Book review: Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel

Reclaimed by Irishmen such as Yeats, from the canon of English Literature, Jonathan Swift has become an icon of Irishness, writes Josephine Fenton. Though he insisted he was English, he felt compelled to rebel.

John Stubbs

Viking, €35

Firmly established in Irish literary canon

IN HIS introduction to this excellent biography John Stubbs is at pains to point out the complexity and contradictions in the character and the life of Jonathan Swift. 

Like Yeats, who was born two centuries later, Swift believed in the desirability of a pastoral society run by landed gentry and the Anglican church. 

He abhorred the burgeoning urban financial centre of London, almost as if its participants were usurers in the temple. 

Ordained in a high-church tradition, Swift despised low, dissenting, Protestantism, as well of course, as Catholicism.

Arriving from Dublin to London in 1710 Swift, at 43, soon became an important ‘spin doctor’ to Queen Anne’s chief minister, Robert Harley. His work consisted of briefing against members of the former Whig government, which he did with alacrity and vitriol. 

These unfortunates included the victor of the Battle of Blenheim, the duke of Marlborough; the former lord treasurer, earl of Godolphin and the lord lieutenant of Ireland, Marquess of Wharton.

Speaking with a patrician voice from which nearly all traces of Irishness had been meticulously eradicated and wearing the orthodox dress of a clerical gentleman, Swift’s impressive public persona disguised altogether another personality. 

Known to intimates as Presto, Swift was an incorrigible mischief-maker. There were many more than one Swift.

Although marrying neither, he had two close lady friends at this time — one in Dublin, ‘Stella’ and one in London, ‘Vanessa’. His comportment towards them was respectful and he relied on them for intellectual as well as emotional support. 

Another, darker side of Swift emerges too — consorting with prostitutes and his scurrilous writings, such as ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’: a poem dealing with, among other sordid matters, the odours and stains of feminine underwear.

Swift, was a stickler for personal hygiene; a habit unusual for the period and he exercised regularly, walking and riding. But his health was not good, suffering as he did from debilitating deafness and often confined to bed by extended fits of vertigo and tinnitus. 

This ailment was to plague him until the end of his life; exacerbated by several strokes which left him mute as well. But before Stubbs reaches the endpoint he offers over 600 pages documenting Swift’s political and writing career, his avoidance of marriage and his position as a revered Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

Obfuscated by lack of evidence, and the differing stories that Swift himself told, is the strange mystery of Whitehaven, Cumbria. 

As an infant, it seems, Swift was taken, perhaps kidnapped, by his wet nurse, to the small English port. He stayed there for some years, maybe two, maybe three.

On his return, his father having died before his birth and his mother now impoverished, Jonathan was brought up in the Dublin household of his Uncle Godwin. He seems to have been denied affection but was, unsurprisingly, precocious.

It is tempting for biographers and critics to apply modern psychoanalytical techniques to Swift’s life and work and to trace his peculiarities to early emotional trauma, or indeed, a position on the autism spectrum. 

Medical approaches have suggested he suffered from syphilis, contracted from streetwalkers. Stubbs, like others, indulges in this kind of speculation but always gives the caveat that these conclusions are anachronistic and thus unreliable.

Nevertheless, it is disturbing to read that after an inauspicious start in life the boy was sent to boarding school in Kilkenny aged “about six”. It is difficult to see how the child, Jonathan, could become an emotionally stable adult.

With an education in the classics under his belt, Swift arrived at Trinity College, Dublin in 1682. 

According to his autobiographical accounts he did not prosper and contemporary college records show many instances of the undergraduate being fined

for misdemeanours. The ‘Presto’ side of his character was in the ascendant.

In 1689, just too early to take his master’s degree, Swift, along with many other students and faculty, fled to England. The Williamite war had revived, among Protestants, fears of a massacre similar to that carried out by Catholics in 1641. 

Now 21, Swift became secretary to William Temple, a retired diplomat, who was to familiarise the young man with the mores of English society and politics.

By 1692 Swift was in possession of an MA from Oxford although he had to wait until 1702 to attain a doctorate in divinity from Trinity in Dublin. In between he took holy orders in the Church of Ireland and was allocated a parish north of Belfast Lough.

At this time, and in this location, the role of the established Church was under siege from Ulster Presbyterians. In 1696 Swift, perhaps bored and disillusioned, returned to the hearth of Temple at Moor Park in Surrey.

When his mentor died in 1699 Swift was left adrift until becoming private chaplain to the earl of Berkeley, who was immediately appointed as a lord justice in Ireland. Swift reluctantly returned to the city of his birth. 

Here he pursued his clerical ambitions; the path was rocky but eventually he found himself with a seat as a prebendary canon in St Patrick’s Cathedral. For the next few years Swift continued to hold onto his benefices in Ireland, as well as his position in the retinue of the Berkeley. 

He travelled to and from England crossing the Irish Sea, always expecting it to swallow him whole. He rode and walked in both countries, visiting his parishes, his relatives and his patron.

He rescued ‘Stella’ from a life of drudgery by settling enough money on her for a move back to Ireland with her friend, Miss Dingley. 

The two ladies would discreetly follow Swift on his parochial journeys, providing him with companionship. Life was not really too unpleasant.

Then began, in 1710, the four influential years in London. In 1713 Swift accepted, the post of senior priest in Dublin, that of dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral. 

He was disappointed by the appointment, having wanted a prestigious deanery in England. However, on the death of Queen Anne in 1714, and the subsequent rise of the Whigs, Swift knew that it was time to go back to Ireland.

Thus began his entry into the church and state politics of his homeland. A nostalgia for an English-country-garden-like Ireland enthralled him. He longed for a “romantic Ireland” that was not “dead and gone” but one that never had nor could exist. 

Instead, he had to engage with the realities of the rise of the Non-Conformists and the Catholics, and to rail against the inadequacy of English policies towards her Irish sister.

He felt obliged, however reluctantly, to rebel against his beloved England, which had served him literally, as well as metaphorically, as a nursery. Ireland, who had birthed and educated him, could now reclaim her son, and, eventually, place the great satirist at the centre of her literary heritage.

Irish-born Stubbs, is well placed to write Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel, as he studied English at Oxford and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge. 

Historical and political context encourages a greater understanding of Swift’s work and detailed analysis of this work reinforces comprehension of the man. Although 25 pages of notes exemplify his academic background, Stubbs has an accessible style and writes beautifully.



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