Richard Steele Short Fiction Analysis
Sir Richard Steele’s short fiction appears in The Tatler, The Spectator, and The Guardian, as well as in some shorter periodicals. There is a double level of fiction in all three of these periodicals: The first is the fictional creation of the narrator and his family or club, with all the telling details that make Steele’s narrators interesting; the second is the storytelling of the narrator himself. The narrator of The Tatler is Isaac Bickerstaff, a name made popular by Jonathan Swift in his attack on the astrologer John Partridge. Bickerstaff is an elderly, benevolent astrologer who enjoys relating humorous stories about his family and friends while good-naturedly poking fun at himself. In contrast, The Spectator has as its narrator Mr. Spectator, the most taciturn member of The Spectator Club and the undisputed master observer of human nature and human foibles. Because of his careful observation of those around him, Mr. Spectator is an excellent storyteller as well. Finally, the narrator of The Guardian is Nestor Ironside, the feisty protector of the Lizard family and adviser to the British nation. To a large degree, The Tatler and The Spectator are the mutual creation of Steele and his friend and schoolfellow Joseph Addison, although Steele alone signed his name to the final issue of both periodicals; in contrast, The Guardian is largely Steele’s and is generally recognized as inferior to the two earlier works. Steele’s contribution to these works is a lively imagination and a facile wit; he promotes benevolence as the proper response to the sorrows and sufferings of one’s fellow humans, and he satirizes slavish adherence to fashion. Plain-dealing honesty and kindly benevolence are Steele’s major moral themes in both The Tatler and The Spectator; Steele’s didactic purpose is always foremost, in both his fiction and his plays.
In The Tatler, Isaac Bickerstaff enjoys teaching the correct way to treat one’s spouse by describing his sister’s marital problems. Poor Jenny Distaff has more than her share of difficulties to overcome with her spouse, Tranquillus; Isaac’s bachelor wisdom helps them both to achieve happiness. The essential problem is Jenny’s desire for domination over her husband, and Isaac teaches her to accept her husband’s superior position in marriage. At first glance, it appears that Steele is preaching a very reactionary attitude toward marriage; however, this is not quite the case. Steele believes that women are people, not objects, and that they must be treated as thinking human beings by their husbands. Such an attitude was not universally held by men in the early eighteenth century, and, although Steele’s attitude may seem conservative by modern standards, he deserves to be credited with some advancement of women’s situations in his own century. For example, he decries the double standard of sexual morality and the marriage contract based solely on financial considerations. Women were losers in both situations, and Steele saw and spoke against what he considered serious social evils. In The Tatler, Steele is master of the dramatic scene, nowhere better exemplified than in the reconciliation between Jenny and Tranquillus through the efforts of Isaac Bickerstaff.
It is reasonable to assert that Steele was fascinated by all the various pleasures and problems in domestic relationships. Primary are courtship, marriage, and married life, but the parent-child relationship was also very important to Steele. Mr. Spectator enjoys almost nothing more than a didactic story about the improvement of marital relations, parent-child relations, or a study of the potential for happiness in an impending marriage. The Spectator proves the ideal vehicle for these short, succinct stories, providing a different story daily and a need for constant reinforcement of central themes. One of Steele’s often reinforced themes is the difficulty caused by parents who insist on choosing a spouse for their child. In The Spectator 533, in a letter...
(The entire section is 1710 words.)