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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

§ 8. The Tatler on Middle-class Life and Women

If, however, the middle classes had much to reform in the manners of men, they had far more to criticise in the social position of women. When Madame de Rambouillet brought together in her salon the most cultured men and the most beautiful women in France, she created a new standard of social refinement for Europe. The management of intimate relations between the two sexes became a proof of good breeding, and the civilisation of any court could almost be measured by the influence which ladies enjoyed in it. In the earlier Stewart times, the English aristocracy readily adopted this cult, and all people of quality practised the art of inspiring or suffering the passion of love. But, so soon as this accomplishment became a fashion, it was perverted to most ignoble uses. The coarser types of the restoration gained caste by affecting the same delicacy of sentiment and purity of devotion while they really gratified their lusts. Immorality was invested with a ritual of compliments, odes, assignations and addresses, and, when the rising middle class came into touch with the beau monde, many well-intentioned young people were too inexperienced to detect the baseness which underlay this glitter and polish. Steele had primarily designed The Tatler to be an organ of the coffee-houses, and his first few papers on women are hardly anything but what one might expect from the gossip of the smoking-room. But, in the stage of social evolution thus reached, the follies of men and women were so inextricable that Steele could not satirise rakes and fops without penetrating into the lives of their victims or deceivers. So far back as the protectorate, moralists had begun to abandon the savage invective which Elizabethan and Jacobean misogynists had affected, and filled pamphlets with more humane, but none the less searching, ridicule of female frivolities. Steele is continuing a puritan tradition as well as breaking new ground, when he allows us to catch sight of the treachery and dishonour hidden beneath these hypocritical observances; sometimes, dwelling on the persecutions and outrages to which girls unwittingly exposed themselves and, at other times, revealing the jealousies and intrigues of more experienced matrons who looked on marriage, for all its euphemisms, as a game of skill or a masque of vanity. Now and then, he gives us glimpses of the amours of those who shrink from matrimony or dwells upon the more horrible tedium and disillusionment of marriages made without love. Had Steele lived in an age of decadence, he would, like most satirists in such periods, have confined himself to invective. But, if he helped to push one social order into the grave, he also helped to bring another to the light. As in his papers on men’s manners, so now, after exposing vice, he holds up to admiration virtue, especially in his well-known portrait of Lady Elizabeth Hastings, whose passion is so high-souled and graceful that “to love her is a liberal education.”

Such portraits would have had but little effect if Steele had not also pointed out the change which must inevitably befall the moral training of youth. While showing that vice was often concealed under a veil of refinement and liberality, he argued that the young give way to its allurements from a false idea of manliness or by way of revolt against parental tyranny. The old puritan methods of education had to be softened and humanised. He argued that children could be kept from extravagance and sensuality only by a sense of self-respect and by awakening in them tender memories of a father or mother whom they had learnt to love. He then explains how the parent or guardian must be their companion, and encourage their confidence if he is to understand their characters, ending with the portrait of a perfect father, Dr. Lancelot Addison, the one man “among all my acquaintances, whom I have thought to live with his children with equanimity and good grace.”