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.


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