Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1302
First published: 1711-1712
Type of work: Periodical essays
Time of work: Early eighteenth century
Locale: London and Worcestershire
Sir Roger De Coverley, a Worcestershire knight
Sir Andrew Freeport, a wealthy merchant
Captain Sentry, a retired army officer
Will Honeycomb, an aging dandy
Will Wimble, a country gentleman
The Widow, loved in vain by Sir Roger
In the second number of Addison and Steele's SPECTATOR papers eighteenth-century readers were introduced to the members of "The Club." Heading the list of those characters who, among them, were intended to represent the entire range of public opinion and enlightened bias for the London of 1711 was "a gentleman of Worcestershire, of ancient descent, a baronet, his name Sir Roger de Coverley."
Sir Roger was initially conceived of as an aging Restoration rake. In the old days he
. . . was what you call a fine gentleman, had often supped with my Lord Rochester and Sir George Etherege, fought a duel upon first coming to town, and kicked Bully Dawson in a public coffeehouse for calling him "youngster."
By the time of THE SPECTATOR, however, he had been mellowed by years of unrequited love for a "perverse beautiful widow of the next county to him," and had become that quaint and lovable representative of the Tory landowning class, an amiable but rather ineffectual anachronism who was to stand as the most popular and the best remembered of the many characters that appeared in the 555 numbers of the original SPECTATOR.
So popular did he become, in fact, that his name is known to many who have never heard of the Spectator himself; his lengthy and unconsummated love affair has been the subject of a full-length play; and those numbers of THE SPECTATOR in which he figures prominently have been, in a variety of editions, collected and separately published, usually under the title of THE SIR ROGER DE COVERLEY PAPERS.
There are in all some thirty-five SPECTATORS in which Sir Roger is prominent. As a member of "The Club" he, of course, appears in more; but the essays usually collected under his name are limited to the first number, which serves as an introduction, and to thirty-four of the thirty-five in which Sir Roger is the central (or, at least, an important) figure. (The thirty-fifth, possibly by Tickell, is rejected as being inconsistent with the character of the knight.) Of these, twenty-three (including the introductory first paper) are by Addison, nine are by Steele, and three are by Eustace Budgell, a junior associate. There were, we know, other infrequent contributors to THE SPECTATOR (Alexander Pope among them), but, with the exception of Budgell's three essays, Sir Roger remains the exclusive property of Addison and Steele.
Steele, apparently, was his creator. That he was Sir Richard's brain child may be inferred from the fact that in the nine contributions by Steele Sir Roger lives most independently as a character. Certainly the good knight's love affair was Steele's creation. The beautiful and perverse widow is introduced along with the knight himself; then, in papers 113 and 118, the full story of Sir Roger's forty years of frustration at her hands is unfolded.
Steele's interest in the affairs of Sir Roger's heart was in keeping with his general interests as a periodical writer. The age of sentiment was at hand, and Steele was among the first to sense the demand, and to provide the material, for the exercise of "fine feelings." Through his treatment, Sir Roger becomes not merely a character, but a sentimental one. His quaintness (he still dresses in the fashion of the Restoration), his lovableness (he has the heart of all his servants), his amusing foibles (he often loses track of his thoughts in mid-sentence, an indication that a counter-thought of the widow has crossed his mind)—these traits are all designed to endear him to the hearts of the readers, particularly to those of the feminine readers whom Steele had constantly in mind and with whose interests he was always concerned. Sentimentality, the rise of the middle class as the arbiter of manners and morals, and the accompanying rise of the importance of women as the designers of public conscience were all concepts that Steele was temperamentally equipped to make appealing. Much of the success of his periodical essays can be attributed to his ability to work this appeal into a popularly digestible literary form. In Sir Roger he offered his most attractive tidbit.
Though it was Steele who created the character of Sir Roger, it was Addison who made the most of him. For Addison, he was a vehicle, sometimes merely a convenience. Addison could also treat him as a character, and when he did, he treated him in a manner consistent with the pattern set by Steele. But for the most part Addison used Sir Roger as a means to some journalistic end. Some action of the knight sets off a train of thought that leads to a philosophical discussion; various types of characters meet the knight—in his home, on his way to the assizes, in town—and these characters are brought under the scrutiny of the Spectator, thereby furnishing material for social analysis or the knight's reactions to various sophisticated elements of the town, reactions based on his stern and conservative notions of morality and on a sympathetic naivete, are used as foils to satirize urban folly.
Addison is not to be criticized adversely for so employing his character. The purpose in creating "The Club" with its wide range of members was, in the first place, to provide the Spectator with a means for examining and commenting on all types and all levels of English society in his day. Addison was merely carrying out the original intention of the series when he used Sir Roger as a magnet to attract various but interesting odds and ends of essay material.
Thus in Addison's hands (and in Budgell's, in the three contributions for which he is responsible) Sir Roger serves his original purpose. Through him London readers of THE SPECTATOR were able to gain some understanding of the life—of the ways, the beliefs, the basic values—of the people of the shires. In general, the understanding gained is extended to all things pertaining to the country except, perhaps, country politics (Addison and Steele, both Whigs, promised to keep politics out of THE SPECTATOR, and for the most part they lived up to this promise, though there are two or three papers in which Sir Roger's Toryism is satirized.) The nostalgic idea that God made the country and man made the town is but another manifestation of that rising middle-class sentimentality that was so much a part of Steele. The philosophers of the age of sentiment argued the moral superiority of all things countrified, and in this moral notion the citified Addison went along with Steele. As a result, many of those twenty papers that were supposed to have been written by the Spectator while he was the guest of Sir Roger in Worcestershire are paeans to the physical, social, or moral superiority of country things.
In these papers the moral, didactic purpose of THE SPECTATOR was lived up to. For those to whom sentimentality and moralizing, hidden or overt, have little appeal, THE SIR ROGER DE COVERLEY PAPERS, even those by Addison, often leave much to be desired. Still, these very qualities make them interesting examples of the sources of middle-class mercantile mores. Moreover, they share with THE SPECTATOR as a whole the claim to presenting a vivid portrayal of the color and detail of English life in the early eighteenth century; and, in their own right, they offer a picture of English country ways which might profitably be compared with that drawn by such writers as Fielding and Sterne later in the century.