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John Everett Millais, Vanessa, 1868.

Esther Vanhomrigh (known by the pseudonym Vanessa; c. 1688 – 2 June 1723), an Irish woman of Dutch descent, was a longterm lover and correspondent of Jonathan Swift. Swift's letters to her were published after her death. Her fictional name "Vanessa" was created by Swift by taking Van from her surname, Vanhomrigh, and adding Esse, the pet form of her first name, Esther.

She was fictionalized as "Vanessa" in Swift's poem Cadenus and Vanessa (1713). In the poem, he wrote:

Each girl, when pleased with what is taught,
Will have the teacher in her thought.

Esther was the daughter of Bartholomew Vanhomrigh, a merchant of Amsterdam and afterwards of Dublin, who was appointed commissary of the stores by King William upon his expedition into Ireland. Her mother, also named Esther, was the daughter of John Stone, an Irish commissioner. She lived at Celbridge Abbey in County Kildare.

Her father died in 1703, and his widow moved her family to London in 1707. Esther became acquainted with Swift in December of that year while the family was en route for London, at Dunstable, and it was here that their intense 17-year relationship began. 22 years younger than Swift, it was obvious from the beginning that he perversely admired Esther for her laudably masculine qualities; he did not admire very feminine women. He later served as her tutor. After her mother died in 1714, Esther followed Swift to Ireland, but she was desperately miserable there. Their relationship was fraught. It was broken up after 17 years by Swift's relationship with another woman, Esther Johnson, whom he called "Stella," in 1723. Vanhomrigh never recovered from his rejection and died later that year; some accused Swift of inadvertently causing her death.

Esther never overcame his rejection and Swift is said to have caused her death by his harshness. She died on 2 June 1723, probably from tuberculosis contracted from nursing her sister Mary.

Her father had left her well provided for, but she was burdened by debts accumulated by her mother and spendthrift brother Bartholomew. In her will, she named Robert Marshall and George Berkeley co-executors and joint residuary legatees of her estate, neither of whom she knew particularly well. Due to the debts, a protracted lawsuit ensued and a large part of the estate was lost in costs.

Swift, whose letters to her were published after her death, is not mentioned in her will, perhaps a final retaliation against a man whose neglect made her 'live a life like a languishing death'.[1]

Legacy

A ward in St Patrick's Hospital is named "Vanessa" in her honor.

Pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais painted a fancy portrait of her in 1868, over 100 years after her death: Vanessa. The painting depicts Esther holding a letter, presumably written to or from Swift.

Margaret Louisa Woods wrote a novel inspired by her life titled Esther Vanhomrigh (1891).

References

  1. ^ November/December 1720, Correspondence of Jonathan Swift, 2.524.

Sources

  • Evelyn Hardy, The Conjured Spirit, Swift: A Study in the Relationship of Swift, Stella, and Vanessa, 1949
  • Dictionary of National Biography
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