Esther Johnson

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Esther Johnson (March 18, 1681 – January 28, 1728) was the English friend of Jonathan Swift, known as "Stella". Whether or not she and Swift were secretly married, and if so why the marriage was never made public, remains a subject of intense debate.

Parentage and early life[edit]

She was born in Richmond, Surrey, and spent her early years at Moor Park, Farnham, home of Sir William Temple, 1st Baronet. Here, when she was about eight, she met Swift, who was Temple's secretary: he took a friendly interest in her from the beginning and apparently supervised her education.[1]

Her 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 she and Stella were regarded as part of the family. Stella's father was said to have been a merchant who died young: gossip that she was Temple's illegitimate daughter seems to rest on nothing more solid than the friendly interest he showed in her.[2]

Friendship with Swift[edit]

When Swift saw her again in 1696 he considered she had grown into the "most beautiful, graceful and agreeable young woman in London". Temple at his death in 1699 left her some property in Ireland; it was at Swift's suggestion that she move to Ireland in 1702 to protect her interests, but her long residence there, like Vanessa's, was probably due to a desire to be close to Swift. She generally lived in Swift's house, though always with female companions like Rebecca Dingley, a Temple relative whom she had known since childhood.[3] Esther became extremely popular in Dublin and an intellectual circle grew up around her, although it was said that she found other women tedious and only enjoyed the conversation of men.

Vanessa[edit]

Portrait of Vanessa by John Everett Millais

Her friendship with Swift became fraught after 1707 when he met Esther Vanhomrigh, daughter of the Dutch-born Lord Mayor of Dublin. Swift became deeply attached to her and invented for her the name "Vanessa". She in turn became infatuated with him and after his return to Ireland followed him there.[4] The uneasy relationship between the three continued until 1723 when Vanessa (who was seriously ill) apparently asked Swift not to see Stella again. This led to a violent quarrel and Vanessa before her death in June 1723 destroyed the will she had made in Swift's favour.[5]

Secret marriage[edit]

Whether Swift and Stella ever married has always been a subject of intense debate. The ceremony was allegedly performed in 1716 by St George Ashe, Bishop of Clogher (an old friend of Swift), with no witnesses present, and it was said that the parties agreed to keep it secret and live apart. Stella always described herself as "spinster" and Swift always referred to himself as unmarried; Rebecca Dingley, who lived with Stella throughout her years in Ireland, said that she 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 Swfit's housekeeper Mrs. Brent laughed at the idea as "absurd", but Thomas Sheridan, one of Swift's oldest friends, apparently believed it and reportedly gave Stella herself as his source. Historians have been unable to reach a definite conclusion on the truth of it: Bishop Ashe died before the story first emerged, and there were no other witnesses.[6]

Writings[edit]

A collection of her witticisms was published by Swift under the titles of "Bon Mots de Stella" as an appendix to some editions of Gulliver's Travels.[7] Journal to Stella, a collection of 65 letters from Swift to Stella, was published posthumously.

Last years and death[edit]

Rococo cartouche dedicated to her in the south aisle of St. Patrick's Cathedral[8]

Her health began to fail in her mid-forties. In 1726 she was thought to be dying; Swift rushed back from London to be with her but found her better. The following year it became clear that she was gravely ill. After sinking slowly for months she died on 28 January 1728, and was buried in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Dublin.[9] Swift was inconsolable at Esther's death and wrote The Death of Mrs. Johnson in tribute to her; when he died he was buried beside her at his own request. A ward in St Patrick's Hospital is named "Stella" in her memory.

Portrayals[edit]

In the 1994 film Words Upon the Window Pane, based on the play by William Butler Yeats, Stella is played by Brid Brennan. The plot turns on a seance in Dublin in the 1920s, where the ghosts of Swift, Stella and Vanessa appear to resume their ancient quarrel.

Publications (fiction)[edit]

  • Morgan-Cole, Trudy J. The violent friendship of Esther Johnson, Penguin Canada, 2006.(ISBN 978-0-14-301768-4)

References[edit]

  1. ^  Stephen, Leslie (1898). "Swift, Jonathan". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography 55. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 208. 
  2. ^ Stephen p.208
  3. ^ Stephen pp.208-9
  4. ^ Stephen p.215
  5. ^ Stephen p.216
  6. ^ Stephen pp.216-7
  7. ^ Archived January 5, 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Casey, Christine (2005). The Buildings of Ireland: Dublin. New Haven: Yale University Press. p. 622. ISBN 978-0-300-10923-8. 
  9. ^ Stephen p.219