Books in brief: Jonathan Swift, The Reluctant Rebel by John Stubbs

"Stubbs’s Swift emerges as a vastly larger and more complex figure than the myths allow"
January 18, 2017
Jonathan Swift, The Reluctant Rebel by John Stubbs (Viking £25)

The myths that have grown up around Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) have been damaging. To those with a little learning—and even to those with quite a lot—he has often been regarded as an early Augustan monster: a solitary and malevolent churchman, usually half-mad with rage and spite and disgust, entirely mad in his final years, violently misanthropic, morbidly obsessed with faeces and physical decay, miserly, arrogant and hypocritical, especially about sex.

John Stubbs’s outstanding biography, deeply sympathetic to its complex subject, examines all these libels with judicious calm, delicately sifting personal grudges and factional propaganda from established fact. He concedes Swift’s eccentricities and odd obsessions where he must; proposes ingenious ways of reading the Dean’s more puzzling words and actions; and makes a spirited case for Swift as a greatly misunderstood hero—a powerful champion, despite himself, of Ireland (which in many respects he loathed), the dispossessed (though he was no egalitarian) and the starving (to whom he would dispense coins).

Written in a highly self-conscious range of styles—by turns elegant, racy, allusive and terse—Stubbs’s biography re-examines the circumstances that formed Swift’s temperament: the still-fresh memories of the English Civil War and Oliver Cromwell’s butcheries in Ireland; the loss of his father and the emotional withdrawal of his mother; his horror of change and yearning for rustic stability. The book is also a splendid compendium of information about 17th- and 18th-century religion, politics, publishing, architecture, finance and agriculture. Stubbs’s Swift emerges as a vastly larger and more complex figure than the myths allow: by no means an attractive figure, but an imposing and fascinating one. And, perhaps, the greatest writer of his day.

Purchase the book here on Amazon