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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

IV. Swift

§ 11. Stella and Vanessa

In Dublin, of course, Swift was in constant intercourse with Esther Johnson; but his relations with Stella, as she has come to be known, were complicated by his friendship for Hester Vanhomrigh, the daughter of a widow with whom he had become acquainted in 1708. In 1710, when Swift went to London, he had taken lodgings near the family, and he was frequently with them.

Hester Vanhomrigh was then nineteen. By 1713, she was known to him as Vanessa, and he wrote a poem, Cadenus and Vanessa, to explain the relations between them. This curious piece was not meant for publication, but, rather, as a self-justification, to explain how it was that a girl felt admiration for a man who had grown old in politics and wit and had lost the arts that would charm a lady. He regarded her as might a father or a tutor; but, when he offered friendship, she said that she would be the tutor and would teach him what love is. Vanessa was passionately in love; and, on the death of her mother, she and her sister retired to Ireland, a step which, no doubt, was very embarrassing to Swift. He told her that he could see her very seldom, for everything that happened there would be known in a week. Her fragmentary letters are filled with reproaches, which Swift endeavoured to meet by temporising and by good advice as to diverting her mind by exercise and by amusing books. We cannot discuss here the theories that have been advanced as to the reason why Swift had not married Stella. It is alleged that a form of marriage was gone through in 1716; but the evidence in favour of this is quite insufficient, and, in any case, it was merely a form. It was at this time, according to Delany, that archbishop King, after parting from Swift, said, “You have just met the most unhappy man on earth; but on the subject of his wretchedness you must never ask a question.” About 1723, a crisis occurred. One of the stories is that Vanessa, who had then lost all her near relatives, wrote to Stella asking her whether she was Swift’s wife; whereupon Stella replied that she was and sent the letter to Swift. Swift, we are told, went at once to Vanessa, threw the letter on the table, and rode off. If this were true, Swift’s conduct would be put in a very bad light; but the evidence is slight, and, according to another version, it was to Swift that Vanessa wrote. It is certain that Vanessa died soon afterwards, leaving a request that Cadenus and Vanessa and her correspondence with Swift might be published. Whatever interpretation be put upon them, the letters are very unpleasant reading.