In any highly sophisticated society, such as 
our own or Swift’s, disguise plays so large a 
part, politeness is so essential, that to do as
one likes, to speak straight out, to throw off 
the ceremonies and conventions and speak a 
“little language” for one or two to understand,
is as much a necessity as a breath of air in a 
hot room. The reserved, the powerful, the 
admired have the most need of such a refuge. 
Swift himself found it so. The proudest of 
men coming home from the company of great
men who praised him, of lovely women who 
flattered him, from intrigue and politics, put 
all that aside, settled himself comfortably in 
bed, pursed his severe lips into baby language 
and prattled to his “two monkies,” his “dear 
Sirrahs,” his “naughty rogues” on the other 
side of the Irish Channel.

Well, let me see you now again. My wax 
candle’s almost out, but however I’ll begin. Well 
then don’t be so tedious, Mr. Presto; what can 
you say to MD’s letter? Make haste, have done 
with your preambles—why, I say, I am glad you 
are so often abroad.

So long as Swift wrote to Stella in that strain, 
so long as he eased his mind in her company 
when the day’s business was over, she had no 
need to be jealous. It was true that she was 
wearing away the flower of her youth in 
Ireland with Rebecca Dingley, who wore 
hinged spectacles, consumed large quantities 
of Brazil tobacco, and stumbled over her petti-
coats as she walked. Further, the conditions 
in which the two ladies lived, for ever in 
Swift’s company when he was at home, occupy-
ing his house when he was absent, gave rise to 
gossip; so that, though Stella never saw him 
except in Mrs. Dingley’s presence, she was 
one of those ambiguous women who live chiefly 
in the society of the other sex. But surely it 
was well worth while. The packets kept 
coming from England, each sheet written to 
the rim in Swift’s crabbed little hand, which 
she imitated to perfection, full of nonsense 
words, and capital letters, and hints which 
no one but Stella could understand, and 
secrets which Stella was to keep, and little 
commissions which Stella was to execute. 
Tobacco came for Dingley, and chocolate and 
silk aprons for Stella. Whatever people might 
say, surely it was well worth while.

Of this Presto, who was so different from 
that formidable character “t’other I,” the 
world knew nothing. The world knew 
only that Swift was over in England
again, soliciting the new Tory Government 
on behalf of the Irish Church for those 
First Fruits which he had begged the 
Whigs in vain to restore. The business 
was soon accomplished; nothing indeed could 
exceed the cordiality and affection with which 
Harley and St. John greeted him; and now 
the world saw what even in those days of 
small societies and individual pre-eminence 
must have been a sight to startle and amaze—
the “mad parson,” who had marched up and 
down the coffee-houses in silence and unknown 
a few years ago, admitted to the inmost
councils of State, the man who had begun life
a mere secretary without birth or money or
influence dining with the highest Ministers of
the Crown, making dukes do his bidding, dis-
pensing patronage, and so run after for his
good offices that his servant’s chief duty was
to know how to keep people out. Addison
himself forced his way up only by pretending
that he was a gentleman come to pay a bill.
For the time being Swift was omnipotent. No-
body could buy his services; everybody 
feared his pen. He went to Court, and “am so
proud I make all the lords come up to me.”
The Queen wished to hear him preach;
Harley and St. John added their entreaties;
but he refused. When Mr. Secretary one night 
dared show his temper, Swift called upon him 
and warned him

never to appear cold to me, for I would not be
treated like a schoolboy… He took all right;
said I had reason… would have had me dine
with him at Mrs. Masham’s brother, to make up
matters; but I would not. I don’t know, but I 
would not.

He scribbled all this down to Stella without exultation or vanity. That he should 
command and dictate, prove himself the peer
of great men and make rank abase itself
before him, called for no comment on his part
or hers. Had she not known him years ago
at Moor Park and seen him lose his temper
with Sir William Temple and predicted all
this, and guessed his greatness and heard 
from his own lips what he planned and hoped?

