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The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson

by Trudy J. Morgan-Cole

Violent passions destroy, while friendship is peaceful and sustaining – or so we tend to believe. But as overwhelmingly as any physical affair, the friendship of Jonathan Swift dominated the life of Esther Johnson, the “Stella” of Swift’s Journal to Stella. In this poised and polished novel, Jane Austenish in tone, Trudy Morgan-Cole evokes the social milieu of early-18th-
century England. Class rigidly circumscribes life, yet there is fluidity: some may, through misfortune, slip to lower positions, while others happily advance.

Esther Johnson is fortunate enough to grow up as the housekeeper’s daughter in the household of Sir William Temple, a man of letters who educates her and then makes her financially independent through a bequest in his will. The sum is not so large, however, that she can survive without frugality and discipline, and her relationship as amanuensis and muse to the great Swift further circumscribes her freedom. She renounces physical love and motherhood. Always a Houyhnhnm, never a Yahoo, Swift weds her to the pedestal upon which he sets her.

Morgan-Cole, who lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland, has written a number of previous novels, including one about an earlier Esther, the biblical queen. Here she deftly mines Swift’s own poems and letters, yet he remains something of a cipher, his intellectual brilliance overshadowed by his emotional limitations. He is in fact less interesting than Becca, Esther’s spinster companion.

Appropriately, it is Esther Johnson who comes most vividly to life through Morgan-Cole’s imagined journal entries and poetry. As Esther’s life ebbs, she ponders her choices and weighs the sacrifices they have entailed – an accounting that is as resonant today as it was 300 years ago.