Sir Richard Steele was born into a family of the English governing class in Ireland. His paternal grandfather was a successful merchant adventurer and courtier who enjoyed the favor of both James I and Charles I. Steele’s father (both forebears were also named Richard) led a less colorful life, but he had begun a promising career as a lawyer when young Richard was born in 1672. Steele’s mother, born Elinor Sheyles (a Celtic name), was the widow of Thomas Symes of Dublin. She became Mrs. Steele in 1670. Because Steele’s father died at a young age without establishing a sure footing for his children, it fell to Richard’s aunt, Katherine Steele Mildmay, to provide for the family. Her second marriage, to Henry Gascoigne in 1675, placed her in a position to help her nephew, and it was through Gascoigne’s influence (he was private secretary to the duke of Ormonde) that Steele entered Charterhouse, a prestigious public school, in the fall of 1684. At Charterhouse, Steele met his famous friend and collaborator, Joseph Addison, though the two men attended different colleges at Oxford. In 1695, Steele became an ensign in Lord Cutt’s regiment, and, partly as a result of his earliest literary efforts, he soon gained a commission and later a captaincy.
Steele made his mark in literary circles with his essay The Christian Hero and then with a series of comedies—The Funeral, The Lying Lover, and The Tender Husband—all produced between 1701 and 1705. His success made him an early member of the Kit-Kat Club, founded by leading Whigs, where he enjoyed the company of London’s literary intelligentsia and made important Whig connections. By 1707, Steele was “the Gazetteer,” the writer of the official government newspaper. After this political hackwork, he joined forces with Addison to create two successful and influential papers, The Tatler and The Spectator. These periodicals, of which Steele wrote more than four hundred between 1709 and 1712, established for him a second and more permanent reputation. First befriended and then attacked by Jonathan Swift, Steele found himself increasingly a political creature and gave less attention to his other periodical ventures during the last years of the Tory ministry under Queen Anne. An active Whig scribe, Steele found himself in and out of the House of Commons and ready to share the spoils of the coming Whig triumph of 1714.
Early in 1715, Steele was made governor of Drury Lane Theatre, regained a seat in Parliament, and (in April) was knighted by George I. He held the Drury Lane post, at least nominally, until his death. Reform of the stage was Steele’s mission, as it had been in his early plays and in his many essays about the theater, but only during the first five years was he active in his duties, and even then he had only limited success in administering the reforms he advocated. His last play, The Conscious Lovers, is the best testimony to the sincerity of his goals. Ill health plagued Steele’s later years, which he divided between Hereford and Carmarthen, Wales, where he died in 1729.
Steele’s domestic life was a study in contrasts. He had an illegitimate daughter by Elizabeth Tonson, the sister of his then future publisher. His first marriage, in the spring of 1705 to Margaret Ford Stretch, a widow of considerable property, ended with her death late the following year. Steele managed to encumber her estate with debts. In 1707, he married Mary Scurlock of Carmarthen. Their marriage of eleven years was marked by Steele’s utmost tenderness and devotion, as his constant letters to her attest. She died in childbirth. Neither of Steele’s two legitimate daughters lived to have children, though his illegitimate daughter did. His two sons did not survive childhood.
Educated at the Charterhouse and the University of Oxford, Richard Steele lived in England and made his living first as a soldier and later as a writer and a politician. Although his plays and periodicals earned him some...
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