Jonathan Swift: A Portrait

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A prize-winning biographer tells the story of the immortal Swift.

Poet, polemicist, pamphleteer, and wit, Swift is the master of shock. His furious satirical responses to the corruption and hypocrisy he saw around him in private and public life in eighteenth-century England and Ireland have every relevance for our own times. His black imagination, and his preoccupation with the foulness that lies beneath the thin veneer of artifice and civilization, gave a new ...

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Overview

A prize-winning biographer tells the story of the immortal Swift.

Poet, polemicist, pamphleteer, and wit, Swift is the master of shock. His furious satirical responses to the corruption and hypocrisy he saw around him in private and public life in eighteenth-century England and Ireland have every relevance for our own times. His black imagination, and his preoccupation with the foulness that lies beneath the thin veneer of artifice and civilization, gave a new adjective-Swiftian-to the lexicon of criticism. Jonathan Swift is best known as the author of Gulliver's Travels, and like his Gulliver in the land of Lilliput, Swift is a problem in perspective and scale. Victoria Glinning has taken a literary zoom lens to illuminate this proud and intractable man. She investigates at close range the main events and relationships of Swift's life, providing a compelling and provocative portrait set in a rich tapestry of controversy and paradox. Yeats said famously that he saw Swift round every corner, that his ghost survived.

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Editorial Reviews

Atlantic Monthly
A biographer of Swift does not suffer from want of material....[; one] who can resist the opportunity for elaborate sexual guesswork should be much admired.
John Derbyshire
[Swift's] great satire takes to preposterous extremes the weaknesses of humanity at large and supplies us with ready parallels for most of the instances of pride, fully, and cussedness that we encounter in our passage through the world.
National Review
Angeline Goreau
The Swift who tap-danced so engagingly around meaning grew out of a remarkably long and complicated life....If her biography succeeds in getting at the truth about Swift...it is because Glendinning has the good sense to suggest rather than insist, to wonder rather than conclude, to leave the contradictions and paradoxes just as they are — and fall in with the dean's godson, Thomas Sheridan the younger, who thought that ''perhaps there never was a man whose true character was so little known.''
The New York Times Book Review \
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Aiming to evoke Swifts character rather than to give a comprehensiveor linearaccount of his life, Glendinning (Electricity, a novel; Rebecca West, a Life) captures the great 18th-century writers witty, cantankerous personality and his lifelong frustrations. The man who wrote Gullivers Travels, one of the greatest prose satires in the English language, died disappointed, sure that his best chance in lifemoving up the church hierarchyhad been missed, due to the tepidness of his allies in high places. Glendinnings Swift cant understand that the very qualitiesacid wit, uncompromising honesty, personal oddity and awkwardnessthat made him a brilliant, and unique, writer (and an attractive subject to biographers) undermined his ability to ingratiate himself with his superiors. Glendinning runs into trouble with her decision to forgo a traditional structure in favor of what was in Swifts time called a charactera written portrait. She seems unclear who her audience is, at times assuming a familiarity with Swifts poems, and then giving a lengthy summary of Gulliver. But at other times, her speculative method pays off, when she lends equal weight to conflicting accounts. She muses about the reasons that Swift either did or did not secretly marry the love of his life, Stella (aka Esther Johnson): Were they, for instance, secretly related, as the illegitimate children of Swifts mentor, Sir William Temple? But when it comes to sexual matters, shes more reticent. A bit too self-consciously, Glendinning often starts down one path, interrupts herself with a no, and then moves off in another direction. Inconsistencies such as these ultimately mar an otherwise intriguing portrait. (May)
Library Journal
A study of the Irish author and clergyman (1667-1745), this latest work by British literary biographer Glendinning is distinguished from more detailed biographies of Swift by its being more a written portrait than a chronicle. Glendinning examines various aspects of his life, times, and works for the purpose of trying to discover Swift's true character and how his traits, such as pride, illuminate his relationships with others and the way he viewed humankind. Chapters are devoted to Swift's complex relations with "Stella" and "Vanessa," his preoccupation with bodily functions, his religious and political views, and speculations on his parentage and whether he was married to Esther Johnson. By the end of this study, we begin to understand the author of Gulliver's Travels, and though we may not like Swift, we do respect his mind and character. For most public and undergraduate library collections.--Morris Hounion, New York City Technical Coll. Lib., Brooklyn
The Atlantic Monthly
A biographer of Swift does not suffer from want of material....[; one] who can resist the opportunity for elaborate sexual guesswork should be much admired.
Kirkus Reviews
A lively, discursive distillation of the Swiftian essentials from Swift's own life. Given that popular biographies of Swift began shortly after his death and that serious, scholarly ones now come out with regularity, Whitbread-winning biographer and novelist Glendinning (Anthony Trollope, 1993, etc.) approaches the enigmatic, contradictory Dr. Swift with both thorough research and a light tone. Her aim, she declares, is to write "what was in Swift's time called a `character'—a written portrait" rather than a full biography—and the result is as gossipy and acute as one of John Aubrey's brief lives. Swift's celebrity, whether as an Irish patriot or the author of Gulliver's Travels, gets a quick overhaul as Glendinning portrays the talented but unconnected young man of letters in Augustan coffee houses and Tory circles and later the unwilling exile to Ireland, having failed to win the worldly success of his mentor, Sir William Temple. While his early satires, A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books, and his political pamphleteering for Queen Anne's Tories get short treatment, Glendinning vividly conveys the atmosphere of Augustan literary circles and the Tory corridors of power, which Swift eventually managed to penetrate with a combination of wit and perseverance. Swift's disappointed ambition when the Whigs took power with George I becomes in Glendinning's view his ruling passion, which even the successes of The Drapier's Letters and Gulliver would never quite dispel. If her take has obvious psychological limits—which are not expanded by digressive speculations about Swift's parentage, his relations with Esther "Stella" Johnson and Hester "Vanessa" Vanhomrigh, and apossible clandestine marriage to the former—it produces a sharply defined and intriguing "character." "Like his Gulliver," Glendinning concludes, "Swift is always too big or small for the company he keeps," but she at least puts him into some proportion to his life and times. (8 pages b&w illustrations, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805061680
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 5/4/1999
  • Pages: 324
  • Product dimensions: 6.44 (w) x 9.54 (h) x 1.19 (d)

