Dean Swift And The Two Esthers
The story of Jonathan Swift and of the two women who gave their
lives for love of him is familiar to every student of English
literature. Swift himself, both in letters and in politics, stands
out a conspicuous figure in the reigns of King William III and
Queen Anne. By writing Gulliver's Travels he made himself
immortal. The external facts of his singular relations with two
charming women are sufficiently well known; but a definite
explanation of these facts has never yet been given. Swift held
his tongue with a repellent taciturnity. No one ever dared to
question him. Whether the true solution belongs to the sphere of
psychology or of physiology is a question that remains unanswered.
But, as the case is one of the most puzzling in the annals of
love, it may be well to set forth the circumstances very briefly,
to weigh the theories that have already been advanced, and to
Jonathan Swift was of Yorkshire stock, though he happened to be
born in Dublin, and thus is often spoken of as "the great Irish
satirist," or "the Irish dean." It was, in truth, his fate to
spend much of his life in Ireland, and to die there, near the
cathedral where his remains now rest; but in truth he hated
Ireland and everything connected with it, just as he hated
Scotland and everything that was Scottish. He was an Englishman to
High-stomached, proud, obstinate, and over-mastering, independence
was the dream of his life. He would accept no favors, lest he
should put himself under obligation; and although he could give
generously, and even lavishly, he lived for the most part a
miser's life, hoarding every penny and halfpenny that he could.
Whatever one may think of him, there is no doubt that he was a
very manly man. Too many of his portraits give the impression of a
sour, supercilious pedant; but the finest of them all--that by
Jervas--shows him as he must have been at his very prime, with a
face that was almost handsome, and a look of attractive humor
which strengthens rather than lessens the power of his brows and
of the large, lambent eyes beneath them.
At fifteen he entered Trinity College, in Dublin, where he read
widely but studied little, so that his degree was finally granted
him only as a special favor. At twenty-one he first visited
England, and became secretary to Sir William Temple, at Moor Park.
Temple, after a distinguished career in diplomacy, had retired to
his fine country estate in Surrey. He is remembered now for
several things--for having entertained Peter the Great of Russia;
for having, while young, won the affections of Dorothy Osborne,
whose letters to him are charming in their grace and archness; for
having been the patron of Jonathan Swift; and for fathering the
young girl named Esther Johnson, a waif, born out of wedlock, to
whom Temple gave a place in his household.
When Swift first met her, Esther Johnson was only eight years old;
and part of his duties at Moor Park consisted in giving her what
was then an unusual education for a girl. She was, however, still
a child, and nothing serious could have passed between the raw
youth and this little girl who learned the lessons that he imposed
Such acquaintance as they had was rudely broken off. Temple, a man
of high position, treated Swift with an urbane condescension which
drove the young man's independent soul into a frenzy. He returned
to Ireland, where he was ordained a clergyman, and received a
small parish at Kilroot, near Belfast.
It was here that the love-note was first seriously heard in the
discordant music of Swift's career. A college friend of his named
Waring had a sister who was about the age of Swift, and whom he
met quite frequently at Kilroot. Not very much is known of this
episode, but there is evidence that Swift fell in love with the
girl, whom he rather romantically called "Varina."
This cannot be called a serious love-affair. Swift was lonely, and
Jane Waring was probably the only girl of refinement who lived
near Kilroot. Furthermore, she had inherited a small fortune,
while Swift was miserably poor, and had nothing to offer except
the shadowy prospect of future advancement in England. He was
definitely refused by her; and it was this, perhaps, that led him
to resolve on going back to England and making his peace with Sir
On leaving, Swift wrote a passionate letter to Miss Waring--the
only true love-letter that remains to us of their correspondence.
He protests that he does not want Varina's fortune, and that he
will wait until he is in a position to marry her on equal terms.
There is a smoldering flame of jealousy running through the
letter. Swift charges her with being cold, affected, and willing
to flirt with persons who are quite beneath her.
Varina played no important part in Swift's larger life thereafter;
but something must be said of this affair in order to show, first
of all, that Swift's love for her was due only to proximity, and
that when he ceased to feel it he could be not only hard, but
harsh. His fiery spirit must have made a deep impression on Miss
Waring; for though she at the time refused him, she afterward
remembered him, and tried to renew their old relations. Indeed, no
sooner had Swift been made rector of a larger parish, than Varina
let him know that she had changed her mind, and was ready to marry
him; but by this time Swift had lost all interest in her. He wrote
an answer which even his truest admirers have called brutal.
