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date: 17 February 2020

Homrigh, Esther Van [known as Vanessa]free

(1688–1723)
  • Clive Probyn

Homrigh, Esther Van [known as Vanessa] (1688–1723), correspondent and lover of Jonathan Swift, was the elder daughter of a leading Dublin citizen, Bartholomew Van Homrigh (d. 1703), and Esther, née Stone (d. 1714). At their majority or marriage each daughter was entitled to £250 annually, and after Bartholomew's decease possibly as much as £5000 apiece. Vanessa's sister was Mary (c.1696–1721), her brothers Ginkell (1694–1710) and Bartholomew jun. (1693–1715). In 1707 the family moved from Dublin to London, where their circle included Sir Andrew Fountaine, diplomat and friend of Leibniz, and Erasmus Lewis, friend of Pope, Prior, Arbuthnot, and Gay. Jonathan Swift met up with them en route for London at Dunstable in December that year. In 1713 (6 June) and 1720 (12 August) he recalled the precise occasion when Vanessa spilled coffee in the fireplace of the inn at Dunstable. Although he may have known the family before 1707, it was here that their serious, seventeen-year relationship began.

Esther Johnson dismissed the Van Homrighs as 'of no consequence' in a letter to Swift (c.24 Feb 1711, Swift, Journal to Stella, 202), but she had been seriously misled. By May 1711 the Van Homrighs set aside a room for Swift's use in their London house in Bury Street, St James's. At this period in 1711–12 he sometimes visited twice daily. Described as 'a closet' when writing to Stella, with Vanessa their private space was called the 'Sluttery, which I have so often found to be the most agreeable Chamber in the World' (18 Dec 1711, Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, 1, no. 149). Here they enjoyed privacy, sugared oranges, and coffee. Each referred to drinking coffee as a symbol of social intimacy, and in 1766 Horace Walpole suggested that this was a coded reference to sexual intercourse. The family moved to Park Place, off St James's Street, in August and September 1712.

Twenty-eight of Swift's letters to Vanessa (the first dated 18 December 1711) and seventeen drafts of Vanessa's to Swift survive. Mere friendship was insufficient, and Vanessa demanded a passionate, even a sexual involvement, which Swift was psychologically and perhaps also physically incapable of managing, least of all of reciprocating. Their clandestine communication was aided by Erasmus Lewis and Charles Ford. In November 1714, after his installation as dean of St Patrick's and in spite of Swift's warning (12 August 1714) that he could seldom see her because of risks to their reputations, Vanessa followed him to Dublin, where she was acutely miserable. Gossip about his visit to Vanessa with 'little master' (20 Dec 1714, Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, 2, nos. 371–2), has been interpreted by those wishing to normalize Swift's sexual psyche as an allusion to a natural son of Swift and Stella (possibly Bryan M'Loghlin), or to an unnamed natural son by Vanessa.

Of independent means, but burdened by debts accumulated by her mother and spendthrift brother Bartholomew (for his will, see Le Brocquy, Cadenus, 143–9), Vanessa lived at Celbridge (later Marlay Abbey), 11 miles from Dublin and on the way to Charles Ford's estate at Wood Park, and, more dangerously if more conveniently for Swift, at the family's town house, Turnstile Alley, near College Green. 'You have taught me to distinguish and then you leave me miserable', she wrote (18 Dec 1714?, Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, 2, no. 370), and it may have been six years before Swift visited her at Celbridge. Cadenus and Vanessa had been written for Vanessa perhaps at Windsor between August and September 1712, and not intended for publication. Manuscript copies circulated before publication first in Dublin in 1726 and then in London on 19 May 1726, and eventually an authoritative text appeared in the 1727 Miscellanies. A passage cancelled by Swift reveals the essential and problematic dynamic in their relationship, from Swift's viewpoint:

She wish'd her Tutor were her Lover;Resolv'd she would her Flame discover.

Swift, Journal, xliiiHer name is Swift's invention, a compound of 'Van' and 'Hessy'.

Swift's last letter, of 7/8 August 1722, was written nine months before Vanessa made her will. His liaison with Stella perhaps caused Vanessa to confront him with the necessity of choosing between or acknowledging the status of one or the other. Vanessa died on 2 June 1723, probably from tuberculosis contracted from nursing her sister Mary (her will, signed 1 May 1723, is in Le Brocquy, Cadenus, 152–4). After her death Swift disappeared from Dublin on a two-month visit to southern Ireland, and in June at the parish of Skull he composed a Latin poem, 'Carberiae rupes', full of apocalyptic imagery. Poems attributed to Vanessa are: 'To Love', 'Ode to Spring', 'Ode to Wisdom', and a 'Rebus' on Swift's name. Shortly after Stella's death, a scandal novel based transparently on the Swift-Stella-Vanessa story appeared (Some Memoirs), giving some insight into public speculation of the time.

Vanessa was determined to be remembered. Erasmus Lewis, Francis Annesley, Archbishop William King, Archbishop Theophilus Bolton, Dr Bryan Robinson (probably her Dublin physician), and five others received £25 each for a mourning ring. Most of her estate went to two heirs and sole executors whom she hardly knew, Robert Marshall, law student of Clonmel, and the Revd Dr George Berkeley, fellow of Trinity College, Dublin. Swift is not mentioned, perhaps a final retaliation against a man whose neglect made her 'live a life like a languishing Death' (November/December 1720, Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, 2.524). The story of deathbed instructions for publication of her letters is apocryphal, but Marshall and Berkeley nevertheless began the publication process until Sheridan intervened.

Sources

  • Some memoirs of the amours and intrigues of a certain Irish dean, pt 2 (1728)
  • A. M. Freeman, ed., Vanessa and her correspondence with Jonathan Swift (1921)
  • S. Le Brocquy, Cadenus: a reassessment in the light of new evidence of the relationships between Swift, Stella, and Vanessa (1962)
  • S. Le Brocquy, Swift's most valuable friend (1968)
  • The correspondence of Jonathan Swift, ed. D. Woolley, 4 vols. (1999–2004)

Archives

  • BL, corresp. with J. Swift, Add. MS 39839

Likenesses

Wealth at Death

see will, 1 May 1723, quoted in Le Brocquy, Cadenus: a reassessment

British Library, London
National Gallery of Ireland