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A Life with Opinions

Andrew Carpenter

Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel, by John Stubbs, 752 pp, £19.99, ISBN: 978-0670922055

One can see why Swift continues to be a popular subject for biographers: he was at once a joker and a very serious writer whose work can be enjoyed at many levels and misunderstood at most of them. He was also – and has remained since his death in 1745 – a “famous” personality, alive in folk legend and regularly pictured on teacloths and mugs. What makes him particularly challenging for anyone writing about him is that his preferred literary modes involve anonymity, ventriloquism, impersonation and projection. What is one to make of someone who hides behind pseudonyms to send out into the world spoof prophecies, bogus news, manuals of advice on how to behave badly or write or think badly – or who writes spurious travel tales and mock footnotes to his own texts? Even the epitaph he wrote for himself in St Patrick’s Cathedral continues to perplex. Is there a real Jonathan Swift to be found anywhere in all this and how should one judge the work of those who seek biographical “truth” in such quagmires?

There are, of course, different theories of how biographies should be written. The way recommended for contributors to the Dictionary of Irish Biography (RIA, 2009) is that of factual accuracy and accessibility: in addition to being factually correct, the editors of the DIB assert that biographical writing should be accessible to the general reader and based on the most recently available sources. All this seems eminently sensible in a world of fake news, endless online information and unedited Wikipedia entries. One has to be able to trust someone: a new biographical study – from a major publishing house ‑ of a figure as important and as contested as Jonathan Swift has to get its facts right and, if reputable scholars are continuing to work on the figure concerned, the book should surely take due account of their publications.

These thoughts came to me as I took up the latest fat biography of Swift, the 750-page Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel, published by Viking/Penguin and written in a lively, imaginative style by John Stubbs. Like several other recent biographers of Swift – Victoria Glendinning, David Nokes, Bruce Arnold and Leo Damrosch – Stubbs is not a dedicated Swiftian but a scholar and writer who has become fascinated by the man, having previously written other biographies – in Stubbs’s case one of John Donne. His contention is that Swift thought of himself as an Englishman loyal to England until, after returning to Dublin as Dean of St Patrick’s in 1713, he experienced English oppression of Ireland: he took up his pen on behalf of the people of Ireland, so becoming a “reluctant rebel”.

This is by no means a new idea and one might ask why we need another book to tell us that Swift rebelled against the world or, indeed, why we need another “biography” of Swift at all. Irvin Ehrenpreis established the facts of Swift’s life in three scholarly volumes thirty years ago (Swift: the Man, his Works and the Age, 1962-83), and there have been no startling revelations since. Most of the stories that have circulated for generations about Swift – for example that he was illegitimate, or that he and his long-time friend Esther Johnson (“Stella”) were secretly married – were dismissed by Ehrenpreis as fanciful gossip. A more recent biographer, Leo Damrosch, in his Jonathan Swift; his Life and his World (2013, reviewed here: gave them an airing, describing some of the stories as well-attested; but the novelty of Damrosch’s book was his determination to question Ehrenpreis’s methods and to distance himself from what he termed his “highly subjective interpretations” of Swift’s actions and his “very dated Freudian interpretation of personality”. According to Damrosch, there was often “not a scrap of evidence” to support Ehrenpreis’s assertions or his apparently authoritative personal opinions about personalities and motives.

I suspect that Damrosch could level much the same accusation at John Stubbs, whose biography of Swift contains no new discoveries but many passages of imaginative re-creation and personal commentary. Though Stubbs’s work is based on some of the standard political, social and literary sources, he regularly expands his text to give his own view of the people in Swift’s life and of his material surroundings – pictures, furniture, clothing – and, indeed, of architecture. When describing the old west front of Trinity College Dublin, for instance – “a very dapper if more than faintly self-conscious piece of work” – Stubbs writes that the “downward rolling scrolls below the pediments ... contribute to an awkward tension of vertical effects that undermine the confidence of the structure” particularly as “tall chimneys shoot up above the central pilasters and entablatures” making the ensemble “a little jerky”. Such indulgent passages can be found throughout the book; (since there are no illustrations, one cannot see if one would agree with Stubbs’s personal opinions on matters material or architectural). In addition some depictions of people and places are not happily expressed – Swift’s parishioners at Kilroot are described as “the labouring natives of Ireland”, for instance, and I am not sure why Esther Johnson is often referred to as “Johnson” rather than “Stella”. Most readers would find that disconcerting. At one point, we are told that Ireland was, for Swift, “the site of his complex libidinous effort to stave off certain catastrophe” – whatever that means, and there are several such throwaway lines that one would have thought the publisher’s readers or editors would have insisted be changed. Occasionally Stubbs (for example, when describing Swift’s response to the death of Stella) indulges in speculation reminiscent of Ehrenpreis:

Hunched over his page in the dark side of his house, he grieved for her as he had never been able to grieve over the death of his father or the seeming detachment of his mother. For a precious interval, the anger of a changeling against his place of exile dissolved into the fear and sorrow of a small child in the large unwelcoming homes of relatives; or of a very young boarder, dispatched into the hinterland of Kilkenny.

