Eighteenth-Century British Periodicals Essay - Critical Essays

Eighteenth-Century British Periodicals


Eighteenth-Century British Periodicals

In the eighteenth century British periodical literature underwent significant developments in terms of form, content, and audience. Several factors contributed to these changes. Prior to 1700 the English popular press was in its infancy. The first British newspaper, the Oxford Gazette, was introduced in 1645. Two years later the Licensing Act of 1647 established government control of the press by granting the Gazette a strictly enforced monopoly on printed news. As a result, other late seventeenth-century periodicals, including The Observer (1681) and The Athenian Gazette (1691), either supplemented the news with varied content, such as political commentary, reviews, and literary works, or provided specialized material targeting a specific readership. During this time, printing press technology was improving. Newer presses were so simple to use that individuals could produce printed material themselves. British society was in transition as well. The burgeoning commercial class created an audience with the means, education, and leisure time to engage in reading. When the Licensing Act expired in 1694, publications sprang up, not just in London, but all across England and its colonies.

Joseph Addison and Richard Steele are generally regarded as the most significant figures in the development of the eighteenth-century periodical. Together they produced three publications: the Tatler (1709-11), the Specator (1711-12), and the Guardian (1713). In addition, Addison published the Free-Holder (1715-16), and Steele, who had been the editor of the London Gazette (the former Oxford Gazette) from 1707 to 1710, produced a number of other periodicals, including the Englishman (1713-14), Town-Talk (1715-16), and the Plebeian (1719). The three periodicals Addison and Steele produced together were great successes; none ceased publication because of poor sales or other financial reasons, but by the choice of their editors. Beginning in the eighteenth century and continuing to the present day, there has been debate among critics and scholars over the contributions of Addison and Steele to their joint enterprises. Addison has been generally seen as the more eloquent writer, while Steele has been regarded as the better editor and organizer.

Periodicals in the eighteenth century included social and moral commentary, and literary and dramatic criticism, as well as short literary works. They also saw the advent of serialized stories, which Charles Dickens, among others, would later perfect. One of the most important outgrowths of the eighteenth-century periodical, however, was the topical, or periodical, essay. Although novelist Daniel Defoe made some contributions to its evolution with his Review of the Affairs of France (1704-13), Addison and Steele are credited with bringing the periodical essay to maturity. Appealing to an educated audience, the periodical essay as developed by Addison and Steele was not scholarly, but casual in tone, concise, and adaptable to a number of subjects, including daily life, ethics, religion, science, economics, and social and political issues. Another innovation brought about by the periodical was the publication of letters to the editor, which permitted an unprecedented degree of interaction between author and audience. Initially, correspondence to periodicals was presented in a limited, question-and-answer form of exchange. As used by Steele, letters to the editor brought new points of view into the periodical and created a sense of intimacy with the reader. The feature evolved into a forum for readers to express themselves, engage in a discussion on an important event or question, conduct a political debate, or ask advice on a personal situation. Steele even introduced an advice to the lovelorn column to the Tatler and the Specator.

Addison and Steele and other editors of the eighteenth century saw their publications as performing an important social function and viewed themselves as moral instructors and arbiters of taste. In part these moralizing and didactic purposes were accomplished through the creation of an editorial voice or persona, such as Isaac Bickerstaff in the Tatler, Nestor Ironside in the Guardian, and, most importantly, Mr. Spectator in the Specator. Through witty, sometimes satirical observations of the contemporary scene, these fictional stand-ins for the editors attempted to castigate vice and promote virtue. They taught lessons to encourage certain behaviors in their readers, especially self-discipline. Morals were a primary concern, especially for men in business. Women, too, formed a part of the readership of periodicals, and they were instructed in what was expected of them, what kind of ideals they should aspire to, and what limits should be on their concerns and interests.

The impact of periodicals was both immediate and ongoing. Throughout the eighteenth century and beyond there were many imitators of Addison and Steele's publications. These successors, which arose not just in England, but in countries throughout Europe and in the United States as well, modeled their style, content, and editorial policies on those of the Tatler, the Specator, and the Guardian. Some imitators, such as the Female Spectator (1744), were targeted specifically at women. Addison and Steele's perodicals achieved a broader influence when they were translated and reprinted in collected editions for use throughout the century. The epistolary exchanges, short fiction, and serialized stories included in the periodicals had an important influence on the development of the novel. In addition, celebrated figures from Benjamin Franklin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to Mark Twain have acknowledged the impact of the eighteenth-century periodical, particularly the Specator, on their development as writers and thinkers.

