An Extempore Exhumation. A review of The Skull of Swift, by Shane Leslie
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[ 467 An Extempore Exhumation A review of The Skull of Swift, by Shane Leslie London: Chatto & Windus, 1928. Pp. 347. The Nation and Athenaeum, 43 (7 July 1928) 470, 472 “An extempore exhumation” is not my invention; it is Mr. Leslie’s own sub-title for his book. The book is very readable, confused and confusing; it would be easier to criticize if one knew why Mr. Leslie wrote it, and why he chose to write it in this way.1 The “exhumation” is really a romantic biography ; the skull is a mere figurehead. The first chapter contains a reference to a phrenologist, who after examining the skull of Swift reported, “amativeness large and wit small”;2 thereafter the skull slips back into its proper place. In the next chapter we are informed that the Life of Swift will never be written; and then Mr. Leslie proceeds to write it. The biography is bright, interesting , and apparently well informed; but Mr. Leslie does not bring us any further inside that mystery of Swift which he sets himself to study. Perhaps it is partly because Mr. Leslie comes to his task with the wrong assumption. We are told on the wrapper that the “main thesis” of the book is that Swift was a man without a soul. Mr. Leslie makes the same observation at one point inside the book.3 He does not develop it explicitly; but if it is indeed the main thesis, it is incapable of explaining anything. And I cannot see what such an assertion means. Everyone may remark about somebody that he “has no soul”; but that is merely a set phrase, and we know howmuchorlittleitmeans.Buttomakethephrasethethesisofabiographical study implies some theory either theological or psychological; and I have never heard of any such theory. Most theology supposes that everybody has a soul; some psychology supposes that nobody has a soul; but there seems no warrant for selecting the unfortunate Dean Swift for exclusion. Mr.LesliebelievesthatSwiftmayhavehada“heart,”thoughnosoul.Itwould really be more plausible to say that Swift had little or no heart, but a soul – and a very sick one. This picturesque belief may or may not affect Mr. Leslie’s view. What is almost more unpardonable than this touch of flightiness is his combination of historical narrative with the method of fiction. The book has not 1928 468 ] the consistency of Ariel and such works,4 and indeed Mr. Leslie is halfhearted about this method. Chapter III begins with this sentence: The Master of Moor Park in Surrey opened the door leading into his bowling green and garden. . . . [39] We expect some sort of particular narrative, or perhaps a lively dialogue betweenSirWilliamTempleandyoungSwift.5 Nothingofthesort;Mr.Leslie drops this design after two sentences, and treats us to the more conventional method of description of Moor Park and its inhabitants, which is quite temperate and reasonable. It is true that he frequently regales us with pieces of insight like this: Jonathan’s thought had been read by his mother. The wolflike look in his eye was not lost upon her, though it was a mother’s burning love that drove him from her door. [45] If it were all conjecture or imagination of this sort we could bear it, but there is (to do the book justice) a great deal of genuine historical matter, which the more confuses us. Mr. Leslie takes, as you might expect, a final soaring flight when he comes to imagine what Swift was thinking about on his death bed: He could see the Castle at Kilkenny. . . . Every figure was minutely recognizable. . . . He looked again and saw a risen Congreve. . . . Again he fell into oblivion and the dream of death. [328-29, 331] ItisusuallyMr.LyttonStracheywhogetstheblame;but,afterall,Mr.Strachey does not mix things up like Mr. Leslie: he does restrain his imagination to legitimate historical uses.6 There isanotherqualityofMr.StracheywhichMr.Lesliemisses.Inimaginative biography it is essential that the author should maintain a consistent attitude towards his subject. With Mr. Strachey, we cannot define – or cannot define so easily as we might expect – this attitude, either in general or towards a particular subject of biography; but we feel immediately his consistency throughout, whether we like the attitude or not. It is difficult to believe that Mr. Leslie has any consistent attitude towards Swift, except in regarding him as a good romantic subject. From this point of view alone, the short studies of Thackeray and Mr. Charles Whibley, both biased and from opposite points of view, are...