It is as an essayist rather than a dramatist that men now think of
Steele; and this is rightly so, for his best work is to be found in
the periodical papers which he edited. There is, however, in his
plays the same wit and humour that is to be found in the _Tatler_ and
_Spectator_, and his four comedies occupy an important position in the
history of the English drama.

In this Introduction it will be sufficient to give a brief sketch
of Steele’s life, with especial reference to his relations with the
theatre, which were intimate and varied.[1]

Richard Steele was born in Dublin in 1672; his father was an attorney
who married a widow named Elinor Symes, but both his parents died
while he was a child, and Steele passed into the care of a kind uncle,
Henry Gascoigne, private secretary to the Duke of Ormond, and by his
influence was placed upon the foundation of the Charterhouse in 1684.
Two years later Joseph Addison, who was only a few weeks younger than
Steele, entered that famous school, and the two boys formed the closest
of friendships. In 1689 Steele followed Addison to Oxford, entering
at Christ Church; but in 1691 he was made a post-master of Merton
College. He would have many introductions, for his uncle was well known
at the University, and his friend Addison was a distinguished scholar
at Magdalen. We are told that he wrote a comedy while at college, but
burned it on being told by a friend that it was worthless. When he left
Oxford he took with him the love of “the whole society.”

Steele enlisted in 1694 as a private in the Duke of Ormond’s regiment
of Guards. Private soldiers in the Guards were often gentlemen’s sons,
and Steele was in reality a cadet, looking forward to the position
of ensign. When Queen Mary died in the following year he published
an anonymous poem, _The Procession_, the work of “a gentleman of the
army,” and dedicated it to Lord Cutts, Colonel of the Coldstream
Guards. He was rewarded by being made a confidential agent to Lord
Cutts, who also obtained for him an ensign’s commission in his own
regiment. By 1700 we find Steele referred to as “Captain Steele,” and
in friendly intercourse with Sir Charles Sedley, Vanbrugh, Garth,
Congreve, and other wits. In that year, too, he fought a duel with a
Captain Kelly, “one or two of his acquaintances having,” as he says,
“thought fit to misuse him, and try their valour upon him.” The event
made a serious impression upon Steele, who, much in advance of his
age, never ceased to remonstrate in his after writings against the
“barbarous custom of duelling.”

The life of a soldier stationed at the Tower was certain to lead a
young man of Steele’s sociable, hearty nature, into excesses. It was,
as he says, “a life exposed to much irregularity”; and as he often did
things of which he repented, he wrote, for his own use, a little book
called _The Christian Hero_; and finding that this secret admonition
was too weak he published the volume in 1701, with his name on the
title-page. It was “an argument proving that no principles but those
of religion are sufficient to make a great man.” A second edition was
called for in three months, but the only effect of the publication in
the regiment was “that from being reckoned no undelightful companion
he was soon reckoned a disagreeable fellow.” Under these circumstances
he says he felt it to be “incumbent upon him to enliven his character,
for which reason he wrote the comedy called _The Funeral_, in which
(though full of incidents that move laughter) virtue and vice appear
just as they ought to do. Nothing can make the town so fond of a man as
a successful play.” Let us look for a moment at the condition of the
drama at the opening of the eighteenth century.


Dryden had died in 1700, and Congreve produced his last important play
in that year. Wycherley, though still living, had long ceased to write,
but Farquhar and Vanbrugh were busy about this time with their best
work. Of other dramatists who were then writing there are none more
important than Rowe, Dennis, Cibber, Gildon, D’Urfey, Mrs. Manley, and
Mrs. Centlivre. The licentiousness of the Restoration plays had been
fully equalled by the coarseness of many of those written under William
III.; and at the end of the seventeenth century a determined protest
had been made by men who realised the evil effect of what was acted for
the amusement of the people. Jeremy Collier, a nonjuring clergyman, led
the attack by publishing, in 1698, _A Short View of the Profaneness
and Immorality of the English Stage_. Collier was intemperate, and
there were numerous replies; but his main position was not shaken. In
the meantime proclamations were issued against the acting of anything
immoral or irreligious, and a Society for the Reformation of Manners
was founded, which was soon followed by similar societies in various
parts of the country.

In October, 1701, Steele, who says that he was “a great admirer” of
Collier’s work, arranged with Christopher Rich, of the Theatre Royal,
Drury Lane, for the production of his comedy, _The Funeral, or Grief
à-la-Mode_, as soon as they could conveniently.[2] The play was acted
shortly afterwards, and it was printed in December. In the prologue
Steele said that he knew he had numerous friends present, and that
they would show it, “and for the fellow-soldier save the poet.” The
very frankness of this half-serious appeal shows that the play did not
need artificial support, and Cibber says that it met with “more than
expected success.” It is very sprightly, but Steele did not omit, by
the legitimate use of satire, to attack the mockery of grief by his
ridicule of the undertaker, and the mockery of justice in the person of
Puzzle, the lawyer. As in all his writings, he shows, by the characters
of Lady Sharlot and Lady Harriot, the respect he felt for true women.
“He was,” says Thackeray, in words which are certainly true of Steele’s
immediate predecessors, “the first of our writers who really seemed to
admire and respect them.” The contrast between virtue and vice, to the
advantage of the former–an object which had not usually been aimed at
by the preceding writers of comedies–was furnished by the character
of Lady Brumpton, the widow, whose husband was not really dead. The
description of her schemes, and her conversations with her woman
Tattleaid and her lady friends, are admirable, and were not forgotten
by Sheridan when writing the _School for Scandal_. Tattleaid says to
the widow, “I warrant you, madam, I’ll manage ’em all; and indeed,
madam, the men are really very silly creatures, ’tis no such hard
matter. They rulers! They governors! I warrant you, indeed!” Whereupon
the widow observes, “Ay, Tattleaid, they imagine themselves mighty
things, but government founded on force only is a brutal power. We rule
them by their affections, which blinds them into belief that they rule
us, or at least are in the government with us. But in this nation our
power is absolute.” The conversation in the last act, when the widow is
preparing for the funeral, and Tattleaid has her mouth full of pins, is
equally clever.

