Johnson, Esther (1681–1728), Jonathan Swift's ‘Stella ’, was born 13 March 1681 in Richmond, Surrey, England, daughter of Bridget Johnson, housekeeper to Sir William Temple (qv) of Moor Park in Surrey. It was rumoured, from early in her life, that Esther (or Hester, as she had been baptised) was the illegitimate daughter of Temple. Though this can not be proved, Temple was very fond of her and left her a substantial legacy.
Jonathan Swift (qv) met Esther Johnson, to whom he gave the familiar name ‘Stella’, when he was Temple's secretary at Moor Park in the 1690s. He acted as her tutor, and a strong bond of affection developed between them. After Temple's death (1699), Swift persuaded Stella and her companion, Rebecca Dingley, to move to Dublin where the two women set up house. Swift introduced them to the clerical society of the capital and they made a number of friends. Though Stella was a strong and independent woman, she and ‘Dingley’ used to move into Swift's house when he was away from Dublin, which helped fuel gossip about the relationship between Swift and Stella. However, the two were never alone together, and though Swift continued to instruct Stella, giving her books and helping her in many ways, they maintained the utmost decorum in their relationship; she is generally described as his ‘beloved friend’.
When Swift was in London during the Harley ministry (1710–13), he wrote a playful daily journal to Stella and Dingley keeping them completely informed of his every move. The personal nature of his letters and his use of an intimate ‘baby language’ when talking to Stella and Dingley make the Journal to Stella, ed. Abigail Williams (2013), one of the most revealing documents Swift ever wrote. On his return to Dublin, Swift is said to have gone through a marriage ceremony with Stella; but no hard evidence for this event can be found.
Meanwhile, Swift had become involved in a passionate liaison with Esther Van Homrigh (qv), whom he called ‘Vanessa’. Stella – like many others in Dublin – seems to have been aware of this affair, but she did not allow it to destroy her deep affection for Swift. Swift and Stella continued to exchange poems on their birthdays and to spend time with mutual friends. Whatever his other feelings may have been, Swift loved Stella deeply, as his many references to her clearly show. In the late 1720s Stella's health began to fade, and when she died, on 28 January 1728, Swift wrote a moving tribute to her (The prose works of Jonathan Swift, ed. Herbert Davis, v, 227–36).
Several eighteenth-century portraits are said to represent Stella, but none seems to have been taken from life.