Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729)

In 1688 James II of the House of Stuart was ousted from the throne by parliament because of his Roman Catholic beliefs. In his place, his Protestant daughter Mary was invited to take the throne along with her husband, William of Orange. In an event that has become known as the Glorious Revolution (because it was supposedly bloodless), these new joint monarchs had to agree to Parliament’s Bill of Rights. A consequence of this new regime, and of the institution of the Bill of Rights, was that a previous Act of Parliament from some years ago – the Licensing Act of 1643 – was allowed by the government to lapse. The expiration of that Act led to an explosion in the availability of printed matter that was published. Political and satirical pamphlets, newspapers, and periodicals poured forth from the printing presses in ever-greater abundance.

In the history of early-eighteenth century print, however, alongside Joseph Addison another name stands out prominently, that of Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729). He published what was arguably one of the most influential periodicals of the early-eighteenth century, The Tatler.

The Tatler was written under the name of Steele’s pseudonym, Sir Isaac Bickerstaff, but despite giving his main character a noble title, this was not a magazine for aristocrats. Far from it, this publication was aimed at as wide an audience as possible, to encompass members of the new, rising middling sorts.

Tatler, No. 1

Steele ensured this by the way he structured the periodical. The various articles were written under the headings of various coffeehouse locations in London. The first issue declared that:

All accounts of gallantry, pleasure, and entertainment, shall be under the article of White’s Chocolate House; poetry, under the title of Will’s Coffee-house; learning, under the title of Grecian; foreign and domestic news, you will have from St. James’ Coffeehouse.

The Tatler, April 12th, 1709

The periodical did not simply report events, like the extremely dry London Gazette did, but it commented on events, and offered points for debate, for people to discuss with others in coffeehouses. The coffeehouse, as the historian Brian Cowan has recently shown, was a unique public space where men (as far as I’m aware coffeehouses were predominantly male-orientated, though I’m willing to be corrected on this!) could gather, irrespective of rank, and discuss the news of the day. The “news” now mattered to members of the growing middle ranks, who needed to be kept informed of what was going on in the world, as world affairs might affect their trading interests, for, as the popular narrative goes, it was the rising bourgeoisie who drove trade and imperial expansion.

Portrait of Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729)

However, whilst the coffeehouse may have been a male-dominated environment, the actual periodical could be read and enjoyed by “the fair sex” also, and Steele made sure to include many articles aimed at women offering them conduct advice. Some of this advice included how women could best exercise their good taste when selecting what to wear:

When artists would expose their diamonds to an advantage, they usually set them to show in little cases of black velvet. By this means the jewels appear in their true and genuine lustre, while there is no colour that can infect their brightness […] A dress wherein their is so little variety shows the face in all its natural charms.

The Tatler, March 28th, 1710

Whilst the “advice” given to female readers above may appear nowadays to be a little patronising and condescending, Steele did not shy away from speaking about more sensitive issues. Steele appears to have been every bit the gentleman; he deplored the rakes of the town – loose men – and believed that women should be treated with respect because they were intelligent beings with a mind of their own and every bit as entitled to an opinion as a man. So when news in London town concerned crime committed against women, Steele naturally found the event abhorrent, and there was one particular time when news of a rape trial reached his ears, and he decided, almost without precedent, to propose the following measure to be adopted at rape trials:

The law to me, indeed, seems a little defective in this point; and it is a very great hardship that this crime, which is committed only by men, should have men only on their jury. I humbly, therefore, propose, that on future trials of this sort, half of the twelve may be women; and those such whose faces are well known to have taken notes, or may be supposed to remember what happened in former trials in the same place.

The Tatler, October 22nd, 1709

An eighteenth-century man – an aristocrat no less – advocating that women should assume a place in public life in matters which would naturally concern them – Is this truly an historic person we’re talking about here? Yes, it is, and while I would not label Steele a feminist, his position, not just on the crime of rape, but on the role of women in public, is certainly an interesting one.

