Jonathan Swift 
by Victoria Glendinning.
Hutchinson, 324 pp., £20, September 1998, 0 09 179196 0
Show More
Show More

Jonathan Swift’s last formal composition, before he slipped into the dementia that swallowed him for the last five years of his life, was his own epitaph. In May 1740 he made his will, fastidiously apportioning his property and specifying arrangements for his interment. He stipulated that he be buried ‘as privately as possible, and at Twelve o’clock at Night’ in the great aisle of Dublin’s St Patrick’s Cathedral, where he had been Dean since 1714. A tablet of black marble was to be fixed to the wall ‘with the following Inscription in large Letters, deeply cut, and strongly gilded’:


‘Here is laid the body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Divinity, Dean of this Cathedral Church, where savage indignation can no longer tear his heart. Go, traveller, and imitate if you can one who strove with all his might to champion liberty.’

Swift’s claim to his rest from ‘savage indignation’ was also, characteristically, a literary allusion. In his First Satire, Juvenal splenetically explains why he finds himself writing satire at all. He stands in the streets of Rome, he says, and watches the monsters of vice that pass by. His gorge rises and he just has to write about it: ‘si natura negat, facit indignatio versum.’ ‘Though nature forbids, indignation makes the verse.’ Satire is forced into being by the pressure of the times. The satirist’s anger – for which, in later ages, Juvenal became a representative – makes silence impossible. It is strange to find ‘sæva indignatio’ on Swift’s memorial tablet, a tablet that notably does not contain any mention of the usual Christian consolations – any hope of salvation or another life beyond this one. It is strange because Swift had distanced the satirical writings from his own feelings: they were written in the voices of personae whose attitudes and beliefs had been chosen precisely because they were not, apparently, his own, and published anonymously or pseudonymously. Gulliver is the most famous, but there are many others: sometimes evidently foolish, sometimes worryingly lucid; self-righteous or ‘humble’; piously outraged or alarmingly dispassionate. None of them speaks for Swift. Readers have often imagined the author’s fury or disgust or horror, but without actually hearing his voice. And yet, at the end, he seemed to declare that the satire came from his own wounded heart.

Victoria Glendinning is not the first to take this epitaph as an explanation not only of Swift’s satirical impulses, but also of some kind of deep disturbance within his personality. ‘Swift is immoderate, a man of intense responses, provoked to towering rage: sæva indignatio,’ she writes in the concluding chapter of her biography. ‘There is uncontrollable anger in him, originating in some early outrage one cannot precisely determine.’ Her idea about ‘some early outrage’ is a reflex of the 20th-century biographer, but she shares with memoirists of the 18th century her sense that a terrible anger produced Swift’s satire and dominated, perhaps maddened the man. He died under the care of guardians appointed by an Irish Commission of Lunacy, the commissioners having decided, three years earlier, that he ‘hath for these nine months past been gradually failing in his memory and understanding, and of such unsound mind ... that he is incapable of transacting any business, or managing, conducting, or taking care either of his estate or person’. From the beginning, those who have written about Swift have been tempted to see his final, vacant madness as the last, inevitable stage of ‘indignatio’.

Swift’s first biographer was Laetitia Pilkington, whose Memoirs (1748-54) include – if we believe them at all – our most intimate glimpses of his character and his oddities. When Pilkington thought of Swift’s last years she thought of his own fictional creatures, the lamentably immortal Struldbruggs, who teach the narrator of the desirability of death in Gulliver’s Travels. ‘In talking they forget the common Appellation of Things, and the Names of Persons, and even of those who are their nearest Friends and Relations. For the same Reason they never can amuse themselves with reading, because their Memory will not serve to carry them from the Beginning of a Sentence to the End.’ Instead of being sources of wisdom, as Gulliver first imagines, these endlessly ageing beings are objects of horror and disgust. Their inventor, in Pilkington’s account, foresaw his own fate. What he satirised, he was duly made to suffer: ‘when he fell on Infirmities ... he was punished with them all in a remarkable manner; he lived to be a Struldbrugg, helpless as a Child, and unable to assist himself.’