It would be difficult to find better comedy than the instructions of
Sable, the undertaker, to his men: “Let’s have no laughing, now, on
any provocation [_makes faces_]. Look yonder, that hale, well-looking
puppy! You ungrateful scoundrel, did not I pity you, take you out of
a great man’s service, and show you the pleasure of receiving wages?
Did not I give you ten, then fifteen, now twenty shillings a week, to
be sorrowful? and the more I give you, I think, the gladder you are.”
And again, “Look you, now, you are all upon the sneer; let me have none
but downright stupid countenances…. Ye stupid rogues, whom I have
picked out of all the rubbish of mankind, and fed for your eminent
worthlessness, attend, and know that I speak you this moment stiff and
immutable to all sense of noise, mirth, or laughter [_makes mouths at
them as they pass by him to bring them to a constant countenance_].
So, they are pretty well–pretty well.” Excellent, too, is the talk of
the lawyer and his clerk: “I hope to see the day when the indenture
shall be the exact measure of the land that passes by it; for ’tis a
discouragement to the gown that every ignorant rogue of an heir should
in a word or two understand his father’s meaning, and hold ten acres
of land by half an acre of parchment.” There is an admirable dialogue
about their lovers between Lady Sharlot and Lady Harriot, in the second
act, and in the fourth act Steele’s comrades would be delighted with
the talk of the soldiers, one of whom had saved an officer’s life,
but had now been whipped from constable to constable all the way from
Cornwall to London. “That’s due by the courtesy of England to all that
want in red coats; besides, there’s an Act that makes us free of all
Corporations, and that’s the ceremony of it.” When Tatter says, “In our
last clothing in the regiment I served in afore, the colonel had one
shirt afore, the agent one behind, and every captain of the regiment
a button,” Lord Hardy, smiling, replies, “Hush, you rogue, you talk
mutiny,” and his Lordship’s man at once gives the soldier a blow on the
head: “Ay, sirrah, what have you to do with more knowledge than that of
your right hand from your left?” But later on Trim remarks that “after
all, ’tis upon the neck of such scoundrels as these gentlemen that we
great captains build our renown.”

There are obvious weak points in the plot, notably the introduction of
bigamy on Lady Brumpton’s part, in order to remove the difficulty about
the will made by Lord Brumpton in her favour. There was, of course,
nothing to prevent the Earl executing a fresh will when he again came
to life, after finding out his wife’s true character. For the rest, we
may refer to an interesting contemporary criticism in Charles Gildon’s
little book, _A Comparison between the Two Stages_, published in April,
1702, in the form of a dialogue between Ramble, Sullen, and Chagrin, a
critic. When Ramble proposes to speak of _The Funeral_, Sullen says,
“‘Tis a dangerous matter to talk of this play; the Town has given
it such applause, ’twill be an ungrateful undertaking to call their
judgments in question.” He agrees that it is diverting, and written
with noble intentions. Ramble remarks, “I hear the gentleman is a
fine companion, and passes for a wit of the first rank;” but Sullen
and the Critic agree that _The Funeral_ is not a just comedy, the
principle being much amiss. They argue that Lord Brumpton could not,
as was supposed, have lain dead in the house so long, and no one see
him; while intrigues and amours were going on in the meantime in the
house of death. It is farce, not comedy. Look at the manner of Lady
Sharlot’s escape in the coffin–a forced situation which was quite
unnecessary. Is it likely that a man of Cabinet’s wickedness would have
been frightened into a confession by a ghost? The undertaker is not
adequately punished; for he was paid anyhow. Nevertheless, the satire
on some widows, and on undertakers, is happy. The Critic thinks the
language “too concise and stiff” for comedy; see, for example, the
scene between Lord Brumpton and Trusty in Act I., and that between
Trusty and Cabinet in Act IV. There are difficult lines in the Preface,
and long parentheses in the play. Ramble turns round and asks, “Did
you ever read _The Christian Hero_?” The Critic says, “Yes; what do
you mean by asking me?” Ramble replies, “Pray don’t be angry. Is it
not an extraordinary thing?” The answer is, “Look ye, Sir–to answer
you dogmatically, and in a few words–No.” Critic gives reasons:
“Thus, then, briefly: ‘Tis a chaos, ’tis a confusion of thoughts, rude
and undigested; though he had the advice of an ingenious man to put
it into method. ‘Tis dated from the Tower-guard, as a present to his
Colonel, that his Colonel might think him, even in time of duty, a very
contemplative soldier, and, I suppose, by the roughness of the style,
he writ it there, on the butt-end of a musket.” Sullen replies, “Hush!
no reproaches; the gentleman has done very well, and chose a worthy
subject,” and Ramble adds, “It bore two editions.” The Critic rejoins,
“It did not; it was but once printed, nor is all that impression sold;
’tis a trick of the booksellers to get it off.”[3] Ramble, however,
maintains his good opinion of the author. The discussion of _The
Funeral_ is then resumed; and Ramble suggests that, in the opening of
Act III., Mademoiselle’s “promises” is a mistake for “premises.” The
Critic objects, among other things, to the use of the word “bagatelle.”
And then Sullen turns to the merits of the play–the characters, the
visiting scene, the incidents, all flowing naturally, and the moral,
which is the true result of the piece. Ramble adds warm praises of the
author–who is described as “indued with singular honesty, a noble
disposition, and a conformity of good manners”–and his works, and the
Critic hopes, if he will divert the town with another play, that it may
be more “correct.” The author does not want understanding.


Steele says that _The Funeral_, “with some particulars enlarged upon
to his advantage,” had obtained for him the notice of the king, and
that “his name, to be provided for, was in the last table-book ever
worn by the glorious and immortal William the Third.” He was, however,
disappointed, for King William died in March, 1702. But about that time
Steele was made a Captain of Foot in a new regiment whose Colonel was
Lord Lucas, whom Steele had known at the Tower. Each officer raised a
company, and Steele was sent to Landguard Fort, opposite Harwich, where
he did everything in his power for the good of the men under him. At
the end of the year, or at the beginning of 1703, he agreed to sell
to Christopher Rich a comedy, which was nearly finished, called _The
Election of Gotham_. Of that play nothing further is known; but Steele
obtained £72 from Rich, to be repaid in March.[4] Rich said that Steele
was in want of money and in danger of arrest, and it is a fact that the
first of a long series of actions for debt had some time before been
commenced against him. Steele, however, said that the money was paid to
induce him to write more, and upon condition that he should bring his
next play to Rich, whom he charged with oppression and extortion. We
shall hear more of this quarrel.

