Jonathan Swift

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9780091791964: Jonathan Swift

Poet, polemicist, pamphleteer and wit, Swift is best known as the author of "Gulliver's Travels". In this biography, Victoria Glendinning investigates the main events and relationships of Swift's life and provides a portrait set in a tapestry of controversy and paradox.

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Review:

"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 the Inside Flap:

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) is an inexhaustibly intriguing figure in literary and political history. He was an ordained clergyman whose enemies thought he did not believe in God. He became a legendary Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, and for four intoxicating years he was the intimate of Queen Anne's chief ministers, acting as their publicist and propagandist.

His private life was intense and enigmatic. Two younger women, whom he called Stella and Vanessa, moved to Ireland to be close to him. He made both of them unhappy.

Poet, polemicist, pamphleteer, and wit, Swift was the master of shock. His furious satirical responses to the corruption and hypocrisy he saw around him in private and public life have every relevance for our own times. Like his Gulliver in the land of Lilliput, Swift is a problem in perspective and scale. In this entertaining biography, Glendinning takes a literary zoom lens to illuminate this proud and intractable man.

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