A giant brought down to Earth;Book of the week;Books

11th September 1998 at 01:00
SWIFT. by Victoria Glendinning. Hutchinson pound;20

For someone who looms so large in the literary world, remarkably little is known about Jonathan Swift. Robert Dunbar delights in a biographer who searches for the answers to his continuing enigma with both wit and authority

A few months before his death in 1745, Jonathan Swift was sitting in the Deanery of St Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin. As he put out his hand to snatch at a knife lying on the table, his housekeeper, Anne Ridgeway, moved it out of his reach. Swift shrugged his shoulders, rocked in his chair and said, "I am what I am". He repeated the words. "I am what I am. I am what I am."

It is with this anecdote that Victoria Glendinning closes this new study of Swift and it is difficult, given the volume's overall tone and emphasis, to imagine a more appropriate ending. At the heart of her endeavour is a determination to see her subject as someone whose complexities and contradictions made him what he was, however eccentric, inexplicable or disturbing they may have been.

Stating at the outset that she wishes to avoid "a chronicle biography", Glendinning chooses instead a method that is more subjective, more impressionistic than the conventional biographical mode. She focuses less on linear development than on some of the "impossibly difficult questions" which surface in any consideration of Swift's life. And - most entertainingly and in places with real wit - she directly involves the reader in her search for the answers.

Through judicious use of the word "I" at key stages in her enquiries, she keeps us informed of her progress and of the special problems which frustrate all Swiftian researchers in their quest for definite conclusions. When she presents her own speculative interpretations of the man and what he did (or may have done), she does so with engaging modesty: "I cannot prove that this was how it was," she writes of one such key topic of speculation, the question as to whether Swift and Esther Johnson (better known as "Stella" in Swift's writing) ever married.

It is also when dealing with this question that Glendinning makes one further comment which typifies much else in her method. She points out that, if Swift and Stella did marry, there need not necessarily have been any pressing reason for keeping the marriage secret, since, she adds, "secret marriages were still quite common".

This is merely one detail among hundreds which come together to provide a wonderfully textured background picture of the social, political and religious climate which formed Swift, man and writer. Whether discussing 18th-century attitudes to matters of personal hygiene, dissecting murky machinations at court and in Parliament or pinpointing the lack of the genuinely spiritual in much that characterised contemporary "religious" life, Glendinning provides illumination and amusement in equal quantity.

But there remains - as she often reminds us - a great deal about the character of Swift which can only be termed enigmatic. If, as it seems fair to suggest, his life was dominated by a sense of angry disappointment that his qualities were never sufficiently recognised, did this disappointment have its origins in a childhood where, with a father dead and a mother who virtually abandoned him, a young boy had to rely on others for whatever advancement was to come his way? To what extent was this feeling of dependence intensified when, at the age of 22, he first went to Moor Park as a member of the household of Sir William Temple, the location for his first meeting with Stella?

Later, when Sir William eventually failed to promote his interests further, why did Swift "design to be ordained, September next"? What was the cumulative effect of his first clerical appointments in the backwoods of rural Ireland? What was the contribution to his personality of the recurring bouts of illness (first apparent at Moor Park) which were to plague him for most of his life? If only, one feels, we had the answers to these "early days" questions, much of what was to follow might have made sense. Or, again, possibly not: as Glendinning remarks: "His disappointment, like his pride, was part of his nature."

Swift was installed as Dean of St Patrick's in 1713, at the age of 46. He became a dominant figure in Irish life, signalling from the start, orally and in his writings, a vigorous sympathy with the native Irish in face of their treatment by the English - his frequently-expressed loathing of the country notwithstanding.

There were non-political developments too, not least in the complications of his relationships with Stella and, from 1714 onwards, with Hester Vamhomrigh ("Vanessa", as Swift called her), both of whom had by now followed him to Dublin. Glendinning is on her most sparkling form in the chapters dealing with these amorous intrigues, from which, it must be conceded, Swift does not emerge with great glory.

The details of Swift's final years, with their accelerating physical and mental deterioration, make for sad reading. But, in a juxtaposition which seems absolutely right, they are related here after a chapter simply entitled "Filth"- Glendinning's survey of the scatological dimension to his writings.

Earlier, she uses, approvingly, the adjective "gamy" to describe Swift's contemporary, Dr Arbuthnot, in his role as a writer of lampoons. It is an adjective which, equally approvingly, describes her own "Filth" chapter and much more in this clever, exhilarating and totally absorbing book.

Robert Dunbar lectures in English at the Church of Ireland College of Education, Dublin

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