Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1710
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 appealing to Mr. Spectator’s sense of justice, a male correspondent describes his unhappy situation as his elderly family insist that they choose their son’s wife. This twenty-two-year-old is pleading for assistance: “You have often given us very excellent Discourses against that unnatural Custom of Parents, in forcing their Children to marry contrary to their Inclinations.” The same theme in a different setting appears in The Spectator 220, in a letter from a twenty-one-year-old woman to an elderly suitor who is appealing to her father and not to her. She complains stridently of the injustice foisted upon her by a father and a suitor who believe that she must accept the suitor because her father does. Steele lets the letter communicate its message without additional comment, but it is clear that he wholly supports the unjustly treated young woman.
Steele enjoyed using the letter device as a mode of developing his short fictions; he used letters, for example, much more often than did Addison. Letters helped him to develop various perspectives, which are more effectively presented through various points of view than through Steele’s voice alone. A parallel example might be the epistolary format in Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1747-1748), where four perspectives are well developed through letters. Steele is interested in brevity as well as perspective, and yet his need as an author to create perspectives other than his own is similar to Richardson’s. Steele presents another of his favorite themes in a letter to Mr. Spectator from an admirer in The Spectator 268, wherein the correspondent laments the tragedy of so many people marrying for the wrong reasons. What are these wrong reasons? They are: money, position, power. What then are proposed as the right reasons to marry? They are: virtue, wisdom, a person’s good qualities, good humor, similar manners and attitudes. In this letter—and throughout Steele’s writings—marriage is spoken of reverently, as the state which may “give us the compleatest Happiness this Life is capable of.” For this to happen, however, Steele warns repeatedly through precept and example, men and women must be free to choose their spouses on the basis of lasting and endearing qualities.
One of the most famous stories in The Spectator, “Inkle and Yarico,” depicts the suffering and misery of a less than circumspect love. In The Spectator 11, Steele describes the selfish and mean treatment by Mr. Thomas Inkle of a Native American maiden who trusted him completely. Inkle, having landed with a group of Englishmen in America, was attacked by Native Americans and retreated into the woods, where he was found and protected by Yarico, the Native American maid. They fell in love, he made great promises of wealth and comfort, and, when the ship came, Yarico left her people to go with Inkle. Shortly thereafter and safe once again with his own people, Inkle sold Yarico to a Barbadian merchant as a slave. The story is a warning to both sexes, but especially to women, to be circumspect in choosing a mate. Although the potential for great happiness does exist in marriage, numerous traps for the unwary, Steele warns, may make marriage a source of great unhappiness as well.
On another narrative level, two members of Mr. Spectator’s club, Sir Roger de Coverley and Sir Andrew Freeport, provide a continuing story line and numerous little anecdotes. Sir Roger is an old-fashioned country squire, while Sir Andrew is a vigorous, intelligent merchant. Whereas loveable Sir Roger’s ideas are as out of date as his clothing, Sir Andrew’s clear concepts on the role of trade in England’s future are of the utmost importance. Usually these two club members get along well, but, when an argument develops on the relative value of merchants to the British nation, Sir Andrew proves his superiority. Many of these little stories subtly identify the Tories with Sir Roger and the Whigs with Sir Andrew. Both Steele and Addison were wholeheartedly committed Whigs, and, despite their assurances that The Spectator was nonpolitical, their political beliefs inevitably surfaced. Their propaganda is delightfully subtle, as it slowly proves Sir Roger’s ineffectiveness and Sir Andrew’s undeniable capability.
As one might suppose, Steele remained consistent in his attitudes on marriage, parent-child relationships, and politics as he discontinued writing for The Spectator in order to begin The Guardian. Although in some places the tone does become more stern and foreboding, there are still delightful stories in The Guardian that promote the values of charity, benevolence, and love rather than authority, and unselfishness rather than self-centeredness. For example, Nestor Ironside himself, although he would like to appear stern and crusty, exemplifies in his own story an overriding concern with the joys and sufferings of those about him. Nestor accepts the responsibility of guiding the Lizard family upon the death of his good friend, Sir Marmaduke Lizard. The lessons he inculcates in the family are based on love of neighbor rather than of self; he leads the daughters away from vanity and pride, while he admonishes the eldest son against keeping a mistress.
Steele’s approach to moral issues remained essentially fixed from 1701, the date of his lengthy explication of moral values in his prose tract, The Christian Hero. Steele argued there that reason is incapable of guiding the passions to virtue, that only religion is capable of aiding reason sufficiently to guide the passions effectively, and that once so directed the passions may become an additional impetus to virtue. Steele posits in The Christian Hero a fundamentally irrational view of human nature. For this reason, perhaps, he teaches morality in his periodicals not by precept and argument but by example and story.
The influence of The Tatler and The Spectator, and to a lesser degree The Guardian, was extraordinary. When one realizes that each periodical lasted less than two years, the fact of such widespread influence is all the more remarkable. In both England and America, The Spectator was revered in many families as a repository of moral teaching as well as an entertaining book, and one may imagine that there were many, such as Benjamin Franklin, who developed a polished writing style through imitation of The Spectator. Although some topics contemporary to the eighteenth century may appear of little interest to the modern reader, many of the stories still prove enjoyable.