When Swift began to write the letters known as the Journal to Stella, he was forty-two years of age, and Esther Johnson twenty-nine. Perhaps the most useful introduction to the correspondence will be a brief setting forth of what is known of their friendship from Stella’s childhood, the more specially as the question has been obscured by many assertions and theories resting on a very slender basis of fact.
Jonathan Swift, born in 1667 after his father’s death, was educated by his uncle Godwin, and after a not very successful career at Trinity College, Dublin, went to stay with his mother, Abigail Erick, at Leicester. Mrs. Swift feared that her son would fall in love with a girl named Betty Jones, but, as Swift told a friend, he had had experience enough “not to think of marriage till I settle my fortune in the world, which I am sure will not be in some years; and even then, I am so hard to please that I suppose I shall put it off to the other world.” Soon afterwards an opening for Swift presented itself. Sir William Temple, now living in retirement at Moor Park, near Farnham, had been, like his father, Master of the Irish Rolls, and had thus become acquainted with Swift’s uncle Godwin. Moreover, Lady Temple was related to Mrs. Swift, as Lord Orrery tells us. Thanks to these facts, the application to Sir William Temple was successful, and Swift went to live at Moor Park before the end of 1689. There he read to Temple, wrote for him, and kept his accounts, and growing into confidence with his employer, “was often trusted with matters of great importance.” The story — afterwards improved upon by Lord Macaulay — that Swift received only 20 pounds and his board, and was not allowed to sit at table with his master, is wholly untrustworthy. Within three years of their first intercourse, Temple had introduced his secretary to William the Third, and sent him to London to urge the King to consent to a bill for triennial Parliaments.
When Swift took up his residence at Moor Park he found there a little girl of eight, daughter of a merchant named Edward Johnson, who had died young. Swift says that Esther Johnson was born on March 18, 1681; in the parish register of Richmond,1 which shows that she was baptized on March 20, 1680-81, her name is given as Hester; but she signed her will “Esther,” the name by which she was always known. Swift says, “Her father was a younger brother of a good family in Nottinghamshire, her mother of a lower degree; and indeed she had little to boast in her birth.” Mrs. Johnson had two children, Esther and Ann, and lived at Moor Park as companion to Lady Giffard, Temple’s widowed sister. Another member of the household, afterwards to be Esther’s constant companion, was Rebecca Dingley, a relative of the Temple family.2 She was a year or two older than Swift.
The lonely young man of twenty-two was both playfellow and teacher of the delicate child of eight. How he taught her to write has been charmingly brought before us in the painting exhibited by Miss Dicksee at the Royal Academy a few years ago; he advised her what books to read, and instructed her, as he says, “in the principles of honour and virtue, from which she never swerved in any one action or moment of her life.”
By 1694 Swift had grown tired of his position, and finding that Temple, who valued his services, was slow in finding him preferment, he left Moor Park in order to carry out his resolve to go into the Church. He was ordained, and obtained the prebend of Kilroot, near Belfast, where he carried on a flirtation with a Miss Waring, whom he called Varina. But in May 1696 Temple made proposals which induced Swift to return to Moor Park, where he was employed in preparing Temple’s memoirs and correspondence for publication, and in supporting the side taken by Temple in the Letters of Phalaris controversy by writing The Battle of the Books, which was, however, not published until 1704. On his return to Temple’s house, Swift found his old playmate grown from a sickly child into a girl of fifteen, in perfect health. She came, he says, to be “looked upon as one of the most beautiful, graceful, and agreeable young women in London, only a little too fat. Her hair was blacker than a raven, and every feature of her face in perfection.”
On his death in January 1699, Temple left a will,3 dated 1694, directing the payment of 20 pounds each, with half a year’s wages, to Bridget Johnson “and all my other servants”; and leaving a lease of some land in Monistown, County Wicklow, to Esther Johnson, “servant to my sister Giffard.” By a codicil of February 1698, Temple left 100 pounds to “Mr. Jonathan Swift, now living with me.” It may be added that by her will of 1722, proved in the following year, Lady Giffard gave 20 pounds to Mrs. Moss — Mrs. Bridget Johnson, who had married Richard Mose or Moss, Lady Giffard’s steward. The will proceeds: “To Mrs. Hester (sic) Johnson I give 10 pounds, with the 100 pounds I put into the Exchequer for her life and my own, and declare the 100 pounds to be hers which I am told is there in my name upon the survivorship, and for which she has constantly sent over her certificate and received the interest. I give her besides my two little silver candlesticks.”
Temple left in Swift’s hands the task of publishing his posthumous works, a duty which afterwards led to a quarrel with Lady Giffard and other members of the family. Many years later Swift told Lord Palmerston that he stopped at Moor Park solely for the benefit of Temple’s conversation and advice, and the opportunity of pursuing his studies. At Temple’s death he was “as far to seek as ever.” In the summer of 1699, however, he was offered and accepted the post of secretary and chaplain to the Earl of Berkeley, one of the Lords Justices, but when he reached Ireland he found that the secretaryship had been given to another. He soon, however, obtained the living of Laracor, Agher, and Rathbeggan, and the prebend of Dunlavin in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. The total value of these preferments was about 230 pounds a year, an income which Miss Waring seems to have thought enough to justify him in marrying. Swift’s reply to the lady whom he had “singled out at first from the rest of women” could only have been written with the intention of breaking off the connection, and accordingly we hear no more of poor Varina.