Complaints against the immorality of the stage increased in number. In
1702 Queen Anne directed that certain actors at Lincoln’s Inn Fields
should be prosecuted, and they were found guilty of “uttering impious,
lewd, and immoral expressions.” Collier wrote _A Dissuasive from the
Play House_, which was answered by Dennis, and the Lord Chamberlain
ordered that all plays must be licensed by the Master of the Revels,
who was not to pass anything not strictly agreeable to religion and
good manners. At that time, it should be remembered, the play began
about five, and ended at eight, “for the convenience of the Qualities
resorting to the Park after.” Such was the condition of affairs when
Steele’s second comedy, _The Lying Lover, or the Ladies’ Friendship_,
was produced, in December, 1703, to run for six nights.

In his _Apology_ Steele afterwards wrote of the _Lying Lover_:–“Mr.
Collier had, about the time wherein this was published, written against
the immorality of the stage. I was (as far as I durst for fear of witty
men, upon whom he had been too severe) a great admirer of his work,
and took it into my head to write a comedy in the severity he required.
In this play I make the spark or hero kill a man in his drink, and
finding himself in prison the next morning, I give him the contrition
which he ought to have on that occasion…. I can’t tell, sir, what
they would have me do to prove me a Churchman; but I think I have
appeared one even in so trifling a thing as a comedy; and considering
me as a comic poet, I have been a martyr and confessor for the Church;
for this play was damned for its piety.” In the Dedication of the play
to the Duke of Ormond, he says, “The design of it is to banish out of
conversation all entertainment which does not proceed from simplicity
of mind, good nature, friendship, and honour;” and in the Preface he
again refers to the manner in which the English stage had offended
against the laws of morals and religion; “I thought, therefore, it
would be an honest ambition to attempt a comedy which might be no
improper entertainment in a Christian commonwealth.” He admits that
the anguish and sorrow in the prison scene “are, perhaps, an injury
to the rules of comedy; but I am sure they are a justice to those of
morality.” It was to be hoped that wit would now recover from its
apostacy, for the Queen had “taken the stage under her consideration.”

The play was based upon Corneille’s _Le Menteur_, but the latter
and more serious portion is entirely Steele’s. Alarcon, from whom
Corneille borrowed, made his liar marry a girl he did not care for
instead of the one he loved; Corneille made the liar’s love change, so
that his marriage met his wishes; while Steele represents Bookwit’s
inveterate love of romancing, generally in self-glorification, as
leading to a duel with Penelope’s lover, and to his own imprisonment
in Newgate. This trouble teaches him the necessary lesson, and the
hope is held out to him, at the end, of the hand of Penelope’s friend,
Victoria. “There is no gallantry in love but truth,” are his last words.

There are many amusing passages in the _Lying Lover_, and young
Bookwit is very entertaining in the earlier acts, especially in his
boastful account to the ladies of his imaginary campaigns:–“There’s
an intimate of mine, a general officer, who has often said, ‘Tom,
if thou would’st but stick to any one application, thou might’st be
anything.’ ‘Tis my misfortune, madam, to have a mind too extensive.”
In the second act there is a pleasant account of “the pretty merchants
and their dealers” at the New Exchange, where Bookwit was bewildered
by the darts and glances against which he was not impregnable; and in
the third act, Penelope and Victoria, who are both fascinated by the
young liar, be-patch and be-powder each other in the hope of making
their rival ugly, while they profess–like their maids–to be on the
closest terms of friendship. In the fourth act, after the duel, the
constable remarks, “Sir, what were you running so fast for? There’s
a man killed in the garden, and you’re a fine gentleman, and it must
be you–for good honest people only beat one another.” And there is
an admirable scene in Newgate, where Bookwit is received with respect
by highwaymen and others because he is supposed to have killed a
man. An alchemist–“the ignorant will needs call it coining”–who is
about to be hung, says, “Yet let me tell you, sir, because by secret
sympathy I’m yours, I must acquaint you, if you can obtain the favour
of an opportunity and a crucible, I can show projection–directly Sol,
sir, Sol, sir, more bright than that high luminary the Latins called
so–wealth shall be yours; we’ll turn every bar about us into golden
ingots.–Sir, can you lend me half-a-crown?”

It is only in the last act that art is sacrificed to the moral purpose
that Steele had in his view. The ladies repent of their mutual
plottings; and Bookwit, who believes that he has killed his opponent,
looks forward to death, and makes many solemn speeches, printed in
blank verse, which will to a great extent account for the failure of
the piece. Bookwit’s father is broken-hearted; and a friend heroically
declares that it was he, and not Bookwit, who killed Lovemore;
whereupon Lovemore says, “I can hold out no longer,” and brings matters
to a happy ending by explaining that he had in reality been only
slightly wounded. Hazlitt’s words respecting Steele’s plays are truer
of the _Lying Lover_ than of the rest: “It is almost a misnomer to
call them comedies; they are rather homilies in dialogues.” But even
in this piece there is, as we have seen, nothing that can properly
be called homily except at the close. Ward has described the play
more accurately, as “the first instance of sentimental comedy proper.
It is attempted to produce an effect, not by making vice and folly
ridiculous, but by moving compassion.”

It was Steele, rather than young Bookwit, who says in the first scene,
“I don’t know how to express myself–but a woman, methinks, is a being
between us and angels. She has something in her that at the same time
gives awe and invitation; and I swear to you, I was never out in’t yet,
but I always judged of men as I observed they judged of women: there is
nothing shows a man so much as the object of his affections.”


The battle of Blenheim was won in August, 1704, and in December Addison
obtained fame and office by his poem _The Campaign_. Steele, who was
in constant intercourse with him, said in after years that Addison,
in spite of his bashfulness and modesty, “was above all men in that
talent we call humour.” At the various coffee-houses, and especially
at the Kitcat Club, the friends met all the famous wits of the day.
Steele endeavoured, in 1704, without success, to increase his income by
obtaining a troop in a regiment of Dragoons, which the Duke of Ormond
was about to raise. Next year Lord Lucas died, and Steele’s connection
with the army appears to have been severed not long afterwards.

In March, 1705, Steele’s third play, _The Tender Husband; or, the
Accomplished Fools_, was given to Rich, and it was acted in April and
published in May. The early writers on the subject constantly stated
that _The Tender Husband_ appeared in 1703, and was followed by _The
Lying Lover_, and they then explained that the failure of the latter
piece caused Steele to abandon play-writing for many years. In reality,
however, _The Lying Lover_ was the earlier play of the two by more than
a year.[5]

_The Tender Husband_ ran for five nights, but was not a financial
success. Addison wrote the Prologue and assisted in the play itself,
and to Addison it was dedicated, though, as Steele said, his friend
would “be surprised, in the midst of a daily and familiar conversation,
with an address which bears so distant an air as a public Dedication.”
“My purpose in this application is only to show the esteem I have
for you, and that I look upon my intimacy with you as one of the
most valuable enjoyments of my life.” The reception given to the
play was such “as to make me think it no improper Memorial of an
inviolable friendship.” In the last number of the original series of
the _Spectator_, Steele afterwards wrote:–“I remember when I finished
_The Tender Husband_, I told him there was nothing I so ardently
wished as that we might sometime or other publish a work written by us
both, which should bear the name of _The Monument_, in memory of our
friendship. I heartily wish what I have done here were as honorary to
that sacred name, as learning, wit, and humanity render those pieces
which I have taught the reader how to distinguish for his. When the
play above-mentioned was last acted, there were so many applauded
strokes in it which I had from the same hand, that I thought very
meanly of myself that I had never publicly acknowledged them.”

Warned by the fate of _The Lying Lover_, Steele seems to have
determined that there must be less sermonising in the new play. The
result is that _The Tender Husband_ is, as a whole, very amusing; but
unfortunately a second plot–alluded to in the title–is woven into
the story which gives to the play its interest; and as this account
of the manner in which the “tender husband” tries the faithfulness
of a foolish wife by means of his mistress, disguised as a man, is
unwholesome in tone and unnatural, it spoils what would otherwise be an
excellent farcical comedy, and at the same time has no real connection
with the rest of the play. Fortunately, however, Mrs. Clerimont’s
weaknesses are hardly brought before the spectator except in the first
scene and the last act. The rest of the piece describes the love
affairs of Biddy Tipkin, a banker’s niece–acted by the charming Mrs.
Oldfield–whose head has been so completely filled with the romances
which she has read that she begs to be called Parthenissa:–“If you
ask my name, I must confess you put me upon revealing what I always
keep as the greatest secret I have–for, would you believe it, they
have called me–I don’t know how to own it, but they have called
me–Bridget.” To her aunt she says, “Do you think that I can ever
marry a man that’s true and hearty? What a peasant-like amour do these
coarse words impart?… Good madam, don’t upbraid me with my mother
Bridget, and an excellent housewife.” She longs for a lover who will
be associated with disguise, serenade, and adventure; and as she is
an heiress, Captain Clerimont–the usual gentlemanly adventurer of
seventeenth century comedy–is willing to humour her whims, and he is
so successful that, though she is of opinion that “a lover should sigh
in private, and languish whole years before he reveals his passion;
he should retire into some solitary grove, and make the woods and wild
beasts his confidants,” yet she is soon able to admit “I am almost of
opinion that had Oroondates been as pressing as Clerimont, _Cassandra_
had been but a pocket-book: but it looks so ordinary to go out at a
door to be married–indeed I ought to be taken out of a window, and
run away with.” Biddy Tipkin is the direct prototype of Sheridan’s
Lydia Languish, and Goldsmith was equally indebted to Biddy’s cousin,
Humphry Gubbin, for the idea of Tony Lumpkin. This booby son of an
old-fashioned squire–the forerunner of Fielding’s Squire Western–is
as amusing as Biddy, whom his father wishes him to marry. Humphry,
however, had scruples, and “boggled a little” at marrying so near a
relation as a cousin. His father had been in the habit of beating him
like a child, and it was not till he came to town that he knew he was
of age, or what was his fortune. Mr. Pounce, a lawyer, anxious to
secure Biddy for Captain Clerimont, advises Humphry not to be fooled
any longer; and when Humphry remarks, “To tell you truly, I took an
antipathy to my cousin ever since my father proposed her to me; and
since everybody knows I came up to be married, I don’t care to go down
and look baulked,” Pounce seizes the opportunity of providing for his
sister Mrs. Fairlove, the mistress of the elder Clerimont. Biddy and
Humphry having explained their feelings to each other, Humphry says,
“I’ll find out a way for us to get rid of one another, and deceive the
old folks that would couple us;” but when Biddy replies, “This wears
the face of an amour–there is something in that thought which makes
thy presence less insupportable,” he exclaims, “Nay, nay, now you’re
growing fond; if you come with these maids’ tricks to say you hate at
first and afterwards like me, you’ll spoil the whole design.”

Other characters, such as Biddy’s “Urganda of an Aunt,” who is not free
from notions of romance on her own account, Pounce the disreputable
lawyer, Sir Harry Gubbin, and Captain Clerimont, who obtains access
to Biddy by disguising himself as a painter–an idea borrowed from
Molière’s _Le Sicilien_–add to the amusement of the piece; and then
there are smart sayings in abundance, such as the elder Clerimont’s: “I
don’t design you to personate a real man, but only a pretty gentleman;”
or Pounce’s: “Oh, dear sir, a fine lady’s clothes are not old by being
worn, but by being seen.” These merits render the weakness of the
ending the more regrettable. The moral is obvious: wife or son should
be restrained only by generous bonds, for “wives to obey must love,
children revere.” If any one, after reading the episode of the elder
Clerimont and his wife, is surprised at Steele’s statement that he had
“been very careful to avoid everything that might look ill-natured,
immoral, or prejudicial to what the better part of mankind hold sacred
and honourable,” it should be remembered that in Steele’s play a
repentant wife is forgiven by her husband, whose own conduct was far
from blameless, while in the comedies of his predecessors it was common
for the wife to hoodwink her steadygoing husband triumphantly. Compared
with such plays Steele’s work is harmless, and even moral, in its

It is impossible to say which were the “applauded strokes” contributed
by Addison to _The Tender Husband_. Some writers, bearing in mind the
Tory Foxhunter of the _Freeholder_, have attributed to Addison the
character of Sir Harry Gubbin; others, remembering the description of
a lady’s library in the _Spectator_, have suggested that his hand is
to be found in the description of Biddy Tipkin; and some, again, have
thought that he was concerned rather in the serious portions of the
play. Perhaps Addison’s help consisted more in general hints given
while the piece was under revision than in the contribution of any
special portion. But speculation is vain in this matter. Addison and
Steele were friends who were wont to work together without any jealous
thought as to the exact share which each of them contributed.

