Paul Johnson

Immodest Proposals

Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World

By

Yale University Press 573pp £25 order from our bookshop

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin of English parents and sent to school in Kilkenny. He went on to Trinity College, Dublin, where his career was undistinguished, and then joined the household of the diplomat Sir William Temple. There are mysteries about his life and career, which are compounded by his own love of mystification. There have been a number of biographies, most notably a three-volume work by the American scholar Irvin Ehrenpreis. That left mysteries too, and the author of the present tome, another American, is very critical of it. Leo Damrosch solves some of the mysteries – he shows, for instance, that Temple was almost certainly the father of Swift’s beloved Stella – but he is an irritating writer and his book is far too long. Why biographies of Swift are so unsatisfactory is unclear. The best of them, in my view, is Victoria Glendinning’s, which has the merit of brevity but deals only with Swift as a person.

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