At Laracor, a mile or two from Trim, and twenty miles from Dublin, Swift ministered to a congregation of about fifteen persons, and had abundant leisure for cultivating his garden, making a canal (after the Dutch fashion of Moor Park), planting willows, and rebuilding the vicarage. As chaplain to Lord Berkeley, he spent much of his time in Dublin. He was on intimate terms with Lady Berkeley and her daughters, one of whom is best known by her married name of Lady Betty Germaine; and through them he had access to the fashionable society of Dublin. When Lord Berkeley returned to England in April 1701, Swift, after taking his Doctor’s degree at Dublin, went with him, and soon afterwards published, anonymously, a political pamphlet, A Discourse on the Contests and Dissentions in Athens and Rome. When he returned to Ireland in September he was accompanied by Stella — to give Esther Johnson the name by which she is best known — and her friend Mrs. Dingley. Stella’s fortune was about 1500 pounds, and the property Temple had left her was in County Wicklow. Swift, very much for his “own satisfaction, who had few friends or acquaintance in Ireland,” persuaded Stella — now twenty years old — that living was cheaper there than in England, and that a better return was obtainable on money. The ladies took his advice, and made Ireland their home. At first they felt themselves strangers in Dublin; “the adventure looked so like a frolic,” Swift says, “the censure held for some time as if there were a secret history in such a removal: which however soon blew off by her excellent conduct.” Swift took every step that was possible to avoid scandal. When he was away, the ladies occupied his rooms; when he returned, they went into their own lodgings. When he was absent, they often stopped at the vicarage at Laracor, but if he were there, they moved to Trim, where they visited the vicar, Dr. Raymond, or lived in lodgings in the town or neighbourhood. Swift was never with Stella except in the presence of a third person, and in 1726 he said that he had not seen her in a morning “these dozen years, except once or twice in a journey.”
During a visit to England in the winter of 1703-4 we find Swift in correspondence with the Rev. William Tisdall, a Dublin incumbent whom he had formerly known at Belfast. Tisdall was on friendly terms with Stella and Mrs. Dingley, and Swift sent messages to them through him. “Pray put them upon reading,” he wrote, “and be always teaching something to Mrs. Johnson, because she is good at comprehending, remembering and retaining.” But the correspondence soon took a different turn. Tisdall paid his addresses to Stella, and charged Swift with opposing his suit. Tisdall’s letters are missing, but Swift’s reply of April 20, 1704, puts things sufficiently clearly. “My conjecture is,” he says, “that you think I obstructed your inclinations to please my own, and that my intentions were the same with yours. In answer to all which I will, upon my conscience and honour, tell you the naked truth. First, I think I have said to you before that, if my fortunes and humour served me to think of that state, I should certainly, among all persons upon earth, make your choice; because I never saw that person whose conversation I entirely valued but hers; this was the utmost I ever gave way to. And secondly, I must assure you sincerely that this regard of mine never once entered into my head to be an impediment to you.” He had thought Tisdall not rich enough to marry; “but the objection of your fortune being removed, I declare I have no other; nor shall any consideration of my own misfortune, in losing so good a friend and companion as her, prevail on me, against her interest and settlement in the world, since it is held so necessary and convenient a thing for ladies to marry, and that time takes off from the lustre of virgins in all other eyes but mine. I appeal to my letters to herself whether I was your friend or not in the whole concern, though the part I designed to act in it was purely passive.” He had even thought “it could not be decently broken,” without disadvantage to the lady’s credit, since he supposed it was known to the town; and he had always spoken of her in a manner far from discouraging. Though he knew many ladies of rank, he had “nowhere met with an humour, a wit, or conversation so agreeable, a better portion of good sense, or a truer judgment of men or things.” He envied Tisdall his prudence and temper, and love of peace and settlement, “the reverse of which has been the great uneasiness of my life, and is likely to continue so.”
This letter has been quoted at some length because of its great importance. It is obviously capable of various interpretations, and some, like Dr. Johnson, have concluded that Swift was resolved to keep Stella in his power, and therefore prevented an advantageous match by making unreasonable demands. I cannot see any ground for this interpretation, though it is probable that Tisdall’s appearance as a suitor was sufficiently annoying. There is no evidence that Stella viewed Tisdall’s proposal with any favour, unless it can be held to be furnished by Swift’s belief that the town thought — rightly or wrongly — that there was an engagement. In any case, there could be no mistake in future with regard to Swift’s attitude towards Stella. She was dearer to him than anyone else, and his feeling for her would not change, but for marriage he had neither fortune nor humour. Tisdall consoled himself by marrying another lady two years afterwards; and though for a long time Swift entertained for him feelings of dislike, in later life their relations improved, and Tisdall was one of the witnesses to Swift’s will.
The Tale of a Tub was published in 1704, and Swift was soon in constant intercourse with Addison and the other wits. While he was in England in 1705, Stella and Mrs. Dingley made a short visit to London. This and a similar visit in 1708 are the only occasions on which Stella is known to have left Ireland after taking up her residence in that country. Swift’s influence over women was always very striking. Most of the toasts of the day were his friends, and he insisted that any lady of wit and quality who desired his acquaintance should make the first advances. This, he says — writing in 1730 — had been an established rule for over twenty years. In 1708 a dispute on this question with one toast, Mrs. Long, was referred for settlement to Ginckel Vanhomrigh, the son of the house where it was proposed that the meeting should take place; and by the decision — which was in Swift’s favour —“Mrs. Vanhomrigh and her fair daughter Hessy” were forbidden to aid Mrs. Long in her disobedience for the future. This is the first that we hear of Hester or Esther Vanhomrigh, who was afterwards to play so marked a part in the story of Swift’s life. Born on February 14, 1690, she was now eighteen. Her father, Bartholomew Vanhomrigh, a Dublin merchant of Dutch origin, had died in 1703, leaving his wife a fortune of some sixteen thousand pounds. On the income from this money Mrs. Vanhomrigh, with her two daughters, Hester and Mary, were able to mix in fashionable society in London. Swift was introduced to them by Sir Andrew Fountaine early in 1708, but evidently Stella did not make their acquaintance, nor indeed hear much, if anything, of them until the time of the Journal.
