"What I am writing is not a chronicle biography," cautions Victoria Glendinning of Jonathan Swift
, but rather what the early-18th-century satirist and his contemporaries would have thought of as a "character," a prose portrait in which, as she puts it, Glendinning "[circles] a little, gradually zooming in on the man himself, until the central questions about him can finally be confronted in close-up."
Swift (1667-1745) is best known to many as the author of Gulliver's Travels; for others, he is more vividly remembered for A Modest Proposal, in which--with the textual equivalent of a deadpan expression--he offered Ireland's British rulers a solution to Irish overpopulation and poverty:
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.
Glendinning quotes extensively from Swift's prose and poetry, probing the political and aesthetic sensibilities that led him to such dark assessments of human nature, but she is just as strong--if not stronger--in her assessment of the two great romantic relationships in his life, with Esther Johnson ("Stella") and Hester Vanhomrigh ("Vanessa"). Here she draws upon extensive epistolary evidence, as well as contemporary accounts of the affairs. While there are some questions that cannot be conclusively answered--Were Swift and Stella secretly married? Did he ever consummate his relationship with Vanessa?--the ways in which Glendinning frames the possibilities make Swift come alive for modern readers, restoring a personality of great depth and complexity to a figure many know only by the name on a single book's title page. --Ron Hogan
From Publishers Weekly
Aiming to evoke Swifts character rather than to give a comprehensiveor linearaccount of his life, Glendinning (Electricity, a novel; Rebecca West, a Life) captures the great 18th-century writers witty, cantankerous personality and his lifelong frustrations. The man who wrote Gullivers Travels, one of the greatest prose satires in the English language, died disappointed, sure that his best chance in lifemoving up the church hierarchyhad been missed, due to the tepidness of his allies in high places. Glendinnings Swift cant understand that the very qualitiesacid wit, uncompromising honesty, personal oddity and awkwardnessthat made him a brilliant, and unique, writer (and an attractive subject to biographers) undermined his ability to ingratiate himself with his superiors. Glendinning runs into trouble with her decision to forgo a traditional structure in favor of what was in Swifts time called a charactera written portrait. She seems unclear who her audience is, at times assuming a familiarity with Swifts poems, and then giving a lengthy summary of Gulliver. But at other times, her speculative method pays off, when she lends equal weight to conflicting accounts. She muses about the reasons that Swift either did or did not secretly marry the love of his life, Stella (aka Esther Johnson): Were they, for instance, secretly related, as the illegitimate children of Swifts mentor, Sir William Temple? But when it comes to sexual matters, shes more reticent. A bit too self-consciously, Glendinning often starts down one path, interrupts herself with a no, and then moves off in another direction. Inconsistencies such as these ultimately mar an otherwise intriguing portrait.
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