Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) is commonly regarded as the towering misanthrope of English letters. William Thackeray described him as “an immense genius” but “an awful downfall and ruin” whose habitual way of being was to remain constantly “alone and gnashing in the darkness.” George Orwell, who numbered “Gulliver’s Travels” (1726) among his six most treasured works, considered Swift “a diseased writer” who resided “permanently in a depressed mood,” refused “to see anything in human life except dirt, folly and wickedness,” and was consumed by a “general hatred of humanity.”

(Norton)

Thackeray and Orwell had their reasons for characterizing Swift in this way. Yet it is difficult not to grant their assessments some force. Here, after all, is a man who had seldom been known to smile and was never heard to laugh; who once remarked that “I never wake without finding life a more insignificant thing than it was the day before”; and who was so prone to jealousy that he stated that he would require a “mathematical Demonstration” of any prospective partner’s constancy — impossible, people in general being “a lying sort of Beast.”

In “Jonathan Swift,” an enormous new study of Swift’s life and work, the biographer John Stubbs argues that these tendencies have been allowed to occlude the more benign aspects of his subject’s nature. For Stubbs, Swift was neither a monster nor an angel but, in his life as in his work, a man of radical ambivalence and profound contradiction, forever pulling (or being pulled) in opposite directions.

The dialectical forces that shaped Swift’s life were established early. Shortly after his birth in Dublin in 1667, he was placed under the care of an English wet nurse who heard that a relative in Cumbria was close to death and immediately returned to her family, taking her charge with her. Swift’s mother (probably disingenuously) deemed a return voyage too dangerous. So he remained in England for two or three years before being sent back to Ireland and placed under the care of an uncle, who had him educated at Kilkenny College and Trinity College, Dublin. (Swift never knew his father, who died of syphilis nine months before his birth.)

This beetling between England and Ireland would be repeated throughout his life. In 1688, seeing little chance of advancement in his country of birth, Swift returned to England to work as secretary to Sir William Temple, an elderly former diplomat. He subsequently took orders as an Anglican priest and in 1699 (after a bit more to-ing and fro-ing across the Irish Sea) revisited his homeland to work as a private chaplain. Unsatisfied with this position, he soon made his way back to London to work as a government polemicist. With the chance of securing the English bishopric he wished for looking increasingly remote, in 1714 he made the decision to establish himself in Dublin as dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Here he would spend the rest of his days, all the time hating being Irish; longing (and sometimes claiming) to be English; wrestling with the bouts of vertigo from which he had suffered since youth; indulging his appetite for double-mindedness and logical perversion; and gradually succumbing to dementia.

As Stubbs demonstrates so persuasively in this fine biography, Swift, more than most, was a divided soul. He was an ostensibly devout believer who held that religion could teach us how to hate but not how to love. He was undoubtedly misanthropic, yet he was a formidable opponent of slavery and war and could be gentle and sympathetic when dealing with people in person. He hated Ireland and the Irish yet thought it proper to defend the country and its inhabitants from English force. He celebrated order and conservatism but was often out of step with the prevailing conventions of his age: He donated money for the care of the mad, changed his underwear frequently, and treated his servants with kindness and generosity. And although he had powerful romantic inclinations, he never married, limiting his amatory life to two (probably unconsummated) relationships. The first of these was with Esther Johnson, whom Swift met in his early 20s (when Johnson was 8); the second was with Esther Vanhomrigh, daughter to a family of Dutch merchants.

Stubbs does not dwell on the possibility, often indulged by earlier biographers, that Swift might have secretly had children with these women. Instead, he focuses on illuminating the profound fissures of Swift’s sensibility and on examining the ways in which they inform his works and relate to the religious and political turmoil of his era. He does so with grace, verve and great care (at times, this book is almost oppressively thorough), and he considers the subtleties of Swift’s character, and the intricacy and importance of his thought and writing, with insight, intelligence and an appealing commitment to seeing his subject whole.

The Swift that emerges from these pages is not the gloomy ogre described by the likes of Thackeray and Orwell. Nor is he sanitized or over-celebrated. Rather, he appears as the darkly complicated figure he was: endearing, repellent, amusing, formidable and always full of the characteristics one would expect of a man who — as he once put it to Alexander Pope — considered it his duty “to vex the world rather than divert it.”

Matthew Adams is a British writer who contributes to the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement and the Irish Times.

Jonathan Swift
The Reluctant Rebel

By John Stubbs

Norton. 739 pp. $39.95