Tucker (On a Darkling Plain, 2014) presents a work of historical fiction based on the life of the legendary Anglo-Irish writer Jonathan Swift.
At the outset of the story, set around 1676, famed satirist Swift is a precocious 9-year-old who’s being flogged for acting up in school. The youngster may be talented in Latin and Greek, but he’s also quite the prankster. Swift is 16 when he goes off to Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, where his passions include poetry, flirting, and, of course, more pranks. He graduates in 1686 with the embarrassing distinction on his diploma that he did so only “by special grace.” His precocity remains when he goes on to work for the writer Sir William Temple before striking out on his own. Swift becomes an Anglican priest, and in this role, he learns much about the poverty of Ireland. He earns a doctorate in divinity in 1702 and takes his talents to London, where he becomes a thorny satirist, unafraid of ruffling feathers. After gaining notoriety in the English capital, Swift goes back to Dublin, where he does his most famous work, including penning the novel Gulliver’s Travels and harshly criticizing English-Irish relations. Throughout Swift’s journey, readers are kept abreast of his love affairs—particularly his long, complicated relationship with a woman named Hetty Johnson, whom he called “Stella.” The book also details Swift’s associations with famous figures, such as Alexander Pope. Readers come to understand how Swift’s “talent makes him powerful” and to appreciate the dichotomy of a man who loved both God and ribald humor.
Tucker’s version of the Swift story sometimes unfolds rather quickly, but at others, it’s a rather slow burn. For instance, the author extensively examines Swift’s awkward romantic relationships, but he gives some other elements short shrift, including the years that Swift spent getting his doctorate, for instance. This choice will leave readers with some questions about Swift’s life, although it does allow the book to focus on how the writer was perceived by others, exposing multiple facets of his famous persona. For example, Tucker presents a man who eloquently championed the poor but also once brutally beat his servant in a fit of rage. What truly steals the show here, though, is the author’s consideration of the time period that produced the famous figure that we know today. Swift’s writing was risky, but he was able to publish it anonymously; the publishers who printed it, however, could not hide behind false names, and as a result, they were open to reprimand. Modern readers in the United States, who are used to saying just about anything they like, will find that this book offers a deep exercise, indeed, imagining a world of dire consequence for satire. Swift’s success shows the triumph of the pen over the sword, but Tucker’s text dutifully reminds readers of just how dangerous that process was.
A novel that glosses over some aspects of Swift’s life but adroitly portrays the world in which he made his mark.