In his new biography, Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, Leo Damrosch brings the great writer to life in all his human complexity. Below is the beginning of the book’s introduction.
In the 1720s a brilliant and beautiful young woman was entangled in a troubled affair with a man twenty years older. She had fallen passionately in love with him in London, and when he moved home to Dublin she followed him there. He was strongly attracted to her but reluctant to commit himself, and he insisted they keep their relationship secret. They were apart much of the time and communicated by letter, and she was sometimes near despair when he seemed to be rejecting her: “I am sure I could have bore the rack much better than those killing, killing words of yours.” At other times, though, he did reply in the way she wanted. “Be assured,” he declared, “that no one on earth has ever been loved, honored, esteemed, adored by your friend but yourself.” Whenever he wrote like that, she would be joyful ˗˗˗“You are good beyond expression, and I will never quarrel again if I can help it.” For a time they met covertly once a week at someone else’s house in Dublin.
In the letters they had a private code. The man suggested that “a stroke thus ˗˗˗ ˗˗˗ ˗˗˗ ˗˗˗ signifies everything that may be said.” In her letters from then on, the dashes flew thick and fast: “I have worn out my days in sighing and my nights with watching and thinking of ˗˗˗, ˗˗˗, ˗˗˗, ˗˗˗.” Only they knew what words were meant.
Evidently, the word coffee was part of the same code. In a number of letters from the man over several years, “coffee” has a suggestive aura: “I wish I were to walk with you fifty times about your garden, and then—drink your coffee”; “I drank no coffee since I left you, nor intend till I see you again, there is none worth drinking but yours”; “Without health, you will lose all desire of drinking your coffee.” At one point the absence of her coffee is so disturbing that it interferes with his work as a writer: “I am not cheerful enough to write, for I believe coffee once a week is necessary to do that.”
The man in this strange romantic story was Jonathan Swift, and the book he was trying to write was Gulliver’s Travels. He liked to be mysterious toward everyone, not just toward the young woman, and even those who knew him best were baffled by his contradictions. One friend said that his character was “exceedingly strange, various, and perplexed,” and another called him “my hieroglyphic friend.” He became a public figure of great distinction, dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and a champion of Irish rights, yet he was profoundly skeptical and he claimed to despise Ireland. He was a great writer, yet he almost never signed his name to his work.
Even the basic facts concerning Swift’s origins are open to question. He inherited the name of a Jonathan Swift who died before he was born, but it is not entirely certain that that was his real father. His wet nurse abducted him from Dublin when he was an infant and took him to England with her; amazingly, his family let him stay there with her for several years. Why? When he was finally brought back to Dublin, why did his mother then leave for England herself, and why did he not see her again until he was an adult? After his mother left, an uncle in Dublin become his guardian and paid for an expensive education. So why did Swift despise his uncle and declare that he had been given “the education of a dog”?
It wasn’t just Swift’s childhood that was mysterious; his most intimate and enduring adult relationships were mysterious too. After college he spent ten years as confidential secretary to a distinguished retired diplomat in England in whose household there was a bright nine-year-old girl, the housekeeper’s daughter. The diplomat arranged to have his servant’s child tutored by Swift, and at his death she received an extraordinarily large bequest. As an adult she moved to Dublin when he returned there, and was his closest friend for the rest of her life; he addressed annual birthday poems to her as “Stella.” Even though they were apparently never together without a third party present, many who knew them were convinced that they were secretly married. But if they were married, why did it have to be secret? And how much did the close friend (or wife) know about her young rival with the coffee? Was it an actual love triangle, or only a virtual one?
This man of mystery produced a book that became world-famous. Everybody recognizes the image of Gulliver tied down on the ground by a host of tiny people, even if they have not read the masterpiece from which it comes. A stunningly original fantasy, it is uncanny in Freud’s sense of that term: strange and yet familiar, absurd and yet believable. Many children, and many adults too, have loved Gulliver’s Travels. George Orwell, though he was critical of Swift’s politics, confessed that he read it over and over, and would put it on any list of “six books which were to be preserved when all others were destroyed.” To this day, at least two dozen publishers are keeping it in print, and it is a universal classic, its fame extending beyond the English-speaking world.
But few know much about the man who wrote Gulliver’s Travels, or about the long-ago world that for him was the present moment. This book is an invitation to time travel, in quest of what a historian has called “the sensations of being alive in a different time.” Swift was alive during a time of revolutionary change, when a king was deposed in a sensational revolution, the modern political system came into being, and Britain became a world power. It was at that time that an Irish national consciousness was born, in opposition to control by England, and Swift’s was a crucial voice in forging it. “We should see certain men and women,” Yeats said, with Swift in mind, “as if at the edge of a cliff, time broken away from their feet.”