Meet the Author

Victoria Glinning is the highly praised author of biographies of Vita Sackville-West, Edith Sitwell, Elizabeth Bowen, Rebecca West, and Anthony Trollope (winner of the Whitbread Award in 1992). She lives in London.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


BEGINNING


I am sitting in the Manuscripts Room of Trinity College Library in Dublin, transfixed by a fragment of autobiography written by the author of Gulliver's Travels — the Dean of St Patrick's, Dr Jonathan Swift.

    The fragment of autobiography was donated to Trinity on 23 July 1753, eight years after Swift's death, by his great-nephew and biographer Deane Swift (Deane, in this case, being a forename, not an ecclesiastical title).

    The manuscript was given to Deane Swift by his mother-in-law Martha Whiteway, a cousin of Jonathan Swift's who looked after him in his last illness. Deane Swift, when he published it in 1755, said that it was written `about six or eight and twenty years ago', that is, between 1727 and 1729. It may be relevant that Stella, the most important woman in Jonathan Swift's life, died in 1728. Deane Swift did not think Swift was aiming for anything very ambitious. He was trying to set down on paper `a few memorials, for the instruction of any person that should write his life'.

    The autobiographical fragment has been scrutinized by scores of Swift scholars and biographers before me. It has been transcribed, edited, glossed, expanded, discussed, deconstructed, and sometimes just paraphrased as if it were the gospel truth.

    There is one other known manuscript version of it in existence — a contemporary copy, made for one of Swift's younger clerical friends, Dr Charles Cobbe, who became Archbishop of Dublin. John Forster saw this copy and used it for his Swift biography of 1875, after which it was apparently lost. Over a hundred years on, it has reappeared. (Its reappearance gives one hope that there are still more Swiftian letters or papers somewhere — in the attics of country houses, in the back, stores of lawyers' offices, in the unsorted boxes of museum collections ...) In the Cobbe copy, whole paragraphs are included which Swift never wrote, and which were added by Dr John Lyon, the clergyman who managed Swift's affairs in his last years and did some genealogical research at Swift's request.


I have read books about Swift, I have read his work — including this fragment, with and without Lyon's additions to the Cobbe copy — in print. I have seen other examples of Swift's handwriting, which was neat, unfussy, and print-like, easy to read except when he was saving paper by writing small, in letters to Stella. But to have the original of the autobiographical fragment lying before you, and to turn its pages, is to slide out of linear time into a confrontation with the man who wrote it.

