You have heard a little about Dick Steele in connection with Joseph Addison. Steele is always overshadowed by his great friend, for whom he had such a generous admiration that he was glad to be so overshadowed. But in this chapter I mean to tell you a little more about him.
He was born, you know, in Dublin in 1671, and early lost his father. About this he tells us himself in one of the Tatlers:
"The first sense of sorrow I ever knew was upon the death of my father, at which time I was not quite five years of age, but was rather amazed at what all the house meant, than possessed with a real understanding, why nobody was willing to play with me. I remember I went into the room where his body lay, and my mother sat weeping alone by it. I had my battledore in my hand, and fell abeating the coffin, and calling 'Papa,' for, I know not how, I had some light idea that he was locked up there. My mother catched me in her arms, and, transported beyond all patience of the silent grief she was before in, she almost smothered me in her embrace, and told me, in a flood of tears, Papa could not hear me, and would play with me no more, for they were going to put him under ground, whence he could never come to us again."
Steele's sad, beautiful mother died soon after her husband, and little Dick was left more lonely than ever. His uncle took charge of him, and sent him to Charterhouse, where he met Addison. From there he went to Oxford, but left without taking a degree. "A drum passing by," he says, "being a lover of music, I listed myself for a soldier." "He mounted a war horse, with a great sword in his hand, and planted himself behind King William the Third against Lewis the Fourteenth." But he says when he cocked his hat, and put on a broad sword, jack boots, and shoulder belt, he did not know his own powers as a writer, he did not know then that he should ever be able to "demolish a fortified town with a goosequill." So Steele became a "wretched common trooper," or, to put it more politely, a gentleman volunteer. But he was not long in becoming an ensign, and about five years later he got his commission as captain.
In those days the life of a soldier was wild and rough. Drinking and swearing were perhaps the least among the follies and wickedness they were given to, and Dick Steele was as ready as any other to join in all the wildness going. But in spite of his faults and failings his heart was kind and tender. He had no love of wickedness though he could not resist temptation. So the dashing soldier astonished his companions by publishing a little book called the Christian Hero. It was a little book written to show that no man could be truly great who was not religious. He wrote it at odd minutes when his day's work was over, when his mind had time "in the silent watch of the night to run over the busy dream of the day." He wrote it at first for his own use, "to make him ashamed of understanding and seeming to feel what was virtuous and yet living so quite contrary a life." Afterwards he resolved to publish it for the good of others.
But among Steele's gay companions the book had little effect except to make them laugh at him and draw comparisons between the lightness of his words and actions, and the seriousness of the ideas set forth in his Christian Hero. He found himself slighted instead of encouraged, and "from being thought no undelightful companion, was soon reckoned a disagreeable fellow." So he took to writing plays, for "nothing can make the town so fond of a man as a successful play."
The plays of the Restoration had been very coarse. Those of Steele show the beginning of a taste for better things, "Tho' full of incidents that move laughter, virtue and vice appear just as they ought to do," he says of his first comedy. But although we may still find Steele's plays rather amusing, it is not as a dramatist that we remember him, but as an essayist.
Steele led a happy-go-lucky life, nearly always cheerful and in debt. His plays brought him in some money, he received a Government appointment which brought him more, and when he was about thirty-three he married a rich widow. Still he was always in debt, always in want of money.
In about a year Steele's wife died, and he was shortly married to another well-off lady. About this time he left the army, it is thought, although we do not know quite surely, and for long afterwards he was called Captain Steele.
Steele wrote a great many letters to his second wife, both before and after his marriage. She kept them all, and from them we can learn a good deal of this warm-hearted, week-willed, harum-scarum husband. She is "Dearest Creature," "Dear Wife," "Dear Prue" (her name, by the way, was Mary), and sometimes "Ruler," "Absolute Governess," and he "Your devoted obedient Husband," "Your faithful, tender Husband." Many of the letters are about money troubles. We gather from them that Dick Steele loved his wife, but as he was a gay and careless spendthrift and she was a proud beauty, a "scornful lady," for neither of them was life always easy.
It was about two years after this second marriage that Steele suddenly began the Tatler. He did not write under his own name, but under that of Isaac Bickerstaff, a name which Swift had made use of in writing one of his satires. As has been said, the genius of Steele has been overshadowed by that of Addison, for Steele had such a whole-hearted admiration for his friend that he was ready to give him all the praise. And yet it is nearly always to Steele that we owe the ideas which were later worked out and perfected by Addison.
