Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Sir Roger de Coverley Papers was a corporate effort of Joseph Addison, Eustace Budgell, and Richard Steele. The essays that form The Sir Roger de Coverley Papers are scattered on the pages of The Spectator daily published from 1711 to 1712. They are consolidated by the central figure of Sir Roger himself.
The narrator in the essays is separate from the authors, yet he expresses views that are in harmony with their own. In the first issue of The Spectator, he defines his role by saying the following:
Thus I live in the world rather as a Spectator of mankind than as one of the species; by which means I have made myself a speculative statesman, soldier, merchant, and artisan, without ever meddling with any practical part in life.”(1, No. 1. Thursday, March 1, 1710–11)
In the second issue, the members of the “Club” are introduced. The narrator’s friends and interlocutors are a squire, a lawyer, an eminent merchant, a retired captain, a clergyman, and a man of the world. The idea of the authors was to represent the English society of the age and express the distinct views and perspectives of its various social groups.
The brightest character of The Sir Roger de Coverley Papers is, of course, Sir Roger de Coverley himself. He is a noble, landed country gentleman who spends his life observing the world. He is a son of the Church of England and a staunch Tory.
The rustic squire often visits London, where he has a house. In a number of the essays, Sir Coverley is depicted attending Westminster Abbey. During the performance of the tragedy The Distressed Mother by Ambrose Phillips (an adaptation of Racine’s Andromache), the squire—who has not been to the theater for a long time—wonders at the thought that he can understand every word pronounced, and he responds to everything in a very ingenuous way. The narrator comments:
When Sir Roger saw Andromache’s obstinate refusal to her lover’s importunities, he whispered me in the ear, that he was sure she would never have him; to which he added, with a more than ordinary vehemence, "You cannot imagine, sir, what it is to have to do with a widow."(1, No. 335. Tuesday, March 25).
One might say that Sir Roger is the “progenitor” of the whole gallery of eccentrics that appear in English literature, including Fielding’s Parson Adams, Sterne’s Uncle Toby and Parson Yorick, and Dickens’s Mr. Pickwick.
The two main components of The Sir Roger de Coverley Papers are speculative reasoning and comic sketches. But there is a third component too, which later become prominent in the English literary tradition: didacticism. Each of the essays that form The Sir Roger de Coverley Papers contains some moral woven into the fabric of the narration.
As for the genre, the essays incorporate features of a news story, correspondence, and a comic novellette.
Because The Spectator’s target audience was the British middle class, the authors chose to write in the form of an essay. A somewhat loose discourse, elements of didacticism, and wit, were thought to be the best way to introduce the bourgeois reader to culture.
Addison, Budgell, and Steele touch on various topics such as everyday life, morality, philosophy, and human nature. Each essay is preceded by a quotation from a Latin author, again, lending a moral quality to their work. However, the content of the essays is by no means limited by classical subjects. The wisdom of the antiquity is illustrated by realistic—and at the same time humorous—scenes from the English life of the eighteenth century.
In The Sir Roger de Coverley Papers, the didactic elements are balanced by the comic, and this work effectively conveys the general spirit of the Enlightenment period.