Swift’s visit to London in 1707-9 had for its object the obtaining for the Irish Church of the surrender by the Crown of the First-Fruits and Twentieths, which brought in about 2500 pounds a year. Nothing came of Swift’s interviews with the Whig statesmen, and after many disappointments he returned to Laracor (June 1709), and conversed with none but Stella and her card-playing friends, and Addison, now secretary to Lord Wharton.4 Next year came the fall of the Whigs, and a request to Swift from the Irish bishops that he would renew the application for the First-Fruits, in the hope that there would be greater success with the Tories. Swift reached London in September 1710, and began the series of letters, giving details of the events of each day, which now form the Journal to Stella. “I will write something every day to MD,” he says, “and make it a sort of journal; and when it is full I will send it, whether MD writes or no; and so that will be pretty; and I shall always be in conversation with MD, and MD with Presto.” It is interesting to note that by way of caution these letters were usually addressed to Mrs. Dingley, and not to Stella.
The story of Swift’s growing intimacy with the Tory leaders, of the success of his mission, of the increasing coolness towards older acquaintances, and of his services to the Government, can best be read in the Journal itself. In the meantime the intimacy with the Vanhomrighs grew rapidly. They were near neighbours of Swift’s, and in a few weeks after his arrival in town we find frequent allusions to the dinners at their house (where he kept his best gown and periwig), sometimes with the explanation that he went there “out of mere listlessness,” or because it was wet, or because another engagement had broken down. Only thrice does he mention the “eldest daughter”: once on her birthday; once on the occasion of a trick played him, when he received a message that she was suddenly very ill (“I rattled off the daughter”); and once to state that she was come of age, and was going to Ireland to look after her fortune. There is evidence that “Miss Essy,” or Vanessa, to give her the name by which she will always be known, was in correspondence with Swift in July 1710 — while he was still in Ireland — and in the spring of 1711;5 and early in 1711 Stella seems to have expressed surprise at Swift’s intimacy with the family, for in February he replied, “You say they are of no consequence; why, they keep as good female company as I do male; I see all the drabs of quality at this end of the town with them.” In the autumn Swift seems to have thought that Vanessa was keeping company with a certain Hatton, but Mrs. Long — possibly meaning to give him a warning hint — remarked that if this were so “she is not the girl I took her for; but to me she seems melancholy.”
In 1712 occasional letters took the place of the daily journal to “MD,” but there is no change in the affectionate style in which Swift wrote. In the spring he had a long illness, which affected him, indeed, throughout the year. Other reasons which he gives for the falling off in his correspondence are his numerous business engagements, and the hope of being able to send some good news of an appointment for himself. There is only one letter to Stella between July 19 and September 15, and Dr. Birkbeck Hill argues that the poem “Cadenus and Vanessa” was composed at that time.6 If this be so, it must have been altered next year, because it was not until 1713 that Swift was made a Dean. Writing on April 19, 1726, Swift said that the poem “was written at Windsor near fourteen years ago, and dated: it was a task performed on a frolic among some ladies, and she it was addressed to died some time ago in Dublin, and on her death the copy shewn by her executor.” Several copies were in circulation, and he was indifferent what was done with it; it was “only a cavalier business,” and if those who would not give allowances were malicious, it was only what he had long expected.
From this letter it would appear that this remarkable poem was written in the summer of 1712; whereas the title-page of the pamphlet says it was “written at Windsor, 1713.” Swift visited Windsor in both years, but he had more leisure in 1712, and we know that Vanessa was also at Windsor in that year. In that year, too, he was forty-four, the age mentioned in the poem. Neither Swift nor Vanessa forgot this intercourse: years afterwards Swift wrote to her, “Go over the scenes of Windsor. . . . Cad thinks often of these”; and again, “Remember the indisposition at Windsor.” We know that this poem was revised in 1719, when in all probability Swift added the lines to which most exception can be taken. Cadenus was to be Vanessa’s instructor:—
“His conduct might have made him styled
A father, and the nymph his child.”
He had “grown old in politics and wit,” and “in every scene had kept his heart,” so that he now “understood not what was love.” But he had written much, and Vanessa admired his wit. Cadenus found that her thoughts wandered —
“Though she seemed to listen more
To all he spoke than e’er before.”
When she confessed her love, he was filled with “shame, disappointment, guilt, surprise.” He had aimed only at cultivating the mind, and had hardly known whether she was young or old. But he was flattered, and though he could not give her love, he offered her friendship, “with gratitude, respect, esteem.” Vanessa took him at his word, and said she would now be tutor, though he was not apt to learn:—
“But what success Vanessa met
Is to the world a secret yet.
Whether the nymph to please her swain
Talks in a high romantic strain;
Or whether he at last descends
To act with less seraphic ends;
Or, to compound the business, whether
They temper love and books together,
Must never to mankind be told,
Nor shall the conscious Muse unfold.”
Such is the poem as we now have it, written, it must be remembered, for Vanessa’s private perusal. It is to be regretted, for her own sake, that she did not destroy it.
Swift received the reward of his services to the Government — the Deanery of St. Patrick’s, Dublin — in April 1713. Disappointed at what he regarded as exile, he left London in June. Vanessa immediately began to send him letters which brought home to him the extent of her passion; and she hinted at jealousy in the words, “If you are very happy, it is ill-natured of you not to tell me so, except ’tis what is inconsistent with my own.” In his reply Swift dwelt upon the dreariness of his surroundings at Laracor, and reminded her that he had said he would endeavour to forget everything in England, and would write as seldom as he could.