It is Steele, too, that we owe the first pictures of English family life. It has been said that he "was the first of our writers who really seemed to admire and respect women," and if we add "after the Restoration" we come very near the truth. Steele had a tender heart towards children too, and in more than one paper his love of them shows itself. Indeed, as we read we cannot help believing that in real life Captain Dick had many child-friends. Here is how he tells of a visit to a friend's house:—
"I am, as it were, at home at that house, and every member of it knows me for their well-wisher. I cannot indeed express the pleasure it is, to be met by the children with so much joy as I am when I go thither. The boys and girls strive who shall come first, when they think it is I that am knocking at the door. And that child which loses the race to me, runs back again to tell the father it is Mr. Bickerstaff.
"This day I was led in by a pretty girl, that we all thought must have forgot me, for the family has been out of town these two years. Her knowing me again was a mighty subject with us, and took up our discourse at the first entrance. After which they began to rally me upon a thousand little stories they heard in the country about my marriage to one of my neighbor's daughters. Upon which the gentleman, my friend, said 'Nay, if Mr. Bickerstaff marries a child of any of his old companions, I hope mine shall have the preference. There's Mistress Mary is now sixteen, and would make him as fine a widow as the best of them.' "
After dinner the mother and children leave the two friends together. The father speaks of his love for his wife, and his fears for her health.
" 'Ah, you little understand, you that have lived a bachelor, how great a pleasure there is in being really beloved. Her face is to me more beautiful than when I first saw it. In her examination of her household affairs she shows a certain fearfulness to find a fault, which makes her servants obey her like children, and the meanest we have has an ingenuous shame for an offence, not always to be seen in children in other families. I speak freely to you, my old friend. Ever since her sickness, things that gave me the quickest joy before, turn now to a certain anxiety. As the children play in the next room, I know the poor things by their steps, and am considering what they must do, should they lose their mother in their tender years. The pleasure I used to take in telling my boy stories of the battles, and asking my girl questions about the disposal of her baby, and the gossiping of it, is turned into inward reflection and melancholy.' The poor gentleman would have gone on much longer with his sad forebodings, but his wife returning, and seeing by his grave face what he had been talking about, said, with a smile, 'Mr. Bickerstaff, don't believe a word of what he tells you. I shall still live to have you for my second, as I have often promised you, unless he takes more care of himself than he has done since his coming to town. You must know, he tells me, that he finds London is a much more healthy place than the country, for he sees several of his old acquaintance and school-fellows are here, young fellows with fair, full-bottomed periwigs. I could scarce keep him this morning from going out open-breasted.' " And so they sat and chatted pleasantly until, "on a sudden, we were alarmed with the noise of a drum, and immediately entered my little godson to give me a point of war. His mother, between laughing and chiding, would have put him out of the room, but I would not part with him so. I found, upon conversation with him, though he was a little noisy in his mirth, that the child had excellent parts, and was a great master of all the learning on the other side of eight years old. I perceived him to be a very great historian in Aesop's Fables; but he frankly declared to me his mind, that he did not delight in that learning, because he did not believe they were true. For which reason I found he had very much turned his studies, for about a twelve-month past, into the lives and adventures of Don Bellianis of Greece, Guy of Warwick, the Seven Champions, and other historians of that age.
"I could not but observe the satisfaction the father took in the forwardness of his son, and that these diversions might turn to some profit, I found the boy had made remarks which might be of service to him during the course of his whole life. He would tell you the mismanagements of John Hickathrift, find fault with the passionate temper of Bevis of Southampton, and loved St. George for being the champion of England; and by this means had his thoughts insensibly moulded into the notions of discretion, virtue, and honour.
"I was extolling his accomplishments, when the mother told me that the little girl who led me in this morning was, in her way, a better scholar than he. 'Betty,' says she, 'deals chiefly in fairies and sprites, and sometimes, in a winter night, will terrify the maids with her accounts, till they are afraid to go up to bed.'
"I sat with them till it was very late, sometimes in merry, sometimes in serious discourse, with this particular pleasure which gives the only true relish to all conversation, a sense that every one of us liked each other. I went home considering the different conditions of a married life and that of a bachelor. And I must confess it struck me with a secret concern to reflect that, whenever I go off, I shall leave no traces behind me. In this pensive mood I returned to my family, that is to say, to my maid, my dog, and my cat, who only can be the better or worse for what happens to me."
