by Victoria Glendinning
I recently wrote an opinion piece about Global Warming for a magazine. Wondering what it would look like to a fully credentialled researcher in the field (which I am not) I passed it, via a mutual friend, to a professor of oceanography at a university in Texas. In due course our intermediary brought back the answer: "Marci cannot respond to your article. She says she is too busy counting isotopes in the Carioco Trench." I could not help but smile at what came to mind: the Academy of Lagado in Book Three of Gulliver's Travels, where scholars occupied themselves with such projects as extracting sun-beams out of cucumbers.
That is the place Jonathan Swift occupies in the minds of, I think, most literate people. His great satire takes to preposterous extremes the weaknesses of humanity at large and supplies us with ready parallels for most of the instances of pride, folly and cussedness that we encounter in our passage through the world.
The common conclusion taken from Gulliver's Travels, and from Swift's other works by the tiny minority that have read them, is that the man was a misanthrope. The other thing we think we know about him is that he had, as we should say nowadays, a problem with body functions, most especially with those that expel waste matter. There is plenty of evidence for this in Gulliver but even more in some of the lesser-known pieces. At Ms Glendinning's prompting I have just read for the first and (I am determined) last time Swift's poem "The Lady's Dressing Room," which tests to destruction the reader's tolerance for descriptions of sweat, snot, earwax and "dandriff." It culminates with the hero, snooping round his absent sweetheart's dressing room, inspecting the contents of her commode, after which he flees from the scene "… Repeating in his amorous fits, Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!"
Victoria Glendinning puts all this into perspective in this new biography. Born in Dublin in 1667, Swift grew up seeing nothing of either parent. His father had already been dead some months; his mother went to England a year or so later, leaving him in care of a nurse for his entire childhood. (Not an uncommon arrangement in those days; Sir Isaac Newton had some similar history. Maternal affection seems to have been at a low ebb in 17th-century England.) After twenty years of fruitlessly seeking preferment, Swift's glory days arrived in the last years of Queen Anne's reign, the Indian summer of Stuart Toryism, when he served Anne's senior ministers in the capacity of — as Ms Glendinning puts it with fair accuracy — a spin doctor. When Anne died and the Ministry fell in 1714, Swift took himself off to Dublin and spent the rest of his life there as Dean of St Patrick's Cathedral. (This was, of course, a Church of Ireland — which is to say, Anglican — position.)
Swift's exaggerated aversion to the grimier physiological processes extended, we discover, to unpleasantness of every kind, emotional as well as physical. When an old friend fell ill while staying at Swift's house, Swift turned him out very brusquely. When "Stella" — Esther Johnson, the person who meant more to Swift than any other in his life — was dying, he refused to go see her. "I would not for the universe be present at such a trial of seeing her depart." The fact that his presence might be some comfort to the dying woman seems not to have crossed his mind. "What is this world," asked Swift in a letter to a friend, "without being as easy in it as prudence and fortune can make it? … I conform myself to [the world] for my own ease." This was a very selfish man, who valued other people for their contributions to his "ease" — and who, when a person ceased thus to contribute, wished that person gone.
Not that Swift was altogether unfeeling. He was possessed of at least one strong emotion, the one specified in the famous epitaph he chose for himself: "Here lies the body of Jonathan Swift … where savage indignation can no longer lacerate his heart." But whence arose that saeva indignatio, in a soul so concerned with its own comfort? From pride, says Ms Glendinning — the defensive pride of one unloved as a child and disappointed in his salad days. Hence also his strange, arms-length relations with women: Swift may have lived and died a virgin for all we know to the contrary. "No one must have power over him — the power to melt self-possession, the power to hurt."
I think there were other elements involved. To be as intelligent and perceptive as Jonathan Swift is to be very lonely in the world. Every reflective person is taken at one time or another with very uncharitable feelings towards the great dull-witted mass of humanity, towards their obstinate folly and ignorant pride. As Swift put it: "The bulk of mankind is as well qualified to flying as to thinking." And then he was a Christian, a point Ms Glendinning seems to have missed altogether. Doctor Johnson, who sat with men that had sat with Swift, thought he was a very pious man. Swift, said Johnson, out of his great dread of hypocrisy, "instead of wishing to seem better … delighted in seeming worse than he was." Johnson then offers some evidences of Swift's piety and of his strenuous efforts to hide it. The tension between Our Lord's injunction to love our fellow men and the actual character of those men — and of oneself — as seen through eyes as unillusioned as Swift's, is sufficient, I think, to account for most of the writer's many contradictions.
I believe I represent the target audience for Ms Glendinning's book very precisely. Before picking it up I knew nothing of the man beyond Gulliver, that wonderful epitaph, and some gossip picked up in random reading of eighteenth-century sources. I was ready and willing to be enlightened. Ms Glendinning supplies the necessary facts, but I do not feel she has given me the man. Mainly this is the fault of her style, or of my reaction to it. It is a style of "popular biography" that takes its cue from People magazine and the Arts and Entertainment Channel. The book's organization is more thematic than strictly chronological. Rather too many sentences start with conjunctions; rather too many have no verb. "Swift fretted because [Stella] did not eat. But he must in his heart have known what was gnawing at her. Vanessa." This kind of thing will do very well for Liz Taylor, but a subject as remote from our own time and as difficult to fathom as Jonathan Swift needs more serious treatment.