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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

§ 9. The “Short Story” in germ

In his charming papers on childhood, as well as in his moral essays on men and women, Steele writes like a man at one with his audience. He does not feel the need to argue or convince; it is enough to appeal to the sense of right and wrong. As he said himself, when exposing the tyranny of husbands, “touching upon the malady tenderly is half way to the cure; and there are some faults which need only to be observed, to be amended.” His business was not so much to create sentiments as to awaken them by a vivid description, and teach his readers to recognise their own principles in some poignant situation. As civilisation became complex and peaceful, the affairs of daily life assumed greater importance; men concerned themselves with little things, and Steele found himself enabled to play on the deeper springs of thought and emotion, by describing an everyday episode. In this way, he discovered the modern “short story,” that is to say, a tale which suggests fundamental ideas or convictions. Among the problems of social life which he thus illumined with imagination or even with emotion, none lay nearer Steele’s own heart than questions of family life. To heighten and illustrate such reflections, he invented a lady editor, Jenny Distaff, Bickerstaff’s half-sister, a typical middle class girl, who, from time to time, gives her views on women’s affairs. But, as he returned again and again to this congenial theme, Jenny’s personality grew upon him till she became the heroine of his domestic sketches. When reminding his female readers that matrimony is not a flight of romance, but a resolve to stake one’s happiness on union with a partial stranger, he makes Jenny’s marriage with Tranquillus the occasion for counsels based on this view, and gives a lively description of the wedding festivities. From time to time, the young couple reappeared to illustrate the experiences of married life. We have the first inevitable passing cloud which is happily smoothed over and forgotten. Like sensible bourgeois, they learn to understand one another, and Steele gives a picture of the lady’s character maturing in wedlock. She and her husband dine with her half-brother, and she enters the room “with a decent and matronlike behaviour.” The household thrives, and the perils of prosperity are dwelt on. Jenny calls on the astrologer, and, this time, he notices “in her manner and air, something … a little below that of the women of first breeding and quality but at the same time above the simplicity and familiarity of her usual deportment.” Bickerstaff then discovers that his sister had fallen a victim to the love of display and writes to warn her husband of the folly of aiming above their station in life. Thus, besides discovering the short story, Steele might well have invented the serial domestic novel, if only the conditions of his work had permitted more continuity of application. For, in his writing, we find, for the first time, the temperament which is drawn to the pathos, and even the tragedy, of family life. He gave up one paper to a picture of perfect domestic happiness, describing it as “a complication of all the pleasures of life and a retreat from its inquietudes”; and, five weeks later, he introduces us to the same family plunged in the deepest woe as they gather round the death-bed of their mother. In these and other fugitive papers of like nature, we may notice the rise of that sentimentality which dominated the taste of the mid-eighteenth century and survives so late as Thackeray’s novels. Steele, thanks to his double character, was one of the first to find that he could combat his own wayward, bohemian nature by cultivating a tenderness for home affections. The next generation either followed his example or discovered the same secret, fleeing from the crudity of their own civilisation by exagerating the softer side of life, till lachrymose sensibility became the mark of refinement. He tells us himself how he was often driven to seek a steadying force in solemn and melancholy thoughts, and admits that he reserved certain times “to revive the old places of grief in our memory and ponder step by step on past life.” Thus, out of distant memories, Steele recalled many intimate and pathetic scenes which a less effusive writer would have shielded from public gaze. Had it occurred to him to weave such incidents as the oft-quoted description of his father’s death and of his mother’s passionate grief into the history of Jenny Distaff, the domestic novel would, in a rudimentary form, have been invented. As it was, he ended the story with a sequel in which an unexpected hamper of wine vanishes among boon companions.