Swift's flirtatious game of self-censorship

Jonathan Swift, known for his satirical contributions to literature, sometimes flirted with the obscene. His most famous letters are riddled with crossings-out, which academics previously attributed to 18th-century editors censoring the clergyman's bawdy lines. Swift called women "bitches", "huzzies" and complained about their looks.

Now, an Oxford University academic claims the Gulliver's Travels author was simply indulging in a "playful form of self-censorship" by crossing out his own words, using an elaborate "baby language" to captivate his most famous correspondent, Dublin spinster "Stella", or Esther Johnson.

"Swift had an intriguing life, he wrote satires about religion and politics, but they reveal little about his own feelings," said Dr Abigail Williams, an 18th century English fellow and tutor at St Peter's College, Oxford. "These letters provide a window into his personal life."

The 65 missives, from 1710 to 1713, are collected in The Journal to Stella, first published in 1766. Dr Williams studied the original letters in the British Library with digital imaging software, separating different components of the complex handwriting.

"The consistency of the ink used for both the letter-writing and the crossings out was very similar," she said. "Also, the whole practice of crossing out stopped when Swift got ill in the spring of 1712, showing a relationship between his state of mind and the appearance of the letters."

Dr Williams believes Swift was playing a "flirtatious game" with Stella, and another female correspondent, Johnson's living companion Rebecca Dingley, which involved denying "full disclosure" of the words written. "The reader has to undress the text to enjoy it fully," she said.

Dr Williams said Swift also used a form of "baby language" to imitate the speech of small children by changing the consonants in familiar words. He writes: "I am sorry for poo poo ppt, pray walk hen oo can" (I am sorry for poor poor poppet, pray walk when you can). The academic asked her three-year-old son to read out such lines to aid in her translation.

The last words of The Journal to Stella are "agreeable bitch", which Swift uses as a term of endearment towards his correspondents. He calls the women "naughty girls", "huzzies" and "insolent rogues", describes the women in unflattering detail, and refers to the "horror" and "filth" of the female body.

The letters are being retranscribed by Dr Williams for a Cambridge University edition, to be published next year.

His way with words

* Swift's "baby language" attempted to imitate the speech of small children. He wrote: "I expect a Rettle vely soon; & that MD is vely werr, and so Nite dee MD" ["I expect a letter very soon, and that my dears are very well, and so night dear my dears"].

* He developed abbreviated pet names for himself and the two addressees: Esther Johnson was "ppt", Rebecca Dingley was "dd" and he was "pdfr".

* He also wrote: "When I write plain, I do not know how, but we are not alone, all the world can see us. A bad scrawl is so snug, it looks like a PMD" [PMD was his abbreviation for all three of them].

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'