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

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn