damrosch:

"I love sports, and my high point as an athlete was at the University of Virginia, when I was 40, and our English Department intramural softball team beat the basketball team for the championship. I was the pitcher, and got their seven-foot-tall star to pop up four times. Nowadays, I'm confined to watching sports on TV, an interest that my family finds inexplicable. I still play pool, and juggle."

"I've developed a big lecture course at Harvard called "Wit and Humor" that combines films with literature and tries to combine serious inquiry into why we laugh with a good deal of actual laughing."

"I live with a cockatiel who regards himself as the head of the family but condescends to groom my beard."

"Ever since college I've had a passion for geology; I pay attention to rocks wherever I go, and I especially admire the big glacial erratics that litter New England and furnished the material for thousands of miles of stone walls."

"I've loved photography ever since my teens; I recently went digital, and some of my pictures of places Rousseau lived are in the biography."

"I love to travel. My family and I have had memorable stays in a little village in Provence, and also on the islands of St. John and Guadeloupe. Basking in a tropical ocean is my idea of perfection."

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    1. Also Known As:
      Leopold Damrosch, Jr.
    2. Hometown:
      Newton, Massachusetts
    1. Date of Birth:
      September 14, 1941
    2. Place of Birth:
      Manila, Philippines
    1. Education:
      B.A., Yale University, 1963; M.A. Cambridge University, 1966; Ph.D., Princeton University, 1968

Read an Excerpt

Jonathan Swift


By Leo Damrosch


Copyright © 2013 Leo Damrosch
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-16499-2




The story that Jonathan Swift told is that he came into the world on November 30, 1667, in the house of his uncle Godwin Swift, in a little Dublin alley known as Hoey's Court. He was born there because his father had recently died at the age of twenty-seven, and his mother, Abigail, had moved in with her Swift relatives. The baby was named Jonathan, after his father. Abigail also had an eighteen-month-old daughter, Jane, and hardly any money.

These, at least, were the facts as Swift understood them. But strangely, nothing is certain about his early years, including the date of his birth. The year may not even have been 1667. He was presumably baptized in the nearby parish church, St. Werburgh's (which he pronounced "Warbrow's"). But when he had the church register searched years later, there was no record of the baptism. This may or may not be significant; a colleague of his thought the omission must have been "due to the carelessness of the vestry clerk at that time." On the other hand, it's conceivable that he was baptized someplace else, and not necessarily in a church at all. Swift was told that his father had died seven months before his birth, "just time enough to save his mother's reputation," as he often remarked. But there is no official record of his father's death either. We know only that his parents were married in 1664. It may even be that the baby's real father was someone else, a startling possibility that Swift himself may eventually have suspected. There is no solid evidence for that, but if those concerned wanted to keep it secret, they could have made sure that there would be no evidence. And in fact many aspects of Swift's early life are puzzling, to say the least.

Hoey's Court has vanished, too. If you go in search of Swift sites in Ireland, you will usually search in vain, and all that remains today of Godwin Swift's house is a plaque on a wall that was put there in 1912: "In No. 7 Hoey's Court (now demolished) about 100 feet NW of this spot, it is reputed that Jonathan Swift, Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral, was born on the 30th day of November 1667." Whoever composed this was sufficiently well informed to use the word "reputed."


Swift liked to say that he had been unluckily "dropped" in Ireland—a term from animal husbandry. He claimed that his birth happened in Dublin only because his widowed mother was too far along in her pregnancy to risk a sea voyage to her English home in Leicester. "As to my native country (as you call it), I happened indeed by a perfect accident to be born here, my mother being left here from returning to her house at Leicester, and I was a year old before I was sent to England; and thus I am a Teague, or an Irishman, or what people please, although the best part of my life was in England." Abigail did have relatives in Leicestershire, and evidence has fairly recently been found to suggest that she may have been born in a village just outside the town of Leicester. Ehrenpreis guessed that her father was a clergyman named James Ericke who emigrated to Ireland in 1634, but another possibility is a butcher named Thomas Ericke (also spelled Herrick). If so, she was not the same age as her husband, as Ehrenpreis assumed, but ten years older.

