Jonathan Swift in the Company of Women.
Louise Barnett's fine study of Swift's relationship to women--as cultural ideals and as individuals--redresses ideologically invested readings of all stripes and offers a rational, contextualized, and measured assessment of 'misogyny' and related attitudes in Swift's life and oeuvre. Taking an essentially biographical approach,Barnett draws upon a range of Swift's writings to argue that both Swift's interactions with women and his work were frequently characterized by an unease about femininity that is an intensification of that expressed by his culture. Equally, however, Barnett balances this overarching argument with a reconsideration of the warm and supportive--if highly controlled and self-serving--relationships he enjoyed with a number of women. In this manner, Barnett makes sense of apparent disjunctures between Swift's professed esteem for particular women and his broad-brush anti-female writing.
The book is divided into two sections, the first of which traces Swift's relationships with a series of individual historical women. Barnett begins by usefully re-establishing Jane Waring ('Varina') in the biographical record as a serious love interest and reads Swift's interactions with her as the beginning of a pattern in his relationships with women, characterized by 'subterfuge, evasion, and denial of responsibility' (p. 58). She uses this model to complicate the binaries which have informed considerations of Stella and Vanessa in particular. Drawing out Swift's culturally conservative instincts and his willingness to exploit the dominant role available to him in relation to younger women, Barnett picks apart what she positions as the misreadings of earlier biographers such as Ehrenpreis.
This section paves the way for a the matically structured one, which reads the anti-female elements of Swift's work particularly convincingly, concluding that reading Swift as a 'notorious misogynist' (p. 173) is hardly helpful. The final two chapters of the book are where it really comes into its own: Barnett rightly identifies Swift as a 'moralizing satirist' (p. 132) instead of the systematic thinker he risks becoming in some feminist accounts. She sets his attitudes in appropriate and illuminating cultural contexts, isolating in his personal, political, and poetic writings an 'excess of hostility' (p. 146) towards various aspects of femininity and arguing definitively against regarding Swift as a gender egalitarian. That Barnett manages to do so without simplifying Swift's manifold complexities is one of the book's triumphs: she both accommodates and dissects the tensions involved in Swift's 'disruptive' writing and its service of a 'conservative ethos' (p. 165) rather than a liberatory or subversive one. The final chapter, which surveys the critical heritage on Swift and gender, sensibly recognizes the value of early and second-wave feminist contributions to Swift studies but argues plausibly that current feminist scholarship explains away Swiftian misogyny to too great a degree.
While the book is consistently convincing, the chapter on maternity might push a little further. This discussion sets Swift's animus towards maternity in the context of his insensitivity to parental fondness more widely, but at times one wonders if the specifically female experience of maternity might be more sharply drawn out from the experience of parental affection in general. Additionally, while Barnett carefully eschews essentialism, one might have some reservations about grouping commentators under the umbrella terms 'male critics' (p. 41) or 'male biographers' (p. 61), as she occasionally does.
These are minor gripes, however: in the main, Jonathan Swift in the Company of Women is a succinct, judicious, and persuasive piece. It successfully navigates the minefield represented by gender-informed studies of Swift and emerges as an au thoritative,well-written, and eminently sensible reading which will help to define the subject of Swift and misogyny.
UNIVERSITY OF LEEDS
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|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2008|
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