Representative Works

Joseph Addison
The Free-Holder (journal) 1715-16

Joseph Addison and Richard Steele
The Guardian (journal) 1713
The Specator (journal) 1711-12
The Tatler (journal) 1709-11

Rae Blanchard and Richard Steele
The Englishman (journal) 1713-14, 1715

B. Bragge
The Female Tatler (journal) 1709-10

Edward Cave
The Gentleman's Magazine (journal) 1731-54

Daniel Defoe
*A Review of the Affairs of France (journal) 1704-13

Mrs. Jenny Distaff (pseudonym)
The Whisperer (journal) 1709

Eliza Haywood
The Female Spectator (journal) 1744-46

Charlotte Lennox
The Lady's Museum (journal) 1760

Ambrose Philips
The Free-Thinker or Essays on Ignorance (journal) 1718-19

Mrs. Stanhope (pseudonym)
The Lady's Magazine or, Polite Companion for the Fair Sex (journal) 1759-63

W. Wilkins
The Visiter (journal) 1723-24

*This periodical underwent several name changes, including A Review of the State of the English Nation, A Review of the State of the British Nation, and simply The Review.

Criticism: The Rise Of Periodicals

John Calhoun Stephens (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: Introduction to The Guardian, The University Press of Kentucky, 1982, pp. 1-36.

[In following excerpt, Stephens traces the history of Addison and Steele's periodical the Guardian,emphasizing its involvement in politics as the cause of its demise.]

If The Spectator had not existed, The Guardian might outrank all periodicals of this kind.

George Sherburn

Of the numerous literary periodicals produced in the eighteenth century, none have been more famous than the Tatler, the Spectator, and the Guardian, in which Addison and Steele brought the familiar...

(The entire section is 9407 words.)

Kathryn Shevelow (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: “Gender Specialization and the Feminine Curriculum: The Periodical for Women,” in Women and Print Culture: The Construction of Femininity in the Early Periodical, Routledge, 1989, pp. 146-74, 186-90, 220-23, 226.

[In the excerpt that follows, Shevelow surveys periodicals targeted at women readers, tracing their evolution in the course of the eighteenth century and examining the means by which they defined themselves and their audiences.]

Richard Steele announced in Spectator No. 66 his intention to devote the issue to a critique of the child-rearing practices of his day, with particular emphasis upon the education of girls. Using his familiar...

(The entire section is 18041 words.)

Criticism: The Impact And Influence Of Periodicals

Donald F. Bond (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Introduction to Critical Essays from The Spectator by Joseph Addison with four Essays by Richard Steele, Clarendon Press, 1970, pp. ix-xxi.

[In the essay that follows, Bond analyzes Addison's efforts in the Spectator to redefine the scope and methods of literary criticism.]

The series of daily essays published by Addison and Steele in 1711-12, from the pen of ‘Mr. Spectator’, ranged in subject-matter from the follies of contemporary fashion to the more serious problems of ethics and religion. From the beginning an imaginary club was devised, with members of broadly varying interests, whose topics of conversation might presumably be drawn upon...

(The entire section is 6050 words.)

F. W. Bateson (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: “Addison, Steele and the Periodical Essay,” in Sphere History of Literature in the English Language, Volume 4: Dryden to Johnson, edited by Roger Lonsdale, Sphere Books Limited, 1971, pp. 144-63.

[In the essay that follows, Bateson credits Richard Steele with the invention of the periodical essay but argues that it was Joseph Addison's brilliant prose style that assured the success of the genre.]


The crucial innovations in a literature occur when some sub-literary form—such as the folk-song, the popular sermon, the melodramatic romance, to give three familiar examples—ceases to be ‘trash’ and becomes the vehicle of...

(The entire section is 8024 words.)

Calhoun Winton (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “Richard Steele, Journalist—and Journalism,” in Newsletters to Newspapers: Eighteenth-Century Journalism, edited by Donovan H. Bond and W. Reynolds McLeod, The School of Journalism, West Virginia University, 1977, pp. 21-31.

[In this essay, first presented at a 1976 symposium, Winton examines Steele's editorial direction of the Tatlerand the Spectator. The critic maintains that Steele introduced a number of innovations into print journalism, most notably the letters-to-the-editor feature, which permitted an unprecedented interaction between writer and audience.]

A few years ago the death of the novel was confidently predicted in...

(The entire section is 5143 words.)

Peter France (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: “Society, Journalism, and the Essay: Two Spectators,” in Continuum: Problems in French Literature from the Late Renaissance to the Early Enlightenment. Volume 3: Poetics of Exposition & Libertinage and the Art of Writing 1, edited by David Lee Rubin, AMS Press, pp. 85-112.

[In the following excerpt, France discusses the role of the Spectator in the development of the essay form, noting the characteristic “blend of seriousness and ease, Christianity and worldliness” in the pieces printed in the journal.]

[The Spectator points to] a crucial element in the development of the essay, and that is the role of the periodical press. Journals...

(The entire section is 3290 words.)

Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “The Spectator Abroad: The Fascination of the Mask,” in History of European Ideas, Vol. 22, No. 1, 1996, pp. 1-18.

[In the following essay, Pallares-Burke describes how admiration for the Spectator quickly spread beyond England, spawning imitations throughout Europe. She also discusses how the journal's influence lasted long after it ceased publication.]

This article offers some reflexions on the reception of the Spectator of Addison and Steele in Europe by focusing on the reforming power and authority it was believed to have at the time. My aim is to make a small contribution to the international history of the Spectator genre,...

