Did Stella get a modest proposal?

Jonathan Swift by Victoria Glendinning Hutchinson pounds 20
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Why does Jonathan Swift still resonate more than any other writer of the first half of the 18th century? "Swiftian" is so commonly used as a term of approbation that it barely needs an initial capital. To be compared with the Dean is to be seen as pitiless, wickedly funny, and spot on: also, perhaps, as fearless. It is therefore salutary to be reminded by Victoria Glendinning in this vigorous and perceptive biographical essay that Swift was scarcely an idealist. Although he was capable of great courage (and on at least one occasion risked imprisonment), his career as a writer was motored as much by a desire to suck up to the powerful as by political fervour. It was only after he had failed as a lickspittle that his invective developed its most savage bite.

Jonathan Swift is not an orthodox "chronicle biography", as the author calls the traditional genre. Aware that a great deal of meticulous scholarship has been devoted to Swift and his writings, Glendinning does not seek to break new academic ground. What she provides is a personal interpretation that hops from topic to topic, pursuing a variety of fascinating hobby- horses: personal hygiene, wigs, Anglo-Irish accents, Court life, and, in particular, the mystery of Swift's relationships with women. At first, the reader is distracted by the obtrusion of the author into her own story (especially when the device "I think" actually means "I don't know"), and by a referencing system that treats notes as if they are grubby little secrets needing to be kept out of sight. Yet there is more rigour here than she owns up to. After a bit you get gripped, both by the man and by a stylish evocation of his world.

Glendinning opens by remarking that the question most often put to biographers about their subject is: "Do you like him?" In Swift's case, her answer is that he was nice by 18th-century standards, but probably not by ours. She is conscious of the dangers of reading into Swift's work values that did not exist when he was writing. Many of her best passages describe ways in which Swift's life differed from that of equivalent scribes today: she defends her subject against charges of cruelty - for example, when he took a party of friends, including children, to Bedlam for an afternoon's outing, a standard entertainment in his day. Yet her portrait of an impossible yet lovable cudmudgeon fits the literary and intellectual world of the late 20th century almost as much as that of the 18th.

Disappointment defined Swift's career. Though political to his carefully manicured fingertips, he never acquired the high office he believed he deserved, and he always resented it. Arguably, bitter writing was a kind of displacement activity. Glendinning tries to make something of Swift's childhood, as the source of his adult acerbity. Yet the physical conditions were comfortable enough, and the emotional deprivation scarcely unusual. Born in 1667 of English middle-class parents, neither of whom had much to do with his upbringing (his father died before he was born), Swift was dumped on Anglo-Irish relatives who packed him off to Kilkenny Grammar School as a boarder at the age of six. At 14, he entered Trinity College, Dublin - then a kind of bleak, Church-run public school, where he was had up for "frequenting the town" and "causing tumults".

Tumults of a different sort launched him. In 1689, following the deposed James II's attempt to make a comeback in Catholic Ireland, Swift became a Protestant refugee from the Jacobites, fleeing to the English home of Sir William Temple, an influential diplomat who became his employer and guardian. The Temple menage had a Pygmalion effect, polishing his manners for London society. It also introduced him to the eight-year-old-Esther Johnson (`Stella'), who first became his pupil and then his lifelong friend and possibly lover. For the next quarter-century, Swift moved restlessly between two kingdoms: Ireland, where he became vicar of Laracor and prebendary of St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin and got entangled with a rival to Stella (Varina) - and England, where he was drawn to the London coffee- houses patronised by famous politicians. In 1704 he established his reputation as a political wit with A Tale of a Tub. A series of tracts, pamphlets and verses followed.

At first, Swift was friendly with Whigs, then with the Tories. He was a late developer: it wasn't until after the Tory landslide of 1710 that his "real life" in London began, as a Tory spin-doctor, satirising the opposition, planting leaks, and flying kites. Though he yearned for a bishopric, in 1713 he had to make do with the Deanery of St Patrick's. He got it in the nick of time. The following year, Queen Anne died, the Elector of Hanover became George I, and Sir Robert Walpole headed his first Whig administration. Swift returned to Ireland, where he remained for the next 12 years.

At St Patrick's, he proved "a conscientious and authoritarian dean", according to Glendinning. He was also generous, giving a third of his income to charity. His clerical life, therefore, was more than a veneer. Yet he remained, in his gut, a man of words more than a man of the cloth, and his extended exile provided the psychic space needed to produce some of his best work. Drawn into Irish politics, he enraged the authorities with his Drapier's Letters in 1724, which amounted to a call for home rule.

In the following year he returned to England, with the manuscript of Gulliver's Travels, the "distillation of all the conversations, obsessions, fantasies, wordmongerings, entertainment, arguments and disillusionments of his life", under his arm. It is by this work that Swift is most commonly remembered. Although today treated as a children's adventure story (and bowdlerised) Gulliver is actually a cruel and often raunchy political tract, an allegory comparable (in its own day) with Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.

After its publication, Swift returned to Ireland, "a wretched, dirty doghole and prison" as he put it, "but it is a place good enough to die in". In 1729, by now more Irish in his loyalties and interests than English, he responded to the complacency of the authorities in the face of a famine, with his angriest work, A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from being a Burthen to the Their Parents or Country - an acid satire that retains its power to shock. Other writing followed, including some jolly scatological verse (do modern clergyman and women amuse their friends by composing dirty poems? If not, why not?). In 1742, he was found to be of unsound mind by a Commission of Lunacy, and died three years later.

Swift was not a family man - he once observed that "he never yet saw the woman for whose sake he would part with the middle of his bed". His relationships with both Stella and Varina were complex, with lots of infantilising and baby-talk. In the case of Stella, Glendinning believes, there may even have been a secret marriage - though if so, it doesn't seem to have greatly affected how they related. Whether he often or ever had sexual intercourse is an interesting question. Sex was constantly on his mind. But the author is probably right to conclude that female bodies made him squeamish. Gulliver contains a curious passage - not in my nursery edition - about the six-foot breasts of the giant female Brobdingnagians. "The nipple was about half the bigness of my head, and the hue," records the narrator, "... so varified with spots, pimples and freckles, that nothing could be more nauseous."

What has been Swift's influence? Elizabeth Bowen wrote of Anglo-Ireland: "With Swift came the voice". The peculiar confidence - surgical and deracinated - that characterised Anglo-Irish writing for the next two centuries, began with the Dean. But Swift's influence on English writing has been equally great. Glendinning mentions that George Orwell thought Swift "a diseased writer" who was "presumably impotent". She does not point out that much of Animal Farm is a direct crib from Gulliver.

Today, even more than in Orwell's time, the Dean seems almost uncannily modern, cutting through the cant of doctrine and ideology, stripping away what he called the "refinements" (translated by Glendinning as "bullshit") of political argument from its self-serving core. The greatest merit of this lively and enjoyable work is that it revives our interest in a master.

8 Ben Pimlott is author of `Frustrate Their Knavish Tricks: Writings on Biography, History, and Politics' (Harpercollins pounds 8.99) and Warden- elect of Goldsmiths' College