Swift was born of Anglo-Irish parents in Dublin in 1667, several months after the death of his father. His mother returned to England, leaving Jonathan with an uncle. He was educated at Kilkenny Grammar, one of the best schools in Ireland at the time, and at Trinity College, Dublin, where he became friends with William Congreve. When political troubles in Ireland forced him to leave for England in 1688, his mother helped him get a position as secretary to Sir William Temple, a retired diplomat (soon to move and settle at Moor Park, Farnham). Swift remained at Moor Park for the best part of ten years, although he did return to Ireland, for two sojourns, become ordained as a priest in the Church of Ireland. Temple trusted Swift with important commissions, and introduced him to King William III. He also tutored Esther Johnson (or Stella), the daughter of Temple’s sister, worked on Temple’s memoirs, and developed his own poetical and satirical writings.
Temple died in 1699, and Swift failed to find a new position, so he returned to Dublin where he obtained a living and became prebend of Dunlavin in St Patrick’s Cathedral.
Despite his Whig background and sensibilities, from about 1710, he became a key writer for the new Tory government under Robert Harley, attracted by Harley’s commitment to be more supportive of the Church of Ireland. Harley, indeed, had already recruited another important writer of the day, Daniel Defoe, to the Tory cause. Swift took over as editor of the Tory journal, The Examiner, and he wrote a significant pamphlet for the Tories - The Conduct of the Allies - that helped win a vote for peace with France in Parliament. His reward was not a position within the English church - Queen Anne and others had been too scandalised by A Tale of the Tub - but the deanery of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.
Swift’s elevated position with the Tories did not last long. The death of Queen Anne and the accession of George I in 1714 led the Whigs back into power, and saw Tory leaders tried for treason for conducting secret negotiations with France. Swift withdrew to Dublin and his deanery, somewhat spurned by the Anglo-Irish Whig community. He turned his pen and satire to Irish affairs, much to the government’s frustration, with works such as Proposal for Universal Use of Irish Manufacture (1720) and Drapier’s Letters (1724). During these years, he also wrote his most famous and lasting work, Gulliver’s Travels, or, more accurately, Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, By Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon, and then a captain of several ships. He took the manuscript of this with him to London in 1726, and stayed with friends, including Alexander Pope, who helped him publish it anonymously. It was hugely popular, and went through several reprints, and by the following year had been translated into French, German and Dutch.
Swift returned to London one last time, in 1727, staying with Pope, but when he heard Esther Johnson was dying, he raced back to Ireland. She died the following January. More dark satire followed from his pen, notably, in 1729, A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick. In the latter years of his life, Swift’s health failed in several ways, physically and mentally. He died on 19 October 1745, and was laid to rest next to Esther, according to his wishes, in St Patrick’s. Further biographical information can be found at Wikipedia, the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Luminarium or reviews of Jonathan Swift: His life and His World by Leo Damrosch (at The Guardian, The New York Times, History Today).
There is no evidence that Swift kept a diary of any significance. Although The National Archives records that the Forster Collection at the V&A Museum holds ‘diary, literary MSS, personal accounts, corresp and copies of letters’, there is no reference at all in biographies to any diary kept by Swift. However, one of his most memorable and long-lasting works has been called a ‘journal’, at least since the 19th century - The Journal to Stella. And this work is included in William Matthews’ definitive British Diaries: An Annotated Bibliography of British Diaries Written Between 1442 and 1942. Indeed, Matthews says it is ‘the best reflection of social life in time of Queen Anne’. The Journal to Stella contains a series of letters written by Swift to Esther (and occasionally her companion, Dingley) between 1710 and 1713. Most biographers agree that Swift had some kind of lifelong relationship with Esther, while some argue they may have been secretly married.
Most of these letters were first published in the 18th century (1768), in a set of Swift’s collected works edited by his relation, Deane Swift. However, it was not until the end of the 19th century, I think, that they were collated together by Frederick Ryland into a single volume (the second in a series of Swift’s Prose Works) and given the title The Journal to Stella. Around a third of the letters remain extant, and are held by the British Library, but the majority have been lost, and so for them Deane Swift’s collected works remains the best source. Many further editions of The Journal to Stella have been published. Most recently, Cambridge University Press has brought out ‘the first critical edition for 50 years’, which, it says, ‘sheds new light on Swift, his relationships and the historical period’. Older editions can be read freely online at the University of Adelaide’s free ebook website (a 1901 edition with notes and introduction by George A. Aitken), or Internet Archive.
Here are several extracts from The Journal to Stella as edited by Aitken. (MD is short for ‘My Dears’ and is used by Swift rather fluidly to stand for both Stella and Mrs. Dingley, but also for Stella alone.)
9 October 1711
‘I was forced to lie down at twelve to-day, and mend my night’s sleep: I slept till after two, and then sent for a bit of mutton and pot of ale from the next cook’s shop, and had no stomach. I went out at four, and called to see Biddy Floyd, which I had not done these three months: she is something marked, but has recovered her complexion quite, and looks very well. Then I sat the evening with Mrs. Vanhomrigh, and drank coffee, and ate an egg. I likewise took a new lodging to-day, not liking a ground-floor, nor the ill smell, and other circumstances. I lodge, or shall lodge, by Leicester Fields, and pay ten shillings a week; that won’t hold out long, faith. I shall lie here but one night more. It rained terribly till one o’clock to-day. I lie, for I shall lie here two nights, till Thursday, and then remove. Did I tell you that my friend Mrs. Barton has a brother drowned, that went on the expedition with Jack Hill? He was a lieutenant-colonel, and a coxcomb; and she keeps her chamber in form, and the servants say she receives no messages. - Answer MD’s letter, Presto, d’ye hear? No, says Presto, I won’t yet, I’m busy; you’re a saucy rogue. Who talks?’
12 October 1711
‘Mrs. Vanhomrigh has changed her lodging as well as I. She found she had got with a bawd, and removed. I dined with her to-day; for though she boards, her landlady does not dine with her. I am grown a mighty lover of herrings; but they are much smaller here than with you. In the afternoon I visited an old major-general, and ate six oysters; then sat an hour with Mrs. Colledge, the joiner’s daughter that was hanged; it was the joiner was hanged, and not his daughter; with Thompson’s wife, a magistrate. There was the famous Mrs. Floyd of Chester, who, I think, is the handsomest woman (except MD) that ever I saw. She told me that twenty people had sent her the verses upon Biddy, as meant to her: and, indeed, in point of handsomeness, she deserves them much better. I will not go to Windsor to-morrow, and so I told the Secretary to-day. I hate the thoughts of Saturday and Sunday suppers with Lord Treasurer. Jack Hill is come home from his unfortunate expedition, and is, I think, now at Windsor: I have not yet seen him. He is privately blamed by his own friends for want of conduct. He called a council of war, and therein it was determined to come back. But they say a general should not do that, because the officers will always give their opinion for returning, since the blame will not lie upon them, but the general. I pity him heartily. Bernage received his commission to-day.’
14 October 1711
‘I was going to dine with Dr. Cockburn, but Sir Andrew Fountaine met me, and carried me to Mrs. Van’s, where I drank the last bottle of Raymond’s wine, admirable good, better than any I get among the Ministry. I must pick up time to answer this letter of MD’s; I’ll do it in a day or two for certain. - I am glad I am not at Windsor, for it is very cold, and I won’t have a fire till November. I am contriving how to stop up my grate with bricks. Patrick was drunk last night; but did not come to me, else I should have given him t’other cuff. I sat this evening with Mrs. Barton; it is the first day of her seeing company; but I made her merry enough, and we were three hours disputing upon Whig and Tory. She grieved for her brother only for form, and he was a sad dog. Is Stella well enough to go to church, pray? no numbings left? no darkness in your eyes? do you walk and exercise? Your exercise is ombre. - People are coming up to town: the Queen will be at Hampton Court in a week. Lady Betty Germaine, I hear, is come; and Lord Pembroke is coming: his wife is as big with child as she can tumble.’
15 October 1711
‘I sat at home till four this afternoon to-day writing, and ate a roll and butter; then visited Will Congreve an hour or two, and supped with Lord Treasurer, who came from Windsor to-day, and brought Prior with him. The Queen has thanked Prior for his good service in France, and promised to make him a Commissioner of the Customs. Several of that Commission are to be out; among the rest, my friend Sir Matthew Dudley. I can do nothing for him, he is so hated by the Ministry. Lord Treasurer kept me till twelve, so I need not tell you it is now late.’
16 October 1711
‘I dined to-day with Mr. Secretary at Dr. Coatesworth’s, where he now lodges till his house be got ready in Golden Square. One Boyer, a French dog, has abused me in a pamphlet, and I have got him up in a messenger’s hands: the Secretary promises me to swinge him. Lord Treasurer told me last night that he had the honour to be abused with me in a pamphlet. I must make that rogue an example, for warning to others. I was to see Jack Hill this morning, who made that unfortunate expedition; and there is still more misfortune; for that ship, which was admiral of his fleet, is blown up in the Thames, by an accident and carelessness of some rogue, who was going, as they think, to steal some gunpowder: five hundred men are lost. We don’t yet know the particulars. I am got home by seven, and am going to be busy, and you are going to play and supper; you live ten times happier than I; but I should live ten times happier than you if I were with MD.’
22 October 1711
‘I dined in the City to-day with Dr. Freind, at one of my printers: I inquired for Leigh, but could not find him: I have forgot what sort of apron you want. I must rout among your letters, a needle in a bottle of hay. I gave Sterne directions, but where to find him Lord knows. I have bespoken the spectacles; got a set of Examiners, and five pamphlets, which I have either written or contributed to, except the best, which is the vindication of the Duke of Marlborough, and is entirely of the author of the Atalantis. I have settled Dingley’s affair with Tooke, who has undertaken it, and understands it. I have bespoken a Miscellany: what would you have me do more? It cost me a shilling coming home; it rains terribly, and did so in the morning. Lord Treasurer has had an ill day, in much pain. He writes and does business in his chamber now he is ill: the man is bewitched: he desires to see me, and I’ll maul him, but he will not value it a rush. I am half weary of them all. I often burst out into these thoughts, and will certainly steal away as soon as I decently can. I have many friends, and many enemies; and the last are more constant in their nature. I have no shuddering at all to think of retiring to my old circumstances, if you can be easy; but I will always live in Ireland as I did the last time; I will not hunt for dinners there, nor converse with more than a very few.’
9 October 1712
‘I have left Windsor these ten days, and am deep in pills with asafoetida, and a steel bitter drink; and I find my head much better than it was. I was very much discouraged; for I used to be ill for three or four days together, ready to totter as I walked. I take eight pills a day, and have taken, I believe, a hundred and fifty already. The Queen, Lord Treasurer, Lady Masham, and I, were all ill together, but are now all better; only Lady Masham expects every day to lie in at Kensington. There was never such a lump of lies spread about the town together as now. I doubt not but you will have them in Dublin before this comes to you, and all without the least grounds of truth. I have been mightily put backward in something I am writing by my illness, but hope to fetch it up, so as to be ready when the Parliament meets. Lord Treasurer has had an ugly fit of the rheumatism, but is now near quite well. I was playing at one-and-thirty with him and his family t’other night. He gave us all twelvepence apiece to begin with: it put me in mind of Sir William Temple. I asked both him and Lady Masham seriously whether the Queen were at all inclined to a dropsy, and they positively assured me she was not: so did her physician Arbuthnot, who always attends her. Yet these devils have spread that she has holes in her legs, and runs at her navel, and I know not what. Arbuthnot has sent me from Windsor a pretty Discourse upon Lying, and I have ordered the printer to come for it. It is a proposal for publishing a curious piece, called The Art of Political Lying, in two volumes, etc. And then there is an abstract of the first volume, just like those pamphlets which they call The Works of the Learned. Pray get it when it comes out. The Queen has a little of the gout in one of her hands. I believe she will stay a month still at Windsor. Lord Treasurer showed me the kindest letter from her in the world, by which I picked out one secret, that there will be soon made some Knights of the Garter. You know another is fallen by Lord Godolphin’s death: he will be buried in a day or two at Westminster Abbey. I saw Tom Leigh in town once. The Bishop of Clogher has taken his lodging for the winter; they are all well. I hear there are in town abundance of people from Ireland; half a dozen bishops at least. The poor old Bishop of London, at past fourscore, fell down backward going upstairs, and I think broke or cracked his skull; yet is now recovering. The town is as empty as at midsummer; and if I had not occasion for physic, I would be at Windsor still. Did I tell you of Lord Rivers’s will? He has left legacies to about twenty paltry old whores by name, and not a farthing to any friend, dependent, or relation: he has left from his only child, Lady Barrymore, her mother’s estate, and given the whole to his heir-male, a popish priest, a second cousin, who is now Earl Rivers, and whom he used in his life like a footman. After him it goes to his chief wench and bastard. Lord Treasurer and Lord Chamberlain are executors of this hopeful will. I loved the man, and detest his memory. We hear nothing of peace yet: I believe verily the Dutch are so wilful, because they are told the Queen cannot live.’
The Diary Junction