For Stubbs, Swift was neither a monster nor an angel but, in his life as in his work, a man of radical ambivalence and profound contradiction, forever pulling (or being pulled) in opposite directions ... As Stubbs demonstrates so persuasively in this fine biography, Swift, more than most, was a divided soul. He was an ostensibly devout believer who held that religion could teach us how to hate but not how to love. He was undoubtedly misanthropic, yet he was a formidable opponent of slavery and war and could be gentle and sympathetic when dealing with people in person. He hated Ireland and the Irish, yet thought it proper to defend the country and its inhabitants from English force ... he focuses on illuminating the profound fissures of Swift’s sensibility and on examining the ways in which they inform his works and relate to the religious and political turmoil of his era. He does so with grace, verve and great care (at times this book is almost oppressively thorough), and he considers the subtleties of Swift’s character, and the intricacy and importance of his thought and writing, with insight, intelligence and an appealing commitment to seeing his subject whole.
...through agile prose and erudition [Stubbs] succeeds in offering something delicate, subtle and new ... In Stubbs’s fine and sensitive book, he emerges an embittered, deeply humane man: someone who turned his own experience of abandonment and humiliation into a vicious literary scourge of the callous and powerful establishments of his time. Stubbs restores Swift’s writing to its rich religious and cultural contexts without diminishing its autonomy.
In this excellent literary biography, Stubbs draws on extensive research to contextualize Swift’s courtier’s life within the hurly-burly of 18th-century foreign and domestic politics, also inspecting Swift’s clerical life within the doctrinal struggles of the church. He studies Swift’s literary motivations and professional contradictions: a man who disavowed political parties but became a Tory operative; a fastidious, conservative priest who became 'king of the mob,' rebelling against the established order with satire that delved into the stink of daily life ... In his early chapters, Stubbs falls into a scholar’s trap: oversharing hard-won research. He digresses too often, losing Swift in a blizzard of ancillary detail. That structural haze rapidly clears, however, and is redeemed by stellar prose, a firm narrative grip and nuanced historical and literary readings. Private yet performative, generous yet stingy, conservative yet rebellious, Swift was a knotty character. Stubbs brings an incisive intellect to the task of untangling him.
John Stubbs, an English schoolteacher in Slovenia who deserves a position in Oxbridge, has written the best of the many lives of Swift. He has mastered the complex historical background that defined Swift’s life, judiciously examined the conflicting evidence, and produced an intelligent and elegantly written book.
John Stubbs’s painstaking, scholarly book is much more than a life of Swift. It is an extended, thorough history of literary, clerical, social and political life in Ireland and England during the century from 1640. An immense amount of attention is devoted to obscure individuals and events and the general reader may prefer to read Victoria Glendinning’s much shorter, yet full and enlightening, biography which came out in 1998. However, Mr Stubbs’s account has a few surprising factual errors … That said, Mr Stubbs’s work is a magnificent achievement and an engrossing read that will surely represent the last word on his subject for many years to come.
[Stubbs'] pithily elegant style makes it relatively easy going, even for the general reader. There may be a few detours too many — into the thickets of diocesan enmities, for example – but Stubbs enlivens his diligent narrative with occasionally startling portraits and images ... No theory, certainly, can explain Swift — and at the end of this biography the reader may conclude that no one volume can contain him. There is simply too much there. The politics and religion (often interchangeable); the afflictions of the body, heart and mind; the enduring friendships with Alexander Pope, John Dryden (a distant cousin), John Gay, Richard Steele and Joseph Addison; the idea of England; the reality of Ireland. And all the words, even the last. For Swift, of course, wrote his own epitaph.