Pilkington had been a pet of Swift’s and had received from him harsh treatment that she took for affection: sardonic put-downs, peremptory instructions and plenty of pinching. ‘The Dean’, as she always calls him, showed her his poems and letters and instructed her in literature, though he was ‘a very rough sort of a Tutor’. In the early stages of his madness this roughness became violence and, apparently, he beat her. Still revering him, she found an explanation that is echoed in later accounts. ‘I believe too much Learning had turn’d his Head, or too deep a Search into the Secrets of Nature.’ She wrote this in exoneration, but others would tell the story of Swift’s last years in a hostile spirit. Indeed, in the biography that followed Pilkington’s, the Earl of Orrery’s Remarks on the Life and Writings of Dr Jonathan Swift (1752), the biographer found a nasty satisfaction in ‘the ways of Providence’ when he turned to the satirist’s decay: ‘this great genius, this mighty wit, who seemed to scoff, and scorn at all mankind, lived not only to be an example to punish his own pride, and to terrify ours, but underwent some of the greatest miseries to which human nature is liable.’

Though their tones could hardly differ more, Pilkington and Orrery had the same idea: what made Swift a satirist was what made him, eventually, go out of his mind. It is as if being him were intolerable. Biographers have been drawn to Swift by this sense that there must have been something singular and terrible in the man – a ‘black imagination’ which, as Glendinning says in her first paragraph, ‘provokes admiration and fear and pity’. His madness, and his long-drawn-out death, became a warning to those with a satirical spirit. His ‘savage indignation’ was cautionary, not exemplary, and the last part of his epitaph became an impossible command: we might admire Swift, but he is beyond imitation. And precisely because he had taken such pains not to write in propria persona, there was a special role for biography in connecting the satire to the indignant, then furious, then maddened man who wrote it. Dr Johnson, in his 1781 Life of Swift, seemed to make official the theory that a terrible indignation finally and corrosively turned in on itself. ‘Having ... excluded conversation, and desisted from study, he had neither business nor amusement; for having, by some ridiculous resolution or mad vow, determined never to wear spectacles, he could make little use of books in his later years: his ideas, therefore, being neither renovated by discourse, nor increased by reading, wore gradually away, and left his mind vacant to the vexations of the hour, till at last his anger was heightened into madness.’

‘At last his anger was heightened into madness’: not the exemplary Stoic proclaimed by his epitaph, but the satirist driven by fury back into his own darkness. It is a version that agrees with Swift’s own in one respect: death is the only escape from such lacerating anger. Johnson relied on the suspect testimony of the ardent Whig clergyman Thomas Birch, his source for the story that Swift’s servants charged for admission to view him. ‘And Swift expires, a driveller and a show,’ Johnson wrote in The Vanity of Human Wishes. Birch was another of those witnesses who derived some twisted satisfaction from the great man’s madness, commenting that his reported violence and attempts on women showed what had always been his ‘real dispositions’ – ‘but now it happens, that the thin disguise, which before scarce covered them, is absolutely fallen off.’ Long before he was demonised by the Victorians, the inventor of the Yahoos and ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’ was shown as a self-destroying misanthrope. As Glendinning says, Swift’s death ‘unleashed a spate of speculation and analysis which continues to this day’. Much of it has not been charitable.

One of the best things about Glendinning’s biography is her interest in the stories and verdicts of Swift’s earliest biographers, several of whom are allowed to step into her book. In the past, Pilkington’s anecdotes have been distrusted, partly because they are interspersed in an autobiography so dedicated to self-vindication, in the wake of her scandalous divorce. Pilkington certainly needed the reflected glory of her intimacy with Swift yet, as Glendinning says, ‘the very pettiness and inconsequentiality’ of many of her recollections lend them credibility: the Dean running up and down the Deanery’s several staircases when the weather was too bad for outdoor exercise; the Dean rubbing burnt resin into her cheeks in a weird effort to provoke her; the Dean refusing ever to succumb to laughter: ‘I cannot recollect that ever I saw the Dean laugh ... when any Pleasantry passed, which might have excited it, he used to suck in his cheeks, as Folks do when they have a Plug of Tobacco in their Mouths, to avoid Risibility.’ The domestic Swift whom she describes – captious and grimly playful – is a vividly seen character whom Glendinning is right to rediscover.

Pilkington’s recollections are also important because of this biography’s interest in Swift’s close yet obscure relationships with his female admirers. (This did not stop a reviewer in the Independent declaring that Glendinning was the first woman to write of Swift’s life.) She shares this interest with the earliest memoirists. Orrery scornfully referred to Swift’s ‘seraglio’ and incensed his defenders by dwelling at length on his supposed mistreatment of ‘his females’. He found, in fact, that Hester Vanhomrigh (‘Vanessa’), who might or might not have been Swift’s lover, had been killed by his cruelty. Finally and mysteriously spurned, she perished, he wrote, ‘under all the agonies of despair’. According to Orrery, Swift did marry Esther Johnson (‘Stella’), but would not acknowledge her as his wife because she was a servant’s daughter. Thus disappointed, she, too, slipped into a physical ‘decline’ and eventually died, glad, Orrery said, of her final release from this humiliation. His account was influential. Swift’s friend Patrick Delany was provoked to his Observations on Orrery’s Life (1754), which had an ineffectual stab at vindicating Swift’s behaviour to both women, and this work in turn drove Deane Swift to his Essay Upon the Life, Writings and Character of Dr Jonathan Swift (1755), which tried so hard to defend Swift’s conduct that it seemed to have the contrary effect. Glendinning finds Orrery a resentful and untrustworthy witness, yet from him, too, she has taken clues to Swift’s character, and in particular to his disappointed pride.