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Did she not know better than anyone how 
strangely good and bad were blent in him, and  
all his foibles and eccentricities of temper, 
and how he could be at once so coarse and so 
delicate, so cynical and yet cherish a depth of 
feeling which she had never met with in 
any other human being? They knew each 
other in and out, good and bad, so that without 
effort or concealment he could use those pre-
cious moments late at night or the first thing 
on waking to rattle off the whole story of his 
day: to tell her what he had spent on coal; 
how Patrick had been drunk again and bought 
a linnet to give Dingley; where he had dined 
and what he had paid for his dinner; the latest 
gossip of the Court; how the lime trees in the 
Park were out and how he longed for Laracor 
and his willows; how Lady Berkeley stole his 
hat and stuck it on another lady’s head; how 
he had caught a cold, and thought he heard 
burglars in the night, and dined with his 
Brethren at the Society, and thought of Stella, 
who must be sure to walk every day and read 
good books—the whole story, in short, of his 
charities and meannesses, his affections, ambi-
tions and despairs, was poured out on top of 
her as though he were thinking aloud.

With such proof of his affection, admitted to 
intimacy with this Presto whom no one else 
in the world knew, Stella had no cause to be 
jealous. It was perhaps the opposite that 
happened. As she read the crowded pages 
she could see him and hear him and imagine 
so exactly the impression he must be making 
on all these fine people who crowded about him 
in amazement and fear and admiration that 
she fell more deeply in love than ever, or, if 
that were impossible, admired him more. She 
could piece together the contradictory ele-
ments as they followed each other casually in 
the Journal so as to make a perfect picture of 
him. Here he was picking the coals off his 
fire, saving halfpence on coaches, scandalizing 
the lords with whom he dined by his sting-
iness, and yet by the help of those very econo-
mies practising the most considerate and secret 
of charities—giving poor Patty Rolt “a pistole 
to help her a little forward against she goes to 
board in the country,” taking twenty guineas 
to a sick poet in a garret. She could follow 
step by step the story of “young Harrison”: 
how he helped and protected him; thought 
well of him and then not so well; worried to 
find him ill and penniless, carried him off to 
Knightsbridge, took him a hundred pounds 
only to find that he was dead an hour before. 
“Think what grief this is to me! . . . I 
could not dine with Lord-Treasurer, nor any 
where else; but got a bit of meat toward even-
ing.” And then, in his masterful way, grieving 
and grumbling, he must take all Harrison’s 
affairs upon his shoulders, order the funeral 
as economically as possible, see the mother, 
keep the money out of her clutches. Every-
body seemed to call upon him when they were
in trouble. She could imagine the strange
scene, that November morning, when the Duke
of Hamilton was killed in Hyde Park and
Swift went at once to the Duchess and sat
with her for two hours and heard her rage
and storm and rail, and took her affairs, too,
on his shoulders as if it were his natural office,
and none could dispute his place in the house
of mourning. “She has moved my very 
soul,” he said. When young Lady Ashburn-
ham died he burst out, “I hate life when I
think it exposed to such accidents; and to
see so many thousand wretches burdening the
earth, while such as her die, makes me think
God did never intend life for a blessing.” And
then, with that instinct to rend and tear his
own emotions which made him angry in the
midst of his pity, he would round upon the
mourners, even the mother and sister of the
dead woman, and part them as they cried
together and complain how “people will
pretend to grieve more than they really do,
and that takes off from their true grief.”

