Wednesday 21 February 2018

Book review: Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World - Leo Damrosch

The two women in Jonathan Swift's life...

Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World - Leo Damrosch
Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World - Leo Damrosch
Prolific letter writer: Irish-born author Jonathan Swift had complicated relationships with a woman he called 'Vanessa'
Irish-born author Jonathan Swift

Bruce Arnold

Biography, Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, Leo Damrosch, Yale University Press, £25, hbk, 512 pages. Available with free P&P on or by calling 091 709350

Leo Damrosch has written a fresh and readable account of Jonathan Swift's life. He achieves balance between the country he loved, England, and the one he hated, Ireland; between two pursuits in life, that of politics and that of the church in Ireland; between two women whom he loved: Esther Vanhomrigh and Hester Johnson. Previous 'lives', for almost three hundred years, have created a massively complex biographical tapestry backed by endless research and many arguments. Previous biographers have skirted round the controversial issues while delivering ponderous background discussion to such matters as Tale of a Tub, the meaning of Gulliver's Travels, or the relationship between Swift and Lord Treasurer Robert Harley.

Leo Damrosch adds to our understanding and engages our sympathy in a host of different ways. The writing is rich and full of clear and balanced perceptions. There are penetrating portraits of the main figures in Swift's life, a brief coverage of the War of Spanish Succession, a poignant account of Swift's relationship with Ireland in the early 18th Century and firm handling of the fierce antagonisms of Whig and Tory in which Swift played so central a part.

His work is readable, perceptive, persuasive and enlightening. Swift scholars are still puzzling over Denis Johnston's In Search of Swift or Ervin Ehrenpreis's deeply flawed Life. Damrosch, who was his pupil, finds fault with him. A couple of further biographies have remained in the shadow of these two works. Indeed one of them, Jonathan Swift, a Hypocrite Reversed (1985) by David Nokes, has been described, not inaccurately, as "a story of Swift's life told by an enemy".

None of the 'lives' studied by Leo Damrosch added anything substantial to the one issue that increasingly demands further debate. I refer, of course, to the curious and unexplained relationships Swift had with the two women he clearly loved.

Leo Damrosch opens his book with lines about the love affair Swift had with the woman he called "Vanessa" and returns to the story as it progresses. He talks of their private code, their Dublin meetings in the house of a friend, the passion that lay between them possibly explained by the code word "coffee". "I drank no coffee since I left you". "I wish I were to walk with you fifty times about your garden, and then – drink your coffee".

This love affair began in 1707 when Swift met the Vanhomrigh family in an inn in Dunstable on the road to London from Dublin via Chester. Possibly Swift had known the Vanhomrighs – the father was a Dutch merchant of some standing in Dublin and a freeman of the city. He had died and his widow was moving to London with her children. Leo Damrosch acknowledges the love between the two that occupied Swift's time of greatest political activity, the time also covered by Journal to Stella.

As to Hester Johnson, "Stella", the author has difficulty discerning the nature of the love between her and Swift. In emotional terms, the famous 'birthday poems' Swift wrote to her are insipid, both stiff and childish. She never lived in the deanery while he was there and never spent a night under the same roof with him. She and Rebecca Dingley were inseparable. Their financial affairs were directly managed by Swift. Substantial sums of money were passed over to them from the Temples, with whom Swift had a long and close association. It was positive with the diplomat, Sir William Temple, rather negative with his sister, Martha Gifford.

A third party to what clearly is a family relationship between Swift and the two 'Dublin girls' was Charles Ford. He habitually referred to Swift as "Unkle" or "my Unkle" and wrote such reference to Stella. Through the coded messages we can trace the family or 'blood' relationship. This leads to an understanding of the emotional difficulties between Swift and Vanessa on the one hand – he avoids references to meetings with her when he was in London writing letters to Stella in Dublin – and Swift and Stella on the other.

The late David Woolley, whose last volume of Swift's letters will appear shortly, recognised this interpretation. He recognised the bloodline that makes sense of a secret family link-up. Woolley comments on Charles Ford's use of "my Unkle" referring to Swift in a letter to Stella. There was (according to Woolley's footnote to letter number 686 'Charles Ford to Esther Johnson' of March 13, 1726): "an ingenious further explanation, positing inside knowledge shared by all three parties and advanced by Bruce Arnold of Dublin (to whom my thanks)".

In broad generational terms, Ford's mother Letitia née Hammond was the niece of Mary (Hammond), Lady Temple, the consort of Sir John Temple (1600-1677), whose immediate offspring were thus her legitimate "couzens"; so that by extension her son Charles, in the next descent, would be able to regard them loosely as "unkles" and aunts. In the eventuality that 10 years before his demise Sir John Temple sired yet another "unkle", though himself long a widower, the final piece in the puzzle would now be in place. Swift was the 'final piece', firstborn of this circle which love held together. Revealing it would have exposed Swift as illegitimate and therefore ineligible for Holy Orders or the Deanship of St Patrick's.

Damrosch comes closer than predecessors. He goes almost to the heart of the matter. However, it is not quite far enough to ensure that the known facts, combined with sober, logical reasoning will cause the full story to come pouring out like a lake held back by prejudice and scholarly confusion. The final resolution of this vital clue to Swift does not take place. We are left with a journey still to be made.

Irish Independent

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