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].

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