- Publishing Perils and Friendships
Jonathan Swift lived several lives simultaneously. He aspired to comfortable class status and to positions of power both in church and state. He was a responsible student at Kilkenny Grammar School and Trinity College. He was an avid lifelong reader, beginning with his time at Kilkenny and Trinity (11). He was a long-term friend and lover of Esther Johnson, and, for a brief period, a tortured lover of Esther Vanhomrigh. He was a poetic chronicler of upper middle-class life, a practical joker, and a warm friend to people from all social classes, who fought against those in power and cared not a whit about common people’s rights. He valued the spiritual welfare of his congregations, both in the Irish countryside at Laracor, and in the city of Dublin. He was good evening company in both Dublin and London. He wrote three of the most brilliant works of all time: A Tale of a Tub, A Modest Proposal, and Gulliver’s Travels. He dashed off masterpieces like An Argument against Abolishing Christianity and A Description of a Morning seemingly in a few days each. He was, arguably, the best ironist of all time and all countries.
Swift also lived a full life as a publisher of books, pamphlets, and poems, sometimes openly admitting his authorship, often playing secretive games [End Page 115] about authorship, to amuse himself, to enhance his reputation, or to stay out of prison. Valerie Rumbold, in Swift in Print, has skillfully and humanely, fully and carefully, written the story of Swift’s publishing life, one of Swift’s most important lives, a story that would make up a rich life in itself for many an accomplished person. Rumbold organizes her study with a compelling narrative, pulling together the many strands of Swift’s not, for the most part, very well-planned life. She convincingly illustrates all Swift’s conflicting values: he sometimes considered himself English, sometimes Irish; he was committed to the established church, while indubitably attracted by secular thinking; he enjoyed people of all sorts, while feeling frequent contempt or anger for people’s selfishness, incompetence, or carelessness; he was proud and avid for status, but could not resist getting into fights against corruption among those with status; he took great pride in being recognized as an author, but he loved concealing his authorship.
Building on the bibliographical work of many scholars, but primarily of James Woolley, Stephen Karian, David Woolley, Michael Treadwell, James McLaverty, and James May, Rumbold has examined nearly every edition of Swift’s work published in his lifetime, and twenty years beyond, giving us, in the process, the “feel” not just of those books and pamphlets, but also of Swift’s life as he lived it with his publishers, and of his various and often entertaining publication processes. Rumbold’s experience as a distinguished scholar of Alexander Pope—she is also the editor of volume 2 of the Cambridge Edition of Swift’s Works—gives her an advantage in being deeply familiar with the literary and publishing milieu that Swift worked in, yet she never gives the impression in Swift in Print that she would rather be working on Pope, and she treats the Swift-Pope disputes in this book with impressive evenhandedness.
To my mind, the most useful of the many contributions that Rumbold makes is the way she brings to life the men, women, and families with whom Swift worked in order to usher his writings into the public world. Rumbold gathers findings of previous scholars and her own research into a carefully wrought narrative that details the genealogies of both Swift’s London and his Dublin publishers and printers, recounts the significant role that many of the publishers’ wives played in Swift’s publishing, and emphasizes the physical proximity between Swift’s own dwellings and his publishers, both in London and in Dublin: frequently, he simply walked over and spent a half day sipping coffee with them. Only when he was across the Irish Sea or at Sir William...