It will be convenient to notice here a Chancery suit which arose out of
Steele’s arrangement with Christopher Rich, of the Drury Lane Theatre,
respecting the production of his plays. Steele was the complainant, and
in his bill, dated 1707, he said that about December, 1702, Rich paid
him £72 on the understanding that Steele would write for him another
play. Steele gave a bond of £144; and in 1705 furnished Rich with _The
Tender Husband_, which was acted on the condition that the author was
to have the profits of two days’ acting in the autumn. The profits
exceeded £72, but Rich would not pay over the balance, and commenced an
action for the £144. Steele, therefore prayed that these proceedings
might be stayed by injunction.

Rich, in his reply, said that the terms of the agreement for the
production of _The Funeral_ having been carried out to Steele’s
satisfaction, Steele agreed, in January, 1703, to give Rich a new play,
and at the same time borrowed £72, to be repaid with interest in March,
upon pain of the forfeiture of £144. Steele did not pay; but in 1705
he produced _The Tender Husband_. The profits, however, were so small
that £10 8s. 2d. was all that, according to the agreement, Rich was
called upon to pay as the result of the first four days’ acting. Steele
agreed that this sum should go to the use of the company, and that the
play should be acted for his benefit once in the following winter. The
performance took place in November, though Steele at the last objected
that there would not be a sufficiently good audience. The treasurer
was told to give Steele the balance £2 17s. 6d., which resulted from
this performance, together with the £10 8s. 2d. already mentioned; but
Steele neglected or refused to take the money. Rich added that the
play had been acted several times at the Haymarket Theatre without his
consent–which was quite true; and he prayed that this action might be
dismissed, with costs.

There is no further record of the case until April 29, 1710, when
Rich’s counsel showed that his client had submitted an answer to the
plaintiff’s bill on January 27, 1708, and that Steele had since then
taken no action. The Court thereupon ordered that the bill should be
dismissed, with costs, which were to be taxed.[6] The pleadings, which
contain much that is of interest to the student of theatrical history,
are given in full in the Appendix.


In the earlier part of 1705, probably soon after the production of _The
Tender Husband_, Steele married a widow, Margaret Stretch, whose maiden
name was Ford. This lady belonged to a good family in Barbados; and
her brother, Major Robert Ford, who made his will in December, 1704,
left to her the residue of his property. He was then about to sail
for England, and within a few weeks he was taken prisoner by a French
privateer, and died on the high seas. In March, 1705, his sister took
out letters of administration, and soon afterwards she was married to
Steele, who subsequently wrote to the mother of the lady who was to be
his second wife: “My late wife had so extreme a value for me that she,
by fine, conveyed to me her whole estate situate in Barbados, which,
with the stock and slaves (proper security being given for the rent),
is let at £850 per annum, at half yearly payments, that is to say, £425
each first of May, and £425 each first of December. This estate came
to her encumbered with a debt of £3,000, by legacies and debts of her
brother, whose executrix she was as well as heiress.”

In January, 1707, we find Steele administering to the property of his
wife, who had died in December. Mary Scurlock, of whom we shall hear
immediately, was at the funeral. There is no source of information
respecting the deceased lady, except the writings of the scandalous
Mrs. Manley, who had quarrelled with Steele, but certainly knew
something of the facts, if she chose to speak the truth. Her statement
is that Steele had embarked in alchemy, and had been ruined by a
rogue who cheated him, when he found an opportunity of repairing his
fortunes by marrying a rich but elderly lady. Hints are thrown out
that an odd misfortune, occasioned by Steele’s sister, was the cause of
his wife’s death; and that he found consolation in “a younger wife, and
a cry’d up beauty.” It is true that Steele had a sister who was mad;
but his second wife, who knew the facts, was willing to marry him in
a few months, which she would hardly have done if there had been any
suspicious circumstances connected with her friend’s death. Possibly,
however, the end was accelerated by some fright. There can be no doubt
that Steele’s sanguine nature had led him, at a period not exactly
defined, to experiment with the crucible, in the hope of discovering
the oft-sought-for _aurum potabile_. When he wrote the scene in the
_Lying Lover_, in which Charcoal appears, he would seem to have
discovered the absurdity of his study of occult science.

In a prologue to Vanbrugh’s _The Mistake_, acted at the new theatre
in the Haymarket on December 27, 1705, Steele satirised the popular
demand for dresses, music, and dancing: “If ’tis a comedy, you ask–Who
dance?” In August, 1706, he was appointed gentleman-writer to Prince
George of Denmark, with a salary of £100 a year, “not subject to
taxes.” In the course of the following year he contributed verses to
a new monthly paper called _The Muses’ Mercury_, and the first number
(January, 1707) contained a reference to Mrs. Steele:–“Had not the
death of a dear friend hindered Captain Steele from finishing a comedy
of his, it would also have been acted this season.” We shall see that
in the years that followed Steele often contemplated the production
of another play, but was no doubt prevented by his numerous other
occupations. He was appointed Gazetteer by Robert Harley, on Arthur
Maynwaring’s recommendation, in April or May, with a salary of £300,
liable to a tax of £45, and he endeavoured to obey “the rule observed
by all Ministries, to keep that paper very innocent and very insipid”;
but, inevitably, there were often complaints either about what was
inserted or what was omitted.

_The Muses’ Mercury_ for September contained the following
paragraph:–“As for comedies, there’s no great expectation of anything
of that kind since Mr. Farquhar’s death: the two gentlemen who could
probably always succeed in the comic vein, Mr. Congreve and Captain
Steele, having affairs of much greater importance to take up their time
and thoughts.” In that month Steele married Mary Scurlock, a lady of
twenty-eight years of age, and heiress to the late Jonathan Scurlock,
of Carmarthen, who was descended from an ancient Irish family. Her
estate was worth £400 a year, but there was a demand upon it of £1,400.
Mary Scurlock had, as we have seen, known her husband’s first wife, but
the courtship does not seem to have begun until August. The lady saved
all Steele’s letters, both then and during her married life. He begged
that they might be shown to no man, as others could not judge of “so
delicate a circumstance as the commerce between man and wife”; but half
a century after his death the whole were published, and these letters
form one of the most interesting studies in existence. The charming
notes to “dear Prue”–often sent daily, and sometimes more frequently,
from wherever he might happen to be engaged–show us the writer’s
inmost feelings, and in spite of his obvious weaknesses he comes well
out of the ordeal. He loved his wife and children to the end, and if he
was careless and constantly in debt, “Prue” was somewhat strait-laced
and exacting. It should never be forgotten that we have but two or
three of her replies. The letters written during the love-making are
delightful, and Steele himself printed some of them in the _Tatler_
and _Spectator_. The young lady was not without experience, for three
years earlier a “wretched impudence,” named Henry Owen, had brought an
unsuccessful suit against her for breach of contract of marriage. That
she was much in love with Steele is evident from a letter of hers to
her mother, in which she praised his richly-endowed mind, his person,
his temper, his understanding, and his morals. It was her “first and
only inclination,” and she was sure that she should “never meet with
a prospect of happiness if this should vanish.” Miss Scurlock, who
had something of the prude in her, desired that the marriage should
be secret, and would not have it known until her mother’s consent had
been received. Before the end of the year Steele had taken a house in
Bury Street, which was conveniently near to St. James’s church, whither
his wife frequently resorted. Steele’s own prayers, written before and
after marriage for his private use, show the manly religion which was
the foundation of his character.

