Kirkus Star


The Reluctant Rebel
Email this review


A resplendent biography of the “most notorious writer of his day.”

There’s no shortage of books about the life of Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), but this one might just dissuade others from writing another—if Leo Damrosch’s excellent 2013 biography didn’t already do so. (Stubbs acknowledges Damrosch’s achievement.) In this monumental biography, Stubbs (Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War, 2011, etc.) presents a classic man-and-his-times narrative, recounting in remarkable detail the complex life Swift led as an orphan born in Dublin who lived mostly in England but returned to Ireland in 1713 as a “reluctant rebel.” He was fond of saying that he was “stolen from England when a child and brought over to Ireland in a band-box.” Stubbs’ Swift is a practical joker who rarely smiled and possessed a “commanding, patriarchal air.” Drawing extensively on Swift’s writings and the histories of the time, Stubbs recounts the author’s upbringing by a “well-connected family,” fine education, and employment in England as a secretary for a retired diplomat, Sir William Temple. It was then that he met the young Esther Johnson, who would be his friend for life and help him deal with his life-long vertigo, tinnitus, and nausea. Stubbs disputes rumors that he secretly married her. While in England, Swift demonstrated his “power as a fabulist” and master satirist, penning The Battle of the Books and A Tale of a Tub. He begrudgingly returned to Dublin to serve as dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where he churned out anonymously written, scathing political pamphlets, the bleak and sardonic masterpiece A Modest Proposal, and Gulliver’s Travels, a “phenomenon.” Stubbs’ in-depth analysis of the vast cultural impact of Swift’s many works is impressive, as are his portraits of Swift’s literary acquaintances. This astute portrait of a complicated man who wanted to defend his homeland and to “vex the world rather than divert it” is truly masterful.

A rich and sweeping story superbly told.

Pub Date: Jan. 3rd, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-393-23942-3
Page count: 752pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 2016


NonfictionREPROBATES by John Stubbs
by John Stubbs
NonfictionJOHN DONNE by John Stubbs
by John Stubbs


FictionI, HOGARTH by Michael Dean
by Michael Dean
NonfictionJONATHAN SWIFT by Victoria Glendinning
by Victoria Glendinning
NonfictionJONATHAN SWIFT by Leo Damrosch
by Leo Damrosch