"Yes," he said in substance, "I will marry you, though you have
treated me vilely, and though you are living in a sort of social
sink. I am still poor, though you probably think otherwise.
However, I will marry you on certain conditions. First, you must
be educated, so that you can entertain me. Next, you must put up
with all my whims and likes and dislikes. Then you must live
wherever I please. On these terms I will take you, without
reference to your looks or to your income. As to the first,
cleanliness is all that I require; as to the second, I only ask
that it be enough."
Such a letter as this was like a blow from a bludgeon. The
insolence, the contempt, and the hardness of it were such as no
self-respecting woman could endure. It put an end to their
acquaintance, as Swift undoubtedly intended it should do. He would
have been less censurable had he struck Varina with his fist or
The true reason for Swift's utter change of heart is found, no
doubt, in the beginning of what was destined to be his long
intimacy with Esther Johnson. When Swift left Sir William Temple's
in a huff, Esther had been a mere schoolgirl. Now, on his return,
she was fifteen years of age, and seemed older. She had blossomed
out into a very comely girl, vivacious, clever, and physically
well developed, with dark hair, sparkling eyes, and features that
were unusually regular and lovely.
For three years the two were close friends and intimate
associates, though it cannot he said that Swift ever made open
love to her. To the outward eye they were no more than fellow
workers. Yet love does not need the spoken word and the formal
declaration to give it life and make it deep and strong. Esther
Johnson, to whom Swift gave the pet name of "Stella," grew into
the existence of this fiery, hold, and independent genius. All
that he did she knew. She was his confidante. As to his writings,
his hopes, and his enmities, she was the mistress of all his
secrets. For her, at last, no other man existed.
On Sir William Temple's death, Esther John son came into a small
fortune, though she now lost her home at Moor Park. Swift returned
to Ireland, and soon afterward he invited Stella to join him
Swift was now thirty-four years of age, and Stella a very
attractive girl of twenty. One might have expected that the two
would marry, and yet they did not do so. Every precaution was
taken to avoid anything like scandal. Stella was accompanied by a
friend--a widow named Mrs. Dingley--without whose presence, or
that of some third person, Swift never saw Esther Johnson. When
Swift was absent, how ever, the two ladies occupied his
apartments; and Stella became more than ever essential to his
When they were separated for any length of time Swift wrote to
Stella in a sort of baby-talk, which they called "the little
language." It was made up of curious abbreviations and childish
words, growing more and more complicated as the years went on. It
is interesting to think of this stern and often savage genius, who
loved to hate, and whose hate was almost less terrible than his
love, babbling and prattling in little half caressing sentences,
as a mother might babble over her first child. Pedantic writers
have professed to find in Swift's use of this "little language"
the coming shadow of that insanity which struck him down in his
As it is, these letters are among the curiosities of amatory
correspondence. When Swift writes "oo" for "you," and "deelest"
for "dearest," and "vely" for "very," there is no need of an
interpreter; but "rettle" for "let ter," "dallars" for "girls,"
and "givar" for "devil," are at first rather difficult to guess.
Then there is a system of abbreviating. "Md" means "my dear,"
"Ppt" means "poppet," and "Pdfr," with which Swift sometimes
signed his epistles, "poor, dear, foolish rogue."
The letters reveal how very closely the two were bound together,
yet still there was no talk of marriage. On one occasion, after
they had been together for three years in Ireland, Stella might
have married another man. This was a friend of Swift's, one Dr.
Tisdall, who made energetic love to the sweet-faced English girl.
Tisdall accused Swift of poisoning Stella's mind against him.
Swift replied that such was not the case. He said that no feelings
of his own would ever lead him to influence the girl if she
It is quite sure, then, that Stella clung wholly to Swift, and
cared nothing for the proffered love of any other man. Thus
through the years the relations of the two remained unchanged,
until in 1710 Swift left Ireland and appeared as a very brilliant
figure in the London drawing-rooms of the great Tory leaders of
He was now a man of mark, because of his ability as a
controversialist. He had learned the manners of the world, and he
carried him self with an air of power which impressed all those
who met him. Among these persons was a Miss Hester--or Esther--
Vanhomrigh, the daughter of a rather wealthy widow who was living
in London at that time. Miss Vanhomrigh--a name which she and her
mother pronounced "Vanmeury"--was then seventeen years of age, or
twelve years younger than the patient Stella.
