Stella’s Story

This fine memorial in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, celebrates Mrs Hester Johnson – “better known to the World by the Name of Stella”. There is so much about Mrs Johnson that is enigmatic, not least the use of that term ‘Mrs’. Hester was born ‘Johnson’ and remained unmarried throughout her life, even though she was linked so closely to Jonathan Swift – and many commentators have suggested they were secretly married or, at the very least, lovers.

It is poignant to see the entwined plaques in the floor of the Dublin Cathedral. Both were buried there: ‘Stella’ in 1728 and Swift in 1745: he was placed beside her at his own request. Much has been written about Jonathan Swift – he was a formidable author, satirist and analyst of contemporary Irish life in the 17th and 18th centuries, while ‘Stella’ existed mainly in his shadows. We would probably know nothing of her without the association. Having written previously about Swift – and my part in his life (read it here) – I thought I would tackle the story of ‘Stella’: her name was known to me from a young age. Before going further, though, let’s solve that first little mystery – the use of Mrs on Stella’s memorial. In the Oxford University History Workshop Journal, Volume 78, Issue 1, Autumn 2014 Dr Amy Erickson claims:

. . . Mrs was applied to any adult woman who merited the social distinction, without any marital connotation. Miss was reserved for young girls until the mid eighteenth century. Even when adult single women started to use Miss, Mrs still designated a social or business standing, and not the status of being married, until at least the mid nineteenth century . . .

Dr Amy Erickson

Above left: an alleged portrait of Esther was reproduced in William Wilde’s 1849 book on Swift, and claims for it an “undoubtedly authentic” history, adding that it matches physical descriptions made of Stella during her lifetime:

. . . It was originally in the possession of the distinguished Charles Ford of Woodpark, where Stella was constantly in the habit of visiting, and where she spent several months in 1723, when probably it was painted, Stella being then about 42. The hair is jet black, the eyes dark to match, the fore-head fair, high, and expansive, the nose rather prominent, and the features generally regular and well-marked . . .

William Wilde

Above right: “Stella, From an Original Drawing by the Rev’d George Parnell, Archdeacon of Clogher, in the Possession of G Faulkner”

. . . George Faulkner, Swift’s Dublin publisher, placed this purported portrait of Stella across from the beginning of Swift’s memoir of her in an edition of Swift’s Works. The artist is wrongly attributed, it actually being by the poet and scholar Dr Thomas Parnell, who had been intimate with Swift around 1716, when this drawing was most likely made. Swift had begun writing his memoir on the evening of Stella’s death, on January 28, 1728, just weeks shy of her forty-seventh birthday. Their friend Thomas Sheridan, who was with Stella in her final days, preserved a story about “the secret marriage” of Swift and Stella. If they were indeed married, public recognition of their marriage never happened. According to an old lady who may have inhabited Stella’s former cottage: “. . . some says she was his wife, and some says she wasn’t, but whatever she was, she was something to him . . .

http://sceti.library.upenn.edu/Swift350thExhibit

Esther Johnson was born in Richmond, Surrey, England in 1681. She spent the early years of her life at Moor Park House, Farnham, Surrey (above). This was the home of Sir William Temple (1628 – 1699) – diplomat, statesman and essayist: from 1688 until his death he employed Jonathan Swift as his secretary (Swift’s mother was a distant relative of Temple). Esther’s parentage has been the subject of much speculation. The weight of evidence is that her mother acted as companion to Temple’s sister, Lady Giffard, and that Esther, her mother and her sister Anne were regarded as part of the family. Esther’s father is said to have been a merchant who died young, but local rumour suggested that she was Temple’s illegitimate daughter. I have found no concrete evidence to confirm or deny this.

