A Portrait

By Victoria Glendinning

Henry Holt. 324 pp. $35



Volume I. Letters 1690-1714

Edited by David Woolley

Peter Lang. 650 pp. $73.95

Reviewed by Gregory Feeley

This year marks the 300th anniversary of the composition of Jonathan Swift's A Tale of a Tub, at least to the degree that this most paradoxical of texts can be assigned a date. First published in 1704, it was evidently completed five years earlier (and underwent expansion in subsequent editions for another six years). It made Swift famous, and remains for many his finest work; Harold Bloom has called its prose the greatest since Shakespeare. It would certainly be better known today were iit not for a later book that Swift would also write.

The phrase "would certainly be better known" carries a poignant meaning when one is discussing the life of Jonathan Swift. The greatest disappointment in a life filled with them was his failure to be named to an English bishopric, in part because A Tale of a Tub offended so many powerful people, including Queen Anne. The disappointment was compounded by the appointment he did get, to be dean of Dublin Cathedral. Swift, resentful that his English parents had given birth to him in Ireland, was not the man who explained away the circumstance by declaring that "If a gentleman happens to be born in a stable, it does not follow that he should be called a horse" -- that piece of nastiness was Wellington's -- but it was certainly a sentiment he felt. The deanship, which he at first hoped would eventually lead to something better, proved a lifelong appointment. It meant not only exile from his beloved England but also the end of his brilliant career as a public man -- what we call today (and Swift himself used the metaphor) a "player."

It was, for Swift, a kind of living death, although this did not ultimately prevent him from writing some of his greatest works there, including A Modest Proposal and above all Gulliver's Travels, the work that brought him immediate and lasting fame. Nor did it free him from his personal problems, for "Stella" and "Vanessa" -- the two women he wooed and won the love of but sought to keep at a distance -- both ended up following him there.

There will always be new biographies of Swift, though any that does his life justice must be fearsomely long. Victoria Glendinning calls her new volume "A Portrait," and disclaims any ambition to rival Irvin Ehrenpreis's definitive three-volume work. "It is more like an extended version of what was in Swift's time called a `character' -- a written portrait." My favorite book on Swift, Nigel Dennis's 1964 volume Jonathan Swift, is subtitled "A Short Character" in this same sense. At 155 pages it is less than half the length of Glendinning's book and acute in areas where Glendinning's is sketchy; anyone who reads the new book should track down the old one as well (though out of print, it is readily available from second hand dealers online).

Glendinning draws almost exclusively on previously published sources (although wide-ranging ones), and tacitly assumes the reader's acquaintance with the outlines of Swift's life. Perhaps as a consequence, she often fails to note the year in which an event she described occurred, and the reader who does not already know these dates must flip to her "Chronology" to find them. This sometimes causes problems. At the bottom of page 116 she tells us that an event took place in September 1711, and just over a page later she says, "Queen Anne died on 1 August." The casual reader may assume that 11 months have passed, but in fact the Queen died in 1714 -- Glendinning has hopped over almost the entirety of Swift's period of political prominence. When Glendinning commits an outright error (she claims at one point that the Drapier's Letters were written after A Modest Proposal), the lack of publication dates makes it harder to catch.

Such lapses and occasional omissions (Glendinning reproduces a scatological engraving depicting an indignity being committed upon Lemuel Gulliver but does not seem to know that it was drawn by Hogarth) would irritate me a lot more if she did not also possess a measure of good sense and judiciousness, without which the greatest command of data will not suffice. Assessing the well-known facts of Swift's life, Glendinning confronts the intractable personal questions (which Dennis, more concerned with the tenor of Swift's thought, treats only briefly), and deals with them well.

Glendinning is best on Swift's relationships with women, which Nigel Dennis rather scants. On the abiding question of whether Swift made a secret marriage with Esther Johnson (his "Stella"), Glendinning examines all the testimony, and what we know of Swift's feelings toward Stella and Vanessa, before concluding that "I think it is possible, I think it is probable, that Swift and Stella did go through some ceremony in the summer of 1716." As to why this marriage was never acknowledged -- the more heated hypotheses have speculated that Swift or Stella or both were the illegitimate children of Sir William Temple or his father -- Glendinning is prudently skeptical.

Glendinning writes about Swift's other romantic love, the ill-treated Esther Vanhomrigh ("Vanessa"), with particular clarity. About 21 when the 43-year-old Swift began paying visits to her family at the outset of his political career in 1710, she soon became the focus of Swift's intense passion, which she returned. This passion ruined her life, for Swift had also developed an emotional bond with Stella, whom he had left back in Ireland and to whom he finally remained more devoted. One of the disturbing undercurrents of his Journal to Stella, written 1710-13, is our knowledge that he is now entangled with a second woman and is hiding the fact.