‘His pride, his spirit or his ambition, call it by what name you please, was boundless: but, his views were checked in his younger years, and the anxiety of that disappointment had a visible effect on all his actions.’ This is from the opening of Orrery’s biography, and it is very close to Glendinning’s summary of Swift’s character. ‘He was a disappointed man ... His disappointment, like his pride, was part of his nature.’ It is as an attempt at his ‘character’ that Glendinning presents her account. It is to be ‘a written portrait’ rather than ‘a chronicle biography’. ‘It would ... be possible to write a full and responsible biographical account of Jonathan Swift – to add to the other full and (mostly) responsible biographical accounts of him already in existence – while declining to confront the impossibly difficult questions, or to speculate about their answers. That is what the late Professor Irvin Ehrenpreis, American author of the standard three-volume biography of Swift, chose to do.’ Ehrenpreis declared that he wished to ‘eliminate fables’ and ‘legendary Swiftiana’. In quest of Swift’s ‘character’, Glendinning, in contrast, finds herself intrigued most of all by the fables and legends that have clustered around the man.

Saying that you have not tried to write ‘a full and responsible biographical account’ might seem disarming, if it were not so clearly intended to disarm. It would be possible to write an account like Ehrenpreis’s, it is tempting to respond, only if one had his scholarship, his historical understanding, his knowledge of literature of the period, his scrupulousness and (not an option for the professional biographer) his time – 21 years separated the first volume of his magnum opus from the third and last. It is true that Ehrenpreis’s aloofness from what he took to be trivia and tittle-tattle can be exasperating. With some academic hauteur, he swats away questions about Swift’s widely rumoured ‘marriage’ to Stella (asserted by Pilkington, Delany, Deane Swift and Thomas Sheridan, as well as Orrery) with a mere footnote: ‘I do not believe Swift ever went through a marriage ceremony with Esther Johnson, any more than that he ever had sexual relations with her.’ Glendinning is rationally curious about the exact nature of Swift’s relationship with the woman whom he first befriended in the house of his patron and employer Sir William Temple when she was eight years old, who moved to Ireland to be near him when she was 20, and who remained, as he wrote, ‘his truest, most virtuous, and valuable friend’ for the next 26 years. Glendinning devotes a chapter to the – obviously unanswerable – questions that contemporaries also asked: was she ever his mistress? Were they husband and wife? If so, why did they never acknowledge the fact? Most readers interested in Swift will think it perfectly reasonable that she should do so.

The attempt to write ‘an extended version of what was in Swift’s time called a “character” ’ – what we might more simply call a ‘popular biography’ – is not such a bad idea. (Ehrenpreis himself approached the composition of his huge biography via his 1958 The Personality of Jonathan Swift, given entirely to the description of character and the assessment of anecdotal evidence.) There is an accessible biography in print, David Nokes’s excellent Jonathan Swift: A Hypocrite Reversed (1985), but this was written with an eye on the student (and teacher), rather than the non-academic reader whom Glendinning has in mind. Nokes, subtitling his book ‘A Critical Biography’, felt duty-bound to include sustained discussions of ‘all of Swift’s major works and of many of his minor ones’. Alan Downie’s Jonathan Swift: Political Writer (1984) did much the same, its author believing that ‘the explanation of Swift’s worldview’ was the biographer’s business, and that this involved examining the works, in sequence. No undergraduate with an essay crisis will find such supportive exegesis in Glendinning’s book. What interests her most of all are some of his private poetry (Cadenus and Vanessa, in particular), his Journal to Stella, and his correspondence with Vanessa. The subject-matter of much of Swift’s canonical satire preoccupies her hardly at all. Her biography is given over to the mystery of the private person.

