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.