Jan/Feb 1999 Book Reviews

Jonathan Swift

Victoria Glendinning
Random House (October 1998)
ISBN: 0 09 179196 0
A$45.00 (hardback) 324 pages

reviewed by Ann Skea

"What I am writing," says Victoria Glendinning,"is not a chronicle biography. It is more like an extended version of what was in Swift's time called a 'character' - a written portrait."

Quite so! This is not an academic thesis but a popular biography. And the portrait Glendinning gives us is of an odd, arrogant, ambitious, intense, clever and not particularly likeable man. But as she also points out: "The same man is not always the same man. It depends in how you look at him and on what you want to see and...any number of other variables."

Glendinning is completely open about her own speculation and interpretation and omissions. Offering us a new hypothesis about Swift's reasons for not marrying his 'Stella', or if he did secretly marry her for keeping this secret, she leads the reader persuasively to the point of accepting her argument, then promptly withdraws her support for this "wilful biographical vagary". It is an effective way of making her point that the most a biographer can offer is a personal interpretation of the bare biographical facts. Even the reports and letters of the subject's contemporaries, as she says, may well be suspect.

So why write a biography? Why read a biography? Is it just prurient interest in gossip or is some real insight into the subject and his or her work possible?

The very best biographies, it seems to me, are those which set a writer's work in the context of their lives and their world. Peter Ackroyd's Thomas More, Juliet Barker's The Brontës and Matthew Sturgis's Aubrey Beardsley have done just that. And each, for me, provided new perspectives on the way that creative work is influenced by and influences the people, events and customary behaviour of its time. None of these biographies was a dry listing of facts. All were speculative to a degree.

Victoria Glendinning, too, presents some of the social background of Jonathan Swift's life. In a chapter called 'Filth', for example, she immerses us in the smells, ordure, mess and disease of eighteenth-century towns and cities, amidst which Swift was untypically clean and particular and also stridently horrified by "dirt and filth, and nastiness." Glendinning offers the speculations of others about the paradox of Swift's personal distaste for filth and his writing of scatological verses and graphic descriptions of Gulliver's bodily functions. She, herself, clearly favours the liberal-minded, D.H.Lawrence view that it was "all a question of conscious acceptance and adjustment."

She is informative, about marriage customs, sexual morés, coffee and tea-house culture and political and power fluctuations, all of which were important in Swift's life and work. But she concentrates on Swift's character rather than his work and leaves close analysis of his writings to others.

Swift was born in Ireland of English parents in 1667 and, according to his own account, he was stolen away by his nurse and taken to England when he was a year old. He did not see his mother again until he was twenty-two. Glendinning doubts that he was 'stolen away' on the grounds that even autobiography can be deliberately deceptive or, at least in Swift's case, over dramatised. At any rate, Swift's widowed mother did not lose touch with him. He was sent to boarding school in Kilkenny and to Trinity College in Dublin. He scraped through a BA but military and political events prevented him from completing his MA. By all accounts he was, in any case, more inclined to writing satires and spoofs than to serious study.

Fearing persecution for his Protestantism he left Ireland and, after a brief meeting with his mother, went to live with his uncle, Sir William Temple, in Surrey. There he met Esther Johnson (Stella), who was his eight-year-old pupil and who became the most important woman in his life. It was from there, too, that he later discovered the pleasures of the London coffee-house society.

In 1694, Swift returned briefly to Ireland and was ordained in Dublin and appointed vicar of the small parish of Kilroot, near Belfast. He fell in love with 'Varina', was rejected and returned to London where he wrote the pamphlets, satires, verses and tracts which brought him public notoriety. He also became friendly with Pope, Addison and Steele and other London 'Wits'.

When political power changed again, Swift returned to Ireland as Dean of St. Patrick's and remained there until his death. He loathed Ireland, regarded Dublin as exile and wrote that "no man is thoroughly miserable unless he be condemned to live in Ireland." But he was incensed by England's attitude to Ireland.

The only thing which made his life bearable, apparently, was the ladies. Not ladies in general, but Stella Johnson and Rebecca Dingley (her companion) who followed him to Ireland and remained there for the rest of their lives. There was also, 'Vanessa' (Hester Vanhomrigh) who pursued Swift and caused various complications in his life. Glendinning speculates mildly on these friendships. She digresses into a discussion on sex in the eighteenth century. And she concludes that we can and will make up our own minds according to our own natures. "No one will ever know for certain."

Glendinning's approach to her subject is adventurous but unsensational, and her sharpest reproof of some of Swift's reported selfishness, obsessions and rages is that they show "sadistic silliness". Her style is easy and thoroughly modern, which I confess I found a little distracting at times (Swift is reported as getting "bad press"; and William van Huls, Clerk of the Robes in 1700, "was still hanging in there" in Queen Anne's reign). But this is a very readable, if highly subjective, character study of Jonathan Swift. No doubt, if he were able to read it, it might provoke a "Pox take you!" or a "deadly pinch," or maybe just a shrug of the shoulders and the acknowledgment that "I am what I am. I am what I am."


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