Leo Damrosch’s new biography of Jonathan Swift closes by detailing some of the many indignities suffered by its subject after death. As he lay in state in St Patrick’s Cathedral, souvenir hunters plucked locks from what remained of his hair, leaving his already bald head utterly stripped. The image is apt for a satirist who went about the task of laying bare the reputations and personal habits of others with relish. It recalls perhaps the remark made in A Tale of A Tub about seeing a woman flayed alive: “you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse”. Here, as often in Swift’s writing, humiliating violence grates against the banality of polite sentiment and rhetorical amplification makes the second look more inexcusable than the first. Readers are left to puzzle for themselves whether the appropriate response might be compassion, callous amusement or some strange blend of the two.
Such a mixture was perhaps more common in Swift’s time, which unlike our own, did not place a premium on heart-wringing sincerity. Context is important and Damrosch’s new biography provides this amply. His focus, as his subtitle says, is not just on Swift’s life but also his world. This dual perspective helps avoid a pathologising mode, something which is very easy to slip into when writing about Swift: if some features of the life look unusually mordant or morbid by our standards, they were not out of place in that world. A Modest Proposal’s baby-eating humour still has the capacity to shock but in the week of its publication, one Dublin shop made a window display of a mummified corpse to attract passers-by, likening the skin’s texture to a freshly-baked cake of puff pastry. On a similarly gruesome note, Damrosch informs us that the original of the Tale’s flayed woman may have been the desiccated corpse of a convict displayed under glass in the library of Trinity College during the time Swift studied there. When its face was eaten by rats, a new one was duly peeled from another more recently executed body and mounted on the faceless cadaver. We tend to think of grotesque fascination with bodily degradation and its public display as peculiarly Swiftian, but perhaps he just used the materials that came to hand around him. He seems to have been an early adopter of the mantras of modern creative writing – “write what you know” and “show, don’t tell” – and they led him to some interesting places.
Even allowing that life in the eighteenth century could be brutal and strange, and death itself no guarantee of peaceful repose, contemporaries occasionally found Swift a bit odd. His first biographer, Lord Orrery, was often left cold by what he called Swift’s “peculiarity of humour”. His generally disapproving Remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr Jonathan Swift (1751), published with what looked then like indecent haste six years after Swift’s death, provoked spirited responses from Swift’s cousin, confusingly named Deane Swift, and his friend Patrick Delany. They argued that Orrery had fundamentally misrepresented a subject whose instinct was to conceal his better nature for fear of being thought vain. Swift biography ever since has vacillated between sympathy and outright disgust. Damrosch is more forgiving than a lot of his predecessors, many of whom found it difficult to get past the objectionable side of Swift’s personality. There is a long tradition, which Damrosch does not follow, of viewing the life and the works as variations on an unholy trinity of misanthropy, misogyny and madness. Atheism, asexuality and impotence have been thrown into the mix by such distinguished authors as Sir Walter Scott and George Orwell.
Admittedly, Swift did not do much to help himself, announcing “I hate and detest that animal called man” or taking as his own La Rochefoucauld’s maxim that “in the adversity of our best friends we find something that does not displease us”. But for most such remarks there is usually a mitigating context which goes some way to relieve the shock of initial impact. His avowal of misanthropy is part of a satiric tradition also found in the poetry of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. Like Swift, Rochester was probably great fun to be around at times. Swift qualified his own denunciation by adding that despite hating mankind “I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas, and so forth.” He adopted the maxim from La Rouchefoucauld as an epigraph to a poem, “Verses on the Death of Dr Swift”, which meditates self-mockingly on his own posthumous reputation. News of his decease is just about significant enough to occasion a passing remark during a card game where the news is received “in doleful dumps / ‘The Dean is dead: (and what is trumps?)’” But even in this poem there is a fine line between self-deprecation and backhanded self-regard, as expressed though Swift’s self-conscious use of the titles “Dean” and “Doctor”. Swift bought his doctorate, and even though he used the title at every opportunity (more than 170 times in his poems, at Damrosch’s count) he always thought he was cut out to be more than a dean. The post was an administrative one, involving the day-to-day running of St Patrick’s as a working church. A dean does the work that a bishop is too important to do, and Swift had tried hard to become a bishop. He failed through a combination of misjudgement, bad luck and unwillingness to oblige on the part of those who owed him favours. Swift tended to dwell on his failures and was not shy about blaming people he felt had let him down. It is difficult to know whether he had a talent for self-sabotage or whether he was hindered along the way by unhelpful patrons and ungrateful friends, as he liked to maintain. Either way, becoming universally known by the title “Dean Swift” or just “the Dean” was a permanent reminder of ambition thwarted and talent unrewarded. In maturity, as Damrosch notes, Swift became “a collector of grudges”. It would be difficult to observe otherwise.