    No. That is sentimentality. Jonathan Swift is out of sight, his step is clattering away down the wooden back stair of the Deanery, his mocking voice is hanging in the silent air. `Swift haunts me', wrote the poet W. B. Yeats, `he is always just round the next corner.' So are Vanessa and Stella, who loved him. On a woman's thin shoulder is the shadow of a bruise.

    It is all so long ago. We can encompass the nineteenth century. The parents of people still living, as I write, were born as Victorians. We have photographs of them. But Jonathan Swift was born in 1667, the year after the Great Fire of London. In his youth, there were people still alive who had passed Shakespeare on the London streets, and he trails in the dusty hem of his clerical gown all the fanatic times -- the `fanatick times' as it was written in his day, and pronounced with the accent on the first syllable — of the disturbed seventeenth century. He cannot be seen as an Enlightenment figure. What we think of as eighteenth-century, in terms of architecture, furniture, painting and the decorative arts, came mostly after his heyday. He died in 1745 and was isolated by deafness and dementia from the late 1730s.


Nothing has prepared me for the impact of this manuscript. Handwriting betrays states of mind. When someone is upset, or depressed, or ill, it shows in the graceless formation of the letters, and in the awkward disposition of the lines. When Swift picked up his pen and wrote on these folded folio sheets of paper, he was neither calm nor happy. He was writing badly, uncertainly.

    Sometimes he wrote on both sides and sometimes not. He started each line halfway across the page, leaving a wide margin on the left for second thoughts and additions. He cancelled out many of these marginal notes, scrawling round and round and over and over them to make quite sure that they were indecipherable.

    In his main text too there are crossings-out, imperfect sentences, words and phrases written in between the lines, and ink-blots. This is not a finished manuscript, it is a draft, a try-out, something abandoned as hopeless or impossible.

    He can't remember names and dates. He slips from the third to the first person and back again. The only flash of effective writing is a savage dig at Henry Sidney, erstwhile Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland and later Lord Romney, who had failed, decades earlier, to keep his promise to the young Swift that he would ask William III for a prebend for him — `as he was an old, vicious, illiterate rake, without any sense of truth or honour'.

    The autobiographical fragment is a sad and unreliable document. Swift would never have wanted the public to see it. When writing about other people or outside events, Swift's characteristic prose style, up to the end, was rigorous, lively, and frequently savage. In verse, as in the mock-autobiographical poems `Life and Genuine Character of Dean Swift' and the `Verses on the Death of Dr Swift', he was sharp about himself as seen by others. But here, in prose, his style has collapsed into ungrammatical imprecision.


In this fragment of autobiography Swift says that when he was a year old his nurse stole him away from his widowed mother and his uncle, and from Dublin, where he was born, and took him over the sea to her home town of Whitehaven.

    Whitehaven is in Cumbria, on the north-west coast of England. The nurse, he says, was `under an absolute necessity of seeing one of her relations, who was extremely sick, and from whom she expected a legacy'. The nurse was `extremely fond' of Swift; and when his mother realized what had happened, `she sent orders by all means not to hazard a second voyage, till he' — Swift is writing about himself in the third person — `could be better able to bear it. The nurse was so careful of him, that before he returned he had learnt to spell; and by the time that he was three years old he could read any chapter in the Bible.'

    I can believe that he was taken off to Whitehaven by the nurse. I can't believe that he could read any chapter in the Bible by the time he was three, but such prodigious claims were frequently made, in his day and later, for children who turned out to be exceptional in later life.

    What rings false to me is that he was taken to England without the knowledge of his mother, and that it was her fear of the danger of the sea journey which prevented his return home. That sounds like a comforting fable.

    It is like something written by Elizabeth Bowen, a twentieth-century writer poised, like Swift, between Ireland and England. She claimed that her mother, having hired a governess to organize her child's days, `thought of me constantly, and planned ways in which we could meet and be alone'. The most far-fetched interpretation of adult behaviour is preferable to the possibility that your mother finds your constant presence inconvenient.

    Swift's mother, Abigail Swift, née Erick, left Ireland and went to live in Leicester in England, where her parents came from and where she still had family. She went, according to Jonathan, soon after he was brought back to Dublin, leaving behind her two young children -- Jonathan had an elder sister, Jane — with their Swift uncles and aunts. Not that we hear much about the aunts. Jonathan's childhood world was ruled by uncles.