Esther Johnson, through her long acquaintance with Swift, and from
his confidence in her, had come to treat him almost as an
intellectual equal. She knew all his moods, some of which were
very difficult, and she bore them all; though when he was most
tyrannous she became only passive, waiting, with a woman's wisdom,
for the tempest to blow over.
Miss Vanhomrigh, on the other hand, was one of those girls who,
though they have high spirit, take an almost voluptuous delight in
yielding to a spirit that is stronger still. This beautiful
creature felt a positive fascination in Swift's presence and his
imperious manner. When his eyes flashed, and his voice thundered
out words of anger, she looked at him with adoration, and bowed in
a sort of ecstasy before him. If he chose to accost a great lady
with "Well, madam, are you as ill-natured and disagreeable as when
I met you last?" Esther Vanhomrigh thrilled at the insolent
audacity of the man. Her evident fondness for him exercised a
seductive influence over Swift.
As the two were thrown more and more together, the girl lost all
her self-control. Swift did not in any sense make love to her,
though he gave her the somewhat fanciful name of "Vanessa"; but
she, driven on by a high-strung, unbridled temperament, made open
love to him. When he was about to return to Ireland, there came
one startling moment when Vanessa flung herself into the arms of
Swift, and amazed him by pouring out a torrent of passionate
Swift seems to have been surprised. He did what he could to quiet
her. He told her that they were too unequal in years and fortune
for anything but friendship, and he offered to give her as much
friendship as she desired.
Doubtless he thought that, after returning to Ireland, he would
not see Vanessa any more. In this, however, he was mistaken. An
ardent girl, with a fortune of her own, was not to be kept from
the man whom absence only made her love the more. In addition,
Swift carried on his correspondence with her, which served to fan
the flame and to increase the sway that Swift had already
Vanessa wrote, and with every letter she burned and pined. Swift
replied, and each reply enhanced her yearning for him. Ere long,
Vanessa's mother died, and Vanessa herself hastened to Ireland and
took up her residence near Dublin. There, for years, was enacted
this tragic comedy--Esther Johnson was near Swift, and had all his
confidence; Esther Vanhomrigh was kept apart from him, while still
receiving missives from him, and, later, even visits.
It was at this time, after he had become dean of St. Patrick's
Cathedral, in Dublin, that Swift was married to Esther Johnson--
for it seems probable that the ceremony took place, though it was
nothing more than a form. They still saw each other only in the
presence of a third person. Nevertheless, some knowledge of their
close relationship leaked out. Stella had been jealous of her
rival during the years that Swift spent in London. Vanessa was now
told that Swift was married to the other woman, or that she was
his mistress. Writhing with jealousy, she wrote directly to
Stella, and asked whether she was Dean Swift's wife. In answer
Stella replied that she was, and then she sent Vanessa's letter to
All the fury of his nature was roused in him; and he was a man who
could be very terrible when angry. He might have remembered the
intense love which Vanessa bore for him, the humility with which
she had accepted his conditions, and, finally, the loneliness of
But Swift was utterly unsparing. No gleam of pity entered his
heart as he leaped upon a horse and galloped out to Marley Abbey,
where she was living--"his prominent eyes arched by jet-black
brows and glaring with the green fury of a cat's." Reaching the
house, he dashed into it, with something awful in his looks, made
his way to Vanessa, threw her letter down upon the table and,
after giving her one frightful glare, turned on his heel, and in a
moment more was galloping back to Dublin.
The girl fell to the floor in an agony of terror and remorse. She
was taken to her room, and only three weeks afterward was carried
forth, having died literally of a broken heart.
Five years later, Stella also died, withering away a sacrifice to
what the world has called Swift's cruel heartlessness and egotism.
His greatest public triumphs came to him in his final years of
melancholy isolation; but in spite of the applause that greeted
The Drapier Letters and Gulliver's Travels, he brooded morbidly
over his past life. At last his powerful mind gave way, so that he
died a victim to senile dementia. By his directions his body was
interred in the same coffin with Stella's, in the cathedral of
which he had been dean.
