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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

§ 17. The Coverly Group

When Steele sat down to sketch this group, he probably intended each to be little more than a figurehead, enlivened with a few touches of individuality. Yet, so introspective was the age in which he wrote, that, as if unconsciously, he has made them, in this his first description, hardly less than studies of social environment and character. After this brilliant beginning, it is disappointing to find that, though the characters frequently reappear, they are afterwards employed only to maintain an argument or give information about the world which each represents or, again, in imitation of dramatic technique, merely as confidants of Mr. Spectator and foils to throw into relief his views and peculiarities. They are interwoven with lines of thought which run through the periodical only by way of embroidery; at the most, they are used as living examples of some habit or quality which defies ordinary description. We are not vouchsafed any glimpse of their progress through the world or of the development of their minds. Even the Coverly papers are not really an exception to this. Steele first showed what was the knight’s true function when he depicted Sir Roger as protesting against the over-civilisation of city life and declaring himself to be “so whimsical in a corrupt age as to act according to nature and reason.” Henceforth, the country baronet became the type of Arcadian simplicity. From the days of Tudor jest-books, the city man had laughed at the backwardness of the provincial, and the sense of urban superiority is not missing in the Coverly papers. It is most significant that Addison, with an idealist’s instinct, endowed Sir Roger with all the guilelessness and piety which London society lacked, and lovingly returned again and again to the theme, as if he found in it a refuge from the artificiality of his own life. In his enthusiasm for the golden age, which he pictured among the villages and manors of old England, Addison created a whole society round Sir Roger—including Will Wimble, the cadet of an ancient family, too brainless for a liberal profession, too proud to enter business, really of the same class as the odious Mr. Thomas Gules, but portrayed as gentle and lovable, like all the other inhabitants of the smiling land. And yet the Coverly papers are only a series of sketches. The Spectator spends a month in the country, and Sir Roger makes a few visits to town. Nothing else is recorded until the knight’s unexpected death, except smalltalk. It is true that his most trifling utterance has an irresistible charm, because it contributes towards the picture of ideal simplicity, godliness and nobleness of heart. Even his little weaknesses and touches of vanity, recorded with exquisite humour are the defects of his qualities. In truth, these essays are the first masterpiece of humanised puritanism; though, as regards the history of the novel, they do not mark an advance on the story of Jenny Distaff.