    Jonathan Swift's father — if he was Swift's father — died before he was born. Seven months before, according to the autobiographical fragment. He was only about twenty-five. Swift had no romantic picture of his parents' marriage. It was, he wrote in the autobiographical fragment


on both sides very indiscreet, for his wife brought her husband little or no fortune, and his death happening so suddenly before he could make a sufficient establishment for his family: And his son (not then born) hath often been heard to say that he felt the consequences of that marriage not only through the whole course of his education, but during the greater part of his life.


To say that you suffer the consequences of your parents' unwise marriage is to wish you had not been born to those parents, which is to say you wish you were someone else, or that you had not been born at all. Swift does not exactly confess to anything so painful. Feeling is characteristically distanced; he is reporting merely what the Dean `hath often been heard to say ...'

    Swift also was often heard to tell, at the dinner table, the story about the nurse carrying him off in his babyhood to Whitehaven. As Deane Swift wrote, the story `gave occasion to many ludicrous whims and extravagances in the gaiety of his conversation'. He told it with variations and embellishments, sometimes saying that he was smuggled out of Ireland in a bandbox. Swift was to describe Gulliver, a finger-sized manikin among the giant Brobdingnagians, being parted from his giant nurse-girl, wafted in his carrying-box over the sea by an eagle, and dropped into the water to float on till he was rescued. I think, when he wrote that, the Whitehaven story was in the back of his mind.

    Those who heard Swift tell the story to entertain his guests remembered different versions. One young woman recalled him telling her that the nurse was a Dubliner, not a native of Whitehaven, and that she went over to visit her husband. According to this version, the nurse was so fond of baby Jonathan that she could not bear to part with him; and she made no contact with the Swift family until she returned him safely three years later, to the great joy of his mother — a joy all the greater because it was clear that the nurse's only motive in stealing him had been `pure affection'.

    Another friend gathered that Abigail Swift went to her relations in Leicester only about two years after her husband's death, which means she would not have been in Dublin when his nurse brought him back, and would not have seen her son at all until he was grown up. Abigail Swift, apart from one documented visit to Dublin around the time her daughter Jane married, remained in Leicester for the rest of her life.

    Jonathan sought out the mother he did not know when he himself first went to England at the age of twenty. It must have been a strange meeting.


The Whitehaven incident is just one of the mysteries in the life of Jonathan Swift. There are others. He was loved by two women, both of whom lived in Ireland so as to be near him.

    Was he secretly married to Esther Johnson, the woman he called Stella? And if so, why did he not acknowledge her as his wife?

    What was the nature of his relationship with the other, younger woman, Hester Vanhomrigh, whom he called Vanessa? He made her very unhappy.

    Did he have some physical or psychological trait, or some family secret, which made it impossible for him to lead a normal life with Stella, or with any other woman? Who was his real father; who was Stella's real father?

    Perhaps it is just a modern fad to regard a man who steers clear of intimate relationships as inadequate or in some other way problematic. In which case, we should just accept as the simple truth Swift's throwaway remark that `he never yet saw the woman for whose sake he would part with the middle of his bed'.

    What was the root of his peculiar and impertinent treatment of women, particularly young women, verging on cruelty? There was also something obsessional about his preoccupation with cleanliness and its opposite, filth — again, especially in connection with women.

    He was a churchman but he was not a mystic, he was not having a love affair with God. So what powered him, in his professional, political and literary life? Worldly ambition? A craving to `belong'?

    `I remember, when I was a little boy, I felt a great fish at the end of my line which I drew up almost to the ground. But it dropped in and the disappointment vexeth me to this very day and I believe it was the type of all my future disappointments.' He was a disappointed man. Disappointed by the circumstances of his birth, which led to his youthful poverty. Disappointed by the powerful patrons who could have furthered his career and did not. He harboured grievances and resentments.

    Swift felt that he never landed his great fish, though objectively speaking, he did. His career, for the son of an obscure couple in Ireland — a separate kingdom under the English Crown, but treated more like an off-shore colony — was extraordinary. His fame in his own lifetime would have been quite enough for most men.

    If he had known how his fame would endure — how he has survived as an immortal `character' in the minds of men and women -- and that at least one of his works, Gulliver's Travels, would be firmly established in the canon of world literature; that the adjective `Swiftian' would become a critical map-reference for a certain kind of dark imagery, would his disappointment have been assuaged?

