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Broadly speaking, Stubbs defends Swift from charges both contemporary (of Jacobitism and irreverence) and subsequent (of misanthropy and madness). He reminds us that Swift’s reputation sank fast from a peak of popularity after his death — and was kept down by subsequent comments from W.M. Thackeray, D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. He argues convincingly not only that Swift’s High Anglicanism wavered towards neither Catholicism nor Dissent, but that his promotion to the Deanery of St Patrick’s, Dublin, (and no higher) was retarded in part precisely by his loyalty, whereas the loyalty of others was bought by their faster promotion. He dispels the image of Swift as a loner with detailed accounts of his friendships, for example with Sheridan. He stresses Swift’s aptitude as a scholar of Greek and Latin at his school and University, rather than the fractiousness that earned him a BA “by special grace”.

On the vexed question of whether he ever had affairs or married, Stubbs concludes that he never married, probably never had an affair, and if he did it was more likely with Esther Vanhomrigh than with his greater soul-mate Esther Johnson. He rebuts the theory that he was asexual, and highlights Swift’s own comment that he would be very hard to please in the matter of a wife.

On the question of Swift’s alleged misogyny, Stubbs is clear that he was often misogynistic in the abstract, but not the concrete. His relationship with Esther Johnson showed that he sought in a woman an intellectual equal. He was a good son, movingly grieving for his mother in what may well serve as a cut-out-and-keep quote for use at funerals: “I have now lost my barrier between me and death; God grant I may live to be as well prepared for it, as I confidently believe her to have been! If the way to heaven be through piety, truth, justice, and the charity, she is there.” Swift proved himself to be ahead of his time on the question of rape, arguing about a rape trial in 1711 that: “Tis true, the fellow had a lain with her a hundred times before; but what care I for that?” Stubbs argues, less convincingly, that in Swift’s poems evincing disgust at ageing females’ toilette, he is in part satirising men’s willingness to accept female deception for the sake of their own sexual gratification. If true, this opens up a further set of questions as to whether “making the best of oneself” — albeit using the grimly lead-compounded methods of the age — is deception; as to what is more deceitful about an older than a younger woman’s toilette, given the period’s anti-natural fashions; and as to what on earth is wrong with lust for older women, be they deceivers or otherwise.

On the question of whether Swift was a Conservative or a rebel, Stubbs’s thesis is summed up by his subtitle “The Reluctant Rebel”. He was, Stubbs argues, instinctively conformist, but driven to protest by what he perceived as the outrageous behaviour of — for example — the English towards the Irish, and the Whigs towards the fabric of society itself. But he goes beyond, and somewhat contradicts, this thesis with his idea of Swift’s split personality: “At one and the same time he was a stern authoritarian and a daring cultural bandit. Managing as he could the torsion these tendencies created would make up a large part of the business of his life”. Stubbs adds “a marauding unholy ghost” to make up his trinity: his attacks of what is now thought to be Ménière’s Disease, which combines tinnitus and vertigo, and which Swift endured with spirit.

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Peter Dreyer
January 4th, 2017
12:01 PM
Although I'm only halfway through it, this is without doubt the best book on Swift I've ever read! And Catherine Brown's review is also the best I've come across. Swift has sailed into his rest; Savage indignation there Cannot lacerate his Breast. Imitate him if you dare, World-Besotted Traveler; he Served human liberty. (Yeats's translation of Swift's own epitaph) Peter Dreyer

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