(Above) Jonathan Swift, painted by Charles Jervas c1710. When Swift first met Esther at Farnham she was only around eight years old, and he was charged by Temple to become her tutor and mentor. He gave her the nickname ‘Stella’, but we don’t seem to know why or when. Now, here’s another enigma: in my younger days I was familiar with Moor Park House and its environs. I remember there was a cottage some distance from the estate, named ‘Stella Cottage’. It definitely existed once (and may still exist) – here’s a postcard showing it:

I was told (by my grandmother) that Swift’s ‘Stella’ lived in this cottage, and that he would walk to visit her there ‘every day’. This doesn’t quite tie in with the account suggesting that Esther Johnson lived in Moor Park House – although she could, of course, have moved away at some point. Also, at what place in its history was ‘Stella Cottage’ so named? It’s possible, even, that Swift gave his pet name to ‘Stella’ because there was already an association locally with that appellation – so the cottage itself may never have had anything else to do with Esther. As our story moves forward, Swift’s employer – Temple – died in 1699 (Swift reportedly said that “all that was good and amiable in mankind had died with Temple”). This left Swift without a job or home. Interestingly – bearing in mind we don’t know exactly where Esther Johnson figured in Sir William Temple’s life – he bequeathed to her a significant sum of money, and some property in Ireland.

Above – Castle Street at Farnham, Surrey in 1788. Swift was an ordained minister of the Anglican Church in Ireland. After Temple’s death, he was unable to maintain his lifestyle in England and returned to Ireland (his birth and upbringing were in Dublin and Kilkenny). In due course (1713) – he was appointed as dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin: a position which enabled him to indulge his many enthusiasms – writing, political commentary and satire – for the rest of his days. He encouraged ‘Stella’ also to move to Ireland, which she did in 1702, ostensibly living with her companion, Mrs Dingley. A further rumour on the relationship between Swift and ‘Stella’ needs to be quoted:

. . . Whether Swift and Stella were married has always been a subject of intense debate. The marriage ceremony was allegedly performed in 1716 by St George Ashe, Bishop of Clogher (an old friend of Swift, and also his college tutor), with no witnesses present, and it was said that the parties agreed to keep it secret and live apart. Stella always described herself as a “spinster” and Swift always referred to himself as unmarried; Rebecca Dingley, who lived with Stella throughout her years in Ireland, said that Stella and Swift were never alone together. Those who knew the couple best were divided on whether a marriage ever took place: some, like Mrs Dingley and Swift’s housekeeper Mrs Brent laughed at the idea as “absurd”. On the other hand, Thomas Sheridan, one of Swift’s oldest friends, believed that the story of the marriage was true: he reportedly gave Stella herself as his source . . .

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esther_Johnson

This lady – Esther Vanhomrigh (1688–1723) was painted by John Everett Millais in 1868. It depicts another rumoured ‘lover’ of Jonathan Swift, who gave her the name ‘Vanessa’. We know very little about her actual appearance, although she was said “not to be a beauty”. She is holding a letter, which we are to assume was written to or from Swift with whom, from what we can gather, Vanessa was infatuated – although her feelings were apparently never reciprocated. The expression on her face in Millais’ imaginary portrait could imply her frustration. The artist painted ‘Stella’ in a companion piece (Sudley House, Liverpool):

It can be no coincidence that Stella is also holding a letter. In this case, perhaps, the expression which the artist has chosen to depict is less severe. Jonathan Swift kept up a remarkable correspondence with Stella while he was away in England between 1710 and 1713. He certainly never intended it for publication in his lifetime. The Journal to Stella appeared first in 1766 and consists of 65 long and detailed letters – thousands of words in all, ranging from minute accounts of his daily life, through witty commentary and some mildly intimate deliberations.

. . . If the Journal shows us some of Swift’s less attractive qualities, it shows still more how great a store of humour, tenderness, and affection there was in him. In these letters we see his very soul; in his literary work we are seldom moved to anything but admiration of his wit and genius. Such daily outpourings could never have been written for publication, they were meant only for one who understood him perfectly; and everything that we know of Stella—her kindliness, her wit, her vivacity, her loyalty—shows that she was worthy of the confidence . . .

