A stunted soul that housed an enormous talent
JONATHAN SWIFT: THE RELUCTANT REBEL By John Stubbs Norton, $39.95, 739 pages
Many books fail to live up to their titles. Only occasionally does the title fail to live up to the book. A current example is Oxford and Cambridge scholar John Stubbs’ massive, magisterial “life and times” biography of Jonathan Swift (16671745). While the title is “Jonathan Swift: The Reluctant Rebel,” Swift was actually a more complex figure. “Rebellious Reactionary” probably comes closer to the mark for a man who, for most of his career, was more widely read and discussed as a conservative political pamphleteer and social satirist than as a poet or pure man of letters.
Part of it was a matter of timing. While English poetry and drama had flowered since the Elizabethan Age, the totally evolved English novel was only beginning to take shape as Jonathan Swift sank into senility in the mid-18th century. It fell to a younger generation of British authors, three in particular, Henry Fielding (best known for “Tom Jones”), Tobias Smollett (“Roderick Random”) and Laurence Sterne (“Tristram Shandy”), to produce the first full-fledged, full-length English novels. Their work laid the foundation for later, greater 19th century novelists like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot and — just a notch below them — the indefatigable Anthony Trollope.
Swift’s invariably dark view of human nature — he was an ordained Anglican clergyman, dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, and a great believer in original sin — was sometimes expressed with scatological crudity, one of many reasons he fell out of fashion with the Victorians. Despite a near-obsession with personal cleanliness, Swift’s writing was almost coprophiliac at times, dwelling on such things as soiled ladies’ undergarments. One half suspects that he had a collection of them. All in all, he was a stunted soul housing an enormous talent, further conflicted by competing loyalties as an Irish-born son of English parents. But, if Fielding, Smollett and Sterne were the precursors of the golden age of the English novel, a case can be made that Jonathan Swift, one way and another, was the precursor of Fielding, Smollett and Sterne. Certainly, the intellectual and artistic quality of his work was a great leap forward from the pulp fiction approach of contemporaries like Daniel Defoe (of “Robinson Crusoe” fame), and was aimed at a more educated audience.
With the passing of the Victorians, Swift’s use of satire and fiction to depict and often eviscerate the social foibles of his time — and his unsentimental mixture of laughter, scorn, sarcasm and even rage in doing so — found kindred spirits among 20th century satirical novelists as different from each other as George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh. In that sense, the angry old Anglo-Irish clergyman who, in a self-mocking, rhyming epitaph, had declared his writing obsolete in his own lifetime, is more “modern” in outlook than many of his more celebrated successors.
Yet, except for “Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World by Lemuel Gulliver” (better known to moderns as “Gulliver’s Travels”), Swift is much more written about than read today. Indeed, when I tried to think of the last time I had a literary conversation about Jonathan Swift, I had to go back about 40 years to the late 1970s. It was during a visit to London. I was walking through St. James’ Square when I recognized the unmistakably shabby, snowy-maned figure of Michael Foot, a prominent member of the Labor Party’s militant left-wing faction. Though we had nothing in common politically, I had read and enjoyed his intelligent, entertaining little book, “The Pen and the Sword” some time before. In it, Foot described the key role Swift had played as a Tory propagandist in toppling the Whig faction that had dominated most of Queen Anne’s reign and made possible the great allied victories of the Duke of Marlborough over the French during the War of the Spanish Succession. I told Foot how much I appreciated his book, although my sympathies were more with Marlborough than with Swift, a confession he accepted with good grace. We chatted for about 10 minutes and then he ambled off to the London Library while I headed for a whiskey and soda at the Reform Club. Jonathan Swift, I think, would have approved.
John Stubbs, as one might expect from his earlier, widely acclaimed biography of the 17th century English poet John Donne, has done a masterful job of capturing Swift’s restless, sometimes tortured spirit, illuminating his work, and placing both the man and his writing in the context of their time.