Unstitching the Invisibility Coat

Books Literature
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.”

If the legend of the marriage to Stella is the most arresting of the mysteries surrounding Swift’s life, it is far from being the only one. Various uncertainties and rival traditions cluster about Swift’s birth, his family background, perhaps even his parentage. Strange, obscurely motivated events — such as Swift’s abduction to England by his nurse when he was an infant — arise time and again in the course of his biography.  And after his death, accounts of his life written by those who knew him, such as Orrery, Delany and Sheridan, related many other traditions about the Dean’s life, many of which seem very apocryphal. For instance, this story about the composition of Gulliver’s Travels related by Sheridan surely has the tang of subsequent fiction about it: 

During his residence at Quilca he wrote a great part of his Gulliver’s Travels, and prepared the whole for the press. While he was upon the subject of the Brobdingnaggs, he used frequently to invite a Mr Doughty, who lived in that neighbourhood to dine with him. He was of a gigantic stature; and supposed to be the strongest man in Ireland, as well as the most active. Swift used to take great delight in seeing him perform several of his feats, some of which were of so extraordinary a nature, that I should be afraid to relate them, lest it should impeach my credibility. Among these, Swift asked him whether he could carry on his back a monk’s horse which happened to be in the court-yard at that time. Doughty, after having tied his legs, immediately took him up and threw him on his shoulders, with the same ease that another man would lift a sheep, and walked about with him for a long time without shrinking at all under his burden. 

However, these various embroiderings and mystifications become more than just irritations or impediments to understanding once we have grasped that Swift seems deliberately to have fostered that aura of concealment and privacy around his life which naturally allowed these legends and stories to take root and establish themselves in the public mind. “A man of powerful emotions”, Damrosch reminds us, “he loved secrecy and disguise. Keeping his intimate relationships mysterious was an essential strategy of self-protection.” 

Nowhere was Swift more secretive than over authorship, a practice which he says was recommended to him by the great Whig politician, Lord Somers: “It was a piece of advice given me in my early days by Lord Somers, never to own or disown any writing laid to my charge; because if I did this in some cases, whatever I did not disown afterwards, would infallibly be imputed to me as mine . . . I take this to have been a very wise maxim, and as such have followed it ever since.” Gulliver’s Travels and A Tale of a Tub, for instance, were both published anonymously, and although Swift was quickly and confidently alleged to be the author of both works, he continued for many years to play authorial games with both texts.

Swift was also a master of the use of intermediaries and proxies to conceal authorship. Sometimes he might refer to these ruses playfully and fictitiously, as in the “Bookseller’s Advertisement” to The Mechanical Operation of the Spirit (1704):

The following Discourse came into my Hands perfect and entire. But there being several Things in it, which the present Age would not very well bear, I kept it by me some Years, resolving it should never see the Light. At length, by the Advice and Assistance of a judicious Friend, I retrench’d those Parts that might give most Offence, and have now ventured to publish the Remainder; Concerning the Author, I am wholly ignorant; neither can I conjecture, whether it be the same with That of the two foregoing Pieces [i.e. A Tale of a Tub and The Battel of the Books], the Original having been sent me at a different Time, and in a different Hand.

Yet such fictions might become real. All these aspects of secretive publication mischievously invoked by Swift in 1704 — namely, the clandestine delivery of the manuscript to the publisher; the concealment of the identity of the author; the employment of non-authorial hands in the interests of such concealment; the decision not to publish some portions of the manuscript on the grounds that they were likely to cause offence; and the involvement of a third party or “judicious Friend” in the identification and “softening” of such passages-occurred for real in relation to the first publication of Gulliver’s Travels by the London publisher Benjamin Motte in 1726.

This policy of concealment was in part prudence. Swift was suspected by government of being disaffected, and his mail was regularly opened by the Post Office and transcribed for the benefit of ministers.  Moreover, although the Licensing Act had been allowed to lapse in 1694, thus ringing down the curtain on an age of censorship, in Swift’s lifetime ministers were nevertheless very happy to use the laws of libel to intimidate publishers and authors. Writing to Pope in 1725, Swift says that he will publish Gulliver’s Travels “when a Printer shall be found brave enough to venture his Eares”.  

By 1725 Swift was no stranger to the legal policing of the press, being fully aware from his own experience “that People in Power were very watchful”. In March, 1714 “The Publick Spirit of the Whigs”, Swift’s riposte to Steele, had been the subject of a royal proclamation in which £300 was offered for information about the author of the pamphlet, and the printer, John Barber, had been arrested and interrogated. In 1720 Edward Waters had been prosecuted with pertinacity for publishing Swift’s “A Proposal for the Universal Use of Irish Manufacture”.  More recently, certain passages in “A Letter to the Whole People of Ireland” (1724) had been condemned by the Irish Privy Council as “Seditious and Scandalous”. Again £300 had been offered for discovery of the author, and once more the printer, John Harding, had been taken into custody and examined.  Only seven years before the first publication of Gulliver’s Travels John Mathews had been executed for treasonable printing.

So how can one write the biography of a man in whose life fiction and fantasising have been so intricately — irremoveably — stitched into the fabric of a coat of invisibility? To rip the fictions out (as with the lace in the coats of the brothers in A Tale of a Tub) might be to do irreparable damage without achieving any useful “purity”. Yet Damrosch’s most important predecessor in the modern biography of Swift, Irvin Ehrenpreis, whose three-volume account of Swift’s life still retains its authority for anyone who wants to trace the course of that life on a day-by-day or week-by-week level, chose that path of austerity when it came to the mysteries and fables which had encrusted themselves around his subject: “Those readers who look for my views on a long train of legendary Swiftiana will search in vain,” he rather primly proclaimed at the outset of his first volume. Damrosch’s biography, at approximately a quarter the length of Ehrenpreis’s, cannot afford to go into such detail, but he nevertheless finds room for the traditions that Ehrenpreis dismissed, rightly judging that, whether true or false (and it is very hard to be categorical about most of them), they have earned their place in the story. The result is an extremely enjoyable account of Swift’s life. It will not completely displace that of Ehrenpreis, but it has a broader appeal. Scholars will enjoy taking issue with Damrosch’s occasionally virtuoso re-investigations of Swiftian legends, while the general educated reader will appreciate the liveliness of the writing, and a series of acute touches which serve to link Swift’s life to his works with vividness and precision.