Jonathan Swift: Biography


London Telegraph
29 August 1998

Contradictions of an eccentric

Richard Holmes applauds a provocative and intriguing portrait of an intemperate spirit

Jonathan Swift
by Victoria Glendinning
Hutchinson, 20
"SWIFT has sailed into his rest;/Savage indignation there/Cannot lacerate his breast . . ." So wrote W. B. Yeats in his famous verse epitaph to the author of Gulliver's Travels and A Modest Proposal. But Swift's reputation has never rested easily: patriot or misanthrope, satirist or misogynist. Who can forget Thackeray's equally famous denunciation - "filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene"? Swift requires a shrewd and delicate touch; and perhaps, most of all, a lively one.

Many years ago the Anglo-Irish novelist Shane Leslie produced a delightful, witty little book entitled Swift's Skull: an Extempore Exhumation. Something of the same subversive spirit wonderfully animates Victoria Glendinning's new study. Swift strides into her Preface without ceremony, an immediate and alarming presence: ". . . an ambitious, volatile, screwed-up genius in a clerical gown and a periwig." And within a few pages we are hearing his voice among the living, in a brilliant passage that no solemn, academic biographer could have written:

"Dublin is alive with her dead. The electric energy of Swift's manner still runs, if less fiercely, in the wit and savagery of Dublin's literary and political life - in the insult disguised as a compliment, the compliment disguised as an insult, the outrageous joke delivered deadpan, the hyperbole, the telling anecdote, the irony that spancels the enemy." (Spancels? - perfect: Anglo-Irish from Dutch, to hobble cattle.)

Her book, says Glendinning with a certain mischievous relish, is not a "chronicle biography", but more of an 18th-century "character", or written portrait. It omits much which previous writers (such as David Nokes, 1985) have found of central importance - for example the long and revealing "epistolary friendship" between Swift, Pope and Arbuthnot. Instead it "zooms in" on episodes which display Swift's personality (and fantastic eccentricity) in a modern light.

His role as a political journalist in the doomed Tory administration of 1710-14 is one such highlight: "Dr Swift became their spin-doctor, writing propaganda for the ministry's policies, satirizing the opposition, testing opinion by flying kites and by judicious leaks." (The facts that Swift actually believed in what he wrote, and was never paid except in dinners, are perhaps underplayed here.) His celebrated and puzzling romantic friendships with "Stella" and "Vanessa" - the two young women who followed him from England to Ireland when he became the bachelor Dean of St Patrick's - are analysed in exquisite psychological detail: "Swift gave everyone he loved or hated (including himself) pretend names, distancing and diminishing and infantilizing them." A whole chapter - "Wife?" - is largely given up to the possibility of a secret marriage to Stella in 1716 (likely); and another - "The Death of Love" - to the possibility of a sexual relationship with Vanessa (unlikely, well, maybe once "somehow").

There is a vivid appraisal of Swift's scatological tendencies ("Filth") of the "Celia shits" variety, with an enlightening discussion of 18th-century underwear (corsets unwashable), plumbing, hygiene, cosmetics, glass eyes and malodorous wigs. And there is a most oddly moving account of Swift in old age and growing senility at the Deanery, surrounded by his "virtuous seraglio" of submissive women ("the childlike, saucy, fearless Laetitia"), running insanely up and down the backstairs for exercise, giving alms to "his" Dublin beggars (some were charged interest), and, as memory failed him, making long lists of everyone he ever knew - marked "G" for grateful, or "U" for ungrateful.

The character that emerges is strange, contradictory, heroic, ludicrous, slightly sinister - like something out of Sterne perhaps. Swift is a rational man besieged by obsessions (body smells, account books, bed linen, microscopes); a principled man driven by worldly ambitions (he never received his English bishopric, but owned a silver-service worth 1,000); a sensitive man with a streak of "sadistic silliness" and a "permafrost of the emotions". His writing is universal, but also suffers from "tunnel vision". For all his imagination - with the superb, clear visual prose on which Sir Walter Scott remarked - he is intellectually claustrophobic: he despises metaphysical speculation, scientific inquiry, even foreign travel. (Coleridge, in a phrase I longed to find, called him "the soul of Rabelais dwelling in a dry place".)

Glendinning calls him "a problem in optics": a man who constantly reverses scales, perspectives, moral norms. She brings this out very neatly in his work:

"Much of the crude humour in Gulliver belongs to the category of humour based on disparity of scale. This too has an immediacy for children, who are on the one hand dwarfed by adults, and on the other made giants by their toys; dolls, and minuscule boats, animals, farmyards, vehicles, castles."

But she explores it even more skilfully in his life:

"Swift is immoderate, a man of intense responses, provoked to towering rage: saeva indignatio. Anger is energy, or an energy. There is uncontrollable anger in him, originating in some outrage one cannot precisely determine. He reports the consequences of immoral actions and the abuse of power, taking it to its logical - and therefore outrageously illogical, and mad - conclusion." (The Modest Proposal: if there is too large a population for the supply of food, why not eat the babies?)

Such reflections also point towards a constantly provocative and intriguing element in Glendinning's writing. It arises, I suspect, from the fruitful conflict between her two roles as biographer and novelist. For Glendinning the biographer, knowledge of Swift is necessarily limited by her historical sources, by puzzles and mysteries; but for the novelist there is alwaysthe desire for an absolute and immediately presentable human truth.

After Trollope (1992) Glendinning used her superb domestic knowledge of mid-Victorian England to write the intimate love-story Electricity (1995). The same pressure of fictional intimacy is already at work in Jonathan Swift, with its impatient bracketing of historical data, its disconcerting drops into contemporary slang ("know the score", "play ball", "sleaze", "merchandising", "media in embryo"), and its sudden swoops into first person narrative: "I think it is possible . . ."; "I think it is probable . . ."

In an opening scene, Glendinning presents herself reading the manuscript of Swift's auto- biography at a desk in the library of Trinity College, Dublin:

". . . to have the original of the autobiographical fragment lying before you, and to turn its pages, is to slide out of linear time into a confrontation with the man who wrote it. No. That is sentimentality. Jonathan Swift is out of sight, his step is clattering away down the wooden back stair of the Deanery, his mocking voice is hanging in the silent air. "Swift haunts me," wrote the poet W. B. Yeats; "he is always just round the next corner." So are Vanessa and Stella, who loved him. On a woman's thin shoulder is the shadow of a bruise. It is all so long ago."

Such haunting passages, or speculative asides, recur throughout this "character" biography, and often at its most memorable points. If Swift might be a spin-doctor, he might also be a man who played with Stella's dolls house before describing the giants of Brobdingnag, or a man whose sense of violence is like Quentin Tarantino's in "Reservoir Dogs". He might be a man who prayed to a "fatherly, loving" God and received no answer. "Comfort is not enough for Swift's intemperate spirit. One wants for him revelation, integration and epiphany."

It is this note of personal engagement which will most delight Victoria Glendinning's readers, and give Swift scholars something new and challenging to think about.