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Swift's first Acquaintance with Miss Vanhomrigh—She fol
lows him to Ireland-Swift's Marriage with Stella-Death of Miss Vanhomrigh—Poem of Cadenus and Vanessa Swift's Studies during his retirement from 1714 to 1720 -His system of Life and Amusements—Engages in Irish Politics—His Proposal for Encouragement of Irish Manufactures and other Tracts-Drapier's Letters—Swift's subsequent popularity.
At the period of Swift's residence in England, he was possessed, in an eminent degree, of many of the qualities which are the surest passports to female favour. He was not only a man of the highest talents, but he enjoyed, in full extent, all the public notice and distinction which the reputation of such talents can confer. He moved in the highest circles, was concerned in the most important business of the time, and had all the advantage of a name blown wide abroad in the world. In private society, the varied richness of his conversation, the extent of his knowledge, his unequalled powers of wit and humour, even the somewhat cynical eccentricities of his temper, joined to form a character equally interesting from its merit and originality. His manners, in these his better days, were but slightly tinged with the peculiarities which afterwards marked them more unpleasantly, and his ease and address were such as became the companion of statesmen and courtiers :
“He moved, and bow'd, and talked with too much
grace, Nor shew'd the parson in his gait or face.”
Thus accomplished, Swift was readily admitted to the intimate society of many of the most beautiful and accomplished women of the age. His correspondence with the unfortunate Mrs Long, shews how well he knew to support the character of a favourite of the fair. The friendship of Lady Betty Germain, of Mrs Barton, of the Countess of Winchelsea, the Duchess of Ormond, Lady Masham, and many other ladies eminent for beauty or accomplishments, rank or fashion, evinces how high he stood in the estimation of those by whom it is almost every man's ambition to be distinguished. But these enviable talents of pleasing became, through an unfortunate contingence, the means of embittering, if not of abridging, the life of the possessor.
Amongst the families in London where Swift was chiefly domesticated, was that of Mrs Vanhomrigh, a widow lady of fortune and respectability, who had two sons and two daughters.* The eldest daughter was Esther Vanhomrigh, better known by the poetical appellation of Vanessa. On her personal charms we are left in some uncertainty, since Cadenus has said little upon that topic, and, by other authorities, they have been rather depreciated.f But, when Swift became intimate in the family, she was not yet twenty years old, lively and graceful, yet with a greater inclination for reading and mental cultivation than is usually combined with a gay temper. This last attribute had fatal attractions for Swift, who, in intercourse with his female friends, had a marked pleasure in directing their studies, and acting as their literary Mentor; a dangerous character for him who assumes it, when genius, docility, and gratitude, are combined in a young and interesting pupil. From several pas
* She was the daughter of Mr Stone the commissioner, and widow of Bartholomew Vanhomrigh, a Dutch merchant, who had been commissary of stores for King William during the Irish civil wars, and afterwards muster-master-general, and commissioner of the revenue. Notwithstanding his having enjoyed a large income, and purchased forfeited estates to the value of L.12,000 in Ireland, he did not leave above L.16,000 to be divided amongst his children at his death. His widow and family settled in London about 1709, and had a house in Bury-street, St James's. Their vicinity to Swift's lodgings, and connection with Ireland, probably first led to the intimacy which afterwards proved so fatal.
+ Lord Orrery says Vanessa was not handsome: but it is certain he only spoke of her by report. Mr Berwick has a picture of one of the Miss Vanhomrighs, but whether of Vanessa or her sister is, I believe, doubted.
sages in the Journal, Swift's constant and intimate familiarity in the Vanhomrigh family is manifest; and it is plain also, he soon felt that his acquaintance with Miss Esther was such as must necessarily give pain to Stella. While Vanessa was occupying much of his time, and much doubtless of his thoughts, she is never once mentioned in the Journal directly by name, and is only twice casually indicated by the title of Vanhomrigh's eldest daughter. There was, therefore, a consciousness on Swift's part, that his attachment to his younger pupil was of a nature which could not be gratifying to her predecessor, although he probably shut his own eyes to the consequences of an intimacy which he wished to conceal from those of Stella. Miss Vanhomrigh, in the meanwhile, sensible of the pleasure which Swift received from her society, and of the advantages of youth and fortune which she possessed, and ignorant of the peculiar circumstances in which he stood with respect to another, naturally, and surely without offence either to reason or virtue, gave way to the hope of forming a union with a man, whose talents had first attracted her admiration, and whose attentions, in the course of their mutual studies, had, by degrees, gained her affections, and seemed to warrant his own. It is easy for those who look back on this melancholy story, to blame the assiduity of Swift, or the imprudence of Vanessa. But the first deviation from the straight line of moral rectitude is, in such a case, so very gradual,
and, on the female side, the shades of colour which part esteen from affection, and affection from passion, are so imperceptibly heightened, that they who fail to stop at the exact point where wisdom bids, have much indulgence to claim from all who share with them the frailties of mortality. The imprudent friends continued to use the language of friendship, but with the assiduity and earnestness of a warmer passion, until Vanessa rent asunder the veil, by intimating to Swift the state of her affections; and in this, as she conceived, she was justified by his own favourite, though dangerous maxim, of doing that which seems in itself right, without respect to the common opinion of the world. We cannot doubt that he actually felt the “ shame, disappointment, guilt, surprise,” expressed in his celebrated poem, though he had not courage to take the open and manly course, of avowing those engagements with Stella, or other impediments, which prevented him from accepting the hand and fortune of her rival.' Perhaps he was conscious that such an explanation had been too long delayed, to be now stated without affording grounds for the heavy charge of having flattered Miss Vanhomrigh into hopes, which, from the nature of his own situation, could never be gratified. This remorseful consciousness, too, he might feel when looking back on his conduct, though until then he had blindly consulted his own gratification in seeking the pleasure of Vanessa's society, without being aware of the difficulties in which they were both becoming gradually en