Sir Richard Steele

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Steele, Sir Richard, essayist and dramatist, the son of a lawyer who was private secretary to the Duke of Ormond, was born in Dublin early in 1671. He lost his father when still a child, and at twelve years of age, through the influence of the Duke, was admitted into the Charter-house School, London. There he formed an intimacy with Addison, who was one year his junior. In 1689 he matriculated at Oxford; but left without taking his degree. He had a passion for military life, and greatly to the dismay of his friends, entered the army as a private. As he afterwards expressed it, he thereby "lost the succession to a very good estate in the County of Wexford, in Ireland, from the same humour, which he has preserved ever since, of preferring the state of his mind to that of his fortune." His talents and social qualities were not long in procuring him a commission — first as ensign, then as captain. He was also appointed secretary to Lord Cutts, his commanding officer.

In 1701 he astonished his gay companions by the publication of a little book, The Christian Hero, designed to prove that "no principles but those of religion are sufficient to make a great man." The contrast between its precepts and the author's free-and-easy life was too great to escape general notice, and he was subjected to much raillery by his companions. In the following year he published his first comedy, The Funeral, and soon afterwards The Tender Husband. It has been remarked that "they were the first that were written expressly with a view, not to imitate the manners, but to reform the morals of the age.. Nothing can be better meant or more inefficient. It is almost a misnomer to call them comedies; they are rather homilies in dialogue." On the advent to power of his friends, the Whigs, in Queen Anne's reign, he was appointed (May 1707), chiefly through Addison's influence, editor of the Gazette, and one of the gentlemen ushers of the Prince Consort.

Scarcely anything is known concerning his first wife, who died a few months after their marriage. His profusion and generosity dissipated her fortune, and his income of £300 a year as Gazetteer was soon heavily forestalled. On the 7th September 1707 he married his second wife, Miss Scurlock, of Llangunnor, in Caermarthenshire, a lady of great personal attractions, and possessed of an estate of about £400 a year. Steele continued devotedly attached to her through life. The most characteristic portions of his memoirs are the hundreds of short notes she received from him, which generally commence "Dear Prue," and abound with tender expressions on the most trivial occasions. He wrote constantly of their children. Mr. Forster says: "He writes to her on the way to the Kit-Kat, in waiting on my Lord Wharton or the Duke of Newcastle. He coaxes her to dress well for the dinner to which he has invited the Mayor of Stockbridge, Lord Halifax, and Mr. Addison. He writes to her in the brief momentous interval [to be afterwards referred to] when, having made his defence in the House of Commons, he was waiting for the final judgment which Addison was to convey to him. He writes to her when he has the honour of being received at dinner by Lord Somers; and he writes to her from among the 'dancing, singing, hooping, hallooing, and drinking' of one of his elections for Boroughbridge. He sends a special despatch to her for no other purpose than to tell her she has nothing to do but be a darling. He sends her as many as a dozen letters in the course of his journey to Edinburgh; and when, on his return, illness keeps them apart, one in London, the other at Hampton Court, her happening to call him 'Good Dick,' puts him in so much rapture, that he tells her he could almost forget his miserable gout and lameness, and walk down to her."

Mrs. Steele was often sorely tried by his irregularities, extravagance, and convivial habits; and although considered by some of his friends stiff and prudish, she was acknowledged by all to be good-hearted, forbearing, and true. She even took to her home and heart Steele's illegitimate daughter, of whose existence, prior to her marriage, she had been ignorant. The Steeles commenced life in much style, with a town and country house, a chariot and pair, riding-horses, and a large establishment of servants. These expenses necessitated a loan of £1,000 from Addison, the non-payment of which eventually led to a breach between the friends. On 12th April 1709, Steele commenced the publication of the Tatler, the first of that series of periodicals with which his name is imperishably united. His biographer says: "They formed a new era, and added an additional department to the national literature, which has commonly been designated by the title of the British Classics or Essayists. They produced such important effects for good in their own age, have had such a beneficial influence in giving a tone to the tastes and manners of successive generations since, have afforded mingled delight and instruction to such multitudes of readers, .. and have left such an impress upon our language and literature, that it is difficult to speak justly of their various claims without appearing to exaggerate."

The Tatler, price one penny per number, appeared thrice a week. Like the Spectator and other periodicals of which it was the forerunner, each number was a small folio leaf containing about 2,500 words, and generally comprising but one article or essay. Steele commenced the paper on the strength of his own resources; but he had proceeded only as far as the seventeenth number when Addison came to his aid. After publishing 271 numbers, extending over twenty-one months, he brought the Tatler to a close in the very height of its reputation, and to the great regret of his readers. "If less regular in its plan, and less elaborate in a literary point of view than its immediate or more celebrated successor, the Spectator, it has certainly at least a spirit more fresh and racy, if less dignified and elaborate." Before the Tatler came to an end, he was appointed Commissioner of Stamps. He lost the position of Gazetteer, in consequence of some papers in which it was supposed he showed hostility to the Tory ministry.