Apologies for absence from home were soon necessitated by engagements
of one kind or another. This was the kind of note which Steele often
sent to his “absolute governess”:–

“Devil Tavern, Temple Bar,
_Jan._ 3_d._ 1708.


“I have partly succeeded in my business to-day, and enclose two
guineas as an earnest of more. Dear Prue, I can’t come home to dinner.
I languish for your welfare, and will never be a moment careless more.

“Your faithful husband,


“Send me word you have received this.”

The Barbados property, which was necessarily left to the care of an
agent, gave much trouble, and it is clear that Steele’s views as to
the probable income to be derived from that and other sources was very
rose-coloured. He was frequently embarrassed, but one debt usually
arose from a habit of borrowing money to pay off another creditor,
and the actual amount owing at any time seems never to have been very
large. Mrs. Steele was not always on good terms with her mother, and on
one occasion that lady proposed to settle a portion of her property on
Steele and his wife jointly, and to make the whole estate liable to a
charge in his favour in case he outlived his wife without issue. This
Steele declined, begging that the whole of whatever was left to them
might be fixed on his wife and her posterity.


Swift returned to England in November, 1707, and was soon in frequent
intercourse with Steele and Addison. In March, 1708, he published his
famous “Predictions for the year 1708, by Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq.,” an
attack on an astrologer and almanack-maker, John Partridge. In this
pamphlet Swift declared that he, unlike others, was a real astrologer,
and prophesied that Partridge would die on March 29. On the 30th of
that month another pamphlet appeared, giving a circumstantial account
of Partridge’s death. The almanack-maker protested that he was as well
as ever; but Swift replied that it was evident that the man was dead,
because no man living could write such rubbish as was contained in the
new almanack for 1709. Other wits joined in the controversy, and when
Steele began _The Tatler_ he adopted the name of “Isaac Bickerstaff,”
which, he said, Swift had made famous through all parts of Europe.

Steele obtained a house at Hampton Wick, and there his “dear ruler”
was established in 1708, with a chariot and two or four horses, a
saddle-horse, a footman, a gardener, a boy Will, her own woman, and a
boy who could speak Welsh. “I shall make it the business of my life,”
wrote Steele, “to make you easy and happy: consult your cool thoughts
and you’ll know that ’tis the glory of a woman to be her husband’s
friend and companion, and not his sovereign director.” In another
letter he said, “It is not in your power to make me otherwise than your
affectionate, faithful, and tender husband.” With yet another note he
sent “seven pen’orth of walnuts at five a penny, which is the greatest
proof I can give you at present of my being, with my whole heart,
yours,” &c. Outside the letter he added, below the address, “There
are but 29 walnuts.” In October he lost a place through the death of
Prince George, but the Queen gave him a pension of £100 a-year. Debts,
however, were numerous, and an execution was put in on account of
arrears of rent for the house in Bury Street. When Addison was made
Secretary to Lord Wharton, the new Viceroy of Ireland, Steele hoped to
get an Under-secretaryship, but was disappointed. In March, 1709, his
eldest daughter, Elizabeth, was born, and had for godfathers Addison
and Mr. Wortley Montagu. In the following month Steele began the great
work of his life.

The periodical literature of the day was of little value. The few
papers that existed were either brief news-sheets, or were repositories
for questions and answers, supplied by the readers, and of feeble
verse. The only periodical which was in any sense a forerunner of the
_Tatler_ was Defoe’s _Review_, in which part of the space was set
apart for “Advice from the Scandalous Club,” where men, not parties,
and things rather than persons, were censured. When the quantity of
matter was too great for the available space, a monthly “Supplementary
Journal” was published. Afterwards Defoe gave a friendly greeting to
Steele’s new work, which dealt with the social questions and follies of
the day in a style that was more thorough, and at the same time more
genial, than his own.

The first number of the _Tatler_ was published on April 22, 1709, and
it appeared three times a week. It was a single folio sheet, price one
penny, and four numbers were given away gratuitously. The reader found
there items of news, accounts of popular entertainments, poetry, and
learning. As time went on the news articles were dropped, and each
number was gradually confined to one subject. Isaac Bickerstaff was
described as “an old man, a philosopher, a humourist, an astrologer,
and a censor.” The other characters described from time to time are not
essential to the general plan of the paper. “The general purpose of the
whole,” as Steele wrote at the close, “has been to recommend truth,
innocence, honour, and virtue, as the chief ornaments of life.” He was
satisfied if one vice had been destroyed, or a morning’s cheerfulness
given to an honest mind. As censor he thought fit to speak under a
mask, because he knew that his own life was “at best but pardonable.”

Addison rendered much valuable aid, which Steele acknowledged in such
generous terms that some writers have represented that all that was
valuable in the paper was by his friend. The fact, however, is that of
the 271 numbers that appeared about 188 were by Steele, and only 42
by Addison, while 36 were written by them jointly. Steele started the
paper, and Addison knew nothing of the authorship until six numbers had
appeared, and did not render any material assistance during the early
months of publication. The aid given by Swift and others is too slight
to need mention. Steele had to write, whether he was prepared or not,
whenever he had no paper by anyone else ready; but his most careless
contributions are interesting, because he wrote from the heart, and was
a man full of kindly impulse. It is sufficient to remark here that in
the articles on public amusements he provided admirable criticisms,
and was always ready to assist a good actor. Years afterwards Cibber
wrote that during a season of depression excellent audiences had often
been drawn together at a day’s notice by the influence of a single
_Tatler_. Steele was much in advance of his time in the way in which he
quoted and appreciated Shakespeare and Milton. As Gay said, he rescued
learning “out of the hands of pedants and fools, and discovered the
true method of making it amiable and lovely to all mankind.”