Swift was back again in the political strife in London in September, taking Oxford’s part in the quarrel between that statesman and Bolingbroke. On the fall of the Tories at the death of Queen Anne, he saw that all was over, and retired to Ireland, not to return again for twelve years. In the meantime the intimacy with Vanessa had been renewed. Her mother had died, leaving debts, and she pressed Swift for advice in the management of her affairs. When she suggested coming to Ireland, where she had property, he told her that if she took this step he would “see her very seldom.” However, she took up her abode at Celbridge, only a few miles from Dublin. Swift gave her many cautions, out of “the perfect esteem and friendship” he felt for her, but he often visited her. She was dissatisfied, however, begging him to speak kindly, and at least to counterfeit his former indulgent friendship. “What can be wrong,” she wrote, “in seeing and advising an unhappy young woman? You cannot but know that your frowns make my life unsupportable.” Sometimes he treated the matter lightly; sometimes he showed annoyance; sometimes he assured her of his esteem and love, but urged her not to make herself or him “unhappy by imaginations.” He was uniformly unsuccessful in stopping Vanessa’s importunity. He endeavoured, she said, by severities to force her from him; she knew she was the cause of uneasy reflections to him; but nothing would lessen her “inexpressible passion.”
Unfortunately he failed — partly no doubt from mistaken considerations of kindness, partly because he shrank from losing her affection — to take effective steps to put an end to Vanessa’s hopes. It would have been better if he had unhesitatingly made it clear to her that he could not return her passion, and that if she could not be satisfied with friendship the intimacy must cease. To quote Sir Henry Craik, “The friendship had begun in literary guidance: it was strengthened by flattery: it lived on a cold and almost stern repression, fed by confidences as to literary schemes, and by occasional literary compliments: but it never came to have a real hold over Swift’s heart.”
With 1716 we come to the alleged marriage with Stella. In 1752, seven years after Swift’s death, Lord Orrery, in his Remarks on Swift, said that Stella was “the concealed, but undoubted, wife of Dr. Swift. . . . If my informations are right, she was married to Dr. Swift in the year 1716, by Dr. Ashe, then Bishop of Clogher.” Ten years earlier, in 1742, in a letter to Deane Swift which I have not seen quoted before, Orrery spoke of the advantage of a wife to a man in his declining years; “nor had the Dean felt a blow, or wanted a companion, had he been married, or, in other words, had Stella lived.” What this means is not at all clear. In 1754, Dr. Delany, an old friend of Swift’s, wrote, in comment upon Orrery’s Remarks, “Your account of his marriage is, I am satisfied, true.” In 1789, George Monck Berkeley, in his Literary Relics, said that Swift and Stella were married by Dr. Ashe, “who himself related the circumstances to Bishop Berkeley, by whose relict the story was communicated to me.” Dr. Ashe cannot have told Bishop Berkeley by word of mouth, because Ashe died in 1717, the year after the supposed marriage, and Berkeley was then still abroad. But Berkeley was at the time tutor to Ashe’s son, and may therefore have been informed by letter, though it is difficult to believe that Ashe would write about such a secret so soon after the event. Thomas Sheridan, on information received from his father, Dr. Sheridan, Swift’s friend, accepted the story of the marriage in his book (1784), adding particulars which are of very doubtful authenticity; and Johnson, in his Lives of the Poets, says that Dr. Madden told him that Stella had related her “melancholy story” to Dr. Sheridan before her death. On the other hand, Dr. Lyon, Swift’s attendant in his later years, disbelieved the story of the marriage, which was, he said, “founded only on hearsay”; and Mrs. Dingley “laughed at it as an idle tale,” founded on suspicion.
Sir Henry Craik is satisfied with the evidence for the marriage. Mr. Leslie Stephen is of opinion that it is inconclusive, and Forster could find no evidence that is at all reasonably sufficient; while Mr. Stanley Lane-Poole, Mr. Churton Collins, and others are strongly of opinion that no such marriage ever took place. A full discussion of the evidence would involve the consideration of the reliability of the witnesses, and the probability of their having authentic information, and would be out of place here. My own opinion is that the evidence for the marriage is very far from convincing, and this view seems to be confirmed by all that we know from his own letters of Swift’s relations with Stella. It has been suggested that she was pained by reports of Swift’s intercourse with Vanessa, and felt that his feelings towards herself were growing colder; but this is surmise, and no satisfactory explanation has been given to account for a form of marriage being gone through after so many years of the closest friendship. There is no reason to suppose that there was at the time any gossip in circulation about Stella, and if her reputation was in question, a marriage of which the secret was carefully kept would obviously be of no benefit to her. Moreover, we are told that there was no change in their mode of life; if they were married, what reason could there be for keeping it a secret, or for denying themselves the closer relationship of marriage? The only possible benefit to Stella was that Swift would be prevented marrying anyone else. It is impossible, of course, to disprove a marriage which we are told was secretly performed, without banns or licence or witnesses; but we may reasonably require strong evidence for so startling a step. If we reject the tale, the story of Swift’s connection with Stella is at least intelligible; while the acceptance of this marriage introduces many puzzling circumstances, and makes it necessary to believe that during the remainder of Stella’s life Swift repeatedly spoke of his wife as a friend, and of himself as one who had never married.7 What right have we to put aside Swift’s plain and repeated statements? Moreover, his attitude towards Vanessa for the remaining years of her life becomes much more culpable if we are to believe that he had given Stella the claim of a wife upon him.8
From 1719 onwards we have a series of poems to Stella, written chiefly in celebration of her birthday. She was now thirty-eight (Swift says, “Thirty-four — we shan’t dispute a year or more”), and the verses abound in laughing allusions to her advancing years and wasting form. Hers was “an angel’s face a little cracked,” but all men would crowd to her door when she was fourscore. His verses to her had always been
“Without one word of Cupid’s darts,
Of killing eyes, or bleeding hearts;
With friendship and esteem possessed,
I ne’er admitted Love a guest.”
