Jonathan Swift: A Portrait

by Victoria Glendinning
325 pages,
ISBN: 0385256612

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Yet One More Mention Of The Dean
by Ray Robertson

The best writers speak across the ages. When Jonathan Swift writes to Alexander Pope that he loves individuals but hates humankind, I’m intrigued. When, in the same letter, he offers his own definition of a human being not as animal rationale, but, instead, merely as animal rationas capex (“an animal capable of reason”), he’s got me. Here’s a man after my own hopelessly misanthropic heart. Of course, Swift was much more than Western literature’s most famous hater of human ignorance, cruelty, and waste. Political pamphleteer, poet, clergyman, and, eventually, Dean, satirist, revered prose stylist, outspoken champion of Irish rights—Swift flourished in an age when the line between artist and man of the world was almost non-existent, when more than one better-educated churchman read Horace in Latin, set his sights on London and a literary career, and probably had a hand in some level of political affairs as well. Throw in the tumultuous political times Swift lived in, his two major love affairs (or non-affairs, depending on whose account you believe), particularly with the famous “Stella” of the letters, his friendship with the likes of Addison and Pope, and his eventual madness (or non-madness), and it’s clear why Swift makes for good biographical copy. Victoria Glendinning, author of previous biographies, including those of Edith Sitwell and Anthony Trollope, has now weighed in with her own contribution to the Swift industry: the relatively brief and appropriately titled Jonathan Swift: A Portrait. The book lacks both the informational breadth and grand narrative sweep of Irvin Ehrenpresis’s definitive, three-volume Swift, the Man, his Works, and the Age, or even A.L. Rowse’s single-volume Jonathan Swift: Major Prophet. Instead, Glendinning’s Jonathan Swift is the first woman’s take on the Dean, and is most notable for its rich and convincing speculations regarding Stella’s parentage, the nature of his and Stella’s relationship, and Swift’s mental deterioration. Swift was born on 30 November 1667 to an Irish woman who was the daughter of an English Leicestershire clergyman, and an Englishman who settled with his three brothers in Ireland after the Restoration. From his birth, then, an ambivalence was built into Swift’s relationship with Ireland. Having simultaneous outsider and native status, Swift’s life—in a literal rendering of Joyce’s psychological love-hate relationship with Dublin—was a continual struggle away from, and pull towards, his country of birth. When Swift’s mother was pregnant with him, his father died, leaving mother, sister, and unborn self in the care of his father’s brothers. However much Swift may have lacked in familial or emotional security, he was not neglected materially. He was sent to Kilkenney School at age six, then the finest school of its kind in Ireland. In 1682, he entered Trinity College in Dublin, where he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1686 by “special favour” because he refused to study logic. In spite of the razor-sharp ability to reason that he would later employ so devastatingly in his own work, the young man’s decision not to give himself over to the study of pure logic is quintessentially Swiftian, consistent both with his wholehearted embracing of any of his beliefs, and his distrust of the pure intellect that he would later lampoon in Gulliver’s Travels. Swift’s candidacy for his Master of Arts degree at Trinity was interrupted by James II’s abdication and subsequent invasion of Ireland, which drove Swift and other Anglo-Irish out to England. For about ten years starting from 1689, Swift was an on-and-off member of the household of retired diplomat Sir William Temple, acting as Temple’s secretary. Although he returned to Ireland to take his orders in the Anglican Church during this time, Swift was more or less a constant fixture in the Temple household, reading deeply in Temple’s excellent library, writing poetry (much of the early material being derivative Pindaric odes), developing his mature prose style, and, eventually, composing and publishing such wonderfully vicious, yet altogether hilarious, works as The Battle of The Books and A Tale of a Tub. During this time, he was also educating the housekeeper’s daughter (so Swift believed), Esther, the namesake of Swift’s Letters to Stella. Stella was eight years old when Swift became her teacher, and his relationship with her, whatever its nature (Glendinning argues, “I think it is possible, I think it is probable, that Swift and Stella did go through some ceremony in the summer of 1716”), extended throughout her life. She and a close friend followed Swift to Ireland when he assumed the Deanship of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin in 1713. She died in 1728. Many of the broad strokes of Swift’s life outlined here are only sketchily covered in Glendinning’s biography. One of the more comprehensive Swift biographies or even a good reference guide is almost necessary when reading her Jonathan Swift to ensure the reader gets the basic elements of Swift’s life straight. On matters that still have Swift scholars talking, however, such as his relationship with Stella, Glendinning’s book is vital and stimulating. Here she writes about who Stella actually was: “Stop. There is another hypothesis concerning Stella’s parentage that no one, as far as I know, has come up with. It is this: that Stella was not Bridget Johnson’s [Temple’s housekeeper’s] daughter, but Martha Giffard’s [Temple’s sister’s]. Widowed almost as soon as she married, Martha had many admirers. You can take this extravagantly further, incorporating the prevailing belief that Stella was Sir William Temple’s daughter. What if Stella were Sir William’s daughter by his own sister, brought up under their roof as the daughter of Bridget Johnson? What evidence can be adduced for this incest theory? Enough.” And Glendinning goes on to offer what evidence there is, all in a lively, if occasionally hyper-conscious, prose. Any biography that begins with “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” will make its stylistic friends and enemies almost immediately. Glendinning’s prose style is either irritatingly jarring or refreshingly, even boldly, personal, all depending on which side of the postmodernist fence you’re most comfortable sitting on. After Temple’s death in 1699, and before taking over the Deanship at St. Patrick’s, Swift served as a sort of political spokesperson for the Tories—the contemporary analogy being Margaret Atwood writing press copy for the NDP. When the Tories began their fall from power and the goody-grab was on, Swift received, not the plum he’d been hoping for in return for all his years of faithful service—namely, an English bishopric—but the Deanship at St. Patrick’s. From 1713 until his death in 1745, Swift would consider himself a reluctant exile in Ireland. Ironically, this period would be the most productive of his life, when he would complete not only the brilliantly homo sapien castigating Gulliver’s Travels (a work, he wrote to Pope, meant to “vex the world rather than divert it”), but also A Modest Proposal, one of the greatest pieces of sustained irony in the English language. And by writing a series of letters penned under the pseudonym M.B., Drapier attacking the English government’s attempt to supply Ireland with copper halfpence and farthings (and hence debase the coinage of already poor Ireland), Swift became a leader of the Irish resistance against English oppression. He’s still revered there today as a rebel hero. Whether or not Swift was mad at the end of his life is open to supposition. His contemporaries certainly thought so, pronouncing him legally incapable of caring for himself; Glendinning seems to believe he was simply very ill and depressed. But by the end of his life, there’s little doubt Swift wasn’t half the man who once railed so eloquently and so powerfully against human folly and injustice. In a long poem entitled “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift”, written fourteen years before his actual death, Swift had prophesied that One year is past: a different scene; No further mention of the Dean; Who now, alas, no more is missed, Than if he never did exist. To this, Glendinning responds, in her characteristic manner: “Not so, Dr. Swift.” And so it isn’t. • Ray Robertson is the author of Home Movies and the forthcoming novels, Heroes (Simon & Pierre) and Moody Food (Doubleday).

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