There are some ways in which this approach pays off. As well as adjudicating intelligently between the different versions of the private Swift given by those who actually met him, she manages to be clear without being reductive about his identification and lack of identification with Ireland. In the very first sentence of the first work that Swift ever published (his ‘Ode to the Athenian Society’), he speaks of himself writing as an ‘Englishman’; in the second sentence, he apologises for having been out of contact with polite society, in Ireland. One might see his life as an unwilling drifting away from both the first affirmation and the second apology. Orrery wrote, plausibly, that ‘when he was peevish, and provoked at the ingratitude of Ireland, he was frequently heard to say: “I am not of this vile country. I am an Englishman.” ’ Glendinning reflects this peevishness, but also the grudging and intermittent acceptance that Ireland is where he belongs – ‘a wretched, dirty, dog-hole and prison, but it is a place good enough to die in’.

She does this by concentrating, like Laetitia Pilkington, on Swift ‘at home’. This is Swift in his country parish, Laracor in County Meath, cutting and planting his willows: ‘cultivating half an acre of Irish bog’, he said when writing to a friend in England, but Glendinning makes it sound as though he relished his husbandry. And this is Swift in his Dublin Deanery, his time and thoughts given over to Irish companions, Irish interests and Irish irritations. Such a focus is made easier by simply leaving out much about his relations with English friends. She is impatient of his political preoccupations, which necessarily centred on England. Where Alan Downie’s biography characterised Swift largely by following his political passions and indecisions, Glendinning is happy to rest with one of Orrery’s platitudes: ‘Lord Orrery was right. “He was neither Whig nor Tory, neither Jacobite nor Republican. He was DOCTOR SWIFT.” ’ She knows that ‘a lot of paper’ has been used up in discussions of Swift’s politics, but this is proof enough to her of their irrelevance. ‘He cannot be pigeonholed’ is her reason for not bothering the reader with the matter. She also keeps Swift at home by showing little interest in those relationships with Scriblerian collaborators that tend to engage academic biographers. She waves away all Swift’s letters to and from Pope, Arbuthnot, Gay and Bolingbroke: ‘I find the correspondences self-conscious and laboured.’ And that is the end of them.

The candour with which she states such opinions and priorities may make her book ‘accessible’, but informality causes problems too. A rare footnote apart, both Ehrenpreis and Nokes, drilled in the academic proprieties, ditch the first-person pronoun as soon as they get past their prefaces. Glendinning, however, often says ‘I think’ and ‘I believe’, and there are plenty of her hunches and ruminations on offer. She concludes the chapter called ‘Wife?’ – reviewing the evidence for, and some of the evidence against, Swift’s supposed marriage to Stella – with a characteristic paragraph beginning: ‘I think it is possible, I think it is probable, that Swift and Stella did go through some ceremony in the summer of 1716.’ Thus emboldened, she imagines for us ‘a tender, indulgent play-ceremony’, performed to comfort and reassure Stella, which left the participants ‘with the uneasy option of regarding what had happened as a grown-up legal marriage – or not’. This is entirely her fiction, as her final rhetorical flourish acknowledges: ‘I cannot prove that this was how it was.’ Similarly, she provides a perfectly clear review of speculation, which surfaced in the 18th century, about the ‘true’ parentage of Swift and Stella (both sometimes rumoured to be illegitimate children of Sir William Temple), only to dwindle into a fantasy of her own. ‘There is another hypothesis concerning Stella’s parentage that no one, so far as I know, has come up with.’ Perhaps Stella was the result of an incestuous union of Sir William Temple with his sister, Martha Giffard. For several pages she takes us through this scenario (for which there is no evidence) and then concludes: ‘You do not have to believe the incest story. I had much rather you did not.’ It was all a ‘biographical vagary’ to show us how such speculations can grow.

The first-person pronoun is a signal of the biographer’s friendliness, but invariably it is also a sign of things going awry. Writing of Swift’s parting from Jane Waring, to whom he had once proposed marriage but who could not decide on her response, she says: ‘I think he felt too abused by her treatment of him to expect any radical change.’ Of his meetings for coffee with Vanessa, she says, ‘I think it was like this,’ and conjures a scene in which they bend over a spirit lamp together, ‘their heads close, their hands touching as they managed the kettle’. Later on, she says: ‘if I were forced to make a judgment, I would say that maybe they somehow consummated their affair once, and that the act established Vanessa’s lasting fixation; and that Swift regretted it.’ For the most part, her guesswork seems supported by little more than her psychological acumen and, implicitly, her previous experience as a biographer. Informality needs authority, and Glendinning’s user-friendly style does not always carry this. As well as the first-person interventions, there are the staccato paragraphs – a thought jotted down before she is off again – and the awkward colloquialisms: Swift was a ‘spin doctor’ for the Earl of Oxford; ‘the Drapier’s arguments were out of order.’

