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

Dean Swift and I

Robert writes:

Our weather has turned grey and damp. Our 5k Covid limited walks to seek inspiration for the posts we write for you every week are less than comfortable, and our photography is suffering. But we are undaunted! Spring is just around the corner (it starts tomorrow, on the first of February – Imbolc – here in Ireland) and we will soon see the emerging wildflowers in our verges. We will notice the days getting longer. Meanwhile, let’s enjoy the stormy prospect from our eyrie:

Roaringwater Bay, January 30 2021. Between the islands the water is always calm but you can see the force of an Atlantic storm stirring things up beyond them

For my post today I’m diving into our archives, but also travelling back in time – in my own life. The topic is an Irish one – and has West Cork connections (you’ll see) – but writer and satirist Jonathan Swift appeared in my view early on, and through a somewhat odd series of events which touch on many things – historical characters, folktales, archaeology, and hauntings. Here is how I came into the company of Dean Swift before I was ten years old!

Jonathan Swift, born in Dublin in 1667: left – in 1682 (when he was fifteen years old) painted by Thomas Pooley; centre – in 1710 (aged 43) by Charles Jervas and right – in 1745 (the year of his death, aged 78) by Rupert Barber (National Portrait Gallery, London)

I was born and brought up in a small country town in southern England – Farnham. A big influence on my young life was my grandmother, Annie – we always called her Granma. But she wasn’t a relation at all: my mother had been orphaned (by the 1918 ‘Spanish Flu’) at the age of four, and lived in a children’s home until the age of 16, after which she was fostered by my Granma. In my younger years my mother worked as a shorthand typist. I had no idea, then, what a ‘short hand typist’ was, but I must have formed an image of sorts in my mind. Be that as it may, the consequence was that I spent time with my Granma during my mother’s working hours in school holidays – and, quite often, at weekends.

My Granma – the one picture I have of her, above – was only ever the kindest of ladies. She helped me to learn to read well from the age of four, and embedded in me a huge love of books – and stories. Widowed, she lived alone in 2 Darvill’s Lane, Farnham. And that’s where I have the happiest of my childhood memories. Why? Because it was such a different house from my parents’. It had no electricity, a big black coal range and an outside lavatory – all thoroughly fascinating. The gaslights hissed and spluttered in a friendly way on winter evenings; there were always interesting things sizzling on the range – and blancmange for pudding, and fruit cakes for tea! And, although there wasn’t electricity, there was a large wireless set with a bakelite shell, shiny knobs and a glowing celluloid dial splendidly esconced on its very own table in a corner of the small sitting room. I can still see it in my mind’s eye, although I have no memory of what I might have heard from its gold-meshed speaker as everything seemed obscured and overlayed by intense crackling. A cable descended from the set to a large glass accumulator sitting on the floor beneath. This was similar in size and weight to a car battery today. One of my frequent duties when staying with Granma for an afternoon in the holidays was to help dismantle this accumulator, place it into a wheeled shopping basket and trundle it up into the town where it was exchanged for a freshly charged apparatus of the same design, a task which had to be done weekly (and cost how much? Sixpence…). But, I digress . . . Let’s move on to the subject of this post – Dean Swift: what is his connection with my Granma?

A particularly fine edition of Gulliver’s Travels in two volumes, dating from 1930. A similar one in good condition fetched £6,900 at auction last year. The first edition – also in two volumes – was issued on 28 October 1726, priced at 8 shilings and 6 pence

Gulliver’s Travels was one of the many books I read at my Granma’s house, probably when I was four or five. My version was nothing like the handsome one above: it was the Ladybird Books edition: I wish I still had it. Of course, I now know that practically everything of value historically had been expurgated from this and all other children’s renderings of the book (and plays, films etc) including all the (then) politically outrageous bits and the vividly scatalogical episodes. (If you don’t know these, one of the mildest is Gulliver’s success in putting out a house fire in Lilliput by publicly urinating on it, something for which he was convicted of treason and then sentenced to be blinded!). Nevertheless, at such an innocent age, who would not have been impressed simply by the illustration of a ‘giant’ man tied down to the ground with twine and surrounded by a horde of miniature people?

My world met that of Swift (I never knew him as ‘Dean Swift’ until I came to Ireland) when my Granma and I would walk together out into the countryside. We only ever walked because, in the 1950s, very few people had cars and I had not yet graduated to a bicycle: walking is still, after all, the best way to travel without missing all the details. From Darvill’s Lane we followed a path away from the town which almost immediately became deeply rural. We headed for Moor Park. I was delighted, recently, to find this old postcard of Moor Park Lane which could date from those same days:

With the benefit of Google Maps I have been able to calculate that our walks were around two miles if we only went as far as Moor Park House, but it was much more interesting to go beyond, so sometimes we would have done a round trip of seven or eight miles. ‘Beyond’ there were caves, and a holy well, and the ruins of an old abbey – all of which Granma could tell me stories about. I’m so grateful to my Granma as, today, I can’t resist searching out the likes of caves, holy wells and archaeology, wherever I travel.

An extract from a late 19th century Ordnance Survey map of the country we walked through outside Farnham town, with just a few of the places which I learned ‘stories’ about during my escapades with my Granma!

