Monday, May 18, 2015

The Three Women in Dean Jonathan Swift's Life (1667-1745)

by Arthur Russell

Dean Jonathan Swift as featured on the Irish £10 Note
during the 1970's and 80's
The author of that most famous fantasy book Gulliver’s Travels was never a man noted for showing his emotional side, which goes some of the way to explain the fact that he never married. In his lifetime he was associated with three women, two of whom came close to presenting the possibility of prospective marriage while the third lady some commentators believe he might well have secretly married during long years of friendship and acquaintance though there is no tangible evidence that a marriage ever took place. This last possibility draws some credence from the fact that the Dean and the lady in question have for almost 3 centuries lain side by side under the aisle of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, the place where Swift served as Dean for over 20 years.

The first lady in Swift's life - an ill-advised liaison with ‘Varina’ 

The first lady that Swift was engaged to marry was the sister of a friend called Waring from Belfast whom he met while he was a rector in his first clerical posting to the parish of Kilroot near Carrickfergus in Antrim. Before the marriage with Miss Waring (Swift had given her the pet-name ‘Varina’) took place, either he, she or both of them together thought better of the idea and the marriage did not happen. It seemed to have been a parting that was conducted and concluded with mutual consent. Neither of them thought their marriage was a good idea?

The second lady - ‘Vanessa’ 

The second romantic entanglement of the Dean was not to be so simple or easy. It was with a lady called Hesther vanHomrigh, to whom he gave the pet-name ‘Vanessa’. He met Miss vanHomrigh while he was attending college in England. Hester was the 20 year old daughter of a Dutch merchant who had died some time before. The vanHomrighs had a house close to Swift’s lodgings and had made a lot of money from a series of land and property forfeitures in the aftermath of the success of King William’s war in Ireland in the early 1690’s.

Hesther was obviously much struck with the up and coming clergyman and pamphleteer to the extent that she followed him back to Ireland, where she bought a house called Marlay Abbey in the town of Celbridge about 15 miles from Dublin to be close to the man she considered the man of her dreams. She had by that time openly declared her affections for the Dean and her willingness to marry him – if he cared to ask her.

While Swift was a regular visitor to Marlay Abbey, there are no letters or other signs that he held reciprocal feelings for the lady. He was not to be drawn. There is evidence that suggest he tried to establish relationships for her with two “suitable” young men of his acquaintance to put an end to what was clearly a one way love affair.

Vanessa showed her determination to win the Dean’s affections by making enquiries about and actually wrote to a longer term female friend of the Dean’s, someone she obviously viewed as her rival for his attentions. This lady was Esther Johnson, a long time friend who had earlier followed the Dean from England and had bought a house in his parish of Laracor, near Trim in Co Meath.

Vanessa would have been well aware that the Dean was a frequent visitor to Laracor. Her letter to the lady in question, when it was brought to his attention; had the effect of annoying Swift, causing him to upbraid Vanessa severely, putting her in no doubt about the true status of their relationship from his perspective.

Poor Vanessa, who had been in poor health anyway, died several weeks after the altercation with Swift at the relatively young age of 36 years. She was buried in the nearby churchyard of Leixlip, Co Dublin. She was dutifully mourned by Swift, who felt a degree of guilt about his own possible role in her demise, though her own will and writings portray no hint of any blame being laid on his shoulders.

“She had loved not wisely but too well”.

The third lady - Esther Johnson (‘Stella’) - a lifelong friend if not lover

Possibly the main focus of any romantic interest which the Dean displayed during his entire lifetime was for the aforementioned Esther Johnson, who was a full ten years older than Miss vanHombrigh. He had first encountered Esther Johnson as a nine year old, along with her younger sister Anne while he was attending college in England in 1690. The girls’ mother was friend and companion of Lady Gifford, who was the sister of Swift’s patron, Sir William Temple of Moor Park, an influential member of the English Parliament and confidant of King William III. Swift became the volunteer teacher of the young girls and developed a friendship with Esther (to whom he gave the pet-name “Stella”) which continued for the rest of their lives. In later years he related how he had “guided her little hand in writing and how his spirit had given hers its first impress”.

