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Audacity within strict limits: “Gulliver and the Lilliputians”, 1870, by Jehan-Georges Vibert

“Swift was obsessed by shit,” opined my best friend in his undergraduate essay on the Dean. “So, it seems, are you,” shot back our supervisor in his marginal annotation. Dr Colin Burrow, who echoed Swift in his wit and directness, would later supervise John Stubbs’s doctoral work. But although Stubbs would likewise dismiss the view of Swift as shit-obsessed, he is not one of those authors drawn to write about those whom he resembles (unlike, say, John Carey, who like Stubbs has written on Donne). 

From his base in Slovenia, where he is also a schoolteacher, copy editor and translator, Stubbs has produced a magisterial biography of Swift which is strikingly unlike its subject: consistently moderate, undemonstrative, even-tempered, open-minded, and tactful. Not that he presents his subject as the opposite of all these things; that would not be moderate or open-minded of him. He is sufficiently responsive to the disparate moral claims of Irish peasants, women, and Swift himself, to calibrate precisely how far the latter was responsive to the formers’ interests, and to state his findings without moralism: “Like most if not all of us, Swift’s personality was surely made up of many parts. One of these parts sympathised with the victims of his society; another concealed pain and insecurities in the language and attitudes of an oppressor.” The book is laden with controversy — between Catholics and Protestants, Anglicans and Dissenters, English and Irish, Whigs and Tories — but if there is anything controversial in its presentation of Swift’s positions on these matters, a reader would not know it from its tone. If it appears fractionally more sympathetic to the High Anglican Tory position than any other, it feels that this is only because it must focus on Swift.

Despite Stubbs’s disciplinary background, the biography is far more historical than literary. There are no extended passages of criticism; he does not rip Swift’s works out of the history into which they are stitched. As a result, individual works are discussed briefly and repeatedly, whenever they become relevant to the history being described (in what — after an introduction starting in medias res in 1710 — is a broadly chronological book). Yet Stubbs’s style also reveals a literary flair for compression: A Tale of a Tub “shocked all who weren’t entirely confused by it”; Swift “bonded with personalities that recognised and in their own ways equalled his unusualness as a person”; “There is much innuendo in the Swift-Vanessa letters, but innuendo rarely refers to a consummated urge”; and, concerning the “freedom” that Swift professed to champion: “Freedom is only meaningful in a world of restricted options. The strict limits Swift himself abided by were the preconditions of his audacity in literature and politics.” If Augustan poetry can be prolix, it can also be felicitously compressed. This may have rubbed off on Stubbs.

Stubbs also has a taste for architecture, and has clearly visited many of the places that Swift knew. “The Regal interiors Gulliver visits . . . are never described at length” is the observation of someone who would have made such a description, had he been Gulliver. Being a historicist biographer, he also tries to give a sense of what St Patrick’s Cathedral, or its Deanery, or a London coffee house, would have looked, felt, sounded and smelt like in Swift’s own time. He not only describes the portrait made by the young Charles Jervas of Swift, but what the room in which Swift’s sittings took place must have looked like.
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Peter Dreyer
January 4th, 2017
12:01 PM
Although I'm only halfway through it, this is without doubt the best book on Swift I've ever read! And Catherine Brown's review is also the best I've come across. Swift has sailed into his rest; Savage indignation there Cannot lacerate his Breast. Imitate him if you dare, World-Besotted Traveler; he Served human liberty. (Yeats's translation of Swift's own epitaph) Peter Dreyer

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