Although candid about Swift’s faults, overall this is a generous and sympathetic account of one who had by the standards of his class relatively few advantages in life, and who, aside from his literary gift, did not make the greatest use of those that came his way. Born in Dublin to a mother who had recently arrived from England to seek the charity of distant relatives, he was a posthumous child and possibly an illegitimate one. It is impossible to speak with certainty about this, because there is virtually no reliable information about Swift’s early life. Along with his relations with women, it forms a puzzle at the centre of any biography. Swift himself, as ever, is not much help. He left a brief autobiography and some other scattered remarks on his childhood, which tend to take the form of mythmaking exaggerations or rueful prognostications of future disappointment. On the question of Swift’s parentage and later amours, Damrosch returns to long-established but often disregarded theories, including those of Denis Johnston and Sibyl le Brocquy, who sought out fascinating and tragic intrigues beneath Swift’s scrupulous propriety. Previous generations of Swift scholars tended to have little time for these, but Damrosch argues for the plausibility of two conjectures in particular: that Swift’s father might have been Sir John Temple rather than the late Jonathan Swift senior, and that this had serious repercussions for his relationship with Esther Johnson, aka Stella.
If the theories are to be believed, Stella and Swift were set on a fatal path when the twenty-one-year-old Jonathan went to England to work as secretary to Sir William Temple, a retired diplomat and son of Sir John Temple, master of the rolls in the Dublin court of chancery. Based on possible interactions between Sir John and Swift’s mother Abigail, Johnston speculated that the former might have been Swift’s real father. There is, as Damrosch concedes, no evidence for this but it does make for a great story, more suited to a scandal-memoir than the life of a middle-ranking Church of Ireland cleric. When Swift arrived at Moor Park, Sir William Temple’s Surrey estate, there was certainly no acknowledgement that he and Temple might have been half-brothers. If the secret was known, it did not beget affection. Swift was probably treated more like a member of Temple’s domestic staff than an equal. A letter of recommendation Temple wrote for him to Sir Robert Southwell, which Damrosch quotes at length, does little to suggest that Temple held Swift in high regard. Temple seems effectively to have been asking Southwell to take Swift off his hands, writing with “the offer of a servant”, whom Temple had been “obliged … thus far to take care of”. Temple’s description of Swift as a servant was not automatically belittling – letters were routinely signed off with “your humble servant” – but Swift’s de facto status within Temple’s household may help explain why he was so interested in, and sociable with, domestic servants throughout his life. “Directions to Servants” is one of his funniest mock-treatises. Through all of his travels Gulliver is only really at home in the country of the Houyhnhnms under the tutelage of one of the “under servants” in a household of super-intelligent horses. He is supposed to have used his own servants as a test-audience for the Travels, reading passages aloud to them and redrafting until they felt he had got it right. A monument to his favourite, Alexander “Saunders” McGee still stands in St Patrick’s Cathedral, erected by “his grateful master”, Swift. It was to have been inscribed “friend and master” until Swift was persuaded against it.
