978-0-8050-6168-0 / 9780805061680

Jonathan Swift: A Portrait


Publisher:Henry Holt and Co.



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"What I am writing is not a chronicle biography," cautions Victoria Glendinning of Jonathan Swift, but rather what the early-18th-century satirist and his contemporaries would have thought of as a "character," a prose portrait in which, as she puts it, Glendinning "[circles] a little, gradually zooming in on the man himself, until the central questions about him can finally be confronted in close-up."

Swift (1667-1745) is best known to many as the author of Gulliver's Travels; for others, he is more vividly remembered for A Modest Proposal, in which--with the textual equivalent of a deadpan expression--he offered Ireland's British rulers a solution to Irish overpopulation and poverty:

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.
Glendinning quotes extensively from Swift's prose and poetry, probing the political and aesthetic sensibilities that led him to such dark assessments of human nature, but she is just as strong--if not stronger--in her assessment of the two great romantic relationships in his life, with Esther Johnson ("Stella") and Hester Vanhomrigh ("Vanessa"). Here she draws upon extensive epistolary evidence, as well as contemporary accounts of the affairs. While there are some questions that cannot be conclusively answered--Were Swift and Stella secretly married? Did he ever consummate his relationship with Vanessa?--the ways in which Glendinning frames the possibilities make Swift come alive for modern readers, restoring a personality of great depth and complexity to a figure many know only by the name on a single book's title page. --Ron Hogan

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