What happened with the publication of The Tatler and other like periodicals, arguably, was the birth of what is called “public opinion”. The sociologist Jurgen Habermas says that essay periodicals such as, and especially, The Tatler, contributed to the growth of a marketplace of ideas. It also represented a shift in power and influence from the courtly classes to the middling sorts. Whereas previously the monarchy and the aristocracy had been able to conduct the business of government however they wished, they now had to pay significant attention to how their actions might impact on public opinion, and they had to care about it.

However, the middle classes, by and large, also wanted to emulate the manners and social customs of the aristocracy, for they aspired to become members of what was termed “polite society.” The word “politeness” in the eighteenth century signified much more back then than it does today; it was a social code influenced by aristocratic stateliness and elegance. Hence the reason why Steele, in his periodical, would advise readers on the correct way for them to conduct themselves if they, too, were to become members of polite society.

The periodical enjoyed a print run of around two years, lasting from 1709-1711. However, after this initial print run the issues were bound together and published in book form in four volumes. And many, many editions of these were over the eighteenth century; the diarist Thomas Turner in 1754 recorded reading books of The Tatler at home; even George Washington is reputed to have read the periodicals of Sir Richard Steele, and his friend, Joseph Addison. Indeed, Addison and Steele would commence writing another periodical, The Spectator, just two months after The Tatler’s run had finished, although the former largely stayed away from current affairs, focusing instead upon conduct and satire. The two men would collaborate on another periodical, The Guardian, in 1713.

These publications also generated a number of similar periodicals including The Female Tatler, which appeared in 1710, and Samuel Johnson’s The Rambler, which appeared between 1750 and 1752. By creating a literary character, Isaac Bickerstaff (along with the characters found in The Spectator), and animating him in his surrroundings, however, Steele prepared the way for the birth of the novel, which, according to which historian or critic you read, began either with the publication of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe in 1719, or Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded in 1740.

Unfortunately, the periodicals of both Richard Steele and Joseph Addison have largely fallen out of fashion amongst general readers. There are, to my knowledge, no popular editions of their works that are available cheaply, though there are, however, a few ebooks available on Amazon. However, it cannot be denied that Steele’s influence, and that of his companion, Addison, looms large over the history of literature since the eighteenth century.


Blogging Advice from Mr. Spectator – The Spectator, No.124

Sometimes people think blogging is a waste of time, and that maybe I’m just a sad little history/literature geek at a laptop blogging things which nobody will read. But I received a bit of encouragement today in the form of an article from over 300 years ago.

My undergraduate dissertation examined two 18th-century periodicals called The Tatler and The Spectator. They were written by two men, Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele (two of my other favourite 18th-century authors alongside Henry Fielding). I have a late 18th-century bound set of their periodicals and usually read one of their articles each morning.

And this morning I read issue no. 124 of The Spectator, originally published in 1711.

In this issue Addison muses upon communicating your thoughts to the world via short, concise mediums such as periodicals. Periodicals were the social media of their day, designed to be read in coffeehouses and to provide debating points for coffeehouse patrons. These periodicals contributed to the birth of the public sphere, or what we would now call “public opinion”.Addison begins his treatise by saying:

“A great book is a great evil […] A man who publishes his works in a volume, has an infinite advantage over one who communicates his writings to the world in loose tracts and single pieces.”

“Loose tracts and single pieces” – much like blogging! The author of such ephemeral things as short single pieces must interest the reader straight away, for readers do not give them any allowance to be boring, in contrast to the reader of a heavy volume who expects that a book might be dull in one or two places. In fact, the author of these short pieces must:

“Fall immediately into [their] subject, and treat every part of it in a lively manner.”

