What a (t)wit!: Swift, Stella and the phrenologists

Contributed by Ciaran Toal

At a meeting room above Sackville Street in late August 1835 the skull of Jonathan Swift sat on a table alongside that of his friend Stella.  In turn, the gathered phrenologists, who believed character and mental ability could be read from the shape of the cranium, rose to make their pronouncements.  The leader, George Combe, went first.  He noted that if Swift’s skull had ‘been the cranium of a common man…he would have been hanged.’  Stella’s skull, the phrenologists claimed, showed characteristics of benevolence, wit and appropriation, but also destructiveness and amativeness.  Swift, by contrast, demonstrated signs of a love of children and hope, but a lack of benevolence.  Perhaps most importantly the phrenologists were able to claim that, with regards to wit, he was rather ‘small’.

The grave of Swift, the great satirist and celebrated author of Gulliver’s Travels, and his lover Stella had been exposed when alterations to the vaults of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, combined with inclement weather to disrupt the ground around the cathedral.  The Dean, Henry Dawson, had, when approached by some opportunistic phrenologists, given his permission for the skulls to be used as part of a phrenological examination.  The coffins were opened, the skulls were exhumed, casts were made, and then inspected by the Irish born anatomist, Dr John Houston, ready for the Sackville street meeting.

The phrenologists were in Dublin for the 1835 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), a glittering affair that was judged by, if not its science, the success of its entertainment.  Highlights of the week included garden parties, conversaziones, evening soirees and, as one savant recalled, the salubrious dejuner at the Zoological gardens, with elephants, camels and a crowd of 4000 ‘pieces of gaiety’.  Ireland’s own, the mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, was knighted in the library of Trinity College during the closing ceremony, in what was a great honour, we are told, for both the university and the country.  Less honourable, however, was the behaviour of the phrenologists who pronounced on Dean Swift and proved, in the eyes of the Irish poet Aubrey De Vere, the ‘irreverent spirit’ of ‘modern empiricists’.

To the disdain of its followers, but Hamilton’s delight, phrenology had been explicitly excluded from sections of the Association on the grounds that it was not science.  In spite of this, Combe and his supporters had resolved to hold an annual phrenological meeting on the Monday ensuing the close of the week allotted to the British Association.  They were not, they claimed, ‘pinning themselves to the skirts of the institution,’ rather merely taking advantage ‘of meeting when and where so many phrenologists were collected together’. This was true in Dublin, many BAAS members had stayed on to attend the gathering.

However, among the members of the BAAS and beyond, there was widespread disapproval of their actions.  The Literary Gazette attacked the phrenologists, their desecration of Swift and Stella’s skull was ‘repugnant to the best feelings of human nature,’ and members of the BAAS’ Anatomy and Medical Section were equally perturbed.  Sir William Rowan Hamilton was outraged at this ‘inhuman disinterment’.  Attacking Dean Dawson, Hamilton argued that one could hardly be astonished at the decline of the Church when the piety that built it up is ‘so far extinct’.  Most scathing, however, was the response from The Medical Gazette – phrenology was an ‘impudent lie.’    Wit, small?  The great Jonathan Swift?  ‘But do we not fatigue our readers by noticing such downright nonsense?’ they quipped, ‘If Swift had small wit – who possessed any?’

Ciaran Toal is a PhD student in geography at Queen’s University, Belfast.  His project is entitled ‘Space and spectacle: science and religion at the British Association’.

4 Responses to “What a (t)wit!: Swift, Stella and the phrenologists”

  1. patrick maume Says:

    Denis Johnston’s play THE DREAMING DUST starts with the disinterment of Swift and Stella’s remains (though the phrenologists do not get a look-in). Johnston uses this to expound his own theory that Stella was not (as widely believed) his secret wife but that they were uncle and niece (Stella being the daaughter of his patron Sir John Temple and Swift, Johnston theorises, the son of Temple’s father). In Johnston’s reading swift persuades Stella to live with him in Platonic friendship, but when Swift then falls in love with Vanessa he cannot marry her without either (a) making Stella seem a cast-off mistress or (b) admitting the truth of his parentage, which would humiliate him (and which, as a Swift scholar with whom I discussed this pointed out to me, would also invalidate his clerical orders since legitimate birth was required for ordination and the Anglican Church, unlike the Catholic Church, had no system of dispensations from such requirements).
    The different ways in which the Swift-Stella Vanessa triangle are handled in Yeats’ play THE WORDS ON THE WINDOWPANE and the McGuckian film version are also interesting. In the Yeats play Vanessa is more significant because she might have given Swift children – her voice is heard (or at least her words are spoken by the medium/actress) while Stella never speaks directly and her presence is only felt when Swift addresses her. In the film (which is notably more feminist and more touristified; the characters are all moved up several steps in the social scale) Stella beccomes the central character, Swift is reduced to second fiddle, and Vanessa is reduced to a silent bimbo.

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