Soon after Swift was appointed Vicar of the small parish of Laracor near Trim in Co Meath, Ireland in 1700, he persuaded Esther to come to live there with her constant companion, Rebecca Dingley, a lady some years older than herself. Their house, which became known as ‘Stella’s Cottage”, was regularly visited by Swift while he was Vicar of Laracor and subsequently after he was appointed Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Stella and Rebecca were also frequent visitors to Swift after he was appointed Dean of St Patrick’s in Dublin and were active in the city’s social circles for the early decades of the 18th century, years that coincided with the most productive years of the Dean’s literary life.

The remains of Stella's cottage at Laracor, Trim
A clergyman of some style: 

There is an amusing anecdote from Swift’s first months of his clerical appointment in Laracor, a small congregation of no more than 15. He notified his audience during one of his first Sunday services that that he would hold prayer services every Wednesday and Friday evening in the small church.

On the first evening, his clerk Roger Cox duly rang the church bell to summon them to prayer. Swift and his clerk vainly waited patiently for at least some of the congregation to respond to the summons. After a quarter of an hour, the conscientious clergyman obviously concluded none were going to come; so he got to his feet, walked composedly to his pulpit and very gravely began the service with the words “Dearly beloved Roger ------------“. Roger was the solitary audience for that evening's service.

A constant friendship

The Dean’s friendship with Stella had by then become a constant in both their lives. Theories abound that they were secretly married, but there is no documentary evidence of any such ceremony, religious or civil. Neither is there any anecdotal evidence of marriage from close acquaintances of either party. Rebecca Dingley, who was well positioned to be aware of anything relating to her friend and companion, was most dismissive of all rumours of marriage or even anything approaching intimacy between the pair. For his part, and no doubt with an eye to potential scandal, Swift always took pains to ensure he was never in company with Stella except when they were in the presence of a third party.

Stella's untimely death

It was while he was in London promoting his recently published masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels in 1727, that he received urgent news of Stella’s sickness back in Laracor. He rushed back to Ireland to be at her side. She lingered for a year and died on January 28th, 1728.

At her request, her body was laid to rest under the floor of the aisle of St Patrick’ Cathedral in Dublin. Swift was inconsolable. Few nobler tributes have ever been paid to the memory of a deceased friend than the one written by him in the aftermath of Stella’s death:
‘The truest, most virtuous, and valuable friend that I, or perhaps any other person, was ever blessed with. I knew her from six years old, and had some share in her education, by directing what books she should read, and perpetually instructing her in the principles of honour and virtue, from which she never swerved in any one action or moment of her life... Never was any of her sex born with better gifts of the mind, or who more improved them by reading and conversations... Her advice was always the best, and with the greatest freedom, mixed with the greatest decency. She had a gracefulness somewhat more than human, in every motion, word, and action. Never was so happy a conjunction of civility, freedom, easiness, and sincerity... With all the softness of temper that became a lady, she had the personal courage of a hero." 

Swift and his lifelong friend Stella lie side by side under the
aisle of St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin
Swift was executor of Stella’s will but never really recovered from losing her companionship. He had been subject to episodes of giddiness, and these increased as he grew older. By 1740 he was forced to retire to an institution for the mentally unstable where he died in 1745. His funeral was one of the largest seen in Dublin at that time, bearing testimony to the affection in which the Deanwas held by Catholic as well as the Protestant people of Dublin. He was one of the first, and would not be the last Protestant (and a clergyman at that) who wrote in defence of the down-trodden Catholic population of Ireland who at that time were suffering under the worst impositions of the so called “Penal laws” that had been passed and implemented by the Protestant dominated Irish Parliament in the aftermath of the Williamite wars of the 1690’s. He was buried beside his good friend, Esther Johnson (‘Stella’) under the aisle of St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin where he had served for so long as Dean.

 Dear friends in life; now forever united in death.


Arthur Russell is author of  an historic novel Morgallion set in early 13th century Ireland during the invasion of Ireland by King Robert Bruce's younger brother, Edward, who is determined to establish the Bruce dynasty as High Kings of Ireland, thereby creating a "Celtic Empire of the West".

For more information - website


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