Steele, Richard (1672–1729)

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STEELE, RICHARD (16721729)

STEELE, RICHARD (16721729), English essayist and dramatist. Steele's name is associated with that of Joseph Addison, with whom he collaborated. Born in poor circumstances in Dublin, Steele was brought up by his aunt and uncle, Lady Katherine Mildmay and Henry Gascoigne. His extended family were influential Protestant gentry, but little is known of his parents. At fourteen, Steele went to the Charterhouse School, where he met Addison.

In 1689 Steele went to Oxford University, where he did not take a degree but joined the second troop of Life Guards in 1692. His first publication was a poem on the death of Queen Mary II in 1694; it was dedicated to Lord Cutts, colonel of the Coldstream Guards, who rewarded him with the rank of captain and made him his secretary. Steele had a daughter with Elizabeth Tonson. He did not acknowledge the fact at first, but later brought the child up in his home. While stationed in Suffolk as commander of a garrison, he composed The Christian Hero (1701). In this reforming tract and moral manual, Steele contrasted the passion and universal heroism of Christianity with his perception of the false reasoning of Stoicism of the Roman emperors. Steele wrote his first play, The Funeral, or Grief à la Mode, the same year. A didactic satire on hypocritical undertakers and dishonest lawyers, it was praised by William III. Unfortunately, the king died before conferring any favors on Steele. Finding promotion in the army increasingly difficult to achieve without powerful connections, Steele left in 1705 to pursue success as a writer. In his second play, The Lying Lover (1702), he continued his didactic dramatic vision, portraying virtuous characters as models for audiences to emulate, as opposed to the predominantly "immoral" characters on the Restoration stage.

In 1705, Steele married Margaret Ford Stretch. Because of his theatrical success, he was well acquainted with London society and became involved in Whig politics. He was appointed gentleman waiter to Prince George of Denmark, Queen Anne's husband, in 1706. Engaging in the pamphlet war with satirical essayist Jonathan Swift, his public opponent, Steele wrote The Crisis, attacking the Tory ministry for its unenthusiastic support for a Protestant successor to the throne. In 1707, after his first wife's death, Steele married Mary Scurlock. At this time he was editor of the London Gazette, the official government periodical.

Steele's fame rests on his founding of The Tatler (17091711) and The Spectator (17111712), forerunners of modern journalism, which he wrote anonymously with Joseph Addison with the object of targeting the intellectual and political melting pots of London's coffeehouses and bookshops. The Tatler, a series of thrice-weekly papers in which Steele planned to educate "Politick Persons," was addressed predominantly to fashionable society, whereas The Spectator appealed to a wider audience. Using the idea of a club of different personalities, politics, culture, and foreign and domestic topics were explored in The Tatler. Steele used the figure of Isaac Bickerstaff, created by Jonathan Swift, to satirize the annual almanacs. Steele's fundamental purpose was moral didacticism: he wished to inculcate a practical morality in an accessible style. Swift, however, attacked Steele's loose use of syntax and the use of juxtaposition in his writing.

Published daily, The Spectator developed from The Tatler and included essays on relationships between the sexes, manners, London life, taste, and politics. The Spectator assembled a club of narrators whose personalities, eccentricities, and political viewpoints were revealed in concrete detail. Led by Mr. Spectator, the narrators included the Tory country squire Sir Roger de Coverly, and Sir Andrew Freeport, a Whig mercantilist. Steele's contribution to The Spectator is distinguished for his use of the letter form and the dialogue between either fictional personae or a writer and a reader (real or imagined). His essays on women such as "The Education of Girls" (no. 66, 16 May 1711) reveal both his sentimentalism and his open, sympathetic stance towards women's social and sexual status.

Steele's desire to be more politically outspoken against the Tory ministry produced two anti-Tory periodicals, The Guardian (with Addison's help) in 1713, and The Englishman (17131714), as well as several pamphlets and short-lived periodicals. Elected as M.P. for Stockbridge in 1713, his position in the House of Commons was disputed, and a Tory majority expelled him. Steele was granted a governorship of Drury Lane Theatre in 1714 to, as he expressed it in his pamphlet Town Talk, "Chastise the Vices of the Stage, and promote the Interests of Virtue and Innocence." In 1715, he was knighted by George I, and made a surveyor of the royal stables. Steele argued publicly with Addison in 1718 over the peerage bill, an incident that led to the revocation of the Drury Lane patent. He then began a biweekly paper called The Theater and later issued pamphlets about the South Sea Bubble. His last play, The Conscious Lovers (1722), was based on Terence's Andria; in it Steele portrayed ideals of male and female manners and began the tradition of the sentimental comedy. The play's success enabled him to settle his debts. Steele retired in ill health to his estate in Wales and died in Carmarthenshire in 1729.

See also Addison, Joseph ; English Literature and Language ; Journalism, Newspapers, and Newssheets .


Primary Sources

Steele, Richard. The Plays of Richard Steele. Edited by Shirley Strum Kenny. Oxford, 1971.

. Selections from The Tatler and The Spectator. Edited by Angus Ross. London, 1982. Reprint 1988.

. The Spectator. Edited by Donald F. Bond. 5 vols. Oxford, 1987.

. The Tatler. Edited by Donald F. Bond. 3 vols. Oxford, 1987.

Secondary Sources

Alsop, J. D. "New Light on Richard Steele." British Library Journal (1999): 2333. Examines the evidence that Steele may have had a brother.

Dammers, Richard H. Richard Steele. Boston, 1982. An introductory overview of Steele's life and work.

Winton, Calhoun. Captain Steele: The Early Career of Richard Steele. Baltimore, 1964. The standard biography, which examines Steele's life up to 1714 with generous excerpts from The Tatler and The Spectator.

. Sir Richard Steele M.P.: The Later Career. Baltimore, 1970. The sequel to the above volume.

Max Fincher