Her only fault was that she could not bear the lightest touch of blame. Her wit and sense, her loving care in illness — to which he owed that fact that he was alive to say it — made her the “best pattern of true friends.” She replied, in lines written on Swift’s birthday in 1721, that she was his pupil and humble friend. He had trained her judgment and refined her fancy and taste:—
“You taught how I might youth prolong
By knowing what was right and wrong;
How from my heart to bring supplies
Of lustre to my fading eyes;
How soon a beauteous mind repairs
The loss of changed or falling hairs;
How wit and virtue from within
Send out a smoothness o’er the skin
Your lectures could my fancy fix,
And I can please at thirty-six.”
In 1723 Vanessa is said to have written to Stella or to Swift — there are discrepancies in the versions given by Sheridan and Lord Orrery, both of whom are unreliable — asking whether the report that they were married was true. Swift, we are told, rode to Celbridge, threw down Vanessa’s letter in a great rage, and left without speaking a word.9 Vanessa, whose health had been failing for some time, died shortly afterwards, having cancelled a will in Swift’s favour. She left “Cadenus and Vanessa” for publication, and when someone said that she must have been a remarkable woman to inspire such a poem, Stella replied that it was well known that the Dean could write finely upon a broomstick.
Soon after this tragedy Swift became engrossed in the Irish agitation which led to the publication of the Drapier’s Letters, and in 1726 he paid a long-deferred visit to London, taking with him the manuscript of Gulliver’s Travels. While in England he was harassed by bad news of Stella, who had been in continued ill-health for some years. His letters to friends in Dublin show how greatly he suffered. To the Rev. John Worrall he wrote, in a letter which he begged him to burn, “What you tell me of Mrs. Johnson I have long expected with great oppression and heaviness of heart. We have been perfect friends these thirty-five years. Upon my advice they both came to Ireland, and have been ever since my constant companions; and the remainder of my life will be a very melancholy scene, when one of them is gone, whom I most esteemed, upon the score of every good quality that can possibly recommend a human creature.” He would not for the world be present at her death: “I should be a trouble to her, and a torment to myself.” If Stella came to Dublin, he begged that she might be lodged in some airy, healthy part, and not in the Deanery, where too it would be improper for her to die. “There is not a greater folly,” he thinks, “than to contract too great and intimate a friendship, which must always leave the survivor miserable.” To Dr. Stopford he wrote in similar terms of the “younger of the two” “oldest and dearest friends I have in the world.” “This was a person of my own rearing and instructing from childhood, who excelled in every good quality that can possibly accomplish a human creature. . . . I know not what I am saying; but believe me that violent friendship is much more lasting and as much engaging as violent love.” To Dr. Sheridan he said, “I look upon this to be the greatest event that can ever happen to me; but all my preparation will not suffice to make me bear it like a philosopher nor altogether like a Christian. There hath been the most intimate friendship between us from our childhood, and the greatest merit on her side that ever was in one human creature towards another.”10 Pope alludes in a letter to Sheridan to the illness of Swift’s “particular friend,” but with the exception of another reference by Pope, and of a curiously flippant remark by Bolingbroke, the subject is nowhere mentioned in Swift’s correspondence with his literary and fashionable friends in London.
Swift crossed to Ireland in August, fearing the worst; but Stella rallied, and in the spring of 1727 he returned to London. In August, however, there came alarming news, when Swift was himself suffering from giddiness and deafness. To Dr. Sheridan he wrote that the last act of life was always a tragedy at best: “it is a bitter aggravation to have one’s best friend go before one.” Life was indifferent to him; if he recovered from his disorder it would only be to feel the loss of “that person for whose sake only life was worth preserving. I brought both those friends over that we might be happy together as long as God should please; the knot is broken, and the remaining person you know has ill answered the end; and the other, who is now to be lost, is all that was valuable.” To Worrall he again wrote (in Latin) that Stella ought not to be lodged at the Deanery; he had enemies who would place a bad interpretation upon it if she died there.
Swift left London for Dublin in September; he was detained some days at Holyhead by stress of weather, and in the private journal which he kept during that time he speaks of the suspense he was in about his “dearest friend.”11 In December Stella made a will — signed “Esther Johnson, spinster”— disposing of her property in the manner Swift had suggested. Her allusions to Swift are incompatible with any such feeling of resentment as is suggested by Sheridan. She died on January 28, 1728. Swift could not bear to be present, but on the night of her death he began to write his very interesting Character of Mrs. Johnson, from which passages have already been quoted. He there calls her “the truest, most virtuous and valuable friend that I, or perhaps any other person, was ever blessed with.” Combined with excellent gifts of the mind, “she had a gracefulness, somewhat more than human, in every motion, word, and action. Never was so happy a conjunction of civility, freedom, easiness, and sincerity.” Everyone treated her with marked respect, yet everyone was at ease in her society. She preserved her wit, judgment, and vivacity to the last, but often complained of her memory. She chose men rather than women for her companions, “the usual topic of ladies’ discourse being such as she had little knowledge of and less relish.” “Honour, truth, liberality, good nature, and modesty were the virtues she chiefly possessed, and most valued in her acquaintance.” In some Prayers used by Swift during her last sickness, he begged for pity for “the mournful friends of Thy distressed servant, who sink under the weight of her present condition, and the fear of losing the most valuable of our friends.” He was too ill to be present at the funeral at St. Patrick’s. Afterwards, we are told, a lock of her hair was found in his desk, wrapped in a paper bearing the words, “Only a woman’s hair.”