    Probably not. His disappointment, like his pride, was part of his nature.


After he died, people who had known him went public about their famous friend, filling their pages with anecdotes, vignettes, other people's memories, reported conversations, family lore, hearsay, rumours, gossip, along with first-hand and second-hand information.

    These early books laid the foundation of what is called `the tradition'. They unleashed a spate of speculation and analysis which continues to this day — not only in biographies and criticism, but in poems, novels and plays. Swift as a person is so elusive that the temptation to extrapolate and to fictionalize him is enormous. Maurice James Craig, in his Dublin 1660-1860 (1952), wrote that Swift `has been the occasion of more nonsense than any other writer except Shakespeare'. And once any anecdote or speculation about Swift appears in print, it becomes part of the confused and confusing tradition.

    His exorbitant personality and satirical manner have been magnets for myth. Thomas Sheridan (son of Swift's close friend, and father of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan), who knew Swift when he himself was a boy, observed in this context how often `witty sayings, blunders, and things of humour, are constantly fathered upon the most remarkable Wit'. Sheridan well knew that some of the anecdotes, jokes and repartees credited to Swift came from the common stock. Even today, in Ireland, someone quoting a quip or maxim will tack `as the Dean said' on to it. The Irish man of letters Stephen Gwynn, writing in 1933, noted that Swift was one of those great writers who `so affected popular imagination in their lifetime that a ghost of them survives, vaguely familiar to thousands who in reality know nothing but the name'.

    Gwynn recognized traces of Swift's mind and style in the Trinity College luminaries of his time. Dublin is alive with her dead. The electric energy of Swift's manner still runs, if less fiercely, in the wit and savagery of Dublin's literary and political life — in the insult disguised as a compliment, the compliment disguised as an insult, the outrageous joke delivered deadpan, the hyperbole, the telling anecdote, the irony that spancels the enemy.

    It is a truism that those who make us laugh most are frequently prey to melancholy. Turning everything to wit or humour is a strategy for survival and a redeeming route to acceptance and popularity. Swift's wit is often shocking. It has a lash. He challenges the hypocrisies and received opinions which enable people to rub along together. He rarely indicates with any reliability what he might consider `the truth' on any issue. In his polemical prose, you cannot always wholly count out, or count in, any expressed value or opinion. If you insist on reading Swift in pursuit of `real' propositions, you frequently sink deeper into the bog of paradox.

    He despised pretentious prose, and long words where short ones would do. His imagery is full of insects, animals, and everyday objects. His idea of style was `proper words in proper places'. Each sentence he writes is, on its own, perfectly easy to understand. Hemingway, with his short, declarative sentences, is not more transparent than Swift. The problem arises because the sentences, and the arguments they express — often, not always — undercut and contradict one another, weaving a web which he does not untangle.

    This makes quotation tricky. Not so much in his poetry, which Leslie Stephen called `a mere running of everyday language into easy-going verse'. (I assume he was using `mere' in its eighteenth-century sense of pure, unmixed, entire.) Swift is a seductively quotable writer, and yet to quote from his published prose is dangerously problematic.

    He often makes striking statements simply to demonstrate that such an opinion can be logically formulated. It may be demolished on the next page, or it may be left standing for the reader to grapple with unaided. `But I suppose it is presumed', he once wrote, `that common people understand raillery, or, at least, rhetoric, and will not take hyperboles in too literal a sense.' He is optimistic. My aim is to have a sufficiently firm grasp of the context of what I quote, so that I do not misrepresent him.

    Swift warns critical writers against another danger of quotation: `Whoever only reads in order to transcribe wise and shining remarks, without entering into the genius and spirit of the author' will end up traducing that author, out of a desire to cram in everything that has caught the eye and the imagination in the course of research. The result will be, in Swift's own words, `a manifest incoherent piece of patchwork'. So I have tried to keep quotation within bounds, and have passed up more of Swift's `wise and shining phrases', and more popular and colourful anecdotes about him, than I can well bear to remember.

    Political satire at the expense of governments or institutions is one thing. Personal invective is another. Swift was an expert at both. He himself did not take kindly to being the butt of the wit or satire of others. Early in his close friendship with Dr Patrick Delany, Delany made some sally at Swift's expense, and laughed loudly at his own wit. He was reproved by Swift in verse:


If what you said, I wish unspoke, 'Twill not suffice, it was a joke. Reproach not tho' in jest, a friend For those defects he cannot mend; His lineage, calling, shape or sense If nam'd with scorn, gives just offence.


