Enliven Morality with Wit": The Spectator
Pratt looks at a journal that influenced its age.
Addison, perhaps, will be read with pleasure, when Locke shall
be entirely forgotten."
Addison was an immensely popular and influential figure
in his day.
WAS THE OPINION of the great Scottish philosopher, historian
and man of letters, David Hume (1711-76). As it turns out Hume
was wrong, for while most of us know that the "Locke" referred
to was the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), many of us have
no idea as to the identity of "Addison". This is a pity, for
as Hume's words indicate, Joseph Addison (1672-1719) was an
immensely popular and influential figure in his day. Most of
this influence was exercised through his collaboration with
Richard Steele (1672-1729) on a daily paper called The Spectator.
The Spectator had an effect on English society and literature
quite out of proportion to its brief run of less than two years.
It appeared daily - except Sundays - for 555 issues, from 1
March 1711 to 6 December 1712, with a brief revival of 80 issues
in 1714. Each issue consisted of one long essay, printed on
a single sheet of foolscap in double columns on both sides.
This turned out to be the right format to appeal to the taste
of a relatively new affluent class with an appetite for literature,
but without the inclination to read lengthy books on the subjects
treated in The Spectator.
The Spectator was narrated by the voice of a character calling
himself "Mr. Spectator", a man who describes himself as taciturn,
a poor conversationalist who would rather observe and report
than get involved in the scenes that he relates. As Mr. Spectator
himself explains, "I have often been told by my Friends that
it is Pity so many useful Discoveries which I have made, should
be in the Possession of a Silent Man. For this Reason therefore,
I shall publish a Sheet-full of Thoughts every Morning, for
the benefit of my Contemporaries." Through him we are introduced
to his small circle of friends, each of whom is a kind of social-type
writ small. Among these are Sir Roger de Coverley, the country
squire and Tory foxhunter; Will Honeycomb, the gallant man-about-town;
Sir Andrew Freeport, merchant and man of affairs; and finally
there is Captain Sentry, the retired soldier.
What was so different about The Spectator? It was certainly
not the first paper to appear in England. It was not even the
first to appear by these two authors: in 1709 Steele had published
a paper called The Tatler, with contributions from Addison.
The Tatler consisted of pieces of news, criticism and a little
politics, with each paper being a self-contained whole. By contrast,
The Spectator would devote an entire paper or even series of
papers to a single theme or subject, treating it exhaustively.
Another quality that set The Spectator apart was its intent.
It set out not only to entertain and inform, but also to edify
and instruct morally and aesthetically. Addison and Steele's
stated goal was to "enliven Morality with Wit, and to temper
Wit with Morality."
It is difficult for people in our time to understand the appeal
of such a work. It is easy to think that moral instruction could
quickly become boring and pedantic, but in the early years of
the 18th century there was a demand for just this sort of work
- provided of course that the authors had a light touch. No
one had a lighter touch than Addison and Steele.
NIGHT AT THE OPERA
No. 81. Saturday,
June 2, 1711
ABOUT the middle of last Winter I went to see an Opera
at the Theatre in the Hay-Market, where I could not but
take notice of two Parties of very fine Women, that had
placed themselves in the opposite Side-Boxes, and seemed
drawn up in a kind of Battle-Array one against another.
After a short Survey of them, I found they were Patched
differently; the Faces, on one hand, being Spotted on
the Right Side of the Forehead, and those upon the other
on the Left. I quickly perceived that they cast Hostile
Glances upon one another; and that their Patches were
placed in those different Situations, as Party-Signals
to distinguish Friends from Foes. In the Middle-Boxes,
between these two opposite Bodies, were several Ladies
who Patched indifferently on both sides of their Faces,
and seemed to sit there with no other Intention but to
see the Opera. Upon Enquiry I found, that the Body of
Amazons on my Right Hand, were Whigs; and those on my
Left, Tories; and that those who had placed themselves
in the Middle-Boxes were a Neutral Party, whose Faces
had not yet declared themselves. These last, however,
as I afterwards found, diminished daily, and took their
Party with one Side or the other; insomuch that I observed
in several of them, the Patches which were before dispersed
equally, are now all gone over to the Whig or Tory Side
of the Face. The Censorious say. that the Patches turn
to the Right or to the Left, according to the Principles
of the Man who is most in favour. But whatever may be
the Motives of a few Fantastical Coquets, who do not Patch
for the Publick Good, so much as for their own Private
Advantage; it is certain, that there are several Women
of Honour who Patch out of Principle, and with an Eye
to the Interest of their Country. Nay, I am informed,
that some of them adhere so steadfastly to their Party,
and are so far from Sacrificing their Zeal for the Publick
to their Passion for any particular Person, that in a
late Draught of Marriage-Articles a Lady has stipulated
with her Husband, That, whatever his Opinions are, she
shall be at Liberty to patch on which side she pleases..
