1001 Reads

Regularly updated blog charting the most important novels of the last 2000 and something years

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

14. Jonathan Swift - A Tale of A Tub (1704)

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Francisco: So, now we come to the 18th century and to the most enjoyable English language book reviewed up until now. A Tale Of A Tub cannot really be classified as a novel, but more as a bit of very clever, very interesting satire.

There is a main storyline, but it is interrupted constantly by digressions of the author which take up as much of the book as the story itself. I have to admire Swift for being very funny and clever, even when arguing ideas that I disagree with. In fact Swift is a brilliant arguer for the myriad of opinions that he expresses in the book.

Admirably, although it is a book about the advantages of the Church of England over other Christian Churches, it is not vitriolic or offensive for offensiveness sake towards the other churches. Swift makes the subject a light-hearted dig at other churches, and while he makes fun of them he is also quite sympathetic to them, even while being uncompromising about his opinion. Of course his digressions cover much more than Churches, he talks extensively about literary criticism for example and is hilarious while doing it. Swift is good.

Vanda: There are some things that annoy me in life, and poor excuses for novels are one of them. Now, I think everyone has the right to write whatever style of books they want. But throwing a couple of pages of bad metaphorical story into what is essentially a political treatise does not a novel make. I protest, Gentlemen, at the inclusion of this book into this list. Swift's political and religious opinions are not given through the mouths of characters or developments of plot. Nay! These would just get in the way! Instead, there is a loose story spread throughout rant upon rant, which, although most times amusing and intelligent, does not constitute a plot!

And with this protest, I go off to read Robinson Crusoe. Nothing like a proper story.

Final Grade

Francisco: 7/10
Vanda: 5/10 (simply because I'm having problems qualifying this as a novel)


From Wikipedia:

Although today very little of this debate remains, questions of the authorship of the Tale occupied many notable critics both in the 18th and 19th centuries. Famously, Samuel Johnson claimed that A Tale of a Tub was a work of true genius (in contrast to Gulliver's Travels where once one imagines "big people and little people" the rest is easy) and too good to be Jonathan Swift's. In the 19th century, many critics who saw in Jonathan Swift's later work misanthropy and madness wished to reject the Tale as his. In a way, a critic's view on who wrote the Tale reflected that critic's politics. Swift was such a powerful champion of Tory, or anti-Whig, causes that fans of the Tale were eager to attribute the book to another author from nearly the day of its publication.

The work appeared anonymously in 1704. It was Swift's habit to publish anonymously throughout his career. This anonymity was partially a way of protecting his career, and partially his person. (Swift's publisher for the "Drapier Letters" was thrown in jail, and other authors had found themselves beaten by thugs hired by their satirical targets.) As a struggling churchman, Swift needed the support of nobles to gain a living. Additionally, nobles were still responsible for Church affairs in the House of Lords, so his political effectiveness in church affairs depended upon the lords. Swift needed to be at some distance from the sometimes bawdy and scatological work that he wrote.

The Tale was immediately popular and controversial. Consequently, there were rumors of various people as the author of the work -- Jonathan Swift then being not largely known except for his work in the House of Lords for the passage of the First Fruits and Fifths bill for tithing. Some people thought that William Temple wrote it. Francis Atterbury said people at Oxford thought it had been written by Edmund Smith and John Philips, though he thought it was by Jonathan Swift. Some people thought it belonged to Lord Somers.

However, Jonathan Swift had a cousin, also in the church, named Thomas Swift. Thomas and Jonathan were in correspondence during the time of the composition of the Tale, and Thomas Swift later claimed to have written the work. Jonathan responded to this allegation by saying that Thomas had no hand in anything but the smallest of passages, and he would welcome hearing Thomas 'explain' the work, if he had written it.

The controversy over authorship is aggravated by the choice of publisher. Not only did Swift use Tooke after the publication of the Tale, he had used Tooke before its publication as well, so the appearance of the work in John Nutt's shop was atypical.

Stylistically and in sentiment, the Tale is undeniably Jonathan's. Most important in this regard is the narrative pose and the creation of narrative parody. (Previously, parody had referred only to poetic compositions.) The dramatic (and we would now say novelistic) pretense of writing as a character is in keeping with Jonathan Swift's lifelong practice. Furthermore, Thomas Swift has left few literary remains.

Those wishing to pursue the evidence for Thomas Swift may see the summary in A. C. Guthkelch and D. Nichol Smith's authoritative edition of A Tale of a Tub (1920 and 1958) for Oxford University Press, where they say, "all the evidence for Thomas Swift's participation in the Tale (is) nothing but rumour and (Edmund) Curll's Key." Indeed, in 1710 Swift had the fifth edition republished by Tooke, and he explained in a letter how the rumor had been started. He said that, when the publication initially took place, Swift was abroad in Ireland and "that little Parson-cousin of mine" "affected to talk suspiciously, as if he had some share in it." In other words, anonymity conspired with Thomas Swift's desire for fame to create the confusion. Afterward, only critical preference seems to account for anyone holding Thomas Swift the author.


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