Like Stella before her, Vanessa moved to Ireland to be close to Swift (although without his approval). Both women died young, yearning for a commitment that the dean would never give them, each jealous and fearful of the other. Swift kept away from both their deathbeds.

Swift's biographers have until recently been unkind to Vanessa (who "has tired badly under two centuries of cross-examination," as Dennis wittily notes). Swift wrote a poem, "Cadenus and Vanessa," which protested that his feelings for her were friendly and dispassionate; most biographers have been happy to assume that he never gave her reason to believe otherwise. Glendinning knows better, and quotes Swift's letters to the unhappy Vanessa to show how intensely he wooed her.

Glendinning is weaker on political matters. Where her concerns coincide with Dennis's, however, the two tend to agree. During his years as a government adviser, Swift once intervened to prevent the pardoning of a man condemned to hang for rape (the undersecretary of state had believed that the victim's being a prostitute was a mitigating circumstance). "What!" Swift wrote in indignation, "must a woman be ravished because she is a whore?" Dennis observes: "We note here the rightness of the principles -- but we note, too, that the power to pardon exists precisely to prevent principle from being carried too far." Glendinning makes a similar point when she writes that "There is a point on the circle where justice meets mercilessness and the two become terrifyingly indistinguishable." This is true, though we cannot fail to note that Dennis's remark is much better-written.

Neither Glendinning nor Dennis is primarily concerned with literary matters, and both pay scant attention to A Tale of a Tub, which Glendinning calls "a rich Swiftian ragbag" but finds most interesting for its devastating effect on Swift's public career. This is too bad, for Swift's dazzling and compact work (125 pages long in most editions) is the most ferociously powerful piece of imaginative English prose to appear in its time -- and more than able to hold its own against the discursive prose of the novels by Defoe, Fielding and Richardson that followed it.

Far from a "ragbag," A Tale of a Tub is a rigorously organized work, an allegory about three brothers -- representing Catholicism, the Church of England, and the Protestant Dissenters -- who variously obey or flout their father's deathbed wishes. It bristles with famous, seeming discursive "digressions" and a full pseudo-scholarly apparatus: a list of the putative author's forthcoming books, a notice from "The Bookseller," a Preface, etc. The simple tale is swathed in ironies (its fictive narrator is a hack and opportunist) that scholars have still not fully untangled.

The Oxford World's Classics edition, ably edited by Angus Ross and David Woolley, is one of the best available versions (the other is in the Norton Critical Edition of The Writings of Jonathan Swift) but has long been rendered almost unusable by its tiny type. (An edition that compresses the text into 100 pages shouldn't reduce those pages to the size of a mass-market paperback.) The appearance this month of a larger-sized edition may entice readers to try Swift's most audacious and difficult -- but also exhilarating and extremely funny -- work.

The Jonathan Swift seen in Woolley's volume of letters is a politician, combatant and intriguer (especially with women), but he does not appear as an author, despite the fact that the Tale was written and published during these years. The 300 letters in the volume (the first of four) are complete, not selected, and are as often to Swift as from him. As a consequence, this very scholarly edition (scrupulously and exactingly assembled) is intended for a very different audience from that of Glendinning's Portrait, and readers whose interest in Swift is less than total will do best to wait for an eventual selection.

Although it takes us only as far as 1714 (and omits all the letters in Journal to Stella, an odd choice that Woolley does not explain), we see Swift in his years of political influence and in the early years of his correspondence with Stella and Vanessa. Swift's first letter to the latter begins with a deceit: "I have writ three or four lyes in as many Lines." Those form an innocuous cover letter addressed to the entire family, designed to smuggle the note into Vanessa's hands.

Later Swift's letters become openly intimate, although (as with Stella) he expresses these feelings only in a kind of personal code. "I long to drink a dish of coffee in the Sluttery [the Vanhomrighs' upstairs drawing-room] and hear you dun me for Secrets, and -- drink your Coffee -- Why don't You drink your Coffee." (Glendinning dryly notes that "Coffee meant something more than just coffee to Swift and Vanessa.")

Swift destroyed both Stella's and Vanessa's letters, but they each saved his. Their way of keeping faith (which Swift would have violently discouraged) threw open a window on his inner life, and what it disclosed is so various, complex and intriguing that the challenge of trying to make sense of it still attracts us after 250 years. We read A Tale of a Tub and Gulliver's Travels because they are great books, and study Swift's political writings because of their historical importance; but we continue to read his biographies and his letters because of his extraordinary "character."

Gregory Feeley wrote the Afterword to the Classics Illustrated edition of "Gulliver's Travels."