A brilliant enigma: Jonathan Swift (c.1718) by Charles Jervas
Swift's life was unusually rich in legends, rumours, stories and uncertainties, as Leo Damrosch reminds us in the prologue to this engaging and refreshing new biography:
Even the basic facts concerning Swift's origins are open to question. He inherited the name of a Jonathan Swift who died before he was born, but it is not entirely certain that that was his real father. His wet nurse abducted him from Dublin when he was an infant and took him to England with her; amazingly, his family let him stay there with her for several years. Why?
Chief among the legendary "Swiftiana" is probably the story of the marriage to Esther Johnson, or "Stella", whom Swift had met while they were both living under conditions of dependency in the household of Sir William Temple. When in 1701 Swift moved to Dublin to work for the new lord lieutenant, the Earl of Rochester, he drew in his wake Stella and her older companion Rebecca Dingley. Swift tells us of the circumstances of this move in the account he wrote of Stella on the evening of her death in 1728:
I was then (to my mortification) settled in Ireland; and about a year after, going to visit my friends in England, I found she was a little uneasy upon the death of a person on whom she had some dependence. Her fortune, at that time, was in all not above fifteen hundred pounds, the interest of which was but a scanty maintenance, in so dear a country, for one of her spirit. Upon this consideration, and indeed very much for my own satisfaction, who had few friends or acquaintance in Ireland, I prevailed with her and her dear friend and companion...to draw what money they had into Ireland, a great part of their fortune being in annuities upon funds...They complied with my advice, and soon after came over.
Contemporaries immediately suspected that there was a "secret history" behind these events, and that the root cause of Stella's move was a sentimental attachment between her and Swift. The legend was embroidered when that attachment was supposed to have ripened into marriage. Swift's friend Sheridan apparently told another clergyman that Swift and Stella had been married in 1716 by St George Ashe, Bishop of Clogher. But if Swift and Stella were married, they never lived together, and indeed were alleged never to be in each other's company without a third party being present. As John Hawkesworth said: "Why the Dean did not sooner marry this excellent person; why he married her at all; why his marriage was so cautiously concealed; and why he was never known to meet her but in the presence of a third person; are inquiries to which no man can answer, or has attempted to answer, without absurdity." Others, however, denied that the marriage to Stella was anything but a myth. John Lyon, for instance, who was close enough to Swift to be made his executor, dismissed the whole business: "There is no authority for it but a hearsay story, and that very ill founded."