This “creative” way of responding to Swift is not uncommon – dozens of writers (Yeats among them) have trodden this path. Such writing is also increasingly accepted as a recognised mode of engaging with and interpreting the past. At the same time, one has to ask whether a publisher should market a book which contains passages so clearly the product of imaginative re-creation as a biography. Of course the contradictions in Swift’s person and writing encourage many different kinds of response; but I am inclined to feel that a book written in this imaginative style should be described as at least partly “fictional” or as a “commentary” on the life of Swift rather than as a biography. Above all, any book on Swift should surely take account of what has been written about its subject.

To be specific, it seems that Stubbs is not aware of several significant recent publications in Swift studies. Though some are books from lesser-known university presses, they have all been widely enough reviewed to come to the attention of anyone trying to keep up with Swift scholarship. In addition, scores of valuable articles on Swift have been published in the six volumes of Proceedings of the Münster Symposium on Jonathan Swift (1985-2013) to which Stubbs makes no reference. Nor does he seem to have made much use of the existing volumes of the excellent Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jonathan Swift (though he does list them in his bibliography) or of the contents of most of the thirty volumes of the journal Swift Studies. A key missing work is AC Elias’s wonderful edition of the Memoirs of Laetitia Pilkington (University of Georgia Press, 1997); this is fully cited in Leo Damrosch’s biography of Swift – a book Stubbs has used – but not in Stubbs’s own work. One entire volume of Elias’s edition is devoted to exhaustive notes on the people and events in Pilkington’s Memoirs – a first-hand account of Swift in his old age, originally published between 1748 and 1754 – and contains a wealth of information on Swift’s Irish companions which would have been very useful to Stubbs.

A recent book that did make full use of Elias’s scholarship was Norma Clarke’s lively Queen of the Wits: a Life of Laetitia Pilkington (2008); in fact, that book makes an interesting contrast with Stubbs’s on Swift. Both are entertainingly written accounts of people based substantially in eighteenth century Ireland, figures who were in the public eye and about whom there was a whiff of scandal. Norma Clarke’s book is a scholarly contribution to the genre of “literary biography” – in fact, she tells the reader that she deliberately avoided writing a “scandalous romp” about Pilkington. Any conjectures she makes in her book are based on Laetitia’s own three-volume Memoirs, the text of her wayward son Jack’s Life or on Elias’s scholarly notes in his edition of the Memoirs. Clarke herself is hardly visible in the book.

Stubbs, on the other hand, is everywhere in his biography of Swift, constantly inserting his own views and conjectures. Swift was, of course, a far more complicated subject to write about than Pilkington and, to add to the difficulty, his story does not come down to us through a single lens but has to be interpreted though scores of sources, many contradictory and a lot of them of doubtful veracity. Still, there are other vehicles for personal responses to the Dean ‑ the historical novel, the dramatic event and even the installation of giant Gullivers. We do not lack responses to Swift – indeed, there is an industry of those studying him and writing about him. What we are very short of is books – or even articles -- about the literary life that surrounded Swift: there have been excellent books on historical figures, on prose writers and on material in the Irish language from eighteenth century Ireland, but those who wrote poems in English and lived in Swift’s Ireland are still neglected. No one has built on the editions of the poems of Thomas Sheridan and Patrick Delany – both published by the University of Delaware Press and edited by Bob Hogan – or those of Thomas Parnell. One could list a dozen English-language poets from the age on whom good books could be written, and George Faulkner – one of its most influential cultural operators – still awaits scholarly attention.

But perhaps the scene is changing. There is a revival of interest in eighteenth century Irish theatre and two Irish scholars are undertaking a new edition of Oliver Goldsmith’s correspondence; in addition, the poetry of Goldsmith’s contemporary Laurence Whyte has just been published in a splendid edition edited by Michael Griffin and published by Bucknell University Press. There have also been two excellent books on Goldsmith recently: Norma Clarke’s wonderful, lively Brothers of the Quill: Oliver Goldsmith in Grub Street (2016) sheds new light on the problems faced by Irishmen and women trying to make a living in eighteenth century London. Equally enjoyable is a subtle and evocative study entitled Enlightenment in Ruins: the Geographies of Oliver Goldsmith by Michael Griffin (2013). The two-volume edition of Swift’s poetry due out from Cambridge University Press within a year or two will also add an enormous amount to our knowledge of the cultural world of Ireland in the 1720s and 1730s.

In this context, do we need any more fat “biographies” of Swift? Surely what would be more welcome would be biographies of other literary figures from eighteenth century Ireland. And these were not boring, minor personalities: they lived interesting lives, wrote memorable verse and would provide rich pickings for a biographer. Swift’s close friend Thomas Sheridan the elder, for instance, was a fascinating man: a great scholar, a fine schoolteacher, a remarkable classicist and an inveterate punster who (despite a disastrous marriage) was grandfather to Richard Brinsley Sheridan and father to the well-known actor and elocutionist Thomas Sheridan the younger (on whom Conrad Brunstrom has written a fine book). Patrick Delany (husband to the famous Mrs Delany) was another of Swift’s intimates: he is no more than a footnote in most modern studies but he was an interesting poet and churchman whose work should be more widely known and who deserves a biographer – as does the playwright Frances Sheridan. There is lots of primary material available on all these men and women, and on the circle of female poets that surrounded Swift ‑ Mary Barber and Constantia Grierson among others – little of it consulted by anyone. We need more people to work on, and publish on, these eighteenth-century contemporaries of Swift: on balance, I see no reason why their biographies should not be fun to research and write, and thoroughly enjoyable to read.


Andrew Carpenter is professor emeritus, School of English, Drama and Film, University College Dublin.