The Swifts were recent arrivals, four brothers in all, beginning in 1658 (two others remained in England). After the Restoration of 1660 brought an end to the Puritan rule that had succeeded the civil wars of the 1640s and '50s, large numbers of Protestant English and Scots were encouraged to settle in Ireland, where they were awarded land that used to belong to Catholics. An English governor at the time compared the process to "flinging the reward upon the death of a deer among a pack of hounds, where everyone pulls and tears what he can for himself." The brothers Swift, sons of a clergyman and seeking employment in Dublin as lawyers, arrived to pull and tear. It has been well said that they were Irishmen in the sense that Camus was an Algerian. Jonathan Swift would often observe that colonists in North America were regarded as still English, and that the Anglo-Irish ought to be as well.

Jonathan Swift the elder, our Jonathan's father, was the youngest but the first to arrive. The oldest brother, Godwin, was thirty-nine when his nephew was born in 1667; William was thirty and Adam twenty-five. We know that in later years William sometimes gave his nephew financial help, more in fact than Godwin did. (Two other brothers had stayed in England and died young.) It used to be thought that Godwin was unusually generous toward his young nephew; Ehrenpreis says that Jonathan's "early years were sheltered by an uncle's hospitality," and that his assistance "must have been an act of disinterested kindness." But as we will see, there are good reasons to doubt this comfortable picture.


When Swift was about a year old, a remarkable event apparently happened. His wet nurse took him across the Irish Sea to Whitehaven, a small town on the northwest coast of England, and he remained there for several years with no contact with his family. Ehrenpreis calls this a kidnapping and says that the Swift family's failure to get him back seems most peculiar.? But was it?

It was common for middle-class families to send their children out to wet nurses. Almost always the infant would live with the nurse, sometimes nearby, sometimes in a village far away. Not many parents visited the children regularly, and the infant's first bonds would be formed with the nurse rather than the mother.

Given the importance of the role, wet nursing was a well-paid occupation. Nurses were usually artisans' wives with several children of their own. Weaning to "pap" (fl our or breadcrumbs cooked in water) happened toward the end of the first year, but the stay with the nurse was normally much longer. For this reason, the nurse's speech and education were considered important; it was she who would teach the child to talk, and even to read and write. She might remain a valued friend for years. When Alexander Pope's nurse died, he erected a memorial in the local church:

To the memory of Mary Beach who died Nov. 25, 1725, aged 78. Alex. Pope, whom she nursed in his infancy, and constantly attended for twenty-eight years, in gratitude to a faithful old servant erected this stone.

Thus it may have seemed perfectly normal for Swift to remain with his nurse. Here is the story as he relates it in the third person, in a brief autobiographical sketch:

When he was a year old, an event happened to him that seems very unusual, for his nurse, who was a woman of Whitehaven, being under an absolute necessity of seeing one of her relations who was then extremely sick, and from whom she expected a legacy; and being at the same time extremely fond of the infant, she stole him on shipboard unknown to his mother and uncle, and carried him with her to Whitehaven, where he continued for almost three years. For when the matter was discovered, his mother sent orders by all means not to hazard a second voyage till he could be better able to bear it. The nurse was so careful of him that before he returned he had learned to spell, and by the time that he was three years old he could read any chapter in the Bible.

Whether or not Swift was exaggerating his precociousness, this shows that his nurse was literate. And since she was looking forward to a legacy, she was probably not poor. Most important, she was affectionate. What was unusual may not have been that she took the baby away, but that she gave no advance warning.