Such is the story of Dean Swift, and it has always suggested
several curious questions. Why, if he loved Stella, did he not
marry her long before? Why, when he married her, did he treat her
still as if she were not his wife? Why did he allow Vanessa's love
to run like a scarlet thread across the fabric of the other
affection, which must have been so strong?
Many answers have been given to these questions. That which was
formulated by Sir Walter Scott is a simple one, and has been
generally accepted. Scott believed that Swift was physically
incapacitated for marriage, and that he needed feminine sympathy,
which he took where he could get it, without feeling bound to give
anything in return.
If Scott's explanation be the true one, it still leaves Swift
exposed to ignominy as a monster of ingratitude. Therefore, many
of his biographers have sought other explanations. No one can
palliate his conduct toward Vanessa; but Sir Leslie Stephen makes
a plea for him with reference to Stella. Sir Leslie points out
that until Swift became dean of St. Patrick's his income was far
too small to marry on, and that after his brilliant but
disappointing three years in London, when his prospects of
advancement were ruined, he felt himself a broken man.
Furthermore, his health was always precarious, since he suffered
from a distressing illness which attacked him at intervals,
rendering him both deaf and giddy. The disease is now known as
Meniere's disease, from its classification by the French
physician, Meniere, in 1861. Swift felt that he lived in constant
danger of some sudden stroke that would deprive him either of life
or reason; and his ultimate insanity makes it appear that his
forebodings were not wholly futile. Therefore, though he married
Stella, he kept the marriage secret, thus leaving her free, in
case of his demise, to marry as a maiden, and not to be regarded
as a widow.
Sir Leslie offers the further plea that, after all, Stella's life
was what she chose to make it. She enjoyed Swift's friendship,
which she preferred to the love of any other man.
Another view is that of Dr. Richard Garnett, who has discussed the
question with some subtlety. "Swift," says Dr. Garnett, "was by
nature devoid of passion. He was fully capable of friendship, but
not of love. The spiritual realm, whether of divine or earthly
things, was a region closed to him, where he never set foot." On
the side of friendship he must greatly have preferred Stella to
Vanessa, and yet the latter assailed him on his weakest side--on
the side of his love of imperious domination.
Vanessa hugged the fetters to which Stella merely submitted.
Flattered to excess by her surrender, yet conscious of his
obligations and his real preference, he could neither discard the
one beauty nor desert the other.
Therefore, he temporized with both of them, and when the choice
was forced upon him he madly struck down the woman for whom he
cared the less.
One may accept Dr. Garnett's theory with a somewhat altered
conclusion. It is not true, as a matter of recorded fact, that
Swift was incapable of passion, for when a boy at college he was
sought out by various young women, and he sought them out in turn.
His fiery letter to Miss Waring points to the same conclusion.
When Esther Johnson began to love him he was heart-free, yet
unable, because of his straitened means, to marry. But Esther
Johnson always appealed more to his reason, his friendship, and
his comfort, than to his love, using the word in its material,
physical sense. This love was stirred in him by Vanessa. Yet when
he met Vanessa he had already gone too far with Esther Johnson to
break the bond which had so long united them, nor could he think
of a life without her, for she was to him his other self.
At the same time, his more romantic association with Vanessa
roused those instincts which he had scarcely known himself to be
possessed of. His position was, therefore, most embarrassing. He
hoped to end it when he left London and returned to Ireland; but
fate was unkind to him in this, because Vanessa followed him. He
lacked the will to be frank with her, and thus he stood a
wretched, halting victim of his own dual nature.
He was a clergyman, and at heart religious. He had also a sense of
honor, and both of these traits compelled him to remain true to
Esther Johnson. The terrible outbreak which brought about
Vanessa's death was probably the wild frenzy of a tortured soul.
It recalls the picture of some fierce animal brought at last to
bay, and venting its own anguish upon any object that is within
reach of its fangs and claws.
No matter how the story may be told, it makes one shiver, for it
is a tragedy in which the three participants all meet their doom--
one crushed by a lightning-bolt of unreasoning anger, the other
wasting away through hope deferred; while the man whom the world
will always hold responsible was himself destined to end his years
blind and sleepless, bequeathing his fortune to a madhouse, and
saying, with his last muttered breath:
"I am a fool!"