Swift once said his favourite writer was La Rochefoucauld, ‘because I found my whole character in him.’ But what did he mean? Not, surely, that he personally resembled a Grand Siècle courtier who prided himself on – among other incongruous attributes – mild passions, virtuous sentiments and flawless social polish. If it was in La Rochefoucauld’s writing, such as the celebrated Maxims of 1665, that Swift found his own character, then where exactly? If anything unites this vast, discontinuous collection of moral reflections, it’s an emphasis on character as outward performance, not inward essence. No doubt Swift was drawn to La Rochefoucauld’s view of self-love as central to human nature, and when presenting one of his best-known poems as ‘occasioned’ by the Maxims, picked a passage so cynical that La Rochefoucauld had purged it from his definitive edition of 1678. The epigraph to ‘Verses on the Death of Dr Swift’, Swift’s wry self-analysis of 1731, reads: ‘In the adversity of our best friends, we find something that doth not displease us.’ The poem goes on to identify Alexander Pope as his best friend.
Later epigrammatists could lighten the point with self-deflating comedy: ‘Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little,’ Gore Vidal said, channelling a similar joke by Oscar Wilde. But La Rochefoucauld is in grim earnest, and Swift plays the translation straight. He restores the comic deficit in the poem itself, a mock obituary projected into the voices of his friends and enemies. But he also makes clear that the maxim is there to implicate them, not him. Schadenfreude is the general human condition, not something peculiar to Swift, and about Swift himself the rest of the poem – a long one for him at almost five hundred lines – leaves us little the wiser. There’s no Prelude-like geology of selfhood here, just a medley of shallow impressions voiced by bored observers, such as the ladies who hear the news ‘in doleful Dumps,/“The Dean is Dead, (and what is trumps?).”’ Even when a less frivolous voice takes over to celebrate Swift the public-spirited satirist, the poem neatly subverts its surface propositions. The best example was not detected until the 20th century, at least not in print: ‘To steal a Hint was never known,/But what he writ, was all his own.’ A silent contradiction explodes this deadpan claim to literary originality: Swift lifted these words from the Restoration poet Sir John Denham’s praise of Abraham Cowley: ‘To him no author was unknown,/Yet what he wrote was all his own.’ As it happens, it was Cowley’s rhapsodic style Swift began his career by imitating, so that (he bragged to a cousin in 1692) ‘when I writt what pleases me I am Cowley to my self.’ These early poems, Leo Damrosch writes, ‘are truly awful’.
Early memoirists take us further with Swift’s character, but only so far. His godson Thomas Sheridan recalled that ‘he always appeared to the world in a mask, which he never took off but in the company of his most intimate friends.’ Yet this unmasking, such as it was, only seems to have confused things further. The most memorable assessments from those closest to Swift are cryptic or frankly agnostic. The Tory-Jacobite grandee Viscount Bolingbroke called him a ‘hypocrite renversé’, a formulation not fully explained by Sheridan’s gloss that it referred to Swift’s concealment of his charitable deeds. A younger relative called Deane Swift attempted a memoir, but admitted that he thought Swift’s character ‘so exceedingly strange, various and perplexed, that it can never be drawn up with any degree of accuracy’. His aim was to refute the account of yet another memoirist, the Earl of Orrery, who summed Swift up as ‘my hieroglyphic friend’.
