Untitled Book Review

Stephen Gwynn has written the third biographical study of Swift to be published within the past six years. The Life and Friendships of Dean Swift (Holt, $3.75), as the title indicates, represents an endeavor to describe that side of Swift which is always and unfortunately overlooked by those who owe their first acquaintance with the man and the author to the lurid character sketches of Thackeray and Taine. Because Mr. Gwynn explodes a lot of the legends which have clustered around the name of Swift, his work is not only refreshingly full of common sense, but would be particularly valuable for beginners, who would hardly be apt to come on the great biography of Sir Henry Craik or turn to the masterpiece which Sir Leslie Stephen contributed to the English Men of Letters series. Mr. Gwynn has made careful use of the definitive edition of the Correspondence which Ball completed in 1914. His book is ‘popular’ only in the aspect of complete absence of footnotes; its mistakes are trifling to students of Swift, and will never trouble casual readers.

The Life and Friendships of Dean Swift is on the whole a successful endeavor to prove that Jonathan Swift was not the somewhat pompous ogre he is commonly supposed to have been — in the superficial words of Horace Walpole, a brute who would have done anything to be a bishop. Those who care to contradict this tiresome notion have only to turn the pages of the six volumes of the Correspondence and remark how many affectionate friends Swift made among the most distinguished people of his day, and how long those friendships lasted.

The external tragedy of Swift’s career consists of the fact that a man who was born to be a politician had to console his ambition with what was for him the second choice of the church. And, having committed himself to the church, he lost the great prize of second best: a mitre. His altogether lucky early manhood at Sir William Temple’s trained him for statesmanship, and during 1710-1713 he had the satisfaction of knowing he was indispensable to a British government.

But the central tragedy was a question of character: Swift, it may be argued, was a victim of his own power of will. Thrift grew into avarice, just as pride became solitary arrogance. Mr. Gwynn seems to think that Esther Vanhomrigh (Vanessa) was at one time the mistress of Swift — a suspicion one feels intuitively is false. Stella, it is acknowledged, was never more to him than a wife by name, and Mr. Gwynn is quite just in doubting if there was ever any marriage at all. Swift’s love for women was curious; he seems to have exercised a singular fascination on both men and women, and just there lies the answer to a riddle. Idealism and cynicism made the accidents of love impossible for him to bear — he was not even at Stella’s deathbed.

This book deserves praise for the charm of the author’s easy style and the unaffected common sense of his judgments of Swift’s life and work. Although. A Tale of a Tub will always remain the masterpiece for lovers of Swift, Gulliver is one of the great books of the world. Even a century of editing for the nursery has left it unspoiled. Finding Swift’s delightful description of the academy of Lagado inferior ridicule is whimsical in Mr. Gwynn, for that chapter of laughter at the nonsense of learning is obvious, but very funny and justly famous. This author should make a study of scholars.