Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel by John Stubbs - review by Freya Johnston

Freya Johnston

Revolting Mind

Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel


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‘Would we have liked to live with him?’ asked Thackeray, contemplating Swift, a question he immediately ducked by supplying a long list of other writers with whom we might prefer to spend our time. Samuel Johnson, similarly recoiling from the evidence of Swift’s character as manifested in his works, thought him ‘a man of rigorous temper’, whose ‘vigilance of minute attention’ must have made him unbearable. Even his best friends, on whose testimony Johnson relied, depicted him as cold, frugal, petulant and severe.

None of this would have surprised the man himself. In his autobiographical ‘Verses on the Death of Dr Swift’ (1731), he imagined widespread indifference to his demise and posthumous distortions of his name. The poem gives neither his vilest enemies nor his closest friends much credit for the sincerity or persistence of their feelings. Instead, it is the public Swift who endures, the man who unmasked cheats and frauds, who stood up for the financial and constitutional independence of Ireland, and who left his money

To build a House for Fools and Mad:
And shew’d by one satiric Touch,
No Nation wanted it so much:
That Kingdom he hath left his Debtor,
I wish it soon may have a Better.

By ‘That Kingdom’, Swift meant, as he explained in a note at once bitterly resigned and still hopeful of escape, ‘Ireland, where he now lives, and probably may dye’. He might have been dubbed the ‘Hibernian Patriot’ and grudgingly accepted the adulation of thousands, but he never got over the idea that he was destined for bigger and better things in England. His life could be summed up by the experience, as a boy, of having almost caught a very big fish on his line, ‘but it dropt in, and the disappointment vexeth me to this very day’.

It was a matter of pride to Swift, and has always been an exasperation to his biographers, that he never wrote anything that was easy to understand. ‘Easy’, like ‘genuine’, is a treacherous word in his nimble hands, generally indicating that a suspect proposal is brewing. If there are too many poor Irish people to feed, for instance, why don’t rich people buy and eat some of their children? What could be more ‘innocent, cheap, easy, and effectual’? The speaker of A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick (1729) aspires to a coolly rational, economic survey of cannibalism. Children, after all, may be ‘delicious, nourishing, and wholesome’; they can be ‘Stewed, Roasted, Baked or Boiled’; and have you thought, by the way, about turning them into ‘a Fricasie, or a Ragout’? The intricately practical details of his plan are, in the proposer’s mind, the best and surest way of forestalling any weak-minded person’s instinctive objections to a bold new scheme. He has simply thought of everything already.

The superficial accessibility of this style belies its author’s gift for trickery, vexing, teasing and distortion. Swift’s writing is flexible and slippery, embodying a principled distrust of human ambition. One of his greatest achievements is the ability at once to inhabit and to part company with the speakers whose frequently unhinged views of the world he adopts.

Those speakers are a ragbag of thieving upstarts and deluded schemers, chattering servants, cruel children, honest horses and rotting prostitutes. Swift was a master of satire’s many and various levels of awareness, of suggestion and implication. His chronic, acidulous discontentment with life resulted in a brilliantly discombobulated vision of the world. Here, the little gives way to the big, height consorts with depth and decorum rubs shoulders (and more) with indecorum. Nothing stays still for long. In these texts, at once violently disordered and closely regulated, we continually lose our footing.

Lemuel Gulliver, hero and satirical butt of Gulliver’s Travels, cannot bear to see himself out of place. Taking on the manners and customs of the strange creatures he meets in Lilliput and Brobdingnag, Laputa and the land of the Houyhnhnms, he learns their languages, copies their behaviour and desperately strives to fit in. But his very susceptibility to these peculiar environments, which it has always proved tempting to interpret in terms of Swift’s position as a self-styled exile in foreign territory, is roundly punished. He comes to despise and abhor his species, his home and his family.

No wonder that Swift was afflicted with deafness and giddiness; towards the end of his life, to Johnson’s contempt, he also refused to wear glasses. Modern medicine has concluded that he suffered from Ménière’s disease, perhaps also from Asperger’s syndrome. But day-to-day experience of the miseries of his countrymen, combined with a determination to separate himself from them, might also explain many of his symptoms. He could not but see, hear and lament the condition of the Irish populace; he also dearly wanted them to disappear. He was Ireland’s champion, but he refused to identify himself with the people whose cause he espoused.

Having proposed marriage in brusque and irritable fashion to one woman (who said no), Swift spent the rest of his life both courting and holding at arm’s length other contenders for his affection. Critics and biographers have argued for centuries over his relationship with Esther Johnson, the ‘Stella’ of his birthday poems and the recipient of his Journal from London, to whom he acted as a tutor and on whose wit, virtue and perception he relied until her death. From 1701, when he was in his thirties (she was thirteen years his junior), he did all he could to keep her near him. But ‘something blocked him’, as John Stubbs puts it, from marrying her. What was it? Did he want a mistress, not a wife? Could she have been his sister or half-sister? It seems most likely that he simply wanted to live on his own and that he feared marriage, partly on account of his parents’ union, which he always described as imprudent. He and Esther may never have spent a moment together without a third party present. In death, they remained on neighbourly terms, buried next to one another in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin.

Stubbs rarely strikes a false note in this sensitive and capacious book, but when he analyses the Stella poems, he doesn’t quite capture the oddity of their terse and teasing affection. Swift could be tender, but it doesn’t take long for the tenderness to seem like a quivering slab of meat into which he longs to plunge a nice sharp fork. Stubbs sees the lines that he wrote for Esther Johnson’s thirty-fourth birthday as reassuring, since Swift apparently tells her that she has ‘lost none of the beauty’ that first struck him eighteen years earlier. Yet this is the same poem in which Swift also says to ‘Stella’ that her ‘Size and Years are doubled’. Strictly speaking, it is true to say that she hadn’t lost anything; on the contrary, she had piled on the pounds. Undoubtedly fond, tart and cheeky, the message is not exactly soothing. Perhaps the regularity of the birthday verse tribute may have served the purpose of reassurance by itself. Swift was nothing if not punctual in the discharge of his duties.

He was also a stickler for cleanliness, a fact that should not have surprised any of his grubbier contemporaries in England or Ireland. His ‘oriental scrupulosity’ on the one hand and what was later dubbed his ‘excremental vision’ on the other have continued to provoke disapproving incomprehension. Yet was Swift better or worse than those who refused to permit the filth, decay and human waste around them to enter the realms of verse? His poems sometimes turn on stupid young men who expect women to be nothing less than goddesses. When one of them undertakes an ill-judged inspection of his beloved’s bedchamber, discovering to his horror and enduring madness that ‘Celia, Celia, Celia shits!’, he is experiencing nothing more and nothing less than the revelation that she is human. One early female reader of the poem responded to it by instantly throwing up. Neither ignorance nor knowledge of the opposite sex amounts, in Swift’s world, to bliss.

Reluctance may of itself be a form of rebellion and hatred. To subtitle a biography of Swift ‘The Reluctant Rebel’ therefore risks tautology. But there is some truth to the implicit claim that he was a rebel against rebellion – that he espoused what Stubbs calls a ‘passionate conservatism’. The title also catches Swift turning in on and against himself. John Stubbs handles the intensely complicated political and historical background to Swift’s life with admirable deftness and clarity; the lovely, delicate quality of his writing makes his descriptions of paintings, and of the physical appearances they suggest, especially enjoyable. There have been dozens of lives of Swift. This one, unlike some of its predecessors, is readable, sane, alert and beautifully observed.

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