Swift accounted for his giving up the paper by saying that "he was so lazy and weary of the work." On 1st March 1711, the Spectator made its appearance. Steele was the responsible writer and conductor of the paper. Of the thirty numbers which contain the account of "Sir Roger de Coverly," Addison wrote about twenty, and Steele the rest. The Spectator comprised altogether 635 papers, of which 274 are attributed to Addison, and about 238 to Steele. The original series was brought to a close in December 1712. In March 1713, Steele commenced the Guardian. His biographer says: "We cannot regret the dropping of the different papers, and resuming his labours under a new title. It has contributed greatly to their variety, and each successive effort stimulated his invention to fresh sketches of character and clubs, and developed in new social combinations his wonderful knowledge of human nature and of life." The aim of the Guardian was narrower than that of its predecessor. In its publication he was aided by Addison, Berkeley, Gay, Ambrose Philips, Tickell, Rowe, and other eminent literary men. It was brought to a conclusion on the 1st October 1713, after an issue of 175 numbers. Steele's papers number eighty-two, Addison's fifty-one.

On the 4th of June 1713, having, as he expressed it, "an ambition to serve in the ensuing Parliament," he resigned his commissionership of stamps, and in August was elected member for Stockbridge. The political fever with which he was seized displayed itself in the commencement of the Englishman a few days after the termination of the Guardian. It lived through seventy-two numbers, to 15th February 1714. When Parliament met in March, a complaint was made that some paragraphs in the Englishman of the previous January reflected upon the Queen's government. On the 18th Steele was arraigned at the bar of the House, and defended himself in an able and temperate speech of about three hours' duration. On a division it was resolved, by 245 votes to 152, "That Richard Steele, Esq., for his offence in writing and publishing the said scandalous and seditious libels, be expelled this house." Hallam observes: "This was perhaps the first instance wherein the House of Commons so identified itself with the executive administration, independently of the sovereign's person, as to consider itself libelled by those who impugned its measures." In addition to An Apology for himself and his writings, Steele about this time gave to the world a volume of Poetic Miscellanies, and a collection of poetry in three volumes, entitled the Ladies' Library. He also engaged in publishing the Lover, the Reader, and similar small periodicals. On the accession of George I., Steele, recommended to his notice as a zealous friend of his house, was appointed Surveyor of the Royal Stables at Hampton Court, and Governor of the Royal Company of Comedians, deriving from the latter appointment alone, some £1,000 a year. He was also made a Deputy-Lieutenant, and received the honorary degree of LL.D.

In February 1715 he re-entered Parliament for Borough bridge, in Yorkshire, and was shortly afterwards knighted. After the suppression of the rising of 1715, he was appointed one of the Commissioners of forfeited estates in Scotland. In 1718 he entered upon an unfortunate speculation — the "fish-pool" — a project by which he hoped to bring fish alive to London, from remote parts of Ireland and Scotland, salmon then selling in London at 5s. per lb. In the same year he lost his wife. Her remains were interred in Westminster Abbey. In 1719 Steele was for a time deprived of most of his offices, because of his determined opposition to the Peerage Bill — a Government measure. In 1720 he wrote strongly against the South Sea scheme; but his judgment in his own affairs was not sound enough to keep him clear of debt and difficulty, the consequences of extravagance. In 1724, broken down in health, he retired to Llangunnor, in Wales, an estate that had belonged to his wife. An adverse decision in a lawsuit was followed by an attack of paralysis. He abandoned literary pursuits, and lingered on, enjoying a quiet country life, until 1st September 1729, when he died, aged 58. He was buried by his own desire in the chancel of St. Peter's Church, Carmaerthen.

The Encyclopaedia Britannica sums up his character in the following terms: "Sir Richard was a man of undissembled and extensive benevolence, a friend to the friendless, and, as far as his circumstances would permit, the father of every orphan. His works are chaste and manly. He was a stranger to the most distant appearance of envy or malevolence, never jealous of any man's growing reputation, and so far from arrogating any praise to himself from his conjunction with Addison, that he was the first who desired him to distinguish his papers. His great fault was want of economy; and it has been said of him he was certainly the most agreeable and the most innocent rake that ever trod the rounds of dissipation." Thackeray, in his Lectures on the English Humourists, thus concludes his remarks on Steele: " We are living in the 19th century, and poor Dick Steele stumbled and got up again; and got into jail and out again; and sinned and repented; and loved and suffered; and lived and died, scores of years ago. Peace be with him! Let us think gently of one who was so gentle; let us speak kindly of one whose own breast exuberated with human kindness.... The great charm of Steele's writing is its naturalness. He wrote so quickly and carelessly, that he was forced to make the reader his confidant, and had not the time to deceive him. He had a small share of book learning, but a vast acquaintance with the world... Women especially are bound to be grateful to Steele, as he was the first of our writers who really seemed to admire and respect them." There are several references to Steele in Notes and Queries.

Sources

16. Authors, Dictionary of British and American: S. Austin Allibone. 3 vols. Philadelphia, 1859-'71.

33. Biographical Essays: John Forster. London, 1860.

48. British Essayists: Edited by A. Chalmers. London, 1823.

124. Encyclopaedia Britannica. London, 1860.

167. Humourists of the Eighteenth Century: William M. Thackeray. London, 1853.

316. Steele, Sir Richard, and Notices of his Contemporaries: Henry R. Montgomery. 2 vols. Edinburgh, 1865.

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