Indeed, engagement is key. If you can’t interest your audience straight away and keep them engaged for around 2,000 words, then you’ve lost them. Drawing a contrast to the livelier writers of periodicals and the duller writers of books, Addison jokes that:

“Were the books of our best authors thus to be retailed to the public [as periodicals], and every page submitted to the taste of forty or fifty thousand readers, I am afraid we should complain of many flat expressions, trivial observations, beaten topics and common thoughts.”

So when writing an article (or a blog), Addison says that whatever you’re writing about must be NEW/ORIGINAL and that:

“Every sheet should be a kind of treatise, and make out in thought what it wants in bulk: that a point of humour should be worked up in all its parts; and a subject touched upon in its most essential articles, without the repetitions, tautologies and enlargements that are indulged to longer labours…An essay writer must practice in the chymical method, and give the virtue of a full draught in a few drops.”

And my favourite line from his whole piece, and one which I think is very true:

“Were all books reduced thus to their quintessence, many a bulky author would make his appearance in a penny paper: there would be no such thing as a folio: the works of an age would be reduced to a few shelves; not to mention millions of volumes, that would be utterly annihilated.”

Even Addison, as astounding as it is to me to believe, had his detractors, and so he turns his attention at the end of the article to the modern-day equivalent of trolls, or “moles” as he calls them. When people disparage the work that you’re doing, Addison gives more encouragement:

“I am not at all mortified, when sometimes I see my works thrown aside by men of no taste or learning. There is a kind of heaviness and ignorance that hangs upon the minds of ordinary men, which is too think for knowledge to break through. Their souls are not enlightened. – Nox atra cava circumvolat umbra [Virg. Aen. 2. v. 360] (Dark night surrounds them with her hollow shade).”

It is impossible for these people, says Addison, to be constructive in their criticism, they only deride and scorn. And he says to remember that it isn’t for your detractors that you write.

Addison never actually wrote a lengthy multi-volume work like many of his contemporaries did, but Thomas Macauley once quipped that:

“We have no doubt that if Addison had written a novel on any extensive plan, it would have been far superior to any we possess.”

Image Credit: 1798 Lloyd’s Coffee House, cartoon by George Woodward, at Calke Abbey. © NTPL/John Hammond

Introducing the Coffeehouse Club: The Spectator, No. 1 & 2

On 1 March 1711 a new periodical appeared entitled The Spectator, written and edited by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.

Addison and Steele were aristocrats who in their periodicals wished to comment upon the habits, follies, social faux pas of those in polite society. Their periodicals were intended to be read and debated in coffeehouses, which were all the rage in the early 18th century. The reason for this is that, as Brian Cowan says, it was a unique social space where (literate) men of all rank could gather and discuss the issues of the day that were printed in newspapers and periodicals. And there was a lot of printed matter around in 1711 thanks to the expiration of the Licensing Act in 1695, in which state censorship of published works effectively ceased. This was the birth of what Jurgen Habermas called the public sphere, or as we might think of it, public opinion. And it marks a transition in power and influence from the relatively closed world of the Royal Court to members of the public: in short, politicians now had to take note of what the public thought about measures they were taking, as it was the public who now held a great deal of power and influence.

Addison and Steele recognised the inclusive nature of this newly-emergent public sphere, and so in The Spectator they created 6 fictional character types, or correspondents, who similarly were drawn from all ranks of life and who could comment on issues from their own perspective. These fictional correspondents were all represented as being members of a club who met regularly in one of London’s many coffeehouses.

The first was Mister Spectator himself. He wished to remain anonymous, to better enable him to move around London unrecognised, so that the people in the places where he visited would not modify their behaviour when he was present:

I live in the World, rather as a Spectator of Mankind, than as one of the Species; by which means I have made my self a Speculative Statesman, Soldier, Merchant, and Artizan, without ever medling with any Practical Part in Life. I am very well versed in the Theory of an Husband, or a Father, and can discern the Errors in the Œconomy, Business, and Diversion of others, better than those who are engaged in them; as Standers-by discover Blots, which are apt to escape those who are in the Game […] I have acted in all the parts of my Life as a Looker-on, which is the Character I intend to preserve in this Paper.

