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Esther Johnson (Stella): The Wit Behind Jonathan Swift

Esther Johnson (Stella)

The Wit Behind Jonathan Swift

(1681–1728, England)

Jonathan Swift is perhaps the most famous English language satirist of the modern age. Nearly 300 years after it was published, “A Modest Proposal” is still a shining example of satire. And it should be, because suggesting that the rich eat the poor is...well, it's something!

(Haven’t read A Modest Proposal? Suddenly find yourself stuck at home with time on your hands? Read it here. It’s not too long.)

Satirists today are still inspired “A Modest Proposal.” Can you imagine writing something with that kind of staying power??

But enough about Swift! This isn’t about him. This is about a woman named Esther Johnson, known as Stella.

Born in England, Stella was the ward of a man named Temple.

Swift happened to be Temple’s secretary at the time.

They first met when he was around 19 and she was just six years old.

Years later, when Stella was 18, Temple died and left her some property in Ireland. Swift encouraged Stella to move to Dublin, which she did...likely because she was infatuated with him.

Stella joined Swift’s social circle, and historians today still debate the nature of their relationship. Friends? Lovers? Artist/Muse? Were they secretly married? The only thing we know for sure is they were very important to each other.

There’s much more to Stella’s wonderful life, but I want to focus on her humor!

Stella never published any writing that we know of. But we know she’s a wit because Swift took it upon himself to collect her funniest one-liners and publish them as an addendum to his book, Gulliver’s Travels.

He called this list “Bon Mots de Stella.” Here’s the introduction. There are only 12 bon mots, so I’ll share them all with you!

1. We were diverting ourselves at a play called "What is it like?" One person is to think, and the rest, without knowing the thing, to say what it is like. The thing thought on was the spleen; she had said it was like an oyster, and gave her reason immediately, because it is removed by taking steel inwardly.

2. Dr. Sheridan, who squandered more than he could afford, took out his purse as he sat by the fire, and found it was very hot; she said the reason was, that his money burned in his pocket.

3. She called to her servants to know what ill smell was in the kitchen; they answered, they were making matches: Well, said she, I have heard matches were made in Heaven, but by the brimstone one would think they were made in Hell.

4. After she had been eating some sweet thing, a little of it happened to stick on her lips; a gentleman told her of it, and offered to lick it off; she said, No, sir, I thank you, I have a tongue of my own.

5. In the late king's time, a gentleman asked Jervas the painter, where he lived in London? he answered, next door to the king, for his house was near St. James's. The other wondering how that could be; she said, you mistake Mr. Jervas, for he only means next door to the sign of a king.

6. A gentleman who had been very silly and pert in her company, at last began to grieve at remembering the loss of a child lately dead. A bishop sitting by comforted him; that he should be easy, because the child was gone to Heaven. No, my lord, said she, that is it which most grieves him, because he is sure never to see his child there.

7. Having seen some letters writ by a king in a very large hand, and some persons wondering at them, she said it confirmed the old saying, That kings had long hands.

8. Dr. Sheridan, famous for punning, intended to sell a bargain, said, he had made a very good pun. Some body asked, what it was? He answered, my a—. The other taking offence, she insisted the doctor was in the right, for every body knew that punning was his blind side.

9. When she was extremely ill, her physician said, Madam, you are near the bottom of the hill, but we will endeavour to get you up again. She answered, Doctor, I fear I shall be out of breath before I get up to the top.

10. A dull parson talking of a very smart thing, said to another parson as he came out of the pulpit, he was hammering a long time, but could not remember the jest; she being impatient said, I remember it very well, for I was there, and the words were these; Sir, you have been blundering at a story this half hour, and can neither make head nor tail of it.

11. A very dirty clergyman of her acquaintance, who affected smartness and repartee, was asked by some of the company how his nails came to be so dirty? He was at a loss; but she solved the difficulty, by saying, the doctor's nails grew dirty by scratching himself.

12. A Quaker apothecary sent her a vial corked; it had a broad brim, and a label of paper about its neck. What is that, said she, my apothecary's son? The ridiculous resemblance, and the suddenness of the question, set us all a laughing.

...that’s the end of Stella’s bon mots. What do you think? Do they still hold up? Maybe a few.

Ever admiring of his Stella, Swift wrote the poem "On Stella's Birth-day" in celebration of her 34th. The perfect amount of gentle ribbing and honest admiration, don't you think?

Stella died in 1728 at the age of 47. After her death, Swift wrote this ode to her. It’s a great overview of her life and times. And a year after her death, Swift published A Modest Proposal. The rest is history!

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