Long afterward a friend of Swift's, Laetitia Pilkington, reported the story with even greater emphasis on the affection:

He was given to an Irish woman to nurse, whose husband being in England, and writing to her to come to him, as she could not bear the thoughts of parting with the child, she very fairly took him with her, unknown to his mother or any of his relations, who could learn no tidings either of him or her for three years, at the end of which time she returned to Ireland and restored the child to his mother, from whom she easily obtained a pardon, both on account of the joy she conceived at seeing her only son again, when she had in a manner lost all hope of it, as also that it was plain the nurse had no other motive for stealing him but pure affection, which the women of Ireland generally have in as eminent degree for the children they nurse as for their own off spring.

Still, the only evidence for what happened is what Swift himself was told, or said he was told. It has even been conjectured that the story was "one more elaborate fiction of Swift's old age to extenuate the fact of his Irish birth." A relative recalled that he enjoyed spinning yarns about this mysterious episode: "It gave occasion to many ludicrous whims and extravagancies in the gaiety of his conversation. Sometimes he would declare that he was not born in Ireland at all, and seem to lament his condition, that he should be looked upon as a native of that country; and would insist that he was stolen from England when a child, and brought over to Ireland in a bandbox."

And then there is the letter written toward the end of his life, already quoted, in which Swift said, "I was a year old before I was sent to England." So he might have been "sent," not abducted. And we know nothing for certain about how he returned to Dublin—whether someone was sent to get him, or the nurse brought him back herself.

And what about Uncle Godwin? By the time Jonathan was born, Godwin had been married four times, each wife bringing a generous dowry, and he was relatively well off . However, he had eight children of his own to support, and when those grew up, he acquired at least fifteen grandchildren. In addition, his financial affairs were starting to go downhill. Why would he have wanted to take on his late brother's widow and two small children? Might he not have been glad to see the baby go to England? Perhaps he hoped it would be an inducement for Abigail to follow.

At any rate, by the time Jonathan was in college, Godwin unquestionably disliked being responsible for his nephew, who in turn was bitter about the way his uncle treated him. "Sure it is," Godwin's grandson admitted with regret, "that Dr. Swift never loved his uncle, nor the remembrance of his uncle, to the hour of his death." He didn't care for lawyers as a class, either, though some of his good friends were lawyers. In Houyhnhnmland, Gulliver has to explain to the rational horses what it is that lawyers do. "I said there was a society of men among us, bred up from their youth in the art of proving by words multiplied for the purpose that white is black and black is white, according as they are paid. To this society all the rest of the people are slaves."


When Swift was finally brought back to Dublin, what happened is surprising. His mother, Abigail, left for England, taking Jane with her and settling permanently in Leicester. In all likelihood she made the move because she was desperately broke. But why would she leave little Jonathan behind? Ehrenpreis suggests that she probably came back to Dublin to see him from time to time, but there's no evidence whatsoever for that, or indeed that Jonathan saw her at all before he moved to England himself at the age of twenty-one. He may not have minded much. Surely what hurt most at the time was not separation from the mother whom he would not even have recognized when he returned from Whitehaven, but from the nurse who loved and cared for him during his first few years.

We don't know the nurse's name, or anything about the child's life with her in Whitehaven, which was a fishing village with a dock from which Cumberland coal was shipped over to Ireland. But there must have been relatives and probably playmates. He may have felt more secure there than he ever did again, and it would have seemed like normal life to him until it abruptly ended. There would be more abrupt endings to come.

Jonathan Swift was now effectively an orphan. We know that in later life he regarded family affection with suspicion, if not contempt. Gulliver clearly speaks for him when he reports that the Lilliputians "will never allow that a child is under any obligation to his father for begetting him, or to his mother for bringing him into the world; which, considering the miseries of human life, was neither a benefit in itself, nor intended so by his parents, whose thoughts in their love encounters were otherwise employed." When Swift was living in London in his forties he had a close friend named Abigail Masham, who was the confidante of Queen Anne. Because her two-year-old son was dying, she was absent from court at a critical time, and Swift commented angrily, "She stays at Kensington to nurse him, which vexes us all. She is so excessively fond it makes me mad; she should never leave the Queen, but leave everything to stick to what is so much the interest of the public as well as her own. This I tell her, but talk to the winds." It is remarkable, in fact, how seldom Swift mentioned mothers during the whole course of his life.

