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...
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