Swift continued to produce pamphlets manifesting growing misanthropy, though he showed many kindnesses to people who stood in need of help. He seems to have given Mrs. Dingley fifty guineas a year, pretending that it came from a fund for which he was trustee. The mental decay which he had always feared — “I shall be like that tree,” he once said, “I shall die at the top”— became marked about 1738. Paralysis was followed by aphasia, and after acute pain, followed by a long period of apathy, death relieved him in October 1745. He was buried by Stella’s side, in accordance with his wishes. The bulk of his fortune was left to found a hospital for idiots and lunatics.
There has been much rather fruitless discussion respecting the reason or reasons why Swift did not marry Stella; for if there was any marriage, it was nothing more than a form. Some have supposed that Swift resolved to remain unmarried because the insanity of an uncle and the fits and giddiness to which he was always subject led him to fear insanity in his own case. Others, looking rather to physical causes, have dwelt upon his coldness of temperament and indisposition to love; upon the repugnance he often showed towards marriage, and the tone of some of the verses on the subject written in his later years. Others, again, have found a cause in his parsimonious habits, in his dread of poverty, the effects of which he had himself felt, and in the smallness of his income, at least until he was middle-aged.12 It may well be that one or all of these things influenced Swift’s action. We cannot say more. He himself, as we have seen, said, as early as 1704, that if his humour and means had permitted him to think of marriage, his choice would have been Stella. Perhaps, however, there is not much mystery in the matter. Swift seems to have been wanting in passion; probably he was satisfied with the affection which Stella gave him, and did not wish for more. Such an attachment as his usually results in marriage, but not necessarily. It is not sufficiently remembered that the affection began in Stella’s childhood. They were “perfect friends” for nearly forty years, and her advancing years in no way lessened his love, which was independent of beauty. Whether Stella was satisfied, who shall say? Mrs. Oliphant thought that few women would be disposed to pity Stella, or think her life one of blight or injury. Mr. Leslie Stephen says, “She might and probably did regard his friendship as a full equivalent for the sacrifice. . . . Is it better to be the most intimate friend of a man of genius or the wife of a commonplace Tisdall?” Whatever we may surmise, there is nothing to prove that she was disappointed. She was the one star which brightened Swift’s storm-tossed course; it is well that she was spared seeing the wreck at the end.
The Journal to Stella is interesting from many points of view: for its bearing upon Swift’s relations with Stella and upon his own character; for the light which it throws upon the history of the time and upon prominent men of the day; and for the illustrations it contains of the social life of people of various classes in London and elsewhere. The fact that it was written without any thought of publication is one of its greatest attractions. Swift jotted down his opinions, his hopes, his disappointments, without thought of their being seen by anybody but his correspondents. The letters are transparently natural. It has been said more than once that the Journal, by the nature of the case, contains no full-length portraits, and hardly any sketches. Swift mentions the people he met, but rarely stops to draw a picture of them. But though this is true, the casual remarks which he makes often give a vivid impression of what he thought of the person of whom he is speaking, and in many cases those few words form a chief part of our general estimate of the man. There are but few people of note at the time who are not mentioned in these pages. We see Queen Anne holding a Drawing-room in her bedroom: “she looked at us round with her fan in her mouth, and once a minute said about three words to some that were nearest her.” We see Harley, afterwards the Earl of Oxford, “a pure trifler,” who was always putting off important business; Bolingbroke, “a thorough rake”; the prudent Lord Dartmouth, the other Secretary of State, from whom Swift could never “work out a dinner.” There is Marlborough, “covetous as Hell, and ambitious as the prince of it,” yet a great general and unduly pressed by the Tories; and the volatile Earl of Peterborough, “above fifty, and as active as one of five-and-twenty”—“the ramblingest lying rogue on earth.” We meet poor Congreve, nearly blind, and in fear of losing his commissionership; the kindly Arbuthnot, the Queen’s physician; Addison, whom Swift met more and more rarely, busy with the preparation and production of Cato; Steele, careless as ever, neglecting important appointments, and “governed by his wife most abominably”; Prior, poet and diplomatist, with a “lean carcass”; and young Berkeley of Trinity College, Dublin, “a very ingenious man and great philosopher,” whom Swift determined to favour as much as he could. Mrs. Masham, the Duchess of Somerset, the Duchess of Shrewsbury, the Duchess of Hamilton, Lady Betty Germaine, and many other ladies appear with more or less distinctness; besides a host of people of less note, of whom we often know little but what Swift tells us.
Swift throws much light, too, on the daily life of his time. The bellman on his nightly rounds, calling “Paaast twelvvve o’clock”; the dinner at three, or at the latest, four; the meetings at coffee-houses; the book-sales; the visit to the London sights — the lions at the Tower, Bedlam, the tombs in Westminster Abbey, and the puppet-show; the terrible Mohocks, of whom Swift stood in so much fear; the polite “howdees” sent to friends by footmen; these and more are all described in the Journal. We read of curious habits and practices of fashionable ladies; of the snuff used by Mrs. Dingley and others; of the jokes —“bites,” puns, and the like — indulged in by polite persons. When Swift lodged at Chelsea, he reached London either by boat, or by coach — which was sometimes full when he wanted it — or by walking across the “Five Fields,” not without fear of robbers at night. The going to or from Ireland was a serious matter; after the long journey by road came the voyage (weather permitting) of some fifteen hours, with the risk of being seized or pursued by French privateers; and when Ireland was reached the roads were of the worst. We have glimpses of fashionable society in Dublin, of the quiet life at Laracor and Trim, and of the drinking of the waters at Wexford, where visitors had to put up with primitive arrangements: “Mrs. Dingley never saw such a place in her life.”