In this he is in agreement with the poet and dramatist John Dryden (a generation older than Swift, and the nephew of Swift's paternal grandmother, née Dryden). Dryden wrote that `We have no moral right on the reputation of other men', and condemned personal satire — caricatures, libels, lampoons — as `a dangerous weapon, and for the most part unlawful'.

    Swift frequently endorsed this view. It cannot be said that he practised what he preached. He reversed the usual order of things by insulting the friends he wished to attract (especially if they were women). With his enemies, there were no holds barred. He attacked ad hominem, and ad feminam, shamelessly.


Swift was a man of the world who walked the world in his clerical gown as a man of God. In one of the descriptions he wrote of himself, he suggests an aspiration to be in the world but not of it:


Humour, and mirth, had place in all he writ: He reconciled divinity and wit. He mov'd, and bow'd, and talk't with too much grace; Nor shew'd the parson in his gait or face; Despis'd luxurious wines, and costly meat; Yet, still was at the tables of the great.


`Perhaps there never was a man whose true character was so little known', wrote Thomas Sheridan the younger, in 1785. That is still true, though by now the life of the author of Gulliver's Travels is extremely well documented.

    His poetry and prose is available to us in modern scholarly editions. A great mass of his correspondence has survived, and is published. Much research has been done on his life and writings, and on the life and writings of his English and Irish contemporaries.

    It would, therefore, be possible to write a full and responsible biographical account of Jonathan Swift — to add to the other full and (mostly) responsible biographical accounts of him already in existence — while declining to confront the impossibly difficult questions, or to speculate about their answers. That is what the late Professor Irvin Ehrenpreis, American author of the standard three-volume biography of Swift, chose to do.

    It is an honourable strategy, and indeed it is a Swiftian strategy. Swift thought that what we cannot determine by observation and common sense we are incapable of apprehending, so shouldn't try. But if one were to approach Swift in that spirit, there would be only a silence.


What I am writing is not a chronicle biography. It is more like an extended version of what was in Swift's time called a `character' — a written portrait.

    Lord Halifax, one of the Whig statesmen brought down by Swift's Tory friends, said that a `character' differed from a portrait only in that `every part of it must be like, but it is not necessary that every feature should be comprehended in it, as in a picture, only some of the most remarkable'. There is some pain in this method. Learning about Swift, every feature seems remarkable, and everything that I am unable to dwell upon grows in my mind like a reproach. One can never have finished with Swift.


Whatever the biographical method, there has to be a trajectory: a story. I'm going to set down now the main facts — in the sense of the verifiable or widely accepted events — of Jonathan Swift's life: the resumé of a biography.


He was born of Protestant, English parentage in Dublin, Ireland, on 30 November 1667. With his father dead, his mother in another country, he and his sister Jane passed their childhood amid a welter of cousins. There was, it seems, no one adult who particularly cared for Jonathan, or for whom he particularly cared.

    In 1673 he went as a boarder to Kilkenny College, and in 1682 he entered Trinity College, Dublin. He was a troublesome and rebellious student. He was about to take his MA degree in 1689, when military and political events supervened.

    After the Protestant monarchs William and Mary were crowned in London, the deposed Catholic monarch James II, who had fled to France, landed in Ireland with the intention of winning back his crown. William's armies definitively vanquished James's in Ireland at the Battle of the Boyne in the summer of 1690.

    But before this, young Jonathan Swift had already fled, like many other Protestants, fearing the repercussions of a Jacobite victory. He went first to his mother in Leicester; and then found a position as secretary to the ex-diplomat and writer Sir William Temple, at Moor Park in Surrey.

    It was in the Temple household that he first met Esther Johnson (Stella), who was then eight years old; he helped her with her reading and writing, and her company brought him solace and pleasure. She was to become the most important woman in his life.

    With the Temples, Swift learned the ways of the great world, became fiercely ambitious for himself, and began seriously to write. It was with the Temples too that he had the first attacks of the giddiness and nausea which were to recur distressingly throughout his life. This illness has been diagnosed retrospectively as Ménière's syndrome.

    Between 1689 and Sir William Temple's death in early 1699, Swift spent three periods at Moor Park as secretary. In between the second and third, he took holy orders in Ireland and was ordained priest, with a dead-end parish in Kilroot in the north of Ireland. There, bored and frustrated, he embarked upon a relationship with Jane Waring (Varina).