Steele’s income was increased by £300 a year in January, 1710, when
he was appointed a Commissioner of the Stamp Office. At that time
there was great excitement about the pending trial of the Tory, Dr.
Sacheverell, two of whose sermons were condemned as seditious libels,
reflecting on the Queen, the Revolution, and the Protestant succession.
Sacheverell was found guilty in March and forbidden to preach for three
years, but the sentence was nominal, and the Tories were in reality
triumphant. In June Sunderland, the Duke of Marlborough’s son-in-law,
was dismissed, and in August Godolphin was called upon to give up the
seals, and Harley became Chancellor of the Exchequer, and practically
head of the Government. Papers satirising Harley had appeared in the
_Tatler_ in July, and on September 10 Swift, who had just returned to
England, wrote to Esther Johnson, “Steele will certainly lose his
Gazetteer’s place, all the world detesting his engaging in politics.” A
few days later Whig statesmen were turned out in favour of the Earl of
Rochester, the Duke of Buckingham, and Henry St. John, and in October
Steele was deprived of his place, or, as Swift afterwards stated,
resigned to avoid being discarded.

The Tory _Examiner_ had been established in August; in November Swift
contributed his first paper. He still met Addison and Steele as
friends, but not so often as formerly, and he says he intervened with
Harley in favour of Steele’s retention of his office of Commissioner.
The Ministry were by no means desirous of quarrelling with a popular
writer, and Steele kept this post until 1713. The _Tatler_ came to a
sudden end on January 2, 1711, perhaps as the result of a compact with
the Government. Even Addison appears not to have been consulted when
this step was taken.


It was commonly said that Steele had given up the _Tatler_ through
want of matter. How entirely erroneous this statement was is shown by
the appearance, two months later (March 1, 1711), of the first number
of the _Spectator_, which was issued daily until December 6, 1712.
Addison commenced it with a description of the Spectator himself; in
the second number Steele gave an account of the club where the plan
of the work was supposed to be arranged, and drew the first sketch of
its members–Sir Roger de Coverley, the country gentleman; Sir Andrew
Freeport, the merchant; Captain Sentry, the soldier; Will Honeycomb,
the fine gentleman about town; and the clergyman. The most important
of the papers relating to Sir Roger de Coverley are by Addison, who
was at his best in the _Spectator_, of which he wrote 274 numbers,
while Steele was responsible for 236. The world, however, owes Addison
to Steele, who rightly said, “I claim to myself the merit of having
extorted excellent productions from a person of the greatest abilities,
who would not have let them appear by any other means.” Even Swift
wrote that Steele seemed to have gathered new life, and to have a new
fund of wit. Until the passing of the Stamp Act in August, 1712, when
the price was necessarily raised, the circulation seems to have been
nearly 4,000.

Among many other subjects Steele again wrote numerous excellent papers
on the stage. There is the well-known account of Estcourt’s death,
and there are admirable criticisms. Of Etherege’s popular play, _Sir
Foppling Flutter_, he said that it was “a perfect contradiction to
good manners, good sense, and common honesty”; and of Beaumont and
Fletcher’s _Scornful Lady_, that no beauty would atone for the
meanness of giving “a scandalous representation of what is reputable
among men, that is to say, what is sacred.” Elsewhere he remarked that
“it is not to be imagined what effect a well-regulated stage would have
upon men’s manners,” and that it is in the people themselves “to raise
this entertainment to the greatest height.”

Swift was now quite estranged from Addison and Steele, though of
course they were civil when they met. In June, 1711, Steele appears
to have become acquainted with Pope, and Addison wrote a flattering
notice of the young poet’s _Art of Criticism_ in the _Spectator_.
Party pamphleteering was now being carried to a hitherto unprecedented
extent, and Swift wrote constantly himself, and supplied hints to
others. Marlborough was dismissed, and the object of the Government
was to bring the war to an end by persuading the people to agree to
a treaty whose terms were less satisfactory than might have been
expected. At the same time some of the party were secretly plotting
for the restoration of the Stuarts, and among these appears to to have
been Harley, now Earl of Oxford. Steele wrote a pamphlet in praise of
Marlborough, for whom he always showed great admiration.

A son, Eugene, was born in March, 1712; Steele was then living in
Brownlow Street, Holborn. In June he had a cottage on Haverstock Hill,
and there the members of the Kitcat Club called for him on their
way to the Upper Flask at Hampstead, where they met in the summer.
In July he had taken a house in Bloomsbury Square, and next month he
felt relieved by the renewal of his employments, and lived “in the
handsomest manner.” But all the time actions for debt were hanging over
him, and he had hastily to withdraw a scheme which was found to be
illegal, for “getting money” by means of a “Multiplication Table,” to
be worked in connection with the State Lottery.

The _Spectator_ was brought to a close in December, 1712, and in the
following month George Berkeley, afterwards Bishop of Cloyne, but then
a young man just arrived in London, wrote that Steele, who had been
among the first to welcome him, was ill with gout, but was, “as I am
informed, writing a play, since he gave over the _Spectators_.” Steele
was very hospitable to the young philosopher, and Berkeley remarks that
there appeared “in his natural temper something very generous, and a
great benevolence to mankind.” By the death of Mrs. Scurlock, Steele
had come into £500 a year, which made it more justifiable for him to
maintain his “handsome and neatly furnished house,” where the table,
servants, coach, &c., were “very genteel.”

A new periodical, _The Guardian_, was begun on March 12, 1713, and was
issued daily until October. Steele wrote 82 of the 175 numbers, and
Addison, Berkeley and Pope were among the contributors. The periodical
was written on the same lines as the _Spectator_, and many of the
papers are excellent, but with the fortieth number Steele was drawn
into a political quarrel with the _Examiner_, and the _Guardian_ lost
its value as literature. Politics ran so high that the representatives
of each party applied to themselves the noble sentiments in Addison’s
tragedy, _Cato_, which was produced on April 14, and thus united in
applauding the piece. Steele had undertaken to fill the house, and he
wrote verses, afterwards prefixed to the play, in which he alluded to
the fact that he had once inscribed Addison’s name to his own “light
scenes”; they, however, would soon die, and he therefore wished to
“live, joined to a work of thine.”