(The entire section is 9371 words.)

Criticism: Periodicals And Society

Albert Furtwangler (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: “The Making of Mr. Spectator,” in Modern Language Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 1, March 1977, pp. 21-39.

[In following essay, Furtwangler contends that Mr. Spectator, the fictional editorial voice of the Spectator,was a “didactic figure” designed to promote the journal's “identification of moral improvement with reading improvement.”]

Addison and Steele had a very practical reason for creating the fictitious editors of their periodical works: canny self-protection. Neither Addison the rising politician nor Steele the ambitious soldier-turned-Gazetteer could well afford to entertain a broad public or moralize in his own name. Yet from the broad...

(The entire section is 8030 words.)

Reginald Berry (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Modifying a Whole Landscape: False Humour, Good Nature, and Satire in the Spectator,” in Thalia: Studies in Literary Humor, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring 1980, pp. 3-10.

[In the essay that follows, Berry examines how satire was used and developed in the Spectator, primarily by Joseph Addison. The critic asserts that Addison felt that legitimate satire must be good-natured, based in morality, and used “for the Benefit of Mankind.”]

A satiric portrait by Pope or Swift is like a thunderclap; the Addisonian method is more like the slow operations of ordinary nature, loosening stones, blunding outlines, modifying a whole landscape...

(The entire section is 6621 words.)

John Dwyer (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: “Addison and Steele's Spectator: Towards a Reappraisal,” in Journal of Newspaper and Periodical History, Vol. 4, No. 1, Winter 1987, pp. 2-11.

[In this essay, Dwyer analyzes the moral perspective promulgated by Addison and Steele through the persona of Mr. Spectator. In response to the ethical confusion of English society, this character, Dwyer contends, “attempted to present virtue and contentment in a clearer, basically classical, light in the pages of his papers.”]

In an article written for Encounter twenty years ago, Peter Gay called for a greater appreciation of the role of the Spectator in early eighteenth-century British...

(The entire section is 4873 words.)

Charles A. Knight (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “The Spectator's Moral Economy,” in Modern Philology, Vol. 91, No. 2, 1993, pp. 161-79.

[In the essay that follows, Knight considers the linking of morality and economics in the Spectator, maintaining that the journal delineated “the workings of ethics through an economic order in which wealth, achievement, and status become public representations of moral goodness.”]

If the influential series of essays produced between 1709 and 1714 by Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele emerges from its present benign neglect, it may do so through the concept that periodicals create culture—that if art imitates life, life imitates art with equal...

(The entire section is 8184 words.)

Timothy Dykstal (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “The Politics of Taste in the Spectator,” in The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Vol. 35, No. 1, Spring 1994, pp. 46-63.

[In the essay that follows, Dykstal offers a Marxist analysis of the Spectator's role in defining “taste” as an “organizing principle of the public sphere,” in which private rectitude is publicly recognized. In this formulation, the critic contends, taste “rests, ultimately, not on the private apprehension of beauty but on the public defense of it.”]

The basic error of all materialism in politics—and this materialism is not Marxian and not even modern in origin, but as old as...

(The entire section is 8206 words.)

Shawn Lisa Maurer (essay date 1994)

SOURCE: “‘As Sacred as Friendship, as Pleasurable as Love’: Father-Son Relations in the Tatler and Spectator,” in History, Gender & Eighteenth-Century Literature, edited by Beth Fowkes Tobin, The University of Georgia Press, 1994, pp. 14-38.

[In this essay, Maurer explores how early periodicals depicted and defined gender roles, family dynamics, and other social and domestic values.]

The revolution in which the slogan “liberté, egalité, fraternité” was proclaimed began in 1789, but the alliance between the three elements was forged much earlier. Modern patriarchy is fraternal in form and the original contract is a...

(The entire section is 9936 words.)

Scott Paul Gordon (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “Voyeuristic Dreams: Mr. Spectator and the Power of Spectacle,” in The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Vol. 36, No. 1, Spring 1995, pp. 3-23.

[In the following essay, Gordon argues that the figure of Mr. Spectator, the fictional editorial voice of the Spectator,was designed to be “a mechanism to reform London society,” part of the journal's “disciplinary regime based on omnipotent surveillance and the threat of public exposure.”]

Mr. Spectator seems to anticipate precisely the “Eye of Power,” the voyeuristic gaze which disciplines subjects by observing them, that recent theory detects in social institutions from the prison...

(The entire section is 8940 words.)

Further Reading


Braverman, Richard. “Spectator 495: Addison and “the Race of People called Jews.SEL: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 34, No. 3 (Summer 1994): 537-52.

Critiques how Addison wrote about Jews in this issue of the Spectator and other writings. The critic also discusses how Jews were perceived in English society at the time.

Evans, James E. “Mr. Review of the ‘Glorious’ Tatler and the ‘Inimitable’ Spectator.Journal of Newspaper and Periodical History 3, No. 1 (Winter 1986): 2-9.

Discusses Daniel Defoe's remarks on the Tatler and the...

(The entire section is 269 words.)