Why is Swift’s identity such a puzzle? There are mundane answers, including, as so often, accidents of survival. It was not until 1708, when he was 41, that Swift began to preserve his correspondence, and Damrosch estimates that 97 per cent of what survives is from his later years. Other relevant material was destroyed by Swift himself, or by zealous executors, and more went astray in the 19th century. Then there was the destruction of the Irish Public Record Office in 1922. Yet the real difficulty, and with it the real fascination, runs deeper. Patterns of contradiction are everywhere. Swift’s basic cultural conservatism is impossible to mistake, but it mingled with unruly, even anarchic impulses, and a habit of destabilising his own convictions even as he uttered them. A firm upholder of social hierarchy, scathing about truculent servants and feckless beggars, he also identified with the dispossessed, and like Fielding a generation later, was mocked for seeking out the company of waggoners and ostlers – company that certainly energised his writing. During the reign of Queen Anne, when he briefly walked the corridors of power, he looked in one view like a Whig in Ireland but a Tory in England, in another like a Whig in politics but a Tory in religion. Even these identities were unstable. A pamphlet Swift wrote in 1701 was mistaken for the work of Gilbert Burnet, a hardline Whig propagandist, but ten years later he was an official spokesman for the Tory ministry, and by 1715 his mail was being intercepted and opened on grounds of suspected Jacobitism. As for religion, ‘his affection to the Church was never doubted, though his Christianity was ever questioned,’ one observer sneered in 1719. Above all – to cut a long and contested story short – Swift was an influential precursor of Irish nationalism who thought Ireland ‘a wretched, dirty dog-hole and prison’, despised his compatriots for complicity in their plight, and yearned to return to England as a bishop.
Complicating things further is Swift’s mode of writing. Impersonation, projection or ventriloquism was his habit, demonstrated throughout Valerie Rumbold’s superb edition of his Parodies, Hoaxes, Mock Treatises: spoof prophecies and bogus gallows broadsides; fabricated pamphlet wars on pointless subjects; straight-faced manuals of advice on behaving badly. For Walter Scott, his shrewdest 19th-century reader, Swift ‘possessed the faculty of transfusing his own soul into the body of anyone whom he selected’. His lifelong preference was to write under assumed identities – Isaac Bickerstaff or Lemuel Gulliver; the bumptious hack of A Tale of a Tub or the genocidal projector of A Modest Proposal. More often than not he created these voices only to subvert them, and in ‘Verses on the Death’ he even claims – ironically, yet with some conviction – to be the inventor of irony. Here is a mode, he says, ‘Which I was born to introduce,/Refin’d it first, and shew’d its use.’
Yet Swift’s many personae, for all their idiosyncrasies, can never quite be put aside as freestanding entities unaffected by their creator’s volatile perspective. On the rare occasions Swift puts his name to a work – the striking case is his hard-nosed Proposal for Giving Badges to the Beggars in All the Parishes of Dublin, eight years after the Modest Proposal – the congruence is disconcerting. He continues to evade critical attempts to pin him down. ‘He is neither a benevolent defender of good causes, nor the demonic xenophobe or misogynist of some postcolonial opinion,’ Claude Rawson wrote in God, Gulliver and Genocide (2001): ‘Still less is he a holder, in Empson’s phrase, of “some wise balanced position between them”.’
It’s remarkable, in the light of all this, that Swift’s 20th-century biographers approached their task with so few misgivings. Irvin Ehrenpreis’s brisk monograph The Personality of Jonathan Swift (1958) was followed by an exhaustive three-volume biography, Swift: The Man, His Works and the Age (1962-83), which eventually ran to two thousand pages. An anonymous reviewer of Volume III called it ‘the definitive life of Jonathan Swift … one of the great scholarly achievements of our time’; it was also ‘the best written of modern critical biographies, so that many readers will actually wish this massive (1066 pages) volume were longer.’ Admittedly, this came from the Virginia Quarterly Review (Ehrenpreis taught at the University of Virginia). But with its formidable documentation and contextual command, Ehrenpreis’s doorstopper was widely accepted as the standard authority on Swift, unlikely to be superseded. It so crushed later biographers that Damrosch catches one of them ‘deploying the same quotations in the same order’.