Addison was born in Milston, Wiltshire, England. At 14 years
of age Addison began attending the renowned Charterhouse School,
whose alumni include John Wesley and the novelist William Thackeray.
It was at Charterhouse that Addison first made the acquaintance
of Richard Steele. From there he went on to Oxford, where he
completed his M.A. in 1693.
In 1695 Addison wrote A Poem to his Majesty, William III. This
brought him to the attention of influential politicians, who
saw much potential in the young scholar. He was granted a pension
of £300, enabling him to travel on the Continent.
On his return to London Addison fell in with the Kit-Cat Club,
an association of political and literary figures whose members
included Richard Steele, playwright William Congreve, architect
Sir John Vanbrugh and future prime minister Sir Robert Walpole.
In 1708 Addison was elected to Parliament. The same year he
became the equivalent of Secretary of State for Irish Affairs.
While in Ireland he began contributing to Steele's paper The
Tatler. The last Tatler appeared on 2 January 1711, by which
time Addison had authored 40 of 271 issues. Two months later
he and Steele launched The Spectator. Addison continued to write
essays, poetry and an acclaimed tragic play, Cato.
After marrying well, to the dowager Countess of Warwick, Addison
died on 17 June 1719 at 48 years of age. He is interred in Westminster
Richard Steele (later Sir Richard) was born in Dublin, Ireland.
His father, an attorney, died when he was five. His uncle paid
for his education, sending him to Charterhouse in 1684. From
there he went to Oxford, but left without taking a degree to
pursue a career in the army. He attained the rank of captain
before leaving the army in 1705.
Steele had begun to write while he was still in the army. In
1701 he penned a spiritual work called The Christian Hero. He
then wrote an immensely popular play, The Conscious Lovers.
Over the course of his career he wrote several plays, periodicals
and political pamphlets.
Steele's personality could best be described as that of a "Good
Time Charlie". He was convivial, generous to a fault, and a
lover of food and drink. His dissolute lifestyle led him into
debt on more than one occasion. Partly for this reason he married
a wealthy widow named Margaret Stretch in 1705. In 1714 Steele
was named Governor of the Drury Lane Theatre, and was knighted
the following year.
Steele's health deteriorated as a result of his intemperate
habits. He died on 1 September 1729, aged 58 years.
advent of the 1700s saw a rebirth of literary culture in England
after a perceived slump during the previous century. During
the 1600s, English letters seemed to have taken a bad turn.
The English Civil War (1642-49) was followed by the closing
of the playhouses during the Puritan period. The settling of
events with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 did not
seem to improve things. A tendency towards crude behavior and
dissoluteness seemed to pass from Charles II's court into English
public life generally. However, by the end of the 1600s things
began to look up, and especially later during the reign of Queen
Anne (1702-14). The English saw themselves as experiencing a
cultural flowering comparable to Rome's Golden Age during the
reign of the Emperor Augustus. Thus, this period was dubbed
England's "Augustan Age". It was in this context that Alexander
Pope dared to compare Addison to the Roman poet Virgil in the
lines: "Then future ages with delight shall see / How Plato's,
Bacon's, Newton's looks agree; / Or in fair series laurell'd
Bards be shown, / A Virgil there, and here an Addison."
Street": The Expansion of Publishing and Readership
was fine to say that England was experiencing a literary golden
age, but only a privileged few had the education or leisure
to participate in this high Augustan culture. All this enlightenment
had yet to reach the common people. This role was filled admirably
by The Spectator. Part of its success in this lay in the fact
that the common people wanted to be enlightened.
The expansion of England's economy resulted in an increasingly
affluent but non-aristocratic middle class. This class seemed
to have a voracious appetite for reading material. In previous
centuries those who could read tended do so intensively; in
other words they read only a few works (mainly religious ones)
repeatedly. During the 1700s people began to read extensively,
reading many different works. In France, where new books needed
to be licensed, there were some 300 legally authorized books
published in 1750. By the 1780s that number had jumped to
around 1,600. Britain had about 25 periodicals being published
in 1700. By 1780 there were 158.