Swift’s own characteristics come out in the clearest manner in the Journal, which gives all his hopes and fears during three busy years. He was pleased to find on his arrival in London how great a value was set on his friendship by both political parties: “The Whigs were ravished to see me, and would lay hold on me as a twig while they are drowning;” but Godolphin’s coldness enraged him, so that he was “almost vowing vengeance.” Next day he talked treason heartily against the Whigs, their baseness and ingratitude, and went home full of schemes of revenge. “The Tories drily tell me I may make my fortune, if I please; but I do not understand them, or rather, I DO understand them.” He realised that the Tories might not be more grateful than others, but he thought they were pursuing the true interests of the public, and was glad to contribute what was in his power. His vanity was gratified by Harley inviting him to the private dinners with St. John and Harcourt which were given on Saturdays, and by their calling him Jonathan; but he did not hope too much from their friendship: “I said I believed they would leave me Jonathan, as they found me . . . but I care not.”
Of Swift’s frugal habits there is abundant evidence in the Journal. When he came to town he took rooms on a first floor, “a dining-room and bed-chamber, at eight shillings a week; plaguy dear, but I spend nothing for eating, never go to a tavern, and very seldom in a coach; yet after all it will be expensive.” In November he mentions that he had a fire: “I am spending my second half-bushel of coals.” In another place he says, “People have so left the town, that I am at a loss for a dinner. . . . It cost me eighteenpence in coach-hire before I could find a place to dine in.” Elsewhere we find: “This paper does not cost me a farthing: I have it from the Secretary’s office.” He often complains of having to take a coach owing to the dirty condition of the streets: “This rain ruins me in coach-hire; I walked away sixpennyworth, and came within a shilling length, and then took a coach, and got a lift back for nothing.”13
Swift’s arrogance — the arrogance, sometimes, of a man who is morbidly suspicious that he may be patronised — is shown in the manner in which he speaks of the grand ladies with whom he came in contact. He calls the Duke of Ormond’s daughters “insolent drabs,” and talks of his “mistress, Ophy Butler’s wife, who is grown a little charmless.” When the Duchess of Shrewsbury reproached him for not dining with her, Swift said that was not so soon done; he expected more advances from ladies, especially duchesses. On another occasion he was to have supped at Lady Ashburnham’s, “but the drab did not call for us in her coach, as she promised, but sent for us, and so I sent my excuses.” The arrogance was, however, often only on the surface. It is evident that Swift was very kind in many cases. He felt deeply for Mrs. Long in her misfortunes, living and dying in an obscure country town. On the last illness of the poet Harrison he says, “I am very much afflicted for him, as he is my own creature. . . . I was afraid to knock at the door; my mind misgave me.” He was “heartily sorry for poor Mrs. Parnell’s death; she seemed to be an excellent good-natured young woman, and I believe the poor lad is much afflicted; they appeared to live perfectly well together.” Afterwards he helped Parnell by introducing him to Bolingbroke and Oxford. He found kind words for Mrs. Manley in her illness, and Lady Ashburnham’s death was “extremely moving. . . . She was my greatest favourite, and I am in excessive concern for her loss.” Lastly, he was extraordinarily patient towards his servant Patrick, who drank, stopped out at night, and in many ways tried Swift’s temper. There were good points about Patrick, but no doubt the great consideration which Swift showed him was due in part to the fact that he was a favourite of the ladies in Dublin, and had Mrs. Vanhomrigh to intercede for him.
But for the best example of the kindly side of Swift’s nature, we must turn to what he tells us in the Journal about Stella herself. The “little language” which Swift used when writing to her was the language he employed when playing with Stella as a little child at Moor Park. Thackeray, who was not much in sympathy with Swift, said that he knew of “nothing more manly, more tender, more exquisitely touching, than some of these notes.” Swift says that when he wrote plainly, he felt as if they were no longer alone, but “a bad scrawl is so snug it looks like a PMD.” In writing his fond and playful prattle, he made up his mouth “just as if he were speaking it.”14
Though Mrs. Dingley is constantly associated with Stella in the affectionate greetings in the Journal, she seems to have been included merely as a cloak to enable him to express the more freely his affection for her companion. Such phrases as “saucy girls,” “sirrahs,” “sauceboxes,” and the like, are often applied to both; and sometimes Swift certainly writes as if the one were as dear to him as the other; thus we find, “Farewell, my dearest lives and delights, I love you better than ever, if possible, as hope saved, I do, and ever will. . . . I can count upon nothing, nor will, but upon MD’s love and kindness. . . . And so farewell, dearest MD, Stella, Dingley, Presto, all together, now and for ever, all together.” But as a rule, notwithstanding Swift’s caution, the greetings intended for Stella alone are easily distinguishable in tone. He often refers to her weak eyes and delicate health. Thus he writes, “The chocolate is a present, madam, for Stella. Don’t read this, you little rogue, with your little eyes; but give it to Dingley, pray now; and I will write as plain as the skies.” And again, “God Almighty bless poor Stella, and her eyes and head: what shall we do to cure them, poor dear life?” Or, “Now to Stella’s little postscript; and I am almost crazed that you vex yourself for not writing. Can’t you dictate to Dingley, and not strain your dear little eyes? I am sure ’tis the grief of my soul to think you are out of order.” They had been keeping his birthday; Swift wished he had been with them, rather than in London, where he had no manner of pleasure: “I say Amen with all my heart and vitals, that we may never be asunder again ten days together while poor Presto lives.” A few days later he says, “I wish I were at Laracor, with dear charming MD,” and again, “Farewell, dearest beloved MD, and love poor poor Presto, who has not had one happy day since he left you.” “I will say no more, but beg you to be easy till Fortune takes his course, and to believe MD’s felicity is the great goal I aim at in all my pursuits.” “How does Stella look, Madam Dingley?” he asks; “pretty well, a handsome young woman still? Will she pass in a crowd? Will she make a figure in a country church?” Elsewhere he writes, on receipt of a letter, “God Almighty bless poor dear Stella, and send her a great many birthdays, all happy and healthy and wealthy, and with me ever together, and never asunder again, unless by chance. . . . I can hardly imagine you absent when I am reading your letter or writing to you. No, faith, you are just here upon this little paper, and therefore I see and talk with you every evening constantly, and sometimes in the morning.” The letters lay under Swift’s pillow, and he fondled them as if he were caressing Stella’s hand.
