There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Review: The Violent Friendship Of Esther Johnson

The Violent Friendship Of Esther Johnson
The Violent Friendship Of Esther Johnson by Trudy J. Morgan-Cole

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've been reading Trudy J. Morgan-Cole's blog for several years. I appreciate both her thoughts on our shared Seventh-day Adventist faith and her eclectic book reviews. Strangely, I have learned about several historical novels that are now favorites from Morgan-Cole's blog before reading any of her novels. She's an acute judge of what makes historical novels work and The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson demonstrates this.

The novel is the story of Jonathan Swift's muse, correspondent, close friend, and possible wife -- the eponymous Esther Johnson. Morgan-Cole has chosen an ideal subject through which to analyze women's lives in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Growing up in a great house as the housekeeper's daughter, Esther associates daily with servants, and occasionally with laborers. Yet under Jonathan Swift's tutelage, she is more educated than most women of her day. Morgan-Cole manages to portray an intelligent and intellectual woman, without making her anachronistic or prodigious. Ultimately she portrays a fully-realized woman; one both proud and needy, timid and courageous, sexual and repressed, guilty and spiritual. Without being strongly plot driven, the book was hard to put down.

The portrait of Jonathan Swift, especially toward the end, is somewhat repulsive. Reading about Swift's Christian Humanist views in the introduction to my volume of his Selected Works, I gained some respect for him that I didn't from this novel. However, the mixture of disgust, disdain and pity that this novel evokes for a great man is consistent with Swift's own dark view of mankind's depravity. Having just read Gulliver's Travels I am tempted to simply reread Esther Johnson which would be the richer for the contrast and comparison. It's a book drafty with the illness, worry, and misogyny endured by the woman Swift transmuted into the Stella of his poetry. Yet it's also a book bright with the loyalty, love and determination of women.

I am eager to read another of Morgan Cole's novels soon. Maybe it will be her one about Jesus' brother James, or perhaps one of her Maritime novels.

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