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;
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
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 be 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 there.
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 happiness.
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
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 endearments.
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
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 acquired.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!"