The gloom was there, smouldering; the
unsparing blade was ready to leap forth; but
to Stella both were veiled. To her he showed
himself genial and benignant: the man whom
Harley teased by calling him Dr. Thomas
Swift, and Lady Berkeley romped with, the 
man who busied himself with all the little
businesses and pleasures of life, buying books,
enjoying wine, to Stella at least fatherly or
brotherly, laughing at her spelling, scolding
her about her health. If he had written only
to Stella, Swift would have been very different

[new column]

from the Swift we know. For, like all good 
letter writers, Swift took colour from the 
person he was writing to. He was with her 
when he wrote to her, talking baby language 
in front of Mrs. Dingley, letting Stella in-
fluence him this way and that, calling up all 
they had done and felt together, though he 
was in London and she over against St. Mary’s 
Church, near Capel-street, in Dublin. They 
had a fund of memories in common. They had
spent many happy hours together. “Do not
you remember I used to come into your
chamber, and turn Stella out of her chair, and
rake up the fire in a cold morning, and cry
uth, uth, uth!” She was often in his mind;
he wondered if she were out walking when he
was; when Prior abused one of his puns it
made him think of Stella and of her puns and
their vileness. Inevitably Swift’s influence
was everywhere on her life—on her mind, on
her affections, on the books she read, on the
hand she wrote and the “very judicious
abstracts” she made, on the friends she knew
and the suitors she rejected. Indeed, he was
half responsible for her being.

But the woman he had chosen was no insipid
slave. She had a character of her own. She
was capable of thinking for herself. She was
reserved, aloof, a severe critic for all her grace
and sympathy, a little formidable, perhaps,
with her love of plain speaking and her fiery
temper and her fearlessness in saying what
she thought. But with all her gifts she was
little known. With her slender means and
feeble health her way of life was very modest; 
and the society which gathered round her came
for the simple pleasure of talking to a woman
who listened and understood and said very
little herself, but in the most agreeable of 
voices and generally the best thing of the
evening. For the rest, she was not, perhaps,
very learned. Her health had prevented her
from serious study, and, though she had run
over a great variety of subjects and had a fine
severe taste in letters, what she read did not 
stick in her mind. She had been extravagant
as a girl and flung her money about until 
her good sense took control of her and she
lived with the utmost frugality (“five nothings
on five plates of delf” made her supper), 
dressing very plainly, but contriving from
the sums she laid by both to help the poor and
to bestow upon her friends (it was an extrava-
gence she could not resist) the “most agreeable
presents in the world.” Swift never knew her 
equal in that art, “although it be an affair of
as delicate a nature as most in the course of
life.” She had in addition that sincerity which
Swift called “honour,” something virile, a 
courage, a fire which inspired the delicacy of
her body and lent her womanliness a sharper
charm. Such, then, was the influence which
worked on Swift as he wrote; such the
memory which mingled with the thought of
his fruit trees and the willows and the river
with trout in it at Laracor, when he saw the 
trees budding in St. James’s Park and heard
the politicians wrangle. Unknown to all of
them he had his retreat; and if the Ministers
again played him false and once more, after
making his friends’ fortunes, he went empty-
handed away, then after all he could retire to
Ireland and to Stella and have “no shudder-
ing at all” at the thought.

But Stella was the last woman in the world
to press her claims. None knew better than
she that Swift loved power and the company
of men: that though he had his moods of
tenderness and his fierce spasms of disgust at 
society, still for the most part he infinitely
preferred the dust and bustle of London to all
the trout streams and cherry trees in the world.
Above all, he hated interference. If anyone
laid a finger upon his liberty or hinted the 
least threat to his independence, were they
men or women, queens or kitchenmaids, he
turned upon them with a ferocity which made 
a savage of him on the spot. Harley once
dared offer him a bank-note; Miss Waring
dared hint that the obstacles to their marriage
were now removed. Both were chastised, the 
woman brutally. But Stella knew better than
to invite such treatment. Stella had learnt
patience; Stella had learnt discretion. Even
in a matter like this of staying in London or
coming back to Ireland she allowed him every
latitude, asking nothing for herself, and was
rewarded. Swift was half annoyed.
…your generosity makes me mad; I know you
repine inwardly at Presto’s absence; you think he
has broken his word, of coming in three months,
and that this is always his trick: and now Stella
says, she does not see possibly how I can come 
away in haste, and that MD is satisfied, &c.
An’t you a rogue to overpower me thus?
But it was “thus” that she kept him. Again