You will be sorry to know that, a few Tatlers further on, the kind mother of this happy family dies. But Steele was himself so much touched by the thought of all the misery he was bringing upon the others by giving such a sad ending to his story, that he could not go on with the paper, and Addison had to finish it for him.
The Spectator, you know, succeeded the Tatler, and it was while writing for the Spectator that Steele took seriously to politics. He became a member of Parliament and wrote hot political articles. He and Swift crossed swords more than once, and from being friends became enemies. But Steele's temper was too hot, his pen too hasty. The Tories were in power, and he was a Whig, and he presently found himself expelled from the House of Commons for "uttering seditious libels." Shut out from politics, Steele turned once more to essay-writing, and published, one after the other, several papers of the same style as the Spectator, but none of them lived long.
Better days, however, were coming. Queen Anne died, and King George became a king in 1714, the Whigs returned to power, Steele again received a Government post, again he sat in Parliament, and a few months later he was knighted, and became Sir Richard Steele. We cannot follow him through all his projects, adventures, and writings. He was made one of the commissioners for the forfeited estates of the Scottish lords who had taken part in the '15, and upon this business he went several times to Scotland. The first time he went was in the autumn of 1717. But before that Lady Steele had gone to Wales to look after her estates there. While she was there Dick wrote many letters to her, some of which are full of tenderness for his children. They show us something too of the happy-go-lucky household in the absence of the careful mistress. In one he says:—
"Your son at the present writing is mighty well employed in tumbling on the floor of the room, and sweeping the sand with a feather. He grows a most delightful child, and very full of play and spirit. He is also a very great scholar. He can read his primer, and I have brought down my Virgil. He makes most shrewd remarks about the pictures. We are very intimate friends and play-fellows. He begins to be very ragged, and I hope I shall be pardoned if I equip him with new clothes and frocks." Or again:—"The brats, my girls, stand on each side of the table, and Molly says what I am writing now is about her new coat. Bess is with me till she has new clothes. Miss Moll has taken upon her to hold the sand-box, and is so impertinent in her office that I cannot write more. But you are to take this letter as from your three best friends, Bess, Moll, and their Father.
"Moll bids me let you know that she fell down just now and did not hurt herself."
Soon after this Steele set out for Scotland, and although the business which brought him could not have been welcome to many a Scottish gentleman, he himself was well received. They forgot the Whig official in the famous writer. In Edinburgh he was feasted and fêted. "You cannot imagine," wrote Steele, "the civilities and honours I had done me there. I never lay better, ate or drank better, or conversed with men of better sense than there." Poets and authors greeted him in verse, he was "Kind Richy Spec, the friend to a' distressed," "Dear Spec," and many stories are told of his doings among these new-found friends. He paid several later visits to Scotland, but about a year after his return from this first short visit Steele had a great sorrow. His wife died. "This is to let you know," he writes to a cousin, "that my dear and honoured wife departed this life last night."
And now that his children were motherless, Steele, when he was away from them, wrote to them, always tender, often funny, letters. It is Betty, the eldest, he addresses, she is "Dear Child," "My dear Daughter," "My good Girlie." He bids them be good and grow like their mother. "I have observed that your sister," he says in one letter, "has for the first time written the initial or first letters of her name. Tell her I am highly delighted to see her subscription in such fair letters. And how many fine things those two letters stand for when she writes them. M. S. is Milk and Sugar, Mirth and Safety, Music and Songs, Meat and Sauce, as well as Molly and Spot, and Mary and Steele." I think the children must have loved their kind father who wrote such pretty nonsense to them.
So with ups and downs the years passed. However much money Steele got he never seemed to have any, and in spite of all his carelessness and jovialness, there is something sad in those last years of his life. He quarreled with, and then for ever lost his life-long friend, Joseph Addison. His two sons died, and at length, broken in health, troubled about money, he went to spend his last days in Carmarthen in Wales. Here we have a last pleasant picture of him being carried out on a summer's evening to watch the country lads and lasses dance. And with his own hand, paralyzed though it was, he would write an order for a new gown to be given to the best dancer. And here in Carmarthen, in 1729, he died and was buried in the Church of St. Peter.
Essays of Richard Steele, selected and edited by L. E. Steele.
Steele Selections from the Tatler, Spectator, and Guardian, edited by Austin Dobson.