Such is the story of Dean Swift, and it has always suggested several curious questions. Why, if he loved Stella, did he not marry her long before? Why, when he married her, did he treat her still as if she were not his wife? Why did he allow Vanessa’s love to run like a scarlet thread across the fabric of the other affection, which must have been so strong?
Many answers have been given to these questions. That which was formulated by Sir Walter Scott is a simple one, and has been generally accepted. Scott believed that Swift was physically incapacitated for marriage, and that he needed feminine sympathy, which he took where he could get it, without feeling bound to give anything in return.
If Scott’s explanation be the true one, it still leaves Swift exposed to ignominy as a monster of ingratitude. Therefore, many of his biographers have sought other explanations. No one can palliate his conduct toward Vanessa; but Sir Leslie Stephen makes a plea for him with reference to Stella. Sir Leslie points out that until Swift became dean of St. Patrick’s his income was far too small to marry on, and that after his brilliant but disappointing three years in London, when his prospects of advancement were ruined, he felt himself a broken man.
Furthermore, his health was always precarious, since he suffered from a distressing illness which attacked him at intervals, rendering him both deaf and giddy. The disease is now known as Meniere’s disease, from its classification by the French physician, Meniere, in 1861. Swift felt that he lived in constant danger of some sudden stroke that would deprive him either of life or reason; and his ultimate insanity makes it appear that his forebodings were not wholly futile. Therefore, though he married Stella, he kept the marriage secret, thus leaving her free, in case of his demise, to marry as a maiden, and not to be regarded as a widow.
Sir Leslie offers the further plea that, after all, Stella’s life was what she chose to make it. She enjoyed Swift’s friendship, which she preferred to the love of any other man.
Another view is that of Dr. Richard Garnett, who has discussed the question with some subtlety. “Swift,” says Dr. Garnett, “was by nature devoid of passion. He was fully capable of friendship, but not of love. The spiritual realm, whether of divine or earthly things, was a region closed to him, where he never set foot.” On the side of friendship he must greatly have preferred Stella to Vanessa, and yet the latter assailed him on his weakest side—on the side of his love of imperious domination.
Vanessa hugged the fetters to which Stella merely submitted. Flattered to excess by her surrender, yet conscious of his obligations and his real preference, he could neither discard the one beauty nor desert the other.
Therefore, he temporized with both of them, and when the choice was forced upon him he madly struck down the woman for whom he cared the less.