Passionate attachment – Brian Maye on Esther Van Homrigh, Swift’s “Vanessa”

A complex affair

Esther Van Homrigh (Vanhomrigh), whose name has come down to us in literary history as Jonathan Swift’s “Vanessa” – one of the two great loves of his life – died 300 years ago on June 2nd. We don’t have a lot of details about her life, or indeed know for certain much about her relationship with Swift, but her life was sadly short and her relationship wasn’t as happy or fulfilling as it might have been. The view that she asked more of him than he was prepared to give (Clive Probyn’s entry on Swift in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) is possibly the most accurate assessment.

She was born in Dublin on February 14th, 1688, the eldest of four children of Bartholomew Van Homrigh, an Amsterdam merchant who provided supplies to William of Orange’s army during his Irish campaign and who was lord mayor of Dublin in 1697-98. Her mother, also Esther, was the daughter of John Stone, an Irish commissioner of revenue. Young Esther grew up in Celbridge Abbey, Co Kildare, which her father built. Following his death in 1703, the family moved to London in 1707 and it was in December that year that she met Jonathan Swift.

Although she was only 19 and he was 40, they “were strongly attracted to each other, and Swift became a regular visitor to the Van Homrigh house”, according to Andrew Carpenter, who wrote the entry on her in the Dictionary of Irish Biography. Combining the beginning of both her surname and first name, Swift called her “Vanessa”. He served as her tutor and although they spent much time together, he wanted to keep the relationship secret, especially because of his close friendship with Esther Johnson, whom he had known for some years before meeting Vanessa, and to whom he referred as “Stella”. Vanessa didn’t know about the other Esther in his life, and he wanted to keep it that way.

One source maintains that Swift admired Vanessa for her “rugged qualities”, as he had little time for delicate women, and she was said “not to be a beauty” although it’s difficult to know about this one way or the other as there is no contemporary portrait of her. The well-known 1868 portrait by the Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais is a work of the artistic imagination.


Vanessa became the eldest of a wealthy family when her mother died in 1714, and when Swift returned to Dublin to become Dean of St Patrick’s that same year, she followed him back to Ireland, which discommoded him greatly as Stella had been living in Dublin for some time. Vanessa returned to Celbridge Abbey and also had lodgings in Dublin. “For the remaining years of her life, Vanessa remained passionately attached to Swift, whom she met regularly, though he found her enthusiasm increasingly disconcerting and tried unsuccessfully to dampen her ardour. The complex nature of their affair can be discerned from the letters that passed between them . . . and from Swift’s poetic account of it in Cadenus and Vanessa (first published in 1726),” Andrew Carpenter has written.

Clive Probyn described her “coercive” letters to Swift as “full of recriminations and the pain of deferred meeting”, while his to her were “tense, replete with negatives, full of warnings about ‘Decency’ and the need for absolute discretion”. Prof Probyn detected “an element of fear and sexual danger” in Swift’s response to her assertiveness, and thought a sexual relationship between them “possible” although the evidence is “purely conjectural”.

Swift’s long poem, Cadenus and Vanessa, has been variously described as “a lengthy poetical history” of their relationship, “a love letter” from him to her, and a paean to women where he bemoans their 18th-century condition (little or no education and the need to pursue a financially suitable, and usually loveless, marriage). However, Joseph McMinn, who wrote the entry on Swift in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, asserted that in the poem, “he dramatised his reasons for not being able to return her love, or to continue their affair”.

Their relationship ended in 1723, possibly because she demanded that he not see Stella again after she had found out about her. His rejection of her has been seen as hastening her death, at the young age of 35, but she had nursed her sister Mary, who had suffered with tuberculosis and died in 1720 and she herself contracted the disease, which was the most likely cause of her death.

She died in Celbridge and was buried in St Andrew’s Church, Suffolk Street, Dublin. Swift was excluded from her will and she left her estate to barristers Robert Marshall and George Berkeley, the famous philosopher and future Bishop of Cloyne.