In the Temple household there was one who occupied an inverse position to Swift’s, a servant treated more like one of the company. This was Esther Johnson, better known by Swift’s pet name for her, Stella. While speculations about Swift’s parentage are wild but compelling, Damrosch thinks that critics have been on surer ground when they deduce that Johnson must have been Sir William Temple’s “natural” daughter. Temple bequeathed property to her with a total value of a thousand pounds and probably took other steps to ensure that she was provided for throughout her life. These don’t seem like the actions of a master to a servant, however grateful. What is certain is that Swift’s bond with Stella, often reduced to the prurient whispers, nudges and winks, was as close as it was fractious. Eavesdropping on it through the assortment of prose and verse in which it has come down to us is utterly compelling.
The poems he written to Stella, to which she sometimes replied in verse, are teasingly affectionate with the occasional flareup of temper. Replete with an invented language and mysterious deletions, the series of letters he wrote to her from London, usually known by the editorial title Journal to Stella, is a document of strange and beguiling creativity and intimacy. It would be worth reading even if Swift had never got round to Gulliver’s Travels. The account of Stella’s life and character written by Swift in the hours after her death is a candid and moving performance by one not known for his ability to play it straight. It is nonetheless a performance and indeed there is something theatrical, if not melodramatic about many of Swift’s utterances. It is not so surprising that Johnston and le Brocquy followed WB Yeats in writing plays about him. Although Swift doesn’t seem to have had much interest in theatre beyond a friendship with William Congreve, a lot of his work reads as if meant to be performed. A Modest Proposal, like A Tale of A Tub and even Gulliver’s Travels, is an extended monologue which depends on dramatic irony for its effect. There are also chamber pieces such as “Polite Conversation” and “A Dialogue in Hibernian Style” which were based on talk overheard and transcribed by Swift. Damrosch puzzles as to why Swift called La Rouchefoucauld his favourite author – one answer is that like Swift, he excelled at writing maxims. Claiming a French aristocrat as a model might have appealed to Swift’s sense of himself as born to better things, but a more everyday source for such utterances would have been the villains and anti-heroes of the Restoration stage. The terse, epigrammatic quality which makes Swift’s style so quotable today seems sometimes to have more in common with this kind of theatrical language with than the prose of his contemporaries. This isn’t always a good thing. Although Damrosch follows Orwell in praising Swift’s famously plain and transparent style, Swift sometimes pursued concision to the point of brutality. A long exposure to his writing can sometimes send one in search of an antidote, such as the long, languorous sentences of Sir Thomas Browne.
There is no mistaking the dynamism of Swift’s dramatic style, however, and it is not surprising that his biographers have set out his life as a correspondingly theatrical stew of conflict, secrecy and revelation. The denouement to the tragedy is supposed to have come in 1716 when Swift and Stella were married in secret by the Bishop of Clogher only to find that they were blood relations, star-crossed by the consanguity of their respective “real” fathers, Sirs John and William Temple. Again, evidence for this is scant, but it provides an explosive climax to the middle act of Swift’s life and allows us to see to pathos as well as misanthropy in the increasingly embittered and estranged writing of the 1720s and 30s, from Gulliver’s Travels through A Modest Proposal to The Lady’s Dressing Room. Allowing for caveats about veracity, Damrosch’s telling of the secret marriage tale is one of the centrepieces of the biography, along with an extended focus on the other woman in Swift’s life. Esther Van Homrigh, the daughter of a Dutch merchant, was named Vanessa by prefixing the “Van” of her surname to a shortened form of her first name. Although Swift performed the same surgery on himself, mangling the Latin Decanus (Dean) to Cadenus for the intriguing and unusually long poem “Cadenus and Vanessa”, it is hard sometimes not to see a controlling impulse behind all this name-changing. Combined with a penchant for conceiving imaginary worlds populated by fabulous creatures and governed by unhinged grotesques, his imaginative fecundity had an edge to it which recalls no one so much as Lewis Caroll.