Of Stella herself we naturally have no direct account in the Journal, but we hear a good deal of her life in Ireland, and can picture what she was. Among her friends in and about Trim and Laracor were Dr. Raymond, the vicar of Trim, and his wife, the Garret Wesleys, the Percevals, and Mr. Warburton, Swift’s curate. At Dublin there were Archdeacon Walls and his family; Alderman Stoyte, his wife and sister-in-law; Dean Sterne and the Irish Postmaster-General, Isaac Manley. For years these friends formed a club which met in Dublin at each other’s houses, to sup and play cards (“ombre and claret, and toasted oranges”), and we have frequent allusions to Stella’s indifferent play, and the money which she lost, much to Mrs. Dingley’s chagrin: “Poor Dingley fretted to see Stella lose that four and elevenpence t’other night.” Mrs. Dingley herself could hardly play well enough to hold the cards while Stella went into the next room. If at dinner the mutton was underdone, and “poor Stella cannot eat, poor dear rogue,” then “Dingley is so vexed.” Swift was for ever urging Stella to walk and ride; she was “naturally a stout walker,” and “Dingley would do well enough if her petticoats were pinned up.” And we see Stella setting out on and returning from her ride, with her riband and mask: “Ah, that riding to Laracor gives me short sighs as well as you,” he says; “all the days I have passed here have been dirt to those.”
If the Journal shows us some of Swift’s less attractive qualities, it shows still more how great a store of humour, tenderness, and affection there was in him. In these letters we see his very soul; in his literary work we are seldom moved to anything but admiration of his wit and genius. Such daily outpourings could never have been written for publication, they were meant only for one who understood him perfectly; and everything that we know of Stella — her kindliness, her wit, her vivacity, her loyalty — shows that she was worthy of the confidence.
1 Notes and Queries, Sixth Series, x. 287.
2 See letter from Swift to John Temple, February 1737. She was then “quite sunk with years and unwieldliness.”
3 Athenaeum, Aug. 8, 1891.
4 Journal, May 4, 1711.
5 Craik’s Life of Swift, 269.
6 Unpublished Letters of Dean Swift, pp. 189-96.
7 In 1730 he wrote, “Those who have been married may form juster ideas of that estate than I can pretend to do” (Dr. Birkbeck Hill’s Unpublished Letters of Dean Swift, p. 237).
8 Scott added a new incident which has become incorporated in the popular conception of Swift’s story. Delany is said to have met Swift rushing out of Archbishop King’s study, with a countenance of distraction, immediately after the wedding. King, who was in tears, said, “You have just met the most unhappy man on earth; but on the subject of his wretchedness you must never ask a question.” Will it be believed that Scott — who rejects Delany’s inference from this alleged incident — had no better authority for it than “a friend of his (Delany’s) relict”?
9 This incident, for which there is probably some foundation of fact — we cannot say how much — has been greatly expanded by Mrs. Woods in her novel Esther Vanhomrigh. Unfortunately most of her readers cannot, of course, judge exactly how far her story is a work of imagination.
10 In October Swift explained that he had been in the country “partly to see a lady of my old acquaintance, who was extremely ill” (Unpublished Letters of Dean Swift, p. 198).
11 There is a story that shortly before her death Swift begged Stella to allow herself to be publicly announced as his wife, but that she replied that it was then too late. The versions given by Delany and Theophilus Swift differ considerably, while Sheridan alters the whole thing by representing Swift as brutally refusing to comply with Stella’s last wishes.
12 There has also been the absurd suggestion that the impediment was Swift’s knowledge that both he and Stella were the illegitimate children of Sir William Temple — a theory which is absolutely disproved by known facts.
13 It is curious to note the intimate knowledge of some of Swift’s peculiarities which was possessed by the hostile writer of a pamphlet called A Hue and Cry after Dr. S—-t, published in 1714. That piece consists, for the most part, of extracts from a supposed Diary by Swift, and contains such passages as these: “Friday. Go to the Club . . . Am treated. Expenses one shilling.” “Saturday. Bid my servant get all things ready for a journey to the country: mend my breeches; hire a washerwoman, making her allow for old shirts, socks, dabbs and markees, which she bought of me . . . Six coaches of quality, and nine hacks, this day called at my lodgings.” “Thursday. The Earl looked queerly: left him in a huff. Bid him send for me when he was fit for company . . . Spent ten shillings.”
14 The “little language” is marked chiefly by such changes of letters (e.g., l for r, or r for l) as a child makes when learning to speak. The combinations of letters in which Swift indulges are not so easy of interpretation. For himself he uses Pdfr, and sometimes Podefar or FR (perhaps Poor dear foolish rogue). Stella is Ppt (Poor pretty thing). MD (my dears) usually stands for both Stella and Mrs. Dingley, but sometimes for Stella alone. Mrs. Dingley is indicated by ME (Madam Elderly), D, or DD (Dear Dingley). The letters FW may mean Farewell, or Foolish Wenches. Lele seems sometimes to be There, there, and sometimes Truly.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:13