A wonderful and absorbing biography of Jonathan Swift
This is by far the most balanced, nuanced and persuasive account of Gulliver’s creator so far
Engraving of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) after a painting by Charles Jervas. Photograph: Apic/Getty Images
Jonathan Swift: His Life and his Work
Yale University Press
Many admirers of Gulliver’s Travels do not know what to think of the man who wrote the book. Even Jonathan Swift’s friends, writes Leo Damrosch in this new biography, “were baffled by his contradictions”.
In fact the Dean, as Swift was often called, did live an odd life: he was a senior clergyman in the Church of Ireland yet he wrote scandalous books and naughty poems; he was an Irish “patriot” yet he proposed eating babies to solve Ireland’s economic woes; he was a man who loved women yet behaved badly towards the two women who loved him.
But if his life was full of inconsistencies, Swift’s vision of the world was consistent: around him he saw corruption, vanity, political dishonesty and overweening pride, and his mission was to show his readers the worst effects of these failings. He did so by hiding behind invented mouthpieces: Gulliver, a “modest proposer”, a hack writer or a draper who owns a shop in the Dublin Liberties. These apparently reliable figures describe what they see around them as if it were normal though it is, actually, grossly distorted and exaggerated.
We are so disgusted by what we see and hear, the moralist in Swift hopes, that we recognise our darker side and shun it. This is a dangerous and risky strategy, particularly if irony (the saying of one thing when we mean its opposite ) is the main rhetorical device, as it is in much of Swift’s work. It is not surprising that he has been dismissed as a disgusting and insulting writer and that some biographers have painted him as a monster.
In fact there is surprisingly little reliable information about Swift’s personal life; this has not stopped generations of eager enthusiasts, armed with their own views of his warped psychological state, from allowing their fantasies free rein in plays, novels, films, radio scripts and artworks, assailing us with Brobdingnagian giants, Lilliputian pygmies, talking horses and, of course, glimpses of a shadowy, crazy old dean.
For the student and the scholar there have been hundreds of volumes of criticism on Swift, as well as journals and several fat biographies. One of the most notable Swiftians of the last generation was a formidable American scholar named Irvin Ehrenpreis, whose magisterial biography of Swift appeared in three volumes between 1962 and 1984, and was expected to remain the definitive biography. Ehrenpreis had gone back to original documents and had seemed to cover every inch of the biographical ground.
But, though he was a fine scholar, Ehrenpreis chose to interpret Swift’s personal life in luridly Freudian terms and allowed his emotions to influence many of his judgments. The result was impressive in bulk but neither objective nor, in the end, reliable, and for many years Swift scholars have been hoping for a biography that might replace Ehrenpreis’s.
We now have it. Leo Damrosch, a professor at Harvard, has taken up the biographical baton and produced this wonderful and absorbing biography of Swift. His book is not only a corrective to Ehrenpreis but also by far the most balanced, nuanced and persuasive biography of Swift so far. Damrosch is a fine scholar who knows Swift’s works and his age very well indeed. Time and again throughout this long book he corrects earlier biographers and points out, gently, that there is no evidence to support their wilder contentions. He considers Swift’s own writings with exemplary skill, encouraging the reader to turn back to the texts themselves. Indeed, his chapters on Gulliver’s Travels and A Tale of a Tub are among the best short introductions to these works that I know. But, most significantly, Damrosch handles the contentious sides of Swift’s personal life dispassionately and objectively.
Swift was a posthumous child, and doubts about the identity of his true father circulated even in his own day. He seems to have been kidnapped by his nurse when he was three years old, and he certainly had a very strange relationship with his mother. He suffered many disappointments in early adulthood and became thoroughly disillusioned about the world in which he lived. Once he discovered his gift as a satirist and political writer he managed to shock almost everyone with the vigour of his irony and the vividness of his imagination.
So ferocious was his dislike of hypocrisy and pride that many readers thought he was a hater of all mankind. Yet if he despised aspects of human nature, he was a lover of individual human beings, particularly beautiful young women. His affection for Esther Johnson (Stella), whom he had tutored when she was a child, and the captivating Hester Vanhomrigh (Vanessa), who fell passionately in love with him, have fascinated biographers and gossips from Swift’s day to our own.
A life like this is fertile territory for the amateur psychoanalyst, but Damrosch guides the reader through the dangerous waters of Swift’s personal life elegantly, confidently and without bias: on one page he shows how Ehrenpreis was wrong, on another where other biographers or critics have slipped up. And as he tells the story the picture that emerges is not of a deranged maniac but of a complex, energetic and principled man of towering intellect and remarkable courage, plagued by physical and emotional problems but driven by a need to try and right the wrongs of the world, to alleviate suffering and to bring people to a right sense of themselves and their God. The satirist is, after all, a teacher, exaggerating human failings to shock the reader into an awareness of human weaknesses and so make us realise the need to change ourselves.
The Swift who emerges from these pages is one who aims to shock and frighten us but for the best of reasons. If he were telling us to avoid our sins from the pulpit we would take no notice. But when we see the depravity of the semi-human Yahoos or the emotional coldness of the talking horses, we see an exaggerated image of our own weaknesses and turn from them in horror. The vision should make us want to live better lives.
Though Damrosch’s book is scholarly in the best sense – accurate, detailed and fully annotated – it is also attractively written, the style easy and relaxed. It is divided into short chapters and generously illustrated. But perhaps the most significant innovation in Damrosch’s book is his use of texts that have traditionally been shunned by serious biographers: stories told about Swift by those who had known him. Damrosch inserts these colourful and exaggerated anecdotes into the story, telling the reader where they come from, of course, but letting them add texture and richness to the account. He also uses Swift’s occasional verse cleverly to fill out biographical details.
The result is a fuller, richer, clearer picture of Swift and his world than has been available to us before. This is also a thoroughly enjoyable book, not burdened with critical jargon or eccentric judgments. It should remind the reader what a wonderful writer Swift is and send us enthusiastically back to the texts – something few biographies ever succeed in doing.
Andrew Carpenter’s most recent book is an edition of the 17th-century poem Purgatorium Hibernicum.