Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1493

The JOURNAL TO STELLA consists of the letters of Jonathan Swift to Esther Johnson. Begun in 1710 and ending in 1713, they mark the long period of separation when Swift was deeply involved in the literary and political affairs of London. Esther Johnson was the woman whom Swift first knew as a child, whom he educated, whom he befriended, and with whom he fell in love. The journal is not, however, in any sense of the word a collection of love letters. The relationship of Swift and Stella was an intellectual one, and the journal is about the ideas and experiences which linked them. It is a great document of life in Augustan London, and of the early life of its author.

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The letters are first of all a very detailed picture of Swift’s fortunes in the capital. He wrote of his friendships with men such as Harley and St. John, who controlled, for a brief time, the government of the nation. Swift was an adviser and friend to these men, and the journal reveals to what extent he was in their company, how deeply he enjoyed their confidence, and how much they relied on his judgment. It indicates too the exact nature of the day-to-day issues about which they consulted. The central matter was the establishment of a Tory system of government, and of this Swift has a good deal to say. Some of the events mentioned in the letters, in fact, come up in disguised form in the later GULLIVER’S TRAVELS.

Swift was one of the champions of the Tory party, and his considerable powers of satire were often called on for its support. The journal reveals that he was animated by belief in the meaning of Tory principles of government—and by the conviction that he had a good deal to gain personally from his association with that party. Swift devotes a good deal of time to explaining the extent to which he believed he deserved rewards, and he is particular in recording the degree to which his claims were honored. The journal explains to Stella the reasons for the many affairs of state he attended and the conviction, spoken and unspoken, that he ought to have a voice in matters of policy.

The tone of the letters is noticeably ironic. Swift writes of a great many persons and events, but he does not grant them the heavy seriousness and meaningfulness that other men might too easily have given. Consistently throughout these letters is a tone which sets the great and near great in their places. Over and over again Swift describes people and their varied affairs, but he rarely descends to find in either the people or the events anything of particular consequence. One of the refreshing things about the letters is the fact that people with very little other than their aristocratic positions to recommend them are seen through the prismatic insight of a very liberated intelligence. Swift notes that a servant seems to be drunk and that a lord seems to be stupid. In both cases Swift is habitually insulting, but in both he is also objective. As a memoir this work has distinct advantages over history, for it gives the domestic and mundane side of events that, after all, existed in more than the public dimension.

There is an extraordinary amount of what must be admitted is pure gossip in the journal. This material is present, evidently, for several reasons: it must have pleased the reader; it evidently pleased Swift; and it functions to give a thick social context to the judgments Swift frequently passes on mankind. Swift includes an enormous amount of detail on the private lives of the people among whom he lives and on the methods by which he came by his knowledge of them. Much of it was by word of mouth, although some of it came from the ferociously revelatory newspapers and pamphlets of the time. Swift reveals why certain officers were dismissed from the service (they had dressed a skeleton as the Prime Minister and shot pistols at it); where Richard Steele spent some time unwillingly (in jail for debt); what he thought of certain people attached to the court (they were for the most part idiots). In short, the journal allows the writer to express himself with a good deal of honesty and a certain amount of useful prejudice about the life he is engaged in. To the author of GULLIVER’S TRAVELS such an exposure to the life of the ruling classes was bound to be useful.

One of the greatest themes of this collection of letters is the personal life of the author. He writes often of the hopes he has for his future and of his own estimation of himself. Both were high. The note generally sounded is that of distress as Swift writes of the failure of people and institutions to live up to his conception of their function. He writes of the labyrinthine politics and intrigues of those years and, quite honestly, of his part in some of them.

The journal has a strong element of tenderness towards its object, Stella. Swift continually reveals the strength of his respect for her and the quality of the emotions she causes in him. The personal note, even in a narrative of affairs of state, is never dropped. Swift uses what he called the “little language” of affection between himself and Stella, the language he first used to her when she was a child. In this language both she and he have nicknames, and he refers to these continually rather than to more formal address. Swift makes plain the depth of his feeling for Esther Johnson in his many allusions to the state of her health (she was not entirely well, and died early) and to the frequency of his thoughts about her. In strong contrast to the coldness with which he treats the characters of the journal is the emotion with which he addresses the recipient. He makes plain the loneliness of separation in his frequent admissions that he prefers her company to all of the power and politics of the capital.

The journal is a kind of testing-ground of Swift’s humor, and one of its most consistent characteristics is the satirical attitude it displays towards human pretentions. His account of Addison and Steele in a letter of December, 1710, describes their responses to a favor and ironically points out the pride and sullenness which prevents them from benefiting from a kindness. Like the characters of GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, Book I, they are the victims of “rancour of party.” In other letters of the same month he reflects with detached amusement on the changes in position of the social puppet-show. He describes a steward who has become a millionaire, a shopkeeper who has become a soldier, and other changes that have resulted from the caprices of the human will. Even Swift’s own party is not spared from the objectivity of his wit. In one letter he reflects coolly on the many promises made to him and on the likelihood of these promises ever being honored. Here, as in his literary works, he makes a strong distinction between “promise” and “pretence.” The constant attitude is that of skepticism.

As a historical document the journal has provided a fund of information on early eighteenth century events. The attempted assasination of Harley in 1711 is one of the most interesting and detailed of Swift’s descriptions and is often referred to by historians. Swift begins by noting that he has written a full account of this matter to his superiors in Dublin and that he is trying to establish a true account of an event that would otherwise be distorted by rumor. He gives the particulars of the stabbing of Harley by Antoine de Guiscard, a man apprehended in the act of treason. In a tense, reportorial manner Swift outlines the event, its aftermath, and the probable consequences for national policy—a later essay in the EXAMINER (number 33) goes into the matter in greater detail, and reveals that the first entry in the JOURNAL, hasty but objective, is the basis for the longer study. Other entries in the JOURNAL clarify the uneasy relationship between Harley and St. John, the two leaders of the Tory party. These men were both partners and rivals; the letters to Stella have many remarks on the nature of their private and public differences. Swift outlines the many difficulties of their relationship with Queen Anne, as well as other matters having to do with the Whig minority and the very combustible elements of the Tory party itself. In short, the journal accomplishes two major objectives: it gives some idea of the depth and quality of feeling that the famous satirist had for the woman he admired, and it establishes a social context for some of the most important political events of its writer’s time.

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