For the first time it was possible for writers to make a living
solely from their quills, without having to rely on a wealthy
patron for support. The quality of the work that this new
army of writers produced varied from high poetry to low pornography.
Many writers were literary hacks, grubbing for a living, and
thus they labored under the pejorative new collective term
"Grub Street". The term had connotations comparable to today's
Politics of Whig versus Tory
Political labels were as misleading in the early 1700s as
they are today. However, broadly speaking, there were two
political allegiances in England during the brief run of The
Spectator. The archetypical Tory was someone whose wealth
was in land, who was a supporter of the High Anglican Church,
a believer in firm government and a strong monarchy. Their
base of support was usually in the country. The Tories mainly
had the upper hand in politics until 1714, which marked the
beginning of the Whig ascendancy.
The Whigs were more mercantile, free-market liberals who distrusted
meddling by the government in private affairs. They were supporters
of the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 that removed
James II from the throne in favor of his daughter Mary and
her husband William of Orange.
To understand the role that The Spectator played in these
affairs, it must be understood that Tories tended to look
down on Whigs as crass, unmannered and unlettered. In this
atmosphere it was natural for Whigs to want to prove that
they too were educated, cultured and fit material for government.
Two works in particular served as guidebooks in the process
of forming the Whigs as a cultured party. They were Lord Shaftesbury's
1711 Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, and
of course The Spectator. The Spectator was not overtly political,
but part of its success was rooted in its natural appeal to
the growing power and influence of the Whigs.
Spectator and "The Fair Sex"
Spectator debuted to an eager public on 1 March 1711.
The Spectator was one of the first literary endeavors to make
a deliberate effort to appeal to a female readership. As Addison
remarked in the issue of 12 March 1711, "there are none to whom
this Paper will be more useful, than to the Female World. I
have often thought there has not been sufficient Pains taken
in finding out proper Employments and Diversions for the Fair
ones." It was part of The Spectator's mission to remedy this
neglect. In his 1779 Life of Addison, Dr. Samuel Johnson noted
that "that general knowledge which now circulates in common
talk was in [Addison's] day rarely to be found. and in the female
world any acquaintance with books was distinguished only to
be censured." Whole papers of The Spectator were devoted to
reading recommendations for women or advice on proper comportment.
There were also lampoons on the extravagance of women's fashion,
including a hilarious satire on the elaborate and absurd etiquette
of women's fans (27 June 1711), and another on the proliferation
of facial beauty marks (2 June 1711).
Much of this attention to women took the form of a paternalistic
moralism that would be little appreciated today. Nonetheless,
the women of 1711 were flattered simply to be noticed by a literary
culture that had hitherto been content to completely ignore
them or treat them as mere objects of male desire.
of the "Spectator Style"
On 12 March 1711, Joseph Addison wrote in The Spectator: "It
is with much Satisfaction that I hear this great City inquiring
Day by Day after these my Papers, and receiving my Morning
Lectures with a becoming Seriousness and Attention. My Publisher
tells me, that there are already Three thousand of them distributed
every Day: So that if I allow Twenty Readers to every Paper.
I may reckon about Threescore thousand Disciples in London
and Westminster, who I hope will take care to distinguish
themselves from the thoughtless Herd of their ignorant and
Twenty readers to each paper is easy to believe if one realizes
that much of this reading took place in one of the many coffeehouses
that were all the rage in London, where the papers were complimentary
to patrons. At its height, circulation reached 14,000 copies
Credit for The Spectator's popularity must also go to the
beautiful prose of Addison and Steele. Gentle wit and a polished
style made even the difficult ideas of Locke and Newton accessible
to a reader of average education. Benjamin Franklin (1706-90)
admitted in his Autobiography that The Spectator was his model
for stylish writing.
The Spectator was a major agent in the spread of Enlightenment
ideas. Historian Isser Woloch points out that as the Enlightenment
spread across Europe towards the East, "the first rays of
literary culture to penetrate were usually in the form of
Spectator-like periodicals." The same applied in the westward
direction: Benjamin Franklin reprinted several essays from
The Spectator in the American colonies, even though by then
they were at least 50 years old. The standard for English
prose style was set by Addison and Steele. This is all the
more reason why it is such a shame that The Spectator is now
generally unread. We ought to envy an age that could boast
a "lifestyle magazine" of such quality.
article originally appeared in our October/November