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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

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 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!"