Damrosch is less deferential, and makes two objections to Ehrenpreis’s positivist assumptions. On the one hand, Ehrenpreis discounts any surviving evidence he thinks unverifiable (anecdote, hearsay, rumour), and so misses rich if sometimes uncertain opportunities. On the other, he has a crippling weakness for psychoanalytic (sometimes also novelising) reductionism, always certain he knows his subject’s inner motives and can explain them by way of Freud 101. Instead, Damrosch adopts more generous criteria for evidence worth admitting or at least entertaining, and proposes what he himself describes as ‘a far more complex, enigmatic and challenging Swift than the conventional character presented in Ehrenpreis’s biography’. The twist is that for much of the relevant period Damrosch, before eventually moving to Harvard, was Ehrenpreis’s junior colleague at Virginia. He contributed to the Festschrift published just a few months after Ehrenpreis’s sudden death (caused by a fall at the University of Münster, which now houses the Ehrenpreis Centre for Swift Studies). If it weren’t for Damrosch’s warnings against off-the-peg Freud, one might be tempted to credit his revisionist biography with Oedipal energies: is Damrosch slaying the professorial father? Frequently we’re told that Ehrenpreis ‘speculates’ or is ‘just guessing’; at one point his stated source for the vital dates of Swift’s mother ‘is an obscure article by himself that actually says nothing at all about her age’.
If Damrosch follows Ehrenpreis in anything, it’s in the ambition, indicated by his ‘life and world’ subtitle, to ground biography in social context. He does that job with efficiency and a sure touch, though there’s the odd gratuitous flourish of local colour – who knew that London’s Love Lane was originally ‘Gropecunt Lane’? In substantive terms, he misses no opportunity to flag up their differences of opinion. Ehrenpreis kicks off his trilogy by disparaging what he calls ‘legendary Swiftiana’ and announcing that ‘here, neither Swift nor Stella is made a bastard; Swift does not say, “My uncle gave me the education of a dog”; Dryden does not say: “Cousin Swift, you will never be a poet.”’ Damrosch reasonably notes that Dryden’s putdown, far from simply circulating in the coffee-house smoke, comes down to us by several independent routes. Much the same goes for ‘education of a dog’. And while Swift is never made a bastard for sure, questions are asked. In an unnerving echo of the Modest Proposal and its casual slaughterhouse diction, Swift liked to say his mother had been ‘dropped’ in Ireland, but Damrosch takes nothing for granted beyond that. There’s at least a ‘startling possibility’ that his father wasn’t the humdrum Jonathan, and that his grudging paternal uncle may have known it. Much else in the early life turns out to be ‘just possible’, ‘not impossible’ or ‘far-fetched … but worth considering’, not least when Swift leaves Trinity College Dublin and moves to England in the 1680s as private secretary – or, as Joyce put it, ‘privysuckatary’ – to the retired diplomat and belletrist Sir William Temple. Swift may even have been an illegitimate half-brother of Temple, Damrosch suggests (one might say speculates). But it’s tempting to see him more as the hapless Dorothea to Temple’s Casaubon, sentenced on his patron’s death to ten years’ soul-destroying work collating, editing and publishing his inconsequential posthumous papers. We can thank Temple for The Battle of the Books, a satire conceived and written to defend him, but Swift’s enduring anger remains audible as he rebuts the charge of ingratitude decades later: ‘I own myself indebted to Sir William Temple for recommending me to the late King, although without success, and for his choice of me to take care of his posthumous writings.’
So what about ‘Stella’: Esther Johnson, a girl of eight when Swift first met her in Temple’s household in 1689, thought by credible witnesses to be Swift’s secret wife, even (though this really looks like a canard) the mother of his child? For Damrosch, the real centre of Swift’s emotional life was Esther Vanhomrigh or ‘Vanessa’, and he convincingly depicts a passionate sexual relationship (as opposed to Ehrenpreis’s unconsummated ‘peripheral pastime’) in which the word ‘coffee’ passed between the two as erotically laden code. His instinct for reading between the lines is at its best in a brilliant analysis of Vanessa’s uneasily sidelined presence in the letters Swift wrote to Stella between 1710 and 1713, when the coffee was flowing most freely. But Damrosch also gives Stella a prominent role, and patiently builds up a case – more substantial than his case for Swift as a Temple – that she was ‘very likely Temple’s daughter’. Uncertainties persist across the rest of Stella’s life, notably in competing reports about Swift’s conflicted, and by one account cruel, reaction to her lonely death in 1728. Begged at the time of her last illness to acknowledge the marriage, ‘Swift made no reply, but turning on his heel walked silently out of the room, nor ever saw her afterwards during the few days she lived,’ one witness claimed. It’s hard to know what to make of his tight-lipped commentary on her funeral in St Patrick’s Cathedral, which he didn’t attend: ‘It is now nine at night, and I am removed into another apartment, that I may not see the light in the church, which is just over against the window of my bedchamber.’
