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THE SIR ROGER DE COVERLEY PAPERS.
In The Tatler the separate papers bore slight relation to one another; and the work as a whole possessed little continuity of interest beyond that derived from the humorous personality of the fictitious author, Isaac Bickerstaff; but the plan of The Spectator included an attempt to give unity to its daily miscellaneous essays by the introduction of a number of characters who were to appear from time to time throughout, and whose sayings and doings were to afford material for many of the reflections of the central figure, the observant and taciturn Spectator himself. For this purpose the writer conceived an “imaginary society,” or club.
The early part of the eighteenth century has been called the “era of clubs,” so important had these “little nocturnal assemblies” become in the life of the time. They had grown up everywhere about the metropolis, after the Restoration, in connection with the taverns and newly established coffeehouses; and while many of them were “founded on eating and drinking,”1 and were merely convivial in character, others sought a bond of association in some more special community of tastes and interests. “When a set of men,” wrote the Spectator, “find themselves agree in any particular, though never so trivial, they establish themselves into a kind of fraternity, and meet once or twice a week, upon the account of such a fantastic resemblance." 2 The absurd results of this gregarious spirit are sufficiently illustrated by the names of some of the whimsical clubs of the time — the No-Nose Club, for example, the Surly Club, the Lying Club, the Club of Ugly Faces. But such organizations were occasionally inspired by far more serious aims, and like the October, the Brothers', the Scriblerus, and best known of all — the Kit-Cat-Clubs, numbered among their members some of the most distinguished men of the day, and exercised enormous influence in politics and literature.
1 Spectator, No. 9.
2 lbid. The authorship of this amusing paper is uncertain. Cf. Spectator, Nos. 30, 72, 372.
Considering the large place that clubs then occupied in London social life, it was natural that Addison and Steele, seeking some unifying principle for their new series of essays, should choose an imaginary club as furnishing the machinery best adapted to their purpose. The Spectator Club, small and select as it is, was designed to be widely representative in its composition. Sir Roger de Coverley stands for the country gentry and Toryism; Sir Andrew Freeport for the commercial interest and Whiggism; the Templar, the Clergyman, and Captain Sentry, for the law, the church, and the army; and Will Honeycomb for fashion and society. In each case, too, the types selected were treated sympathetically, and on their best sides; while in the friendly relations shown to exist among them in the intimacy of the club, a world torn by fierce party strife received a practical object lesson in tolerance and good-breeding.
If we may judge from the way in which the plan of the periodical was laid out at the start, it was the intention of the authors to make all the above characters coöperate actively in the progress of the work. If so, they must soon have found it necessary or desirable to modify their design. The club constitutes a kind of background to the Spectator, and from time to time furnishes him with themes and suggestions. But he alone is responsible for the conduct of the paper; and many of his essays have little or nothing to do with his fraternal associations and experiences. Moreover, of the members presented to us in the introductory description, with one conspicuous exception, far less use is made than we are there led to anticipate. The lawyer and the clergyman remain faint and unsubstantial figures throughout; Captain Sentry and Sir Andrew Freeport emerge rarely into clear light; and even the character of Will Honeycomb, though most humorously handled, is left rather a sketch than a finished portrait. The one exception is, of course, Sir Roger de Coverley himself. It is evident that Steele and Addison early grew enamoured of this good, generous, patriotic, prejudiced, whimsical old knight, and we do not wonder that their readers soon came to share their affection for him. He appears to have absorbed unto himself the dramatic interest of both writers, with the result that the other personages of the club, beside him, seem shadowy and unreal.
1 Much time and effort have been spent in the attempt to discover the originals of these and other characters in The Spectator. Sir Roger, for instance, has been identified with Sir John Pakington, a Tory knight of Worcester; the “perverse, beautiful widow," with a certain Mrs. Catharine Bovey; Captain Sentry with Colonel Magnus Camperfeld, or Kempenfeldt; and Will Honeycomb with Pope's friend, Cleland. But these are conjectures at best. In one case only can we be sure of the painter's model — that of the Spectator himself, who, as we have said, is evidently studied from Addison (see Spectator, Nos. I and 12).