He was of aristocratic lineage. He is no backward and insular country gentleman, however, for he lives in the city. Mister Spectator’s periodical is aimed at a cosmopolitan and metropolitan elite. Those who like to think of themselves as well-informed, up to date with politics, and who move around in various social circles.

Now, in the 18th century a lot of reading matter was divided along (political) party lines. Contemporaries applied the term “the rage of party” to describe the tumultuous political situation in the years between 1688 and c.1715 (in which an election was held almost every two years). The two main political parties were the Whigs (liberals) and the Tories. And the division between them is reflected in the titles of periodicals from the era such as The Whig Examiner. Addison’s periodical is going to be different, however, for:

I never espoused any Party with Violence, and am resolved to observe an exact Neutrality between the Whigs and Tories, unless I shall be forc’d to declare myself by the Hostilities of either side.

What readers will get in The Spectator is an impartial source of news, and this is aided by the fact that Mister Spectator resolves to remain anonymous (although, in truth, Addison was a Whig, and there are certainly elements of Whiggism that come through in a few of his papers).

The aristocracy is indeed well-represented in Addison and Steele’s periodical. And balancing any Whig biases that Mister Spectator may allow to shine through in his work is the country Squire Sir Roger de Coverley, though he maintains a residence in London also. An aristocrat of ‘antient descent,’ he is quite cantankerous, and of his character Addison says this:

He is a Gentleman that is very singular in his Behaviour, but his Singularities proceed from his good Sense, and are Contradictions to the Manners of the World, only as he thinks the World is in the wrong. However, this Humour creates him no Enemies, for he does nothing with Sourness or Obstinacy; and his being unconfined to Modes and Forms, makes him but the readier and more capable to please and oblige all who know him.

So, he is a Tory, who thinks the world is wrong on most matters. But despite his politics (which most people just humour), he is in his own way friendly, and would do anything for anybody. He’s also quite eccentric in his choice of clothes, and often wears things that were in fashion during the time of King James II.

Non-aristocrats were also amongst Mister Spectator’s retinue. Members of the professions are the people whom Mister Spectator mentions next. There is the un-named Lawyer of the inner temple:

A Man of great Probity, Wit, and Understanding.

But his contributions won’t be those of a dry lawyer’s; on the contrary this gentleman from the inner temple is well-read in all of the classics:

Aristotle and Longinus are much better understood by him than Littleton or Cooke. The Father sends up every Post Questions relating to Marriage-Articles, Leases, and Tenures, in the Neighbourhood; all which Questions he agrees with an Attorney to answer and take care of in the Lump. He is studying the Passions themselves, when he should be inquiring into the Debates among Men which arise from them.

He’s also a harsh critic:

His Taste of Books is a little too just for the Age he lives in; he has read all, but Approves of very few. His Familiarity with the Customs, Manners, Actions, and Writings of the Antients, makes him a very delicate Observer of what occurs to him in the present World. He is an excellent Critick, and the Time of the Play is his Hour of Business; exactly at five he passes through New Inn, crosses through Russel Court; and takes a turn at Will’s till the play begins

So this lawyer from the inner temple will be giving his thoughts upon literary works and plays. Like a reviewer almost. The point here is that you do not need to be an aristocrat to engage in cultural pursuits, as the character of the lawyer illustrates. There is also the retired army officer, Captain Sentry. He brings a bit of frankness to these otherwise cultured members of the club, being possessed of:

A strict Honesty and an even regular Behaviour…Frankness runs through all his Conversation. The military Part of his Life has furnished him with many Adventures, in the Relation of which he is very agreeable to the Company; for he is never over-bearing, though accustomed to command Men in the utmost Degree below him; nor ever too obsequious, from an Habit of obeying Men highly above him.

Hence the professional classes are represented in these two characters. And they bring a bit of ‘bourgeois-ness’ to what would be otherwise a heavily aristocratic periodical.

