Few books have ever piqued the public imagination quite as enduringly as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, published in 1726. Naturally, today’s readers remain intrigued by satirical passages about European government and otherworldly discussions about human nature. Young readers in particular love to imagine being in the wondrous land of Lilliput, or taking a voyage with Gulliver to mythical islands like Brobdingnag, Laputa, and Glubbdubdrib.
When it comes to Swift, the Irish cleric and satirist who wrote this magical story, he was as complex and intriguing an individual as his best-known protagonist.
John Stubbs’s book Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel is a superbly written and researched examination of the literary figure. Stubbs, an Oxbridge-educated English historian, earned international acclaim for his two previous books, John Donne (2007) and Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War (2010). His latest massive tome is equally impressive, examining every detail that made Swift “the most notorious writer of his day, a giant personality in Georgian Britain and Ireland, and a champion or ‘avenger’—in his unusual and puzzling Latin word, a vindictator—of liberty.”
Swift was born in Dublin in 1667. His English-born father had died several months before, and his mother returned to England not long after his birth. After living with his nurse and her husband in Whitehaven, Cumbria, Swift returned to Ireland to live with his respected uncle Godwin’s family.
His childhood was “a time of chastisement and mortification,” according to Stubbs, since “he felt humbled by his upbringing, and later criticized almost all those concerned with it.” Swift hated Ireland, for example, but this “did not equate with liking England, since he resented England for abandoning him to Ireland.” He also felt that being a child “entailed having one’s wishes and pleasures systematically crushed,” meaning that “to be criticized, let alone satirized, meant being shamed; it meant feeling like a boy again.”
It’s also interesting to note that Swift thought himself a poor student, and “even reproached his guardians for not doing more to make him study.” To blame himself, one assumes, was not an option. (Stubbs disagrees with Swift’s self-assessment, calling him “a competent and even above-average student, though not the wonder of the schools he might have later wished to be.”) Regardless, he did earn a bachelor’s degree from Dublin University in 1686—and a master’s from Hart Hall, Oxford in 1692—and began his odyssey as a writer and satirist.
Stubbs opines that Swift’s satire on subjects such as philosophy and science “seems to lie with a conviction of its essential pointlessness.” He then adds a fascinating evaluation: that the budding satirist “rejected the rising view that even theories that seemed absurd in the sight of Reason should be considered tenable if enough evidence could be mustered or contrived to support them; for him, this was a short step away from the ‘free-thinking’ encouraged among ‘fanatics’ and ‘visionaries.’ ” It was from this perspective, skeptical of the superstitious ideologies of his day, that Swift created the fictional world that has mesmerized readers ever since.
British society was going through a historical transformation.
In the real world during Swift’s day, British society was going through a historical transformation. The political parties were closer to “warring bands,” as the Tories and Whigs fought tooth and nail for control and influence. Swift, a High Anglican, had an “extremely authoritarian, conservative outlook” on life and “had been committed to the Tory cause for decades” during Gulliver’s conception. Yet, even he “had worn somewhat shorter heels” with the Whigs in the early eighteenth century. In a little-known example of Swift’s activism, Stubbs describes the author having dipped his toes into political waters as a pamphleteer.
Swift’s religion was similarly integral to his worldview. He served as a private chaplain to the Earl of Berkeley, and Dean (or senior priest) of Dublin’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He wrote and published sermons, was a strong defender of the Church, had grave concerns about the Irish Catholic movement, and, like most members of the “inferior clergy” (or lower-ranking Church members) of the time, he “developed a strong collective grudge against their diocesan masters, and an aversion to reform.” Swift’s conservatism was, therefore, both political and personal in nature.
Many of Jonathan Swift’s most intriguing passages predictably pertain to the main subject’s literary accomplishments. For instance, Meditation upon a Broomstick (1701) examines the “humbled broom with its shabby periwig of strands” and how it “becomes a truly versatile metaphor of a man’s pride and vanity.” A Tale of a Tub (1704), his first major work and a “heartfelt defence of the Church,” is an “avant-garde anomaly among his popular comic miscellaneous pieces.” The Battle of the Books (1704) determined that “the Ancients and their champions are obviously greater than the Moderns,” but the “outcome of the war between them, though unstated, is bleakly obvious.” A Journal to Stella (1766), which was posthumously published, is a collection of “unfailingly intimate” letters written to Esther “Stella” Johnson (whom he may have secretly married or at least had intimate relations with) and, most likely, her companion, Rebecca Dingley.
And, of course, there is Gulliver.
“From the outset,” writes Stubbs, “the Travels attracted the wide spectrum of readers (and listeners) it has held for centuries now.” The book certainly had its detractors, and received criticism in some circles of interest for its “ ‘filthy,’ scatological passages.” But it was clear that Lemuel Gulliver and the Lilliputians had won over the general public. The book became a lucrative publishing property right from the start, and, having “caught the mood of a world ripe with wonders,” Stubbs adds that it “was widely accepted as a book for the ages.”
Having elaborated at length on Swift’s genius, Stubbs uses his parting thoughts to ponder a hypothetical about the source of Swift’s manic insights. He briefly muses about the possibility that Swift may have had Asperger’s Syndrome, recognizing that there is no way to prove or disprove a link to autistic behavior. As Swift got older, there was indeed a “growing strangeness of his ways,” such as his “unshakeable concern with cleanliness or fitness.” He also “stopped merely putting on a show” over the course of his life, and “eccentricities became settled character traits.”
A traditionalist with stubborn values and strong religious convictions.
Maybe this possibility helps explain why Swift was such a persistent (even if, as Stubbs’s title has it, “reluctant”) rebel in his time. A traditionalist with stubborn values and strong religious convictions, he had various relationships (sexual or otherwise) with women, flitted between political movements, and distrusted modern thinking. Even in this definitive volume of a literary giant, a few mysteries clearly remain.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 3, on page 64
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