It wasn’t just the alleged marriage that was mythologised after Swift’s death in 1745, following an excruciating decline into senility as (Samuel Johnson coolly wrote) ‘a driveller and a show’. Journal to Stella, now in focus as never before in Abigail Williams’s magisterial edition, is a title first given decades later to Swift’s letters to Esther Johnson; the title stuck, typecasting the correspondence as an intensely private piece of romantic intrigue. Yet most of the letters were also addressed to Johnson’s companion Rebecca Dingley, in some cases with expectations of wider circulation, and there are other equally valid approaches to them. With their running commentaries on the fraught and increasingly toxic politics of Queen Anne’s last years, they have much in common with the secret histories and manuscript newsletters of the day, and Swift sometimes remarks on their future value as historical evidence about court and parliamentary machinations. That said, it’s the personal aspect that dominates, not least in the so-called ‘little language’ that runs through the letters, gamely explained by some scholars as proto-Joycean wordplay, but hard to free from the charge of toe-curling infantilism. Williams decodes the ‘little language’ in finest detail, and appends a glossary. Poodeerichar means ‘poor dear little’, radyes means ‘ladies’, seep means ‘sleep’; coffee does not appear but rove (‘love’) does. The editor’s son helped crack the code by vocalising key words in his nursery school lisp; Williams also called in an FBI forensic document analyst to get past Swift’s obliterations in the surviving manuscripts.
Swift knew his correspondence was under surveillance, and had good reason to obscure its distinctive blend of leering banter and insider politics. The sequence ends with his return to Ireland in 1713, but in later years his public writing shows comparable techniques of mystification. The Whig-Hanoverian takeover of 1714 forced him to devise ingenious new ways of encoding oppositional satire, or at least communicating it with tolerable indirection as far as the authorities were concerned. Yet he was also a high-ranking, well-connected cleric who became unassailably popular in the 1720s as the author of the Drapier’s Letters, though only a few years earlier he’d had to walk around Dublin with armed protection for fear of being attacked by Whiggish louts. He also lived at a time when informal harassment was increasingly preferred to prosecution as the way to control book-trade sedition. In 1725 he joked that Gulliver’s Travels would appear only if he could find a printer ‘brave enough to venture his ears’. But no one involved with Gulliver’s Travels was ever likely to meet the fate of the 17th-century Quaker James Nayler (a previous biographical subject for Damrosch), mutilated in the pillory under Cromwell. Secrecy, in the end, was deeply habitual. Williams plausibly views Swift’s manuscript obliterations as playful gesture more than genuine concealment, and the same sense of gleeful, gratuitous mystification runs through Rumbold’s volume of parodies and hoaxes. Swift’s disguises and dodges always exceed explanation even where political animus was probably a factor. The bemused victim of his first published hoaxes, the astrologer John Partridge, was a virulent Whig extremist. But even when he was elaborately torturing Partridge in a series of faked prophetic pamphlets (the first foretold Partridge’s death; the next rebutted his claim to be still alive), Swift was mainly interested in his own games: with flawlessly forging, and sending up, the voice, conventions and format of a popular genre. He was still ventriloquising in his last years, and in Directions to Servants, posthumously published from an incomplete manuscript, he mimics the didactic manuals of the day by formulating detailed rules for below-stairs insubordination. No matter if you let the coffee boil over while groping the chambermaid: ‘Carry up your Coffee boldly, and, when your Lady finds it too weak, and examines you whether it has not run over, deny the Fact absolutely; swear you put in more Coffee than ordinary … because your Mistress had Ladies with her.’ What would Vanessa have made of that?