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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

§ 18. The Spectator and The Tatler compared

In any case, Steele and Addison could hardly have created the novel, after creating Mr. Spectator as their ideal of editorship. That taciturn and contemplative investigator has intellectual curiosity, but little sympathy. He ranges over a field so incredibly wide that he is forced to see life from a distance. Steele and Addison do not always stand aloof. They had shown, in occasional papers, that they understood the human heart and the pathos of unrecorded destiny; but they never, for long, escape from their own conception of sporadic and dispassionate observation. It was no small effort of creativeness to unify in one clear-cut character vague tendencies towards critical contemplation, though the spectacle of a half-formed and half-humanised democracy was too engrossing in its outlines to leave room for the intensive study of a novelist. So, the personalities of the Spectator’s club tend to fade out of importance, and the journal confined its development to the lines which Addison had already marked out. It covered practically the same ground as The Tatler, ridiculing or inveighing against old-fashioned ideals of gallantry and self-indulgence, urging that kindness is better than cleverness, that self-suppression is the essence of good breeding; penetrating the secrets of home life and exposing the humiliations of citizens who affect aristocratic immorality, the stupidity of husbands who tyrannise over their wives or fathers over their children, the folly of women who marry for money or think that the pleasures of society are preferable to the duties of the household. As Steele took the responsibility of seeing that “copy” was forthcoming day by day, a few of his papers are still written with that hurried diffuseness which has lost The Tatler many readers. In his best work, he conforms to the studied simplicity and artistic concentration which Addison had developed in The Tatler and was continuing to cultivate with great success.

But, if The Spectator surpassed its predecessor in style, it achieved an even greater advance in thought. The moralists of the seventeenth century had drawn their wisdom from books, Bickerstaff had drawn his from experience; while Addison showed how to draw from both sources. It is surprising how much quaint and curious lore is introduced into the pages of The Spectator merely to give point or freshness to an uninspiring theme, as where the buyers of lottery tickets suggest the legend of Mahomet’s coffin suspended in mid-air by the force of two magnets, or the curiosity of the town concerning the letter with which each essay was signed is mocked by means of a dissertation on cabalism. It is, however, when these writers continue Bickerstaff’s more serious duties of censorship that the full influence of literature becomes most marked. The Tatler had criticised the follies and foibles of society by the light of common sense; The Spectator never fails in its higher criterion—the mellow and dignified experience of antiquity. Sometimes, the petulant efforts of modern writers are compared with the noble simplicity of ancient literature. Sometimes, the pettiness or malice of the writers themselves is reproved on the authority of Simonides, Cicero, Epictetus, or by a description of the Augustan circle. In these respects, Addison differed only in method and thoroughness from Jacobean essayists, who quoted Roman or Italian authors whenever their reading rendered them discontented with the worn-out traditions of their own society. But Mr. Spectator went far deeper than this. Not only did he quote the judgments and counsels of the ancients on questions common to all moralists of all ages; but, when straying from the beaten track, and counselling his contemporaries on their peculiarities and eccentricities, he was still guided by a Roman sense of self-respect and reasonableness. His exquisite portrait of the valetudinarian who took his meals in a weighing chair is really inspired by Martial’s contempt for those who are more anxious to live than to live rightly. The sense of solemnity which comes over Mr. Spectator in Westminster abbey descends on him from Lucretius, and Seneca would have approved of the diary of an idle man and of that of a woman of fashion.

Steele, as usual, followed his master’s lead and introduced copious quotations and allusions into his more serious papers. But, at best, he was an indifferent scholar, and, except in the Pharamond papers, he never approached Addison’s tact and felicity. Much as he admired Mr. Spectator’s cultured and contemplative mind, his own experience was leading him to work out a philosophy of life on different lines. As, in The Tatler, he had taken refuge in sentimentality, so now, in The Spectator, he still fought against his own inborn unconventionality by advocating a regularity of conduct which he could not practise. The puritans had always disliked what was unusual or self-willed, and Steele brought Cicero and the Stoics to their help, showing how the recklessness of the spendthrift, the capriciousness of the man who varies his greetings according to his mood, or even the impertinence of fops who affect hurry or indolence, are really offences against “decency” and “decorum.” Such observances, which had formerly been the creed of the middle class, began to have a universal binding force, now that they were backed by the authority of culture. It is significant that some of his leading ideas on education, on the evils of vanity in dress and on the reading of romances, had already been fully put forward by Ascham in The Scholemaster. This strengthening of public opinion was undoubtedly important in a half-formed society, but it was soon to grow into the narrow British insistence on respectability, bitterly satirised by Victorian writers. Even at this early stage, the appearance of a girl riding in man’s clothes, after the French fashion, suggests to Steele the reflection that eccentricity of dress is nothing less than an offence against virtue. Sometimes, Steele breaks away from the social formulae which he helped to codify and gives free play to his gift of seeing things in a natural, almost a primitive, light. Returning to one of the favourite themes of The Tatler, he has independence enough to show how there existed among traders a whole world of romance and destiny undreamt of by the politer classes. His sympathies led him deeper into human nature. As the amusements of polite society became more costly and artificial, a new class of lackeys had grown up beneath the glittering surface, very different from the servingmen of the Elizabethan drama. Steele was one of the first to discover not only the humour but the pathos of their lives. First, we have a glimpse of high life below stairs, in which the frivolities of the rich are absurdly aped by their servants; and, then, the tragedy of the attendant’s life, who earns his daily bread as the silent confederate of his master’s viciousness and the victim of his caprice. Steele, again, was one of the first to champion women of the lower class. Since the Middle Ages, female character had been one of the favourite butts of popular satire, and, all through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, savage invective against prostitution had been common. To Steele, all women are distressed heroines. He shows how shopgirls and barmaids, so far from being naturally bad, are often, by the nature of their employment, forced to submit to the loose talk and familiarity of men; and, when he comes to describe the most abandoned, instead of inveighing against harlotry, he reveals, for the first time, the “white-slave traffic” of his age, with all its fiendish stratagems for sapping the virtue of its dupes and its secret patrons among high society.