STARRED REVIEW
March 14, 2017

A wonderful biography about a towering literary figure

By John Stubbs
Review by

Jonathan Swift is often regarded as the finest satirist in the English language. He was a complex, fascinating and perplexing mixture of literary genius and contradictions in almost every aspect of his life. John Stubbs brilliantly captures all of this in his marvelously detailed and richly rewarding Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel. An intrepid researcher, Stubbs, the author of the award-winning John Donne: The Reformed Soul (described by Harold Bloom as “an exemplary literary biography”) mines many sources to give us a vivid portrait of his subject. Swift had “ a tendency to love and hate things simultaneously, to grow attached to what he once despised and vice versa, and forget the opposite was ever true.”

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Jonathan Swift is often regarded as the finest satirist in the English language. He was a complex, fascinating and perplexing mixture of literary genius and contradictions in almost every aspect of his life. John Stubbs brilliantly captures all of this in his marvelously detailed and richly rewarding Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel. An intrepid researcher, Stubbs, the author of the award-winning John Donne: The Reformed Soul (described by Harold Bloom as “an exemplary literary biography”) mines many sources to give us a vivid portrait of his subject. Swift had “a tendency to love and hate things simultaneously, to grow attached to what he once despised and vice versa, and forget the opposite was ever true.”

If Swift had stopped writing in 1714 when he was 47 years old he would be remembered primarily as an excellent conservative writer and a defender of causes that often had reactionary sources and tangents. He had completed almost four years as an apologist and propagandist for the government in London and returned to his native Dublin, where he had been appointed Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a reward for his services to the Tory administration. His most famous work, Gulliver’s Travels, implicitly based on the vice and short-sightedness that he had observed in government, was still to come. When he was writing his masterpiece, he noted, “The chief end I propose to myself in all my labors is to vex the world rather than divert it.”

Swift’s “public career makes sense only when one understands the two desires he managed to harness together: an urge to dole out punishment and an irresistible delight in making mischief.” He was often disappointed, whether by his parents and relatives and the fact that he was born in Ireland and not in England, bothered by ill health, or that he failed to obtain a higher position in the Church. “At one and the same moment he was a stern authoritarian and a daring cultural bandit,” Stubbs writes.

Swift never married, but his best friend was Esther Johnson, whom he met at the home of statesman and man of letters Sir John Temple when Swift and Esther’s mother were on the staff there. When Esther was 20, he arranged for her and a companion, Mrs. Dingley, to move to Dublin, where they lived apart from him. The three of them often visited, always the three (sometimes including another person if Mrs. Dingley was not available) and Swift enjoyed Esther’s “turn of phrase, force of character, and intolerance of fools.” While he was away in London, he exchanged letters with Esther and she became the “Stella” of his Journal to Stella, in which he detailed his years in government. He did not believe in gender equality, but “he was keen to liberate women from being regarded as brittle idols or mere social accessories.”

Stubbs writes, “Almost every paragraph Swift wrote is multi-nuanced beyond definition or paraphrase, even though a ‘message’ is invariably clear.” His career as an essayist, poet, cleric and political pamphleteer demonstrated “the altogether inadequate expectations a moral person might have of life in this world.” But as his writings show, he dealt with that circumstance not by complaining or roaring, offering instead “a liberty of chiding, deriding, cajoling, bridling, impersonating, inverting, building up and laying bare; a liberty of making the powerful seem less so.”

This absorbing biography immerses us deeply in Swift’s world and is highly recommended.

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Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift

By John Stubbs
Norton
ISBN 9780393239423

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