In his “Epistle to a Lady,” Jonathan Swift’s friend Alexander Pope writes, “Woman’s at best a contradiction still.” The same might be said of Swift. He was a pacifist who hated passionately; an Irish patriot who savaged his country in print; a devout Anglican who counted among his closest friends a Catholic (Pope) and a freethinker (Henry St. John, first Viscount Bolingbroke); a seeming misogynist whom two women followed from England to Ireland; a stickler for cleanliness who wrote some of the foulest verse in the English language; a champion of the underdog who enjoyed hobnobbing with the top dogs; a generous lender and exacting creditor. Despite the sea of ink that has flowed into books about Swift, what the elocutionist Thomas Sheridan the younger wrote in 1785 remains true: “Perhaps there never was a man whose true character was so little known.”
Victoria Glendinning makes no attempt to write Swift’s definitive biography. That task was done, and done brilliantly, by Irvin Ehrenpreis in his three-volume Swift: The Man, His Works, and the Age (1962-1983). Rather, Glendinning offers a readable account of the main events in Swift’s life. Where biographers differ, as in Swift’s relationship with Esther Johnson, Glendinning presents the opposing viewpoints and offers her own opinion, clearly labeled as such.
Probably the most puzzling aspect of Swift’s life was his relationship with women. He flippantly remarked that he had never seen a woman for whom he would give up sleeping in the middle of his bed. “The Lady’s Dressing Room” offers a stomach-turning survey of Celia’s closet and warns, “To him that looks behind the scene,/ Statira’s but some pocky quean.” Swift’s “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed: Written for the Honour of the Fair Sex” declines to revisit Corinna’s dressing room because the scene would prove too noisome: “Corinna in the morning dizened,/ Who sees, will spew; who smells, be poisoned.”
Yet Swift enjoyed the company of women, and he had close, perhaps intimate, relationships with two. The first, Esther (“Stella”) Johnson, he met in 1689 at the home of Sir William Temple at Sheen when she was eight and he twenty-two. Swift’s great-nephew and biographer, Deane Swift, wrote that his great-uncle enjoyed teaching young people, especially young women. However the Swift-Stella relationship began, it evolved beyond merely that of tutor and pupil. After Temple died in 1699 and Swift became vicar of Laracor, County Meath, Ireland, she followed him across the Irish Sea. During the years that Swift again lived in England as chief propagandist for the Tory ministry (1710-1714), he wrote regularly and tenderly to Stella, though he always addressed the letters to her companion, Rebecca Dingley, as well. Swift’s early biographers agreed that in 1716 Swift married Stella, but no hard evidence supports that contention. Ehrenpreis rejects the theory. In the last of the birthday poems Swift addressed to her, he said that he would gladly share her suffering, “Or give my scrap of life to you,/ And think it far beneath your due.” When Stella was dying, Swift hastened back to Ireland, but he did not want her to die in his house. He did not attend her funeral, nor did he ever write the epitaph that he promised for her grave.
On the night that Stella died, Swift wrote that she was “the truest, most virtuous, and valuable friend, that I, or perhaps any other person, ever was blessed with.” For more than a decade, though, she had a rival in Hester (“Vanessa”) Vanhomrigh, whom Swift may have met in 1707 on a crossing from Ireland to England. Hester was then about nineteen, Swift’s junior by twenty-one years. Glendinning suggests that Swift may have known the family even earlier, in Dublin. As soon as Swift came to London in September of 1710, he called on the Vanhomrighs. Even as he wrote loving letters back to “MD” (my dear), Stella, in Ireland, Swift dined with the Vanhomrighs at least fifty times between 1710 and 1714. He often spent afternoons and evenings in the “sluttery,” a sitting room that Vanessa and her sister Mary used. Away from Vanessa he wrote that he longed “to drink a dish of coffee in the Sluttery, and hear you dun me for secrets and: Drink your coffee—why don’t you drink your coffee?”
In 1712 or 1713, Swift addressed to her Cadenus and Vanessa (1726), in which he teased future readers about the exact relationship between the two:
Whether the nymph, to please her swain,
Talks in a high romantic strain;
Or whether he at last descends
To like with less seraphic ends;
Or, to compound the business, whether
They temper love and books together;
Must never to mankind be told,
Nor shall the conscious Muse unfold.
The great eighteenth century letter writer Horace Walpole had no doubt about the relationship: “I think it plain he lay with her.”...
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