Home  »  Volume IX: English FROM STEELE AND ADDISON TO POPE AND SWIFT  »  § 16. The Spectator and its Character-types

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

II. Steele and Addison

§ 16. The Spectator and its Character-types

After Addison had portrayed Mr. Spectator, it was inevitable in the day of cliques and coffee-houses that he should be made a member of a club. Steele undertook this task, as he had performed it for Mr. Bickerstaff. But “the Trumpet Club,” like nearly all the creations of The Tatler, had been hardly more than an afterthought: an incidental piece of monitory satire, conceived with insight and humour, warning us against the consequence of an ill-spent youth by the portraits of five tedious and futile old men. Steele had learnt much by the time he came to sketch the Spectator’s club. He appears to have derived the idea from the numerous classical dialogues then fashionable, in which each interlocutor is intended to have a character of his own and represent a point of view. He pictured five men who moved in different spheres of life and could uphold different opinions on social and moral questions. Yet, from their first appearance, Mr. Spectator’s friends did more than lend dramatic or dialectical interest to their discussions. The new journal was conceived in a spirit of restrained idealism, and its types were intended, each in his own character, to be an object lesson to his class. They are not introduced to us merely as men who hold theories. Just as Mr. Spectator is the perfected student of humanity, so his companions retain a certain mellowness and suavity of disposition, though, like other ordinary people, they are cramped and misdirected by their petty destinies. It is significant that three, at least, of these creations are represented as triumphing just where their prototypes in The Tatler failed. The first is Sir Roger de Coverly, a man of naturally strong intelligence and physical vigour, whose enthusiasm for life has been temporarily blasted by a rather mysterious love affair. But he did not become listless, like Cynthio after Clarissa had broken his heart, nor futile, like the old man brought up before the court of honour who talked only of Madame Frances. He has, indeed, resigned himself to an inglorious existence among his bucolic and admiring tenants; but he has not fallen a victim to a sense of self-importance like the pompous and empty-headed Sir Harry Quickset. He overflows with loving kindness, and his long career of feudal autocracy has only added a touch of independence and eccentricity to his benevolence. There is captain Sentry, a man of unquestioned energy, ability and personal courage, who has retired from the army, because he lacks the gift of self-advertisement. Yet he does not spend his time in detracting from the success of other soldiers, like the major of whom Bickerstaff had heard, but has withdrawn to the social pleasures of London and resigned himself good-humouredly to a life of leisurely obscurity. There is a lawyer, who has no taste for his profession and resides at the Inner Temple “to obey the direction of an old humoursome father.” Yet, instead of wasting his life, he devotes his ample leisure to Aristotle, Longinus and the theatre, until he has cultivated much of The Spectator’s own character, since “his familiarity with the customs, manners, actions and writings of the Antients makes him a very delicate observer of what occurs to him in the present world.” Another member, Will Honeycomb the fop, had been for centuries a butt in comedy and satire. Tudor moralists had denounced the man of fashion as guilty of deadly sins. Jacobean free-lances, again and again, had depicted him as ignorant, indolent and insolent. During the civil war, this antipathy against the type had grown into hatred through association with cavaliers, and, even after the revolution, many regarded the man of fashion as vicious and ridiculous. Steele, who had followed the puritan tradition in several numbers of The Tatler, still retained the old standpoint. But the satire has gone. Will is portrayed as vain and wordly—so a fop must always seem to the serious middle class—but not as depraved. He is the best of his type, a brilliant talker, with a kind heart and an irresistible charm of manner. The spirit of The Spectator is most clearly seen in the figure of Sir Andrew Freeport the merchant. For more than a century, traders had been characterised as dishonest and avaricious, because playwrights and pamphleteers generally wrote for the leisured classes and were themselves too poor to have any but unpleasant relations with men of business. Commerce was, however, now a great power in society and politics. Merchants were ambassadors of civilisation, and had developed intellect so as to control distant, and, as it seemed, mysterious, sources of wealth by a stroke of the pen. Thanks to coffee-houses, merchants now had the opportunity of coming to understand their own importance through matual discussion, and Steele had already, in The Tatler, given glimpses of their prudence or dignity and claimed that they had as much right to the title of gentlemen as courtiers and scholars had. Still, it was something new in literature to show how a man trained in a counting-house could be the intellectual equal of the Spectator and his friends. Sir Andrew is not a wit; his conversation abounds in homely phrases; his mind is not stored with the wisdom of books; yet he has made himself an original thinker, with ideas not fettered by tradition, but derived from experience in trade and expressed with the lucidity of conviction.