Perhaps Swift would have agreed with Kafka that "the selfishness of parents—the authentic parental emotion—knows no bounds." Kafka's problem was an overwhelmingly dominant father. Swift never knew his father, was abandoned by his mother, and felt humiliated by the uncle who grudgingly raised him. There is no recorded comment of any kind about the aunt he must have known, Godwin's fourth wife. A social historian remarks, "'Walk me through your childhood home,' we say, 'for opening the creaky front door unlocks the library of memory.'" Swift slammed that door shut and locked it.


Swift's paternal grandfather, who had died nine years before he was born, became something of a hero to him. Swift always liked to personalize history, and he made the most of the Reverend Thomas Swift's role in the English civil wars. Thomas Swift was vicar of Goodrich in Herefordshire, and although not wealthy, he was able to mortgage his estate for "three hundred broad pieces of gold." Concealing the money in the lining of his waistcoat, he presented it to the beleaguered King Charles I. The result was martyrlike persecution. "He was plundered by the Roundheads six and thirty times (some say above fifty)." Jonathan may also have felt vicarious resentment of maternal mistreatment, since he had heard that Thomas's mother was "a capricious, ill-natured and passionate woman" with "a good deal of the shrew in her countenance," and that she disinherited her son "for no greater crime than that of robbing an orchard when he was a boy." Swift loved fruit.

His grandfather's military exploits take up the longest single account in the brief autobiographical sketch that Swift wrote down when he was sixty. He reports with evident relish, "Mr. Swift having a head mathematically turned, he contrived certain pieces of iron with three spikes, whereof one must always be with the point upwards. He placed them overnight in the ford where he received notice that the rebels would pass early the next morning, which they accordingly did, and lost two hundred of their men, who were drowned or trod to death by the falling of their horses, or torn by the spikes." Actually the spiked device, known as a caltrop, had been in use since the Middle Ages, and it wouldn't have worked unless there were four spikes, not three. As a younger relative of Swift's later commented, this story puts Thomas's saintly sufferings in a rather different light: "It was undoubtedly for actions of this kind that he was considered by the fanatics in the character of a soldier, and deprived of his church livings, together with the profits of his estate, so very early."

Excerpted from Jonathan Swift by Leo Damrosch. Copyright © 2013 Leo Damrosch. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations....................     vii     

Acknowledgments....................     xi     

Prologue....................     1     

1 Beginnings....................     9     

2 A Patron and Two Mysteries....................     33     

3 "Long Choosing, and Beginning Late"....................     62     

4 Moor Park Once More....................     79     

5 The Village and the Castle....................     94     

6 London....................     113     

7 "A Very Positive Young Man"....................     125     

8 The Scandalous Tub....................     131     

9 Swift and God....................     147     

10 First Fruits....................     154     

11 The War and the Whigs....................     164     

12 Swift the Londoner....................     177     

13 At the Summit....................     191     

14 The Journal to Stella....................     215     

15 Enter Vanessa....................     231     

16 Tory Triumph....................     241     

17 Tory Collapse....................     253     

18 Reluctant Dubliner....................     267     

19 Political Peril....................     286     

20 The Irish Countryside....................     297     

21 Stella....................     307     

22 Vanessa in Ireland....................     320     

23 National Hero....................     338     

24 The Astonishing Travels....................     357     

25 Gulliver in England....................     379     

26 Disillusionment and Loss....................     393     

27 Frustrated Patriot....................     411     

28 Swift among the Women....................     424     

29 The Disgusting Poems....................     443     

30 Waiting for the End....................     454     

Chronology....................     473     

List of Abbreviations....................     477     

Notes....................     481     

Illustration Credits....................     535     

Index....................     541     

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