Jonathan Swift by Victoria Glendinning - review by John Banville

John Banville

A Selfish Man Condemned to Live in Ireland

Jonathan Swift


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Why do we always think of Swift as old? The image one has of him is that of a crusty old codger shuffling around the streets of Dublin or London, kicking urchins out of his way while he does his best to avoid the importunings of the various womenfolk with whom he has become entangled. It is one of the pleasures, and surprises, of Victoria Glendinning’s new biography to discover a Swift who is all energy and impetuousness, insinuating himself into the good graces of the great, intriguing with the mighty, making and breaking reputations, almost literally at the stroke of a pen, and running, running, running. In the deanery of St Patrick’s Cathedral, Glendinning informs us, there were four flights of stairs, which ‘gave Swift exercise in wet weather. He liked chasing any guest who had the stamina up and down and round and round.’ The past certainly is another country.

Glendinning has set out to write an unashamedly popular biography of this strange and enigmatic figure, whom we all think we know. She pays due regard to her predecessors, from his great-nephew Deane Swift and his friend Lord Orrery to Walter Scott and on up to the late Irving Ehrenpreis, author of the magisterial (the word is unavoidable) standard three-volume life: her method, however, is different from theirs. It would be possible, she says, to write ‘a full and responsible biographical account of Jonathan Swift’, to add to the other such accounts already in existence, ‘while declining to confront the impossibly difficult questions, or to speculate about their answers’, but she has preferred to attempt ‘what was in Swift’s time called a “character” – a written portrait.’ Her method is impressionistic, unchronological, adventurous – one might almost say, reckless. She poses the questions squarely, and is not afraid to speculate on possible answers; as a biographer she has a welcome streak of the busybody. The result is vastly entertaining, stimulating, and slyly incisive. Had he been able to read this book, Swift would probably have given its author a good, hard pinch for her sauciness.

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin in November 1667. His father had died the previous spring. Almost at once, baby Jonathan was taken to Whitehaven in Cumbria by his nurse, who had relatives there. This nurse was seemingly so fond of him that she kept him away for three years, without contacting the family in all that time. Meanwhile Swift’s mother took herself off to Leicester, where she remained for the rest of her life; Swift did not see her again until he was twenty-two. (There is an odd echo here of the infancy of Sir Isaac Newton, whose mother gave him away to relatives when he was a baby and did not see him for many years. What was it with mothers in those days?)

Swift was sent to boarding school in Kilkenny, which he loathed, and later entered Trinity College, Dublin, where he was an obstreperous student. He took his BA degree, but before he could finish his MA the Williamite wars intervened. Like most other Protestants in Ireland, Swift feared persecution when the deposed Catholic, James II, landed in Ireland from France with the intention of seizing back the crown from the Protestant William. Swift fled to England, first to his mother in Leicester (what a meeting that must have been), and then to Moor Park in Surrey, home of the writer and former diplomat Sir William Temple, who took Swift on as his secretary. It was at Moor Park that Swift met Esther Johnson (Stella), the eight-year-old daughter of one of the household servants. While still working for Sir William, Swift returned to Ireland to be ordained a priest. After Temple’s death, he was appointed vicar at Laracor in Co. Meath, where he built a little house that was to remain a bolt hole for most of his life.

In the early 1700s Swift spent much of his time in London, where he met the coffee-house wits, as well as some powerful politicians. He began to publish tracts and pamphlets, and gained a reputation as a writer to be feared. He had his glorious years between 1710 and 1714, when he threw in his lot with the Tories. ‘He was’, Glendinning writes, ‘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’ – in fact, a spin doctor avant Ia lettre. However, the Tories fell, the Whigs took over, and that was the end of Swift’s glittering career. He returned to Ireland with his political tail between his clergyman’s legs, and took up the position of Dean of St Patrick’s.

Swift loathed Ireland, or at least loathed being stuck there. ‘l reckon no man is thoroughly miserable unless he be condemned to live in Ireland.’ A trifle harsh, surely? It was to Ireland that the two loves of his life followed him: first Stella, and later the more pressing Vanessa. The story of Swift and his girls is well enough known, but Glendinning breathes new life into it, thanks mainly (I duck as I say it) to the female perspective from which she views the triangle. As she shrewdly puts it: ‘For many women, whose psychic and physical boundaries tend to be diffuse, most men seem astonishingly, even enviably, self-centred.’ Certainly Swift was self-centred, though hardly enviably so. On the face of it, he treated both women abominably (Vanessa used to address him, after his poem Cadenus and Vanessa, as ‘Cad’; many a true word is spoken in jest), yet also he must have made their lives seem luminous, for they both loved him with unflagging passion. Were we living in other times, we might even say that both women died for love of him.

Glendinning speculates, without prurience, on what exactly ‘love’ meant for these three strange creatures. Sex does not seem to have been a large part of it, and it is still uncertain whether Swift ever slept with either Stella or Vanessa; although in his letters to Vanessa there is a great deal of talk about ‘coffee-drinking’, which in the case of a man obsessively given to coded language makes one suspicious. Does it matter whether they did it or not? The answer will depend on the importance one attaches to the physical act. Certainly there is enough fascination in the story of this peculiar trio to make one forget the question.

Dublin, as Glendinning trenchantly has it, ‘is alive with her dead’, and Swift is still a living presence there. For all his railing against the place, she gives a wonderful glimpse of the Dean in his element, strolling around the environs of St Patrick’s:

His true mistresses, said [his friend] Delany, were the poor women selling plums, nails, tapes, or gingerbre ad, or knitting and mending stockings, or cobbling shoes. ‘One of these mistresses wanted an eye: another, a nose: a third, an arm. He bought their wares, and overpaid, and called each by her own name, invented by him: Cancerina, Stumpanympha, Pullagowna.’

Perhaps not such a cad, after all?

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