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  • Jonathan Swift: A Portrait
  • Speer Morgan
Jonathan Swift: A Portrait by Victoria GlendenningHenry Holt and Company, 2006, 324 pp., $35

Victoria Glendinning's new biography of Jonathan Swift is a brief, impressionistic but readable portrait highlighting Swift's political involvements, friendships and love affairs, particularly with Stella (Esther Johnson) and Vanessa Vanhomrigh. Swift was born in 1667, the year after the great fire of London. His father died before he was born, and his mother moved to Leicester, England, while he was still an infant, probably not seeing him again until he was twenty years old. Jonathan was raised in Ireland by uncles and aunts and a nurse from Dublin.

Following his graduation from Trinity College in Dublin, soon after William and Mary were crowned in London, he fled Ireland and became secretary to Sir William Temple at Moor Park in Surrey. Over the next ten years, he would serve three times in that role. Near the turn of the century he returned to Ireland, took holy orders and became vicar at two small churches. Between 1704 and 1709 Swift served on an official mission from the Church of Ireland to Queen Anne. For the next five years he was an insider and friend to the Tory government, writing pamphlets and periodicals discrediting the Whigs. With the end of the Tory ministry, he returned to Ireland to serve for the rest of his active years as the Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral.

As Glendinning points out, speculation about the author of Gulliver's Travels has gone on since his death. The brilliant satirist and humorist was a melancholy attendant, lover, patriarchal teacher and bully of women. Fortunately, the intimate letters he wrote to Esther Johnson were saved and later published as the Journal to Stella. Whether he secretly married Stella in 1716 has remained a perennial question to commentators and biographers, but whether married or not, Johnson served as his companion until her death in 1728. During the same period, he also maintained an intimate friendship with Vanessa, who followed him to Dublin despite having to put up with his anxiety about not being "discreet." The new Dean's house was large, but because of Swift's modest income, it remained scarcely [End Page 177] furnished. One of the several amazing facts about Swift's life is that Stella and Vanessa may never have been formally introduced, despite both serving in different ways as wifely figures. While Vanessa apparently never visited him in his cathedral home, Stella organized social events for him there, while "officially" acting as if she were only a guest.

Swift spent long periods away from Dublin, living with friends for months at a time as a third—and not always friendly party—in a marriage. He lived with Sir Arthur Acheson three separate times—for eight months, four months and three—each time becoming friendlier with Acheson's wife, Anne, whom he fondly called "Skinnibonia," among many other things. Swift's approach with her and with other women was to play the part of the flirtatious, fun, energetic yet severe teacher, making them read certain books and chiding them jokingly but sometimes violently for remaining ignorant. In later years, Anne Acheson left her husband and moved to Dublin, where she became a gambler and something of a drunk, no longer appealing to the Dean. Swift also went on months-long visits to his friend Thomas Sheridan's estate. Sheridan and his wife had a disastrous marriage, and Swift was not a healing force. The two men ganged up on Mrs. Sheridan, unreservedly teasing and picking on her.

Jonathan Swift's fame as an author did not come about until the 1720s, with the publication of Drapier's Letters, which was a protest specifically against the English king granting a privatized patent for Irish coinage but more generally a broad protest against conditions in Ireland. In the 1720s, he would write several pamphlets about the state of Ireland. The most famous of all was A Modest Proposal, which suggested that given the amount of crime and starvation in Ireland the logical thing to do would be to export Irish children to England as "a...


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