    After Temple's death, Swift was appointed vicar of Laracor in Co. Meath. In 1701 Stella, now aged twenty, left England to settle in Ireland in order to be near him, with Rebecca Dingley as her companion.

    In 1702, the year William III died, Swift took (by paying for it, as was perfectly usual) the degree of Doctor of Divinity from Trinity College, and was thenceforth known as Dr Swift.

    He was in England off and on between 1704 and 1709, with an official mission from the Church of Ireland to Queen Anne. We have a painful glimpse of him in his early days in London as the awkward provincial, knowing no one, stared at and mocked by the wits in the coffee-houses. But in 1704, A Tale of a Tub was published — anonymously, though its authorship became known — and brought him his first public notoriety and the friendship and admiration of other writers. He met government ministers — Whigs, who were in power -- and soon was on close terms with Addison and Steele. He published some political-religious tracts (notably An Argument against Abolishing Christianity) but got nowhere with his mission and retreated to Ireland.

    He was in England again between September 1710 and September 1714.

    This was the most exciting period of his life. In the heady last years of Queen Anne's reign, Dr Jonathan Swift, a vicar from an obscure Irish parish, was manipulating English public opinion on behalf of the Tory party, who had won a landslide victory. He was on close personal terms with Lord Oxford, the Lord Treasurer and First Minister, and Lord Bolingbroke, the Chief Secretary. He was the government's publicist, writing pamphlets, verses and periodicals which were instrumental in discrediting the Whigs, bringing down the Duke of Marlborough, and turning public opinion against the war with France.

    He formed lasting friendships with Pope, Gay, and Arbuthnot among other wits, writers and Court eminences. He worked hard and he played hard. He was at the centre of public life, in the confidence of great men, courted and feared by lesser men.

    He sent copious and intimate letters about his life in London back to Stella in Ireland, later published as the Journal to Stella. He was also, in London, becoming involved with a new young woman named Hester Vanhomrigh (Vanessa), who later came to live near him in Ireland. This new friendship he kept from Stella.

    He was never presented to Queen Anne. She and some of her advisers distrusted and disliked him because of the virulence of his personal satires and his apparent godlessness. Yet his ambitions, it seemed, must be realized. His friends at Court and in the ministry would surely put a fat bishopric in England his way.

    Again, public events supervened. With the death of Queen Anne in 1714, the break-up of the Tory ministry, and the disgrace of the Tory ministers, Swift's intoxicating period close to the centre of metropolitan public life came to an end.

    Swift did not want to return to Ireland. However, the best that the great men who were his friends could do before they were dismissed from office was to obtain for him the Deanery of St Patrick's in Dublin.

    Queen Anne was succeeded by the Hanoverian George I. The Whigs under Robert Walpole were returned to power. Swift himself, linked to the discredited outgoing ministry and their covert Jacobitism (i.e. their connections with the exiled Catholic monarchy), was an object of official suspicion in both England and Ireland.

    He returned to Dublin to take up his residence at the Deanery and his duties as Dean. A big fish in a small pool, he established a circle not of public figures but of convivial friends whom he dominated and sometimes bullied.

    His secret friendship with the passionate Vanessa, who followed him to Dublin, was a source of anxiety. Stella was still there, and at the centre of his Dublin life. In 1716 he may secretly have married Stella, though they never lived together as man and wife. Vanessa died in 1723. Swift's ambiguous poem about his intense relationship with her, Cadenus and Vanessa, was published in 1726, the same year as Gulliver's Travels, which was an international success. Swift revisited England in 1726 and 1727, but then never again. He maintained his English friendships by means of increasingly creaking correspondences. Stella died in 1728, leaving him lonely.

    His reputation as an Irish patriot was first established by the publication of The Drapier's Letters. Though he always saw himself as exiled in Dublin — doomed to die `in a rage, like a poisoned rat in a hole' — he grew increasingly incensed by England's attitude to Ireland. A Modest Proposal, the work which first springs to mind when thinking of Swift the savage satirist, was published in 1729.

    During the 1730s, the ageing Dean continued to write and publish prose and poetry, including the scatalogical poems — some of which were circulated privately, some of which were published, and which have puzzled and disgusted some readers and critics ever since.

