Steele, Richard

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Steele, Richard (1672-1729): English Writer.

By founding and editing The Tatler from 1709 to 1711, Richard Steele single-handedly invented the concept of the periodical essay. This new genre, with its accessible language and collective themes, was a response to a thorough change in British society and the reading public. Together with his friend Addison, Joseph, Steele provided early eighteenth-century Britain with a much-needed literary medium which addressed the cultural and moral needs of the emerging middle classes.

Born in Dublin in March 1672, Steele entered the Charterhouse in 1686, where he met Addison, and moved to Oxford three years later, leaving in 1694 to pursue a military career. His religious doubts and a duel which nearly ended in tragedy for his opponent created the ideological and emotional basis for his first important work, The Christian Hero (1701), a prose treatise in praise of William III which resounded with puritan morality. Steele achieved some success on the stage. In their emphasis on the threat posed by social customs to the innately good human nature, The Funeral (1701), The Lying Lover (1703) and The Tender Husband (1705) veered polemically away from Restoration drama. In his best and most original work, The Conscious Lovers (1722), middle-classes values and an even stronger moral tone greatly contributed to the development of the sentimental comedy.

A staunch Whig, always in pursuit of preferment and perpetually in debt, in 1707 Steele became the editor of the governmental Gazette. The Tatler was founded two years later and was mainly written by Steele, while Addison occasionally contributed to it. After The Tatler's sudden demise in 1711, Steele contributed to Addison's own The Spectator (1711-12), although in a role subordinate to his friend. Steele's later activity as writer was inextricably entangled with the politics of the age. He founded a number of short-lived journals, including The Guardian (1713), The Englishman (1713-1714), The Lover (1714) and The Reader (1714). Always a controversial pamphleteer, Steele was expelled from Parliament in March 1714, accused of writing seditious libel. In late 1714, the death of Queen Anne and the accession to the throne of George I changed Steele's fortunes and he was given a number of influential appointments. In 1715 he returned to Parliament and was awarded a knighthood. In 1719 his lifelong friendship with Addison came to an end over a political dispute and in 1724 he retired from the public scene.

The Tatler was Steele's greatest contribution to Augustan culture. Beginning on 12 April 1709, Steele's magazine was published three times a week and quickly became the most popular periodical of the age. Most of the essays were supposedly written by Isaac Bickerstaff, a fictitious, eccentric character devoted to astrology and medicine who, because of his detachment from society, possessed a unique insight into the nature of mankind. As Steele's mouthpiece, Bickerstaff had a thorough knowledge of London society and offered moral advice with persuasive authority. To Bickerstaff were progressively added new characters, the most notable of which were Jenny Distaff, Isaac's sister, and the man she would eventually marry, Tranquillus.

In its range of subject-matter, The Tatler reflected the discussions held in London coffeehouses, those public arenas which were becoming the epicentre of the capital's social life. Despite Steele's Whiggism, politics did not occupy a prominent place in his periodical. His eclecticism could accommodate the tastes of both male and female readers, and his short essays dealt with mundane events, literature, theatre, domestic policy and certain social habits, all of which appealed to a vast audience.

The conversational tone of Steele's essays reflected the growing demand for learned discussion in an informal, accessible language. Following Horace, Steele's guiding principles were entertainment and instruction, and the reformation of the manners and the morals of his readers informed all his Tatler essays. His strong denunciation of Restoration comedy, gambling and duels well exemplified the middle-class aversion for an outmoded and immoral system of values associated with certain sections of aristocracy. In contrast, in the essays dealing with Jenny, Steele has the chance to exalt the domestic and moderate joys of married life. Vices are condemned and virtues are exalted, but the moral reform urged by Steele was given a remarkable credibility by his using a comical and mildly satirical tone.

Somewhat following Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of 's dictates, The Tatler attempted to teach the age how to think in matters of both taste and morality. Furthermore, the social comedy offered by Steele's Tatler essays, their domestic situations, realistic characters and conversational language anticipated the achievement of early novelists such as Defoe, Daniel, Richardson, Samuel and Fielding, Henry.

Further Reading:

Richmond P. Bond, The Tatler. The Making of a Literary Journal, 1971.

Calhoun Winton, Captain Steele. The Early Career of Richard Steele, 1964

Calhoun Winton, Sir Richard Steele, M.P. The Later Career, 1970.

Massimiliano Demata

Universita di Bari