Just who was Jonathan Swift, political satirist and author of Gulliver’s Travels? A new biography by Leo Damrosch paints a vivid and most compelling picture of a multi-faceted and contradictory individual.
Leo Damrosch’s new biography of Jonathan Swift, Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, is clearly an attempt to write the definitive work. The previous incumbent weighed in at 3000 pages, so its approach was clearly to overwhelm the reader with detail and sheer volume of material. Damrosch is more selective, and turns the copious material of Swift’s life (letters, diaries, account books, pamphlets — acknowledged and anonymous — books and more) into a vibrant and colorful life.
It’s fair to say that the popular impression of Swift’s life is much simpler than the fascinating reality. I’d summarize the general perception of Swift as “vicar of Laracor, a small hamlet near Trim, Co. Meath; had a long-time affair of the heart (if not more) with an unmarried woman named Stella; wrote Gulliver’s Travels.” But, Damrosch both fills in the extensive gaps and makes some very interesting and revisionist assertions.
First of all, Swift really lived much of his life in London, where he was an active propagandist for the Tory party, and relentlessly searched for a lucrative appointment as a bishop. Unfortunately, he had a remarkable capacity for self-destruction, as every time he seemed on the verge of success, he’d publish an ill-judged pamphlet and make a powerful enemy who could block potential appointments. Eventually he retreated back to Dublin, where he took up the lesser post of Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It appears that actually working as a clergyman in the parish to which one was appointed was optional at this period, as Swift — and apparently many others — simply used the income provided by the parish to furnish an acceptable lifestyle elsewhere. Indeed, Damrosch’s contention that despite outward appearances Swift was deeply religious is the weakest and least well-supported claim in the book.
Swift published a remarkable number of pamphlets and poems anonymously. Several were quite scandalous and controversial, so keeping his authorship secret was essential to avoiding a trial or even jail (as a member of the clergy, he seems to have been immune to being challenged to duels). However, his most-famous works didn’t come until later in his life.
Damrosch (who seems to want to have his cake and eat it, academically speaking) details an amazing theory about Swift’s parentage without giving it his full endorsement. Swift’s father was an obscure clerk in the Dublin law courts, and his mother was a recently arrived woman of middle rank from England. His father was mysteriously made a solicitor, without any particular training, and the pair were married on seemingly little acquaintance. His father died a few years later, and Swift was largely raised by his uncle, a bona fide lawyer, who seems to have spent more on Swift’s education than on his own children — but whom Swift resented all his life.
On completing his education, Swift went to England to visit his mother (who had returned there after his father’s death) and was quickly introduced to Sir William Temple, a family friend, and the de facto Prime Minister (before there was such a position). Swift then walked into a job as his private secretary. Such an appointment for a man of obscure birth was very unusual. However, Damrosch’s suggestion is that Swift’s mother may have been Temple’s mistress, whom he fixed up with a willing husband while he was in Dublin (promoting Swift’s “father” to what would likely have been his dream job in payment). Swift’s expensive education may then have been provided by Temple, through the intermediary of Swift’s “uncle,” which could account for the apparent awkwardness in their relationship. Whether Swift knew of this or not is unknown, but it is a fascinating and somewhat compelling theory.
Swift’s relationship with Stella, the single woman who lived at Laracor and with whom he corresponded all their lives, began at Sir WIlliam Temple’s stately home in England. She may also have been an illegitimate child of Temple, as he provided an astounding legacy for her in his will, providing a house and income for her in Ireland. There’s evidence that Temple’s heirs continued to provide for her during the rest of her life.
During the years Swift lived and worked in London, he confided almost everything to Stella in endless letters. Their closeness was such a well-known fact that several of Swift’s contemporaries assumed they were secretly married. Why the marriage would need to be secret is unclear, as Swift was a protestant clergyman, so marriage was quite permissible, even encouraged. Their letters are thought to have been at least partly in code, as there are many in-jokes and references to shared confidences. The only thing Swift seems not to have shared is his relationships with other women, although, as he detailed practically all his activities in the letters, it appears that Stella was more than capable of reading between the lines and becoming jealous.
So, while Damrosch really doesn’t solve the mystery of their unusual relationship, he does provide several interpretations and a great deal of supporting material which reveals a lot about social life in the upper echelons of society at that time.
Whether of not this is not the definitive biography of Jonathan Swift only time will tell, but it is certainly a most accessible and enthralling account despite its detail (indeed, this review is much longer than I normally write, but I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of Damrosch’s excellent research). Non-academic readers who enjoy Irish literature and the history of this period will be fascinated!
The picturesque County Meath town of Trim has many other claims to fame besides Jonathan Swift. It boasts the largest Norman castle in Ireland, and was the family home of England’s greatest generals, the first Duke of Wellington.