2 See No. 1, closing paragraph.
Of the relations of Steele and Addison in the conception of the club and the development of the characters it is not possible to speak with any degree of certainty. It is, however, probable that Steele, here as elsewhere, was the originator, and that the genius of Addison found its opportunity in following out the line of his colleague's initiative, and enlarging and improving upon his plans. It will be observed that while Addison furnishes the introductory description of the shy and silent “looker-on” at human affairs, Steele gives us the first sketch of the Spectator's companions, including Sir Roger himself, whose traits are drawn by him rapidly, but with a firm and free hand. Several of the most delightful of the late Coverley papers are Steele's composition; yet it is to the more subtle art of Addison, after all, that we are largely indebted for the highly wrought and delicately shaded character of the
Tory knight. “If one runs over one's recollections of the worthy knight,” Mr. Austin Dobson rightly says, “it is generally Addison's pictures of him that one first recalls. Sir Roger being rowed to Spring Garden by the one-legged waterman who had fought at La Hogue; Sir Roger going to see the Distrest Mother with an escort for fear of the Mohocks; Sir Roger inspecting the transformation of his portrait into the sign of the Saracen's Head; Sir Roger in church, at the assizes, at Westminster Abbey, with the gipsies, and lastly, in that admirable letter from Mr. Biscuit, the butler, which describes his death — all these bear the signet and signmanual of Addison. But
it must be admitted that some of the contributions of Steele to this subject are only inferior when compared with the best of Addison's. There is excellent doctrine in the paper on Sir Roger's servants, and a charming love scene in that depicting the huntsman's wooing. That, too, in which Sir Roger shows Mr. Spectator his family portraits is full of fine insight and discrimination. The Tiltyard champion who carries away his adversary on the pommel of his saddle and sets him down before his mistress's gallery with laudable courtesy and pardonable insolence;' the maid of honour, his wife, who afterwards had ten children, and, despite a court education, excelled at a hasty-pudding and a white-pot; the prodigal who left the estate with ten thousand pounds debt upon it, but was 'every way the finest gentleman in the world,' and who is drawn with one hand on a desk, 'looking as it were another way, like an easy writer or a sonnetteer ;' the prudent economist and knight of the shire who would have been killed in the civil wars had he not been sent out of the field upon a private message the day before the battle of Worcester' — it is scarcely possible to suppose, that even under Addison's more restrained and accomplished handling, these could have been greatly bettered. But the best of Steele's contributions to the Coverley series is the description of Sir Roger's unhappy attachment to the perverse
widow";1 and in the whole series, it may be added, there is nothing more kindly and thoroughly human than this.
THE TATLER AND THE SPECTATOR.:
The essays here gathered together under the title of the Sir Roger de Coverley Papers were published in The Spectator at irregular intervals between March, 1711, and November, 1712.
Before we begin our study of them, we should know something of The Spectator itself; its origin, character, and influence. But since The Spectator was an outgrowth from an earlier periodical, called The Tatler, it is of this Tatler that we must first speak.
The initial number of The Tatler was published on April 12, 1709, by Richard Steele, under the pseudonym of Isaac Bickerstaff. By way of advertisement, this and the three following issues were distributed gratuitously; a fact which shows that, at the outset, the paper was regarded, even by its ever-sanguine parent, as an experiment; but success was soon assured. The Tatler flourished, and became an important element not only in the social life of the time, but also in English literary history. For with this poorly printed, double-columned, folio sheet, published thereafter thrice a week at the price of one penny, Steele definitely established the periodical essay of the eighteenth century.
The Tatler started mainly as a “letter of intelligence,” or, as we should now say, a newspaper. The position of gazetteer, which its projector then held, made him the only authorized dispenser of government news, and gave him a rare opportunity of following the development of events at home
i Richard Steele (in English Worthies), pp. 136-7.