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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;
ut 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

suggest another.

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

the core.

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

upon her.

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

William Temple.

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

kicked her.

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

old age.

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

preferred another.

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

the day.

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

Swift himself.

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

this girl.

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!"