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Stubbs draws tellingly on Swift’s scholastic education, which had taught him to argue on both sides of a question. If he later satirised this practice, it at least gave him the training to inhabit a different persona on which his satire so heavily drew. The Puritan children’s literature with which he would have had contact as a child left its imprint on his ethics, and gave him a model for both his sincere and his faux didacticism. Taking us as far back as Swift’s grandparents’ generation, Stubbs shows him to be the product of the High Church on his paternal side, and Dissent on his maternal side. Although his conscious allegiance was to the former, his moral rigour, and insistence on physical and mental cleanliness, bears the impression of the latter.

The book does well at clarifying the desperately convoluted politics of the period, in which Irish Protestants found themselves split between supporting the Catholic Confederacy for the sake of their monarchism, and supporting regicides for the sake of their Protestantism; in which the pre-Reformation English in Ireland were split between loyalty to their original country, and to their religion; in which Swift’s maternal grandfather moved to Ireland because Dissenters were more tolerated there than in England; and in which the Scots sacrificed their Parliament for the sake of union with England, whereas the Irish, who retained their Parliament, found that they now had fewer privileges than the Scots. There is madness in this method, which Swift, with his intuitive understanding of madness, was well placed to point out — thus revealing how supposed lunacy might show greater sanity and humanity than philistine propriety.

Stubbs is rightly concerned to give a sense of the roughness of the time in which Swift lived. I was reminded of Barry Hines’s A Kestrel for a Knave: the back cover of its Penguin edition called it “as real as a slap in the face to those who think that orange juice and comprehensive schools have taken the meanness out of life in the raw working towns”. This biography is as real as a slap in the face to those who think that the Glorious Revolution and coffee houses took the violence out of life in 18th-century England. “Late, very late, correctness grew our care/ When the tired nation breathed from civil war,” claimed Pope. But by the mid-1730s, when he wrote this, we still had some way to go. When Anne died and the Whigs gained the ascendancy under George I, Tories might expect to lose their liberty or even their lives. For a while Swift lived in fear of the Mohacks, a marauding band of young Whig aristocrats who terrorised London’s Tories, cutting off noses, ears and fingers. Swift defused a bomb which was sent to the Lord Chancellor, and was forced off the road by Whig hoodlums outside Dublin. Britain’s most spectacularly tortuous form of execution, hanging, drawing and quartering, was applied throughout Swift’s lifetime.

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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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