JONATHAN SWIFT by Victoria Glendinning


A Biography
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A lively, discursive distillation of the Swiftian essentials from Swift’s own life. Given that popular biographies of Swift began shortly after his death and that serious, scholarly ones now come out with regularity, Whitbread-winning biographer and novelist Glendinning (Anthony Trollope, 1993, etc.) approaches the enigmatic, contradictory Dr. Swift with both thorough research and a light tone. Her aim, she declares, is to write “what was in Swift’s time called a ‘character’—a written portrait” rather than a full biography—and the result is as gossipy and acute as one of John Aubrey’s brief lives. Swift’s celebrity, whether as an Irish patriot or the author of Gulliver’s Travels, gets a quick overhaul as Glendinning portrays the talented but unconnected young man of letters in Augustan coffee houses and Tory circles and later the unwilling exile to Ireland, having failed to win the worldly success of his mentor, Sir William Temple. While his early satires, A Tale of a Tub and The Battle of the Books, and his political pamphleteering for Queen Anne’s Tories get short treatment, Glendinning vividly conveys the atmosphere of Augustan literary circles and the Tory corridors of power, which Swift eventually managed to penetrate with a combination of wit and perseverance. Swift’s disappointed ambition when the Whigs took power with George I becomes in Glendinning’s view his ruling passion, which even the successes of The Drapier’s Letters and Gulliver would never quite dispel. If her take has obvious psychological limits—which are not expanded by digressive speculations about Swift’s parentage, his relations with Esther “Stella” Johnson and Hester “Vanessa” Vanhomrigh, and a possible clandestine marriage to the former—it produces a sharply defined and intriguing “character.” “Like his Gulliver,” Glendinning concludes, “Swift is always too big or small for the company he keeps,” but she at least puts him into some proportion to his life and times. (8 pages b&w illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: May 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-8050-6168-1
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1999


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