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/4208/4208-h/4208-h.htm

This small account of the story of ‘Stella’ – Mrs Hester Johnson – reveals a little of what we are able to piece together of the lady and her possible (probable?) relationship with the towering figure of Jonathan Swift, a matter which has fascinated scholar-historians over the generations. We can make assumptions, but reach no firm conclusions. The enigmas of the tale remain, and are certainly celebrated wherever local geography and lore are able to relate to some aspect of the oral traditions. As an example, I was pleased to find a pamphlet dating from 1991 which tells of a ‘Stella’s Cottage’ far, far away from Moor Park, Farnham. This one is near Trim, Co Meath. It suggests that this was where Stella and her companion, Mrs Dingley, lived ‘just down the road from Laracor, where Swift had his vicarage on his half-acre of Irish bog‘.

The pamphlet is, in part, an appeal to save what was then left of the cottage, and to fund a restoration of this important piece of Irish history. The appeal was apparently unsuccessful: today the spot is marked by some low stone walls and a plaque. This is a drawing of Stella’s Cottage in 1847:

Many have been fascinated by the Swift / Stella story. In 2020 Michael Billington edited a series in the UK Guardian titled ‘Forgotten Plays’. This is one:

. . . Few plays are more forgotten than those of WB Yeats. Revered as a poet, he’s ignored as a dramatist yet he deserves to be remembered for a number of reasons. He cofounded the Abbey theatre in 1904, he put Irish legend and history on stage, and he sought to create a drama “close to pure music”. His output was huge – his Collected Plays runs to more than 700 pages. The Words Upon the Window-Pane (1930) is in many ways exceptional: it is Yeats’s only play with a realistic modern setting. Its subject is a seance held by the Dublin Spiritualist Association in rooms once occupied by Jonathan Swift’s Stella. Yeats has much fun at the expense of the visitors – one of whom wants advice about setting up a teashop in Folkestone – but the main concern is to expel an evil spirit who has been haunting past sessions. It turns out to be that of Swift whom we hear – through the medium, Mrs Henderson – bitterly rejecting offers of love from the two women who most adored him. What is astonishing is the way Yeats pulls off a double trick. Far from being an attack on Swift, the play is a defence of his refusal to beget children because of his dread of the future. But, rather like David Mamet’s The Shawl about a phoney clairvoyant with psychic gifts, the play suggests that the money-grubbing Mrs Henderson may actually have conjured up the crabbed spirit of Dublin’s celibate dean . . .

The Guardian 27 July 2020

Lastly, consider this ‘alternative view’ by Michael Foot: Debts of Honour (Faber 1980) –

. . . British politician Michael Foot was a great admirer of Swift and wrote about him extensively. In Debts of Honour he cites with approbation a theory propounded by Denis Johnston that offers an explanation of Swift’s behaviour towards Stella and Vanessa. Pointing to contradictions in the received information about Swift’s origins and parentage, Johnston postulates that Swift’s real father was Sir William Temple’s father, Sir John Temple who was Master of the Rolls in Dublin at the time. It is widely thought that Stella was Sir William Temple’s illegitimate daughter. So Swift was Sir William’s brother and Stella’s uncle. Marriage or close relations between Swift and Stella would therefore have been incest, an unthinkable prospect. It follows that Swift could not have married Vanessa either without Stella appearing to be a cast-off mistress, which he would not contemplate. Johnston’s theory is expounded fully in his book In Search of Swift . . .

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Swift

Stella’s Cottage, Laracor; photo by Miss Marie Carroll

7 thoughts

  1. As a fan of both Swift and Michael Foot, with a keen interest in Georgian Irish marriage ‘arrangements’, I’m drawn to the incest theory. Before the gradual tightening of the Marriage Laws, the institution was a very lax affair. Clandestine marriages could be conducted just about anywhere and didn’t require documenting. 1st cousin marriages were not uncommon in the CoI, but uncle and niece may have been a bit too close to advertise (assuming others were in the know). Perhaps it was a marriage, but not as we know it?!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed, Michael! And thank you for your contribution. Swift would have had a prudish audience, of course, but he was happy to play up to them with some of his scatological writings…

      Like

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