Some of this contributes to the sense that once Glendinning steps outside the Deanery, she is in terra incognita. This is not helped by the book’s mistakes. A Modest Proposal is said to have been written in 1720 (rather than, as was the case, 1729), and thus (impossibly) to have been ‘echoed’ by William King, Archbishop of Dublin in a work written in 1721. A letter from Horace Walpole to his lifelong friend George Montagu in 1766 is mistaken for one to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, whom Walpole despised and who died in 1762. Certainly Glendinning has ‘done’ her 18th-century history, but too often it is inserted in note-like and undigested chunks – as if she were throwing down some facts to keep away the complainers. Jenny Uglow’s Hogarth has recently shown that it is possible to write for the general reader about the 18th century, making the history live through a biographical narrative. What the general reader needs from a biography of Swift is not the pages about anti-Dutch feeling in the wake of the Glorious Revolution, but some historical sense of why some issues, now either obscure or so clear as apparently to need no debating, mattered so much to Swift. And in this respect, the ease with which this biography passes over religious questions is its main failing.

The 18th-century memoirists all felt the need to respond to charges of irreligion levelled at Swift: as Laetitia Pilkington put it, to ‘vindicate him from the wicked Aspersion of being deemed an Unbeliever’. Such ‘Aspersion’ derived not from his own practice of religion, but from his satire, yet Glendinning’s reader will get little idea of why this should have been. In three or four puzzled paragraphs, she hurries past A Tale of a Tub, saying that it ‘became notorious’ but giving no sense of its provocativeness. ‘It is a rich Swiftian ragbag’ hardly does justice to its bewildering layers of preface, digression and mock-annotation, none of them in their author’s voice. The paradox that the biographer of Swift has to handle is that, in his most needling work, he enacted what he despised or feared. His best writing is an epitome of satire: an entirely negative creation. So the Tale is reductive of even those religious beliefs that Dean Swift preached and clung to. A thoroughly ‘modern’ text, it levels all arguments to a standard of momentary plausibility. Similarly, ‘The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit’, published with the Tale but not even mentioned by Glendinning, is a mock-materialist description of religious ‘enthusiasm’ which ridicules the enthusiasts, but is also a scandalous embodiment of the Hobbesian insistence on ‘mechanical’ explanations.

The true scandal of these works is their very existence. As Swift recalled in that allusion to Juvenal in his epitaph, satire does not get written unless something is wrong, and no one’s satire has ever enacted wrongness as thoroughly as Swift’s. Swift cannot be understood apart from his religion, and therefore from the irreligion of his satire. In the case of Gulliver’s Travels, for instance, it is the absence of God from Gulliver’s account that is the satirist’s darkest imagining – and that is, as Swift might have predicted, invisible to most modern readers. It is no wonder that contemporaries had doubts about Swift’s own beliefs when they read as perversely credible a work as the brilliant Argument against Abolishing Christianity: ‘Nay, though I were sure an order were issued for my immediate prosecution by the Attorney-General, I should still confess that in the present posture of our affairs at home or abroad, I do not yet see the absolute necessity of extirpating the Christian religion from among us.’ That pseudo-modesty (‘I confess’) is a Swift trademark. The self-admiringly ‘brave’ argument for the usefulness of Christianity is another of his documents of modernity. It must be all wrong, yet we can see it making sense.

The precariousness of Swift’s public role as a man of religion, and perhaps the uncertainty of his private beliefs, require us to grasp these negative creations. Glendinning’s failure to do so is summed up when she quotes from one of them, Mr Collins’s Discourse of Freethinking; put into plain English, by way of abstract, for the use of the poor, in order to illustrate Swift’s ‘common-sense attitude’ to the use of reason. ‘How can a man think at all, if he does not think freely? Christ himself told us to be freethinkers, and Socrates was a freethinker.’ The work from which this comes is another mock-argument, and this sentiment, in isolation seeming so reasonable to us ‘moderns’, belongs to a ‘discourse’ that is as much a tissue of terrible nonsense as the Modest Proposal. Swift did indeed write that Christ was ‘nothing else but Reason’, but only as a dark experiment on a world in which this might ever be believed. It was some kind of opposite of what he thought. For the biographer, the dissociation of author from argument, Swift’s disturbing achievement, is a problem. Yet his own fierce epitaph challenges us to take on the problem, to try to imagine the man who could dream up the writing, and to recover his anger.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences