Turtle Bunbury

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Jonathan Swift, the celebrated satirist and author of such works as ‘Gulliver’s Travel’s’, was Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin for over thirty years. However, perhaps the greatest conundrum of his life was how to maintain an intimate relationship with two women, without one finding out about the other. This article was written as part of the comemorations for the 350th anniversary of his birthday in November 2017.

Jonathan Swift was born in Dublin on 30 November 1667, the only son of another Jonathan Swift and his wife Abigail Erick of Leicestershire. The Swifts had moved to Ireland amid the turmoil of the English Civil War. Swift’s father died before he was even born, a victim of syphilis, and so young Jonathan was taken under the wing of his uncle, Godwin Swift, one of the Duke of Ormonde’s principal administrators in Ireland. Uncle Godwin and his family duly paid for Swift’s education at Kilkenny College and Trinity College Dublin.[i]

In about 1689, he moved to Surrey, England, and began the first of two terms as secretary to the English diplomat Sir William Temple, a grandson of the man for whom Temple Bar in Dublin is named. Also in Temple’s household was an eight-year-old girl called Hetty Johnson whose mother was a sort of full-time companion to Temple's sister, Martha, Lady Giffard. Hetty’s father is variously said to have been Temple’s steward or merchant but, in either case, he died young.[ii] Swift took a shine to Esther, whom he nicknamed ‘Stella’, and taught her how to read and write so well that she was soon writing copies of Temple’s letters on Swift’s behalf.

His career took a new direction in 1694 when he was appointed to the remote prebend of Kilroot, on the outskirts of Carrickfergus, County Antrim. To combat mounting feelings of loneliness, he proposed marriage to Jane Waring, a pious but rather moany archdeacon’s daughter whom he nicknamed ‘Varina’. Although Swift confessed a "violent desire" for her, Varina prevaricated for a long time, despite at least two stern letters he sent, urging her to avoid the "folly" of rejecting him. They were still dithering in 1700, after which Swift’s interest petered out.

Arguably this is because he now had a fresh eye on Stella who had now grown into the ‘most beautiful, graceful and agreeable young woman in London’. Their friendship bloomed when Temple died in 1699 and left some money and property in Dublin to Stella. On Swift’s advice, the 20-year-old moved to the Irish capital in 1702 to look after these interests.

She was accompanied by her lifelong friend, 35-year-old Rebecca Dingley, a kinsman of the Temples who, as one Swift biographer observed, ‘loved animals, wore spectacles, chewed large quantities of tobacco and tripped over her petticoats when she walked.’[iii]

The ladies first port of call was to see Dr Jonathan Swift, as he now was, who had by now become Vicar of Laracor, near Trim, Co. Meath. A parish of fifteen souls wasn’t quite what he had in mind but he enjoyed himself and made friends in the area. There were also many long nights playing cards and backgammon with Stella and Mrs Dingley.

He was deeply impressed by Stella; ‘I have nowhere met with a humour, a wit, or conversation so agreeable, a better portion of good sense, or a truer judgement of men and things.’ ‘Her hair was blacker than a raven, and every feature of her face in perfection.’ On any given evening, irrespective of company, ‘she never failed, before we parted, of delivering the best thing that was said.’ He adored the manner in which, if required, she could give ‘full employment to her wit, her contempt, and resentment, under which even stupidity and brutality were forced to sink into confusion.’

She was a man's woman who, Mrs Dingley aside, regarded the company of women as rather dreary. ‘The usual topic of ladies discourse being such as she had little knowledge of, and less relish,’ explained Swift. She certainly gathered an intellectual circle of men-friends, and became very popular in Dublin.

As such, he had to bite his tongue in 1704 when the Rev. William Tisdall, a fellow clergyman, declared his wish to marry Stella. Swift persuaded the Dublin-born Tisdall to drop the idea, gallantly reasoning that Tisdall didn’t have enough money to support a wife. Tisdall found another wife but it is notable that he and Swift, once friends, barely spoke again until after Stella’s demise over two decades later. (‘Do his feet stink still?’ wondered Swift in 1713).

By 1710, Swift’s acerbic wit was in demand in London where he became intimate with the Tory government, writing numerous essays and pamphlets that slated the Whig opposition. During this time, he frequently wrote to Stella (addressing the letters to Mrs Dingley).

His 65 surviving letters to her reveal a playful, secretive and intimate friendship. However, as time moved on, Stella’s eyes must have flickered a little at his third reference to Mrs Van’s ‘eldest daughter’, even if he never actually mentioned the woman by name.

The ‘eldest daughter’ was Hester ‘Hessy’ Vanhomrigh, a sturdy, Dutch-Irish girl, 21 years his junior (and seven years younger than Stella). He nicknamed her ‘Vanessa’, combining the first three letters of her surname with the sound of her first name. In fact, he invented the name ‘Vanessa’, which first appeared in a private poem, ‘Cadenus and Vanessa’, that he dedicated to her.[iv]

Her father was a prosperous Dutch merchant who had served as Commissary-General to William III’s army during the king's victorious campaign against the Jacobites, later becoming Lord Mayor of Dublin. Following his death, Vanessa and her family were relocating from their Irish home at Celbridge Abbey in Co. Kildare to start anew in London when they met Swift at an inn in Dunstable in 1707. [v] Their 17-year-relationship appears to have commenced when Vanessa accidentally spilled a pot of coffee.

Swift kept in close touch with the Vanhomrighs (or ‘Vans’ as he called them) and he dined with them over fifty times over the ensuing years.[vi] Vanessa was present on nearly every occasion but he never let Stella know this, even when he dined with her thrice in one week. ‘I have a mighty friendship for her,’ he advised a friend, presumably boosted by the endless cups of stimulating coffee they shared together in private. As well as acting as her occasional tutor, he began penning poems in her honour. As he wrote in ‘Cadenus and Vanessa’:

‘Each girl, when pleased with what is taught,
Will have the teacher in her thought.’

In 1714, the Whigs returned to power, Swift’s Tory friends were locked up as Jacobites and he found it expedient to return to Dublin where he began his 32-year tenure as Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. When Vanessa’s mother died that same year, he urged his wealthy young protégé to move back to Ireland and take up residence once more at Celbridge Abbey.

Swift now found himself trying to juggle two women within relatively close proximity of his parish. Vanessa was the immediate loser, probably because she was by now madly in love with him. Having led her on for many years, Swift began to recoil. She became increasingly desperate, and possessive. Although they still corresponded frequently, he was closing the relationship down, warning that their meetings should henceforth be ‘seldom’.

The main reason for this coldness was Stella. It is a matter of irresolvable debate as to whether or not the 49-year-old Swift secretly married Stella in 1716. The ceremony was allegedly performed by Swift’s former tutor, St George Ashe, Bishop of Clogher, but he died less than two years later. No other witnesses were present.[vii]

Among those who denied the marriage were Mrs Dingley, who swore the couple were never alone together, and Mrs Brent, Swift's housekeeper, who scoffed that it was an ‘absurd’ notion. And yet Swift’s close friend Dr Thomas Sheridan, a respected schoolmaster and essayist, firmly believed they were married and declared he had heard this from Stella herself.

John Boyle, 5th Earl of Orrery, was another friend of Swift who spoke of this ‘private marriage’ to ‘the virtuous and patient Stella’ in letters published in 1751. He proposed that ‘notwithstanding all her Perfections, the Dean would never openly own her as his Wife’ because he was too ‘Proud’ to admit to marrying ‘the Daughter of a Man who had been a Servant, tho she had been well educated, and had £1000 left her by Sir William Temple, on account of her Father’s faithful Services.’[viii] Orrery also noted that after this alleged marriage, they continued to live separately ‘and tho they often visited’ one another, the relationship never went ‘beyond the Limits of platonick Love.’

Married or not, Swift was still keeping Vanessa on a thread. Lord Orrery claimed she ‘was even Proud of being reputed his Concubine.’[ix] During this time, she reputedly declined an offer of marriage from Dr. Arthur Price, the Vicar of Celbridge, who later became Bishop of Meath and Archbishop of Cashel. Dr. Price's steward at Oakley Park by Celbridge was Richard Guinness, whose son, Arthur went on to establish the Guinness Brewery.

This strange ménage à trois lasted until 1723 when Vanessa is thought to have asked him to end his affair with Stella. According to Orrery, ‘her Patience being at last worn out, she writ him a very tender Epistle, insisting peremptorily upon his immediate Acceptance, or absolute Refusal of her as his Wife. The Dean carried the Answer himself, which contained not only absolute Refusal, but some severe Reproaches; and throwing it down upon her Table, with great Passion hastened back to his Horse.’

Perhaps Swift’s growing deafness played a part but his discourteous behaviour spelled the end of his relationship with Vanessa. She died heartbroken on 2 June 1723, aged 35. Her death was reputedly caused by tuberculosis but many blamed Swift for her demise.

Orrery gleefully noted how she had ‘sufficiently composed’ herself during the ‘Interval of Horror’ between his rejection and her death ‘to cancel a Will she had made in the Dean’s Favour.’ Instead, her fortune was to be shared by two men, one of whom was the eminent philosopher George Berkeley, then Dean of Derry, despite the fact she barely knew him.[x]

To Swift’s dismay, Vanessa had also directed her executors to publish ‘Cadenus and Vanessa’, presumably as a vindication of their romance. He was understandably concerned by the effects it might have on the other woman in his life.

By the time the poem was published in 1726, Stella was very ill. Orrery reckoned that while ‘the lovely Stella never shewed the least Sign of Resentment,’ Swift’s intimacy with Vanessa ‘sat heavy on her Mind for she began to decline in her Health … and after a lingering Illness expired.’

She lived long enough to see his novel ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ become the runaway bestseller of 1726. She passed away on 28 January 1728, aged 45, and was buried in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin.[xi]

Swift channelled some of his sorrow into ‘The Death of Mrs. Johnson’ and, appalled by the poverty and famine that haunted Ireland at this time, works such as ‘A Modest Proposal.

He did not find another love although he developed a soft spot for women such as Laetitia Pilkington, Constantia Grierson and the fun-loving Lady Anne Acheson, wife of the MP for Mullingar. He was also courted by the blonde, full-bosomed Queen Caroline, a huge fan of 'Gulliver's Travels'. As Mathew Dennison reveals in his splendid 2017 biography of her, ‘The First Iron Lady – A Life of Caroline of Ansbach’, Swift gifted George II’s queen some gold-threaded Irish silk.[xii] He had hoped Caroline would wear it in London and thereby stimulate the weaving industry in the Dublin Liberties where he lived his final decades. Their friendship later soured with the unhappy consequence that she did little to draw George II’s attention to Ireland’s manifold problems.

Swift died aged 77 in 1745. In accordance with his will, he was buried beside Stella in St. Patrick's Cathedral.



[i] Godwin Swift served as Attorney-General for the County Palatine of Tipperary on behalf of the ‘Great Duke’ of Ormonde, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. By way of payment for his service, he received a residence on Ormonde Quay in Dublin, as well as the estate at Swifte's Heath, Jenkinstown, just outside Kilkenny City, where Jonathan was raised. In 1688, poor Godwin was ‘seized with a lethargy and was soon after deprived of his speech and memory.’

[ii] Lord Orrery maintained that Stella’s father had been Temple’s Steward.

[iii] Michael Foot, The Pen and the Sword: Jonathan Swift and the Power of the Press (Faber and Faber, 2012).

[iv] Cadenus is an anagram of the Latin decanus, meaning ‘dean’.

[v] Bartholomew Vanhomrigh was a Dutch merchant from Amsterdam who made a fortune supplying William of Orange’s army with arms and food during his successful campaign to crush the Jacobites. He subsequently settled at, became a Commissioner of the Irish Revenue, married the daughter of another commissioner and fetched up as Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1697. His wife Hester Stone was the daughter of John Stone, an Irish commissioner. After his death, his family moved to London. Vanessa was travelling with her mother, two brothers and another sister when they met.

[vi] During this time, Swift also became friendly with Anne Long, a celebrated beauty and friend of the Vanhomrighs. After her premature demise in 1711, aged thirty, he recalled her as 'the most beautiful Person of the Age she lived in, of great Honr and Virtue, infinite Sweetness and Generosity of Temper and true good Sense'.

[vii] For the remainder of their days, both Stella and Swift described themselves as ‘spinster’ and ‘unmarried’ respectively.

[viii] “The Life and Character of Dr. Jonathan Swift, late Dean of Patrick’s, Dublin: Extracted from the Letters of the Right Honourable John, Earl of Orrery, just published … The Dean now resolved, it seems, to settle in Ireland, during the remaining Part of his Life; and having, while he lived with Sir William Temple, contracted a Love, or rather Friendship. for Miss Johnson, the Daughter of Sir William’s Steward, whom he has often celebrated under the Name of Stella, was in 1716 privately married to her, by Dr Ashe, then Bishop of Clogher. This Lady, both in Mind and Person, was one of the most Amiable of her Sex, and excellently well accomplished; yet notwithstanding all her Perfections, the Dean would never openly own her as his Wife; because, perhaps, his Pride made him think it beneath him to acknowledge as such, the Daughter of a Man who had been a Servant, tho she had been well educated, and had £1000. left her by Sir William Temple, on Account of her Father’s faithful Services. After Marriage they lived separately as before: He at the Deanry, she in Lodgings on the other Side of the River Liffey, and tho they often visited, yet nothing ever appeared beyond the Limits of platonick Love; so that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to prove they had ever been together some third Person. Tho’ the lovely Stella never shewed the least Sign of Resentment, yet this Treatment, probably, sat heavy on her Mind for she began to decline in her Health in the Year 1724, and after a lingering Illness expired towards the end of January 1727-8. In all Probability her Death occasioned great Regret, if not Remorse, to the Dean; for he never afterwards mentioned her Name without a Sigh.
Thus perished the virtuous and patient Stella but I must not forget a Correspondence the Dean had in his younger Years with another Lady, which gave Birth to his Poem, entitled Cadenus and Vanessa, dated in 1713. Vanessa's real Name was Esther Vanhomrigh, Daughter of a Dutch Merchant, who soon after the Revolution was appointed one of the Commissioners of the Revenue in Ireland, and died worth £16000, the Whole of which, but much impaired, center’d at last in Vanessa, who, having passed some Years of her Youth with her Mother and Sister in London, became there acquainted with Dr. Swift, and as she was herself Ambitious of being esteemed a wit, she not only admired the Doctor’s Wit, but became enamoured of his Person, and was even Proud of being reputed his Concubine. The Mother and two Daughters having wasted a considerable Part of their Fortune at London, were obliged to return to Ireland, and the Mother and Sister dying at Dublin, Vanessa retired to Selbridge [sic], a small House and Estate, that had been purchased by her Father, within ten or twelve Miles of Dublin. Here she was often visited by the Dean, and entertained Hopes that he would marry her; but her Patience being at last worn out, she writ him a very tender Epistle, insisting peremptorily upon his immediate Acceptance, or absolute Refusal of her as his Wife. The Dean carried the Answer himself, which contained not only absolute Refusal, but some severe Reproaches; and throwing it down upon her Table, with great Passion hastened back to his Horse. Pride, Disdain, Guilt and Remorse, put an End to her Life, not many Days after; but during this Interval of Horror, she was sufficiently composed to cancel a Will she had made in the Dean’s Favour, and to make another, by which she left her whole Estate to Dr. Berkley, now Bishop of Cloyne, and Mr. Marshall, one of the King’s Serjeants at Law, whom she appointed Executors.” [Salisbury and Winchester Journal - Monday 16 December 1751, p. 1. See https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000554/17511216/001/0001

[ix] Salisbury and Winchester Journal - Monday 16 December 1751.

[x] Berkeley was, however, friendly with her late father. Much of what Berkeley should have inherited was gobbled up by the costs of a protracted lawsuit involving her spendthrift brother. Swift was not mentioned in her will. Berkeley went on to establish a college on the British island colony of Bermuda for training ministers and missionaries. The city and college of Berkeley, California, are named for him.

[xi] A ward in St Patrick's Hospital is named "Stella" in her memory. Swift published a collection of Stella’s witticisms, entitled "Bon Mots de Stella", as an appendix to some editions of Gulliver's Travels

[xii] Queen Caroline courted Swift. He in turn asked her to intervene when her husband became King to do something to relieve the suffering of the Irish. Caroline agreed. She also apparently promised Swift a present that never materialised. He never forgave her for the non-materialisation of the present. He had initially tried to win her favour by giving her gifts of Irish fabric, which Caroline had made into dresses for herself and her daughters. Swift presumably hoped it would set a fashion in London for Irish fabric and help stimulate the Irish weaving industry - I don't know that it did. Eventually Swift became one of Caroline's bitterest critics with the result that she did little to draw George II's attention to Irish problems. There are a number of references to Swift in Denison’s book, including pages 193-4.