Moor Park House was always our first port of call. I now know that an early dwelling on this site – known as Compton Hall – dates from 1307, and that this was modified and added to over the generations, most notably by Sir William Temple in the late 17th century. Temple (1628 – 1699) bought the property in the 1680s and renamed it after his own family home in Hertfordshire. He had a career as a noted diplomat under Charles II including, in 1677, helping to arrange the marriage between the King’s niece, Princess Mary and William of Orange: I don’t need to go into their story now. William Temple retired to Farnham and constructed a large formal garden at Moor Park, covering five acres. From 1688 until his death he employed Jonathan Swift as his secretary. My Grandma ensured that I knew about the link between Moor Park and Gulliver’s Travels, and I was impressed! She also told me that the path along which we walked, passing through the gates of Moor Park Lodge, had once been the scene of a great battle when an owner of Moor Park (long after Temple) closed off the right-of-way along that path, or attempted to: I have since learned that it happened in 1897, and a crowd of over a hundred local people armed themselves with cudgels and crowbars and forced the locked gates open. They have been open ever since.

Upper – Moor Park House today and, lower – the gatehouse which was the scene of a battle over rights-of-way in 1897

For over a decade Moor Park house figured large in the life of Jonathan Swift. When first there he became the tutor and mentor to a local girl who lived nearby, and whose mother acted as a companion to Temple’s sister. The local girl was Esther Johnson (1681 – 1728). She was nicknamed ‘Stella’ by Swift. My Granma told me that Stella was a close friend of Jonathan Swift, and that he would visit her by following the path we always took through the estate, ending at ‘Stella’s Cottage’ at the far end. My young brain took all this information in, and I carried with me through the years a picture in my mind of Stella’s Cottage at the end of our path. A postcard I came across recently confirms that picture exactly! Stella remained ‘close’ to Swift for the rest of his life. On his death Temple left her some property in Ireland and she moved there in 1702. There were rumours – never confirmed or denied – that she and Swift had married secretly. She died in 1728, and was buried in St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. Swift was inconsolable at Stella’s death; when he died he was buried beside her at his own request:

Childhood associations: centre – Sir William Temple on the left (painted by John Closterman – courtesy of Beecroft Art Gallery) and Esther Johnson on the right (artist unknown – Crawford Gallery): she was Jonathan Swift’s ‘close friend’. Lower picture – an old postcard showing ‘Stella Cottage’

On the best days our walks continued beyond the Moor Park estate, and included a visit to two caves – ‘Old Mother Ludlam’s cave’ and ‘Father Foote’s’. These provided great stories, and my Granma’s recounting of those stories has been confirmed through my present day researches, although I prefer them the way she told them, rather than the precise history. Mother Ludlam was a witch, but a good one. She had a cauldron which she would lend to anyone, presumably so they could make their own magic potions. The cauldron can still be seen today, in a nearby church. She lived in her cave, which had (and still has) a stream running through it. Every time we looked into the mouth of the cave – through a locked iron gate – my Granma repeated the same story (which I have never seen written down): when she was a young girl it was decided to find out where the stream that ran out of the cave originated, so a raft of ducks (that’s the correct word for a whole lot of ducks) was taken into the cave and shooed away into the darkness up the stream. Then, presumably, the assembled crowd waited to see if and where they might emerge. They didn’t. Except that – according to my Granma – some considerable time later (days or weeks) one lone duck was found coming out of a small culvert on the River Wey in Guildford ten miles away – minus all its feathers! I could never forget such a rare story.

Here (above) is one of my prized possessions: a 1785 print of Mother Ludlam’s Hole, Surry: I found it in a second-hand bookshop in Farnham very many years ago – I think I paid a shilling for it – and I have kept it ever since, if only to remember my Granma and the stories she told. I later came across this fine print in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It shows that Mother Ludlam had some notoriety:

But you very seldom hear about ‘Father Foote’. In fact, I wondered in later life whether he was a personage which my Granma had thought up to explain a second, smaller cave nearby. But no – because if you look at this 1895 map of the area you will see that ‘Foote’s Cave’ is clearly marked (along with St Mary’s Well), but Mother Ludlam’s isn’t.

So – Granma’s tale: Mother Ludlam and Father Foote lived at the same time close to each other. The second cave is quite high up in the rock face, and rather small. They had a baby, which they kept in the smaller cave, One day the baby rolled out of the cave, down the steep hill and into the river below. That’s the story – I’ll leave you to ponder on it.

Generally, the last port of call on our walks was Waverley Abbey – the very first monastery founded in Britain by the Cistercians, constructed in a meadow beside the River Wey in 1128. That’s what remains of the refectory above (photo courtesy of English Heritage). I don’t remember my Granma telling me any ghost stories – she didn’t go in for those; yet she did always say to me I had to look out for the ‘white monks’ when we went past the old abbey ruins. I was interested to see that Waverley Abbey was used as a film set in 2014 for a Disney film about the story of Rapunzel. Here’s a still from that film:

I did promise you a ‘West Cork connection’ to the subject of this post. Well, Dean Swift visited the south west of Ireland in 1723 and stayed in Castletownshend. Finola, in her post on Belvederes in 2016, tells that he used a tower behind the castle there as his refuge, and in it he wrote a long poem in Latin – Carberiae Rupes – which translates as ‘The Crags of Carbery’. Here’s the tower beside Castletownshend Castle, and a short translated extract from the poem. At the end there’s Finola’s photo of me visiting ‘Swift’s Tower’, and closing the loop that began for me more than seventy years ago.

31st January 2021