Secret Library

The Curious Origins of the Girls’ Name Vanessa

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the origins of a given name in a little-known eighteenth-century poem

Here’s a question for you. What connects the girls’ name Vanessa with the classic novel Gulliver’s Travels? The answer: they were both created by the same person.

His name was Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), who, when he wasn’t coining popular given names or writing satirical fantasy books, was (so rumour has it) penning tracts on human excrement under the pseudonym ‘Dr Sh*t’ (yes, really) or telling starving Irish people to eat their own children (although with his satirical tongue firmly in his cheek).

How did the author of Gulliver’s Travels come to invent the girls’ name Vanessa, though? It wasn’t in one of his well-known literary works. Indeed, to discover the origins of Vanessa as a first name, we need to delve into Jonathan Swift’s curious and somewhat troubling private life.

Let’s start with Esther Vanhomrigh (c. 1688-1723), who was an Irish woman of Dutch descent, as her surname suggests. Esther was the daughter of a Dutch merchant who became Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1697 (although he only held the post for a year). Esther grew up at Celbridge Abbey in County Kildare, but after her father died in 1703, while Esther was still a teenager, she and her mother moved to London, in 1707.

In that year, Esther met Swift, in the Bedfordshire town of Dunstable, of all places. Swift’s fame as the author of Gulliver’s Travels and ‘A Modest Proposal’ still lay some decades away in the future. Swift was, however, already known to the literary world thanks to A Tale of a Tub (1704), very much his ‘breakthrough’ work, a satire upon English morality and attitudes. In the same year, he published ‘The Battle of the Books’, which introduced the phrase ‘sweetness and light’ into the language (a phrase which, in Swift’s essay, actually refers to the honey and candlewax created by bees).

The two of them hit it off, perhaps because Swift admired Esther’s unconventional appearance and attitudes. Swift appears to have taken Esther under his wing and tutored her. When her mother died in 1714 and Swift moved to Ireland, Esther followed him back there, living at Celbridge Abbey again.

The two of them clearly had a close relationship – whatever we might mean by ‘relationship’ here cannot really be specified with any certainty – but it came to a rather acrimonious end, it seems, because of Swift’s relationship with another woman. And not just another woman: another Esther, of all things.

Swift had known a woman named Esther Johnson ever since she was a little girl: the two are thought to have met in the early 1690s. Swift called Esther Johnson ‘Stella’, as in ‘Star’. It’s rumoured that Esther (Vanhomrigh) forbade Swift to see Esther (Johnson), but he refused, and broke off all contact with her (Esther Vanhomrigh, that is). She – Esther Vanhomrigh – died shortly after their split, in 1723, of tuberculosis. Her will made no mention of the man who had been such an important part of her life for the past sixteen years.

After her death, the correspondence between them – or Swift’s side of it, at least – was published, revealing just how close they had been. Swift called Esther Vanhomrigh ‘Vanessa’, taking the ‘Van’ from her surname and ‘Essa’ from her first name, Esther.

So, the girls’ name Vanessa began as Jonathan Swift’s pet name for his girlfriend (or not-quite-girlfriend).

In 1713, Swift wrote a poem, Cadenus and Vanessa, which only appeared three years after Esther Vanhomrigh’s death, in 1726 – the same year that Swift would set the literary world alight with Gulliver’s Travels, one of the earliest novels in the English language and a classic work of satire. In Cadenus and Vanessa, we find the lines:

    The Graces next would act their part,
And shew’d but little of their art;
Their work was half already done,
The child with native beauty shone;
The outward form no help required:
Each, breathing on her thrice, inspired
That gentle, soft, engaging air,
Which in old times adorn’d the fair:
And said, ‘Vanessa be the name
By which thou shalt be known to fame:
Vanessa, by the gods enroll’d:
Her name on earth shall not be told.’

It’s clear that Swift wrote the poem for Esther, and not for publication. In the poem, Swift is Cadenus and Vanhomrigh is Vanessa: Cadenus is an anagram of the Latin decanus, meaning ‘dean’, in reference to Swift’s office of Dean of St Patrick’s in Dublin.

So now we all know where ‘Vanessa’ came from. And it all started because of Swift’s curious friendship with a young woman named Esther Vanhomrigh.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.

2 Comments

  1. mike butler (in Katoomba, Blue Mountains, Australia )

    fascinating story.

  2. Loved this story. Always thought of Vanessa as a very glamorous Christian name, like Vanessa Redgrave the film star. Not many Vanessas in Ballyscullion East.

    Rose Scullion
    .

Leave a Reply