Esther: lover, wife,
or just friend of author Swift,
of Gulliver fame?
The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson, by Trudy J. Morgan-Cole, is a fascinating, fictional glimpse at a historical figure whose life is murky in the factual records.
Johnson was a lifelong, close friend of Jonathan Swift's, the author most famous for penning Gulliver's Travels, but historians debate whether she was a close friend, lover, or even secret wife.
Pick one -- any one. That's what Morgan-Cole did, and then she spun an enthralling tale from it.
I particularly liked how she wove hints of the "real" Jonathan Swift and Esther Johnson into the narrative. Like any author, she is aware that much of what one writes comes from personal experience or personal reflection, so she took cues from Swift's writing to build a man. Even better, she includes an "Afterword" that explains which bits were fiction and which fact (most were well researched fact).
Johnson first meets Swift when she is the 8-year-old daughter of a housekeeper, and he is tutor for the master's daughter. Because Johnson is quick-witted (and perhaps because she might also be the master's daughter), Swift becomes her tutor as well.
The book opens with a journal entry dated 1694, the initial entry in the first of a series of journals Morgan-Cole's Johnson was to keep all her life. It reads like a young girl's thoughts (tumbling and introspective), with spelling and sentence structure reminiscent of the times but still readable ("I sett my pen to paper to write?"). It is to the author's credit that I was unsure whether the journals were fact or fiction until I read the "Afterward."
In the first full chapter, we see young Johnson sitting a vigil alone through the night with the body of her master's wife. She sneaks a peak at letters the couple exchanged during courtship, and envisions for the first time romance so heated and passionate that it drives every decision either person makes.
That image -- a woman sitting primly in her chair, visibly doing her duty, but with a vivid imagination soaring away from her -- is a metaphor for the life Johnson will lead.
But Johnson never marries or even causes a scandal (though a great deal of gossip rages about her), and eventually she fades into history like Whistler's Mother, a clear image of a woman but no hint of what she's thinking.
Johnson unexpectedly receives a gift that allows her to step out of servitude and remain independent (though hardly well-to-do), a startling development for any woman of the period. Most women (wealthy or poor) were handed directly from their father's control into their husband's.
The scenes jump back and forth in time as the middle-aged Johnson rereads entries from her childhood (and relives the events), but the time switches are seamless. Indeed, the time changes drive the story forward as we realize the older Johnson is struggling with an intense emotional question that will only be answered when the journals catch up with her real time.
Like the best of historical fiction, Morgan-Cole includes many small details of the period. I particularly liked the description of the dress Johnson wore to her first ball (purple silk with a low-cut, gold-embroidered stomacher), and the "patches" she is convinced to add to her face (originally, they covered smallpox scars but by the time of the ball had become fashionable even among unscarred women).
Also interesting were the comparisons between life upstairs and down: upstairs, the residents used fine beeswax candles but downstairs residents settled for rushes dipped in mutton fat. The friction between the classes ran through the story, and indeed warred inside Johnson herself. Born a servant's daughter but raised to independent status, she was destined to never quite fit in either place.
The most riveting scene was when Mrs. Johnson visits the home of her scullery maid (Morgan-Cole follows the 18th-century tradition of calling all adult women "Mrs.," married or not). She is unwilling to kneel beside the sickbed of her servant's mother because her skirts would come into contact with the filthy floor.
But what I most enjoyed about the scene was when Morgan-Cole casually mentioned Dr. Swift waxing eloquent about the "appalling poverty" and "squalour" of Ireland's poor -- and I recognized a subtle literary allusion to A Modest Proposal, not yet written at that time but almost certainly brewing in Swift's mind.
I would have liked to see more descriptions of meals and food preparation, but as an independent woman with servants, meal preparation would have been nearly as unfamiliar to Johnson as to us, so this is a small criticism indeed.
I heard recently (I've been unable to substantiate it, but it makes a good point anyway) Alfred Hitchcock once said he felt a movie was successful as long as the viewer drove home, went inside and opened the refrigerator door to get a snack before saying, "Wait a minute ... !" He called it the "refrigerator door" test.
Morgan-Cole definitely passes the refrigerator door test. You won't ever say, "Wait a minute ... !" with The Violent Friendship. It's an exquisitely crafted fictional look at a historical figure most of us have never heard of. And if you fail to notice the writing itself, that's because the author's skill makes the medium invisible so only the message appears.