Another thing you should know about the 18th century was that money talked.

Whilst politics was firmly the domain of the landed gentry, merchants were also growing in wealth and esteem during this period. And Britain’s increasing wealth during the 18th century was driven by merchants and their propagation of overseas trade. This is why the interests of merchants were seen as complementary to the interests of the landed gentry. The Guardian (another of Addison’s periodicals) for example, said that the:

Landed and trading interests of my country…mutually furnish each other with all the necessaries and conveniences of life.

Similarly, The Tatler counselled its readers that traders and merchants were just as entitled to appropriate for themselves the term ‘gentlemen’ as much as the aristocratic classes were. Thanks to the coffeehouse public sphere and its periodicals, merchants now had the opportunity of coming to understand their own importance through mutual discussion. Commerce and trade accordingly received their type in the person of Sir Andrew Freeport:

A Merchant of great Eminence in the City of London: A Person of indefatigable Industry, strong Reason, and great Experience. His Notions of Trade are noble and generous…he calls the Sea the British Common. He is acquainted with Commerce in all its Parts.

And his company is valued by the aristocratic Mister Spectator, for:

A General Trader of good Sense is pleasanter Company than a general Scholar; and Sir Andrew having a natural unaffected Eloquence, the Perspicuity of his Discourse gives the same Pleasure that Wit would in another Man.

He did not possess the aristocratic refinements of Mister Spectator and Sir Roger. However, Sir Andrew Freeport’s wealth and self-taught knowledge qualified him to be a member of the club.

The historian Karen Harvey labels the 18th century as ‘the century of sex,’ being surprisingly liberal in its attitude towards vice (this, of course, has many exceptions). One of the more interesting characters to appear in Mister Spectator’s club was Will Honeycomb, a rake.

He is very ready at that sort of Discourse with which Men usually entertain Women. He has all his Life dressed very well, and remembers Habits as others do Men. He can smile when one speaks to him, and laughs easily. He knows the History of every Mode, and can inform you from which of the French King’s Wenches our Wives and Daughters had this Manner of curling their Hair, that Way of placing their Hoods; whose Frailty was covered by such a Sort of Petticoat, and whose Vanity to show her Foot made that Part of the Dress so short in such a Year. In a Word, all his Conversation and Knowledge has been in the female World.

And there was a lot for a rake to do in 18th-century London, the period in which such nightlife guides as Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies (1757), written by the ‘Pimp-General of Great Britain’, appeared. It told prospective clients of the ‘specialities’ of all the prostitutes around Covent Garden. Betsy Bentinck, for instance, had had sex so many times that:

She is reported to have very little sensation, and…the largest man in England [he with the biggest penis] may draw her on like a jack-boot.

The perception that Georgian times were a guilt-free highpoint in sexual liberation does, therefore, have some justification. Honeycomb is there to provide a bit of light relief; his character was gay, loud, and vain, and he often might exaggerate his amorous tales as

He boasted of favours from ladies whom he had never seen.

Perhaps Honeycomb is here also to provide moral instruction; the rake was a motif which was used in satirical and didactic representations throughout the eighteenth century. One such character formed the principal focus of a series of paintings by William Hogarth between 1732 and 1733 entitled The Rake’s Progress. Nevertheless such behaviour seems to be at best tolerated, and at worst castigated. Towards the end of The Spectator‘s print run, however, he reforms himself, marries, and settles down.

It was these interesting characters that represented the new cosmopolitan elite of 18th-century London. In the characters of Mister Spectator’s club was a microcosm of the people who mattered in society: the aristocracy and the middle classes. In time, however, it was merchants and professionals who took preeminence over the landed gentry, appropriating for themselves many of the refinements and cultural modes of the nobility. Looking forward into the 19th century, the middle classes would by then grow into a position of such power and influence that they effectively held the levers of power.

Header Image – (c) British Museum