    In the late 1730s his temper, his memory, and his reason deteriorated. In 1742 he was found to be of unsound mind. He lived on, unable to read or write or care for himself. He died at the Deanery on 19 October 1745, having willed his money for the foundation of a hospital in Dublin for `idiots and lunatics', which survives to this day as St Patrick's Hospital.


That is the outline, the portmanteau `life'. Now I want to unpack some of what is in the portmanteau, beginning at the beginning, circling a little, gradually zooming in on the man himself, until the central questions about him can finally be confronted in close-up.

    For some readers there will be too much politics in this book, and for others too little. I have not fully unpacked the political intricacies of the last four years of Queen Anne's reign, because they do not all concern Swift. I have not unpacked his relations with his London friends — Lord Oxford and Lord Bolingbroke, Pope, Gay, and Dr Arbuthnot — after he returned to Dublin never to see them again. His correspondence with them, combined with theirs with him, makes up the fattest volume of his published letters. They were all wordsmiths. Covering reams of paper was no problem at all. The survival, on paper, of these friendships is a book-length study in itself; though I find the correspondences self-conscious and laboured.


What is also not included represents the limitless, cloudy underside of all biographical writing. The reader will become familiar with the most important figures in the private and public life of Jonathan Swift. But he and they are to be seen and heard in the context of a great company of other faces and voices, familiar to him but mere voices off in these pages — agents, archbishops, artists, beggar-women, bishops, booksellers, carriers, courtiers, curates, deans, doctors, enemies, factors, friends, fixers, functionaries, grooms, ladies-in-waiting, landlords, middlemen, peers, poets, printers, rectors, relatives, scholars, servants, soldiers, speculators, spies, statesmen, tenants, tradesmen, vicars, dogs and horses (Swift liked lists), all playing their part in Swift's life and in his private letters or public writings, and many of them with stories of their own worth the telling.

    There are a great many clergymen in this book. When we think of Church of England vicars and bishops, deans and archdeacons, we think of Anthony Trollope. Trollope's Barsetshire is further from Swift's world than a paltry hundred and fifty years would suggest. Churchmen in Swift's day were involved in matters of state, of life and death. The stakes were very high. Even though Trollope's clergyman are very milky tea in comparison with Swift's contemporaries, there is a succession. The rude and wrangling, political, place-seeking clerical types known to Swift are like Hogarthian caricatures of the characters created by Trollope.

    `I could name certain gentlemen of the gown', wrote Swift, `whose awkward, spruce, prim, sneering, and smirking countenances, the very tone of their voices, and an ungainly strut in their walk, without one single talent for any one office, have contrived to get good preferment by the mere force of flattery and cringing.' He is surely describing the Obadiah Slope of his age.

    In some ways he is locked into the mind-set of his generation, or rather of the generation before him, because he was not, in many of his views, `progressive' in his time. The established Anglican Church, in Swift's youth, had assumed considerable political power in both Britain and Ireland. All other denominations suffered from disabling legal discrimination. Swift would not have believed that the Roman Catholic Church would even have survived as a force in Ireland, let alone that it would become the majority religion and an arm of the independent Republic. And if he heard that Ireland had a woman president, and that Britain had had a woman prime minister, he might think he was hearing of an absurdity more grotesque than anything in Gulliver's Travels.

    In other ways — in his loathing of a national politics organized along party lines, his attitude to monarchy, his unstable narratives, his love of transparency and insistence on calling a spade a spade (however revolting, and even though he might, had he written about a spade, have depicted it as a jam-spoon, or as a mechanical digger), his hatred of militarism, his concern for human rights, social justice and the natural world, his attitude to social welfare — he seems to have leapfrogged the Victorians and most of the twentieth century, and to stand as the moral true north not only for the millennium but for all time. His private life is another matter altogether.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations viii
Preface ix
Chapter 1 Beginning 1
Chapter 2 Young 16
Chapter 3 Temples 34
Chapter 4 The Ladies 52
Chapter 5 Questions 69
Chapter 6 Teapot 88
Chapter 7 Public 97
Chapter 8 Private 119
Chapter 9 Deanery 137
Chapter 10 Cuckoo and Patriot 155
Chapter 11 Horse Sense 173
Chapter 12 Death of Love 192
Chapter 13 Wife? 215
Chapter 14 Fathers 229
Chapter 15 Filth 245
Chapter 16 Endgame 262
Chapter 17 Midnight 276
Chronology 288
Trainspotting: Notes and Sources 293
Index 312
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