Attacks in the _Examiner_ led Steele to complain of articles by
“an estranged friend or an exasperated mistress,” _i.e._ Swift or
Mrs. Manley. Swift denied that he had at this time any hand in the
_Examiner_, and a bitter quarrel arose between the two men. In June
Steele resigned his position as Commissioner of the Stamp Office, and
soon afterwards gave up his pension as a servant of the late Prince.
On August 25 he was elected M.P. for the borough of Stockbridge,
Hampshire. In the _Guardian_ Steele had insisted that as one of the
conditions of the peace the nation expected the demolition of Dunkirk;
and this was dwelt upon at greater length in a pamphlet called _The
Importance of Dunkirk considered._ A storm of controversial literature
followed these declarations, and, in October the _Guardian_ gave place
to the _Englishman_, which was devoted almost entirely to politics.
Addison said he was “in a thousand troubles for poor Dick,” and hoped
that his zeal for the public would not be ruinous to himself. Swift
wrote bitter attacks–_The Importance of the Guardian considered_ and
_The First Ode of the Second Book of Horace Paraphrased and addressed
to Richard St–le, Esq._, in the latter of which he suggested that when
Steele had settled the affairs of Europe he might turn to Drury Lane,
and produce the play with which he had long threatened the town, and
which had for plot–

“To make a pair of jolly fellows,
The son and father, join to tell us
How sons may safely disobey,
And fathers never should say nay;
By which wise conduct they grow friends
At last–and so the story ends.”

In January, 1714, Steele brought out _The Crisis_, a widely read
pamphlet which set forth the facts relating to the Hanoverian
Succession, and among the replies was Swift’s _The Public Spirit of the
Whigs_. Steele defended himself in the last number of the _Englishman_,
and next day Parliament met, and Steele spoke in support of the motion
that Sir Thomas Hanmer should be Speaker. Complaint was soon made that
his writings were seditious, and, in spite of the aid of Walpole,
Stanhope, Addison, and others, a motion for his expulsion was carried
by the Tory House, on March 18, after several debates. In the meantime,
the Whig House of Lords had taken measures against the printer and
publisher of Swift’s _Public Spirit of the Whigs_, and had insisted
upon a reward being offered for the discovery of the author.

About this time Steele produced short-lived periodicals called _The
Lover_ and _The Reader_, and several political pamphlets. Although
£3,000 had been given him by some unknown friends, he was involved in
money difficulties, and the house in Bloomsbury Square was given up.
But with the end of July came the serious illness of Queen Anne, who
died on August 1st. The hopes of Bolingbroke and others were thrown
to the ground, and George I. was peacefully proclaimed king. Bothmar
at once acquainted his royal master with Steele’s services, and soon
after the king’s arrival in England Steele was made Deputy-Lieutenant
for the County of Middlesex, Surveyor of the Royal Stables at Hampton
Court, a Justice of the Peace, and Supervisor of the Theatre Royal. He
found time to publish, in October, an important pamphlet, _Mr. Steele’s
Apology for Himself and his Writings_, and _The Ladies’ Library_, a
compilation which he had revised, and which contained an admirable
Dedication to his wife, concluding thus: “But I offend; and forget that
what I say to you is to appear in public. You are so great a lover
of home, that I know it will be irksome to you to go into the world
even in an applause. I will end this without so much as mentioning
your little flock, or your own amiable figure at the head of it. That
I think them preferable to all other children, I know is the effect of
passion and instinct. That I believe you to be the best of wives, I
know proceeds from experience and reason.”


Until the death of the Queen, William Collier, M.P., who held a licence
to act, in conjunction with Wilks, Cibber, Doggett, and Booth, had
received a pension from those actors of £700 a year. At the accession
of King George, as the pension could not be wholly got rid of, the
four actors, as Colley Cibber tells us in his _Apology_, “imagined the
merit of a Whig might now have as good a chance of getting into it, as
that of a Tory had for being continued in it: having no obligations,
therefore, to Collier, who had made the last penny of them, they
applied themselves” to Steele, who had many pretensions to favour at
Court. “We knew, too, the obligations the stage had to his writings;
there being scarce a comedian of merit, in our whole company, whom his
_Tatlers_ had not made better by his public recommendation of them.
And many days had our House been particularly filled by the influence
and credit of his pen…. We therefore begged him to use his interest
for the renewal of our licence, and that he would do us the honour of
getting our names to stand with his, in the same Commission. This,
we told him, would put it still further into his power of supporting
the stage in that reputation to which his Lucubrations had already
so much contributed; and that therefore we thought no man had better
pretences to partake of its success.” Steele was, of course, delighted
at the offer. “It surprised him into an acknowledgment, that people,
who are shy of obligations, are cautious of confessing. His spirits
took such a lively turn upon it, that had we been all his own sons, no
unexpected act of filial duty could have more endeared us to him.” A
new licence, upon the first mention of it, was obtained by Steele of
the King, through the Duke of Marlborough, “the hero of his heart,” who
was now again Captain-General. According to a memorandum of Steele’s he
received a message from the King, “to know whether I was in earnest in
desiring the Playhouse or that others thought of it for me. If I liked
it I should have it as an earnest of His future favour.”

The prosperity of the early part of the season of 1714-5 was checked
by a renewal of the licence to the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields
and by the desertion to that house of seven or eight actors. The
other managers of Drury Lane Theatre found it necessary to point out
to Steele that he stood in the same position as Collier, and that
his pension of £700 was liable to the same conditions as Collier’s,
namely, that it was to be paid only so long as there was but one
company allowed to act, and that if a second company were set up, the
pension was to be changed from a fixed payment to an equal share of
the profits. To this Steele at once agreed. “While we were offering to
proceed,” says Cibber, “Sir Richard stopped us short by assuring us,
that as he came among us by our own invitation, he should always think
himself obliged to come into any measures for our ease and service;
that to be a burden to our industry would be more disagreeable to him
than it could be to us, and as he had always taken a delight in his
endeavours for our prosperity, he should be still ready, on our own
terms, to continue them.” Every one who knew Steele in his prosperity,
Cibber remarks, “knew that this was his manner of dealing with his
friends in business.” Steele, however, told Cibber and the others that
he was advised to get their licence during pleasure enlarged into a
more durable authority, and with this object he proposed that he should
obtain a Patent for himself, for his life and three years after, which
he would then assign over to them. To this the managers were only too
glad to agree, for, among other benefits, it would free them from
too great a dependency upon the Lord Chamberlain, or the officers
under him, who, not having “the hearts of noblemen,” often showed
that insolence of office to which narrow minds are liable. Steele
accordingly applied for a Patent, and his request was complied with on
January 19, 1715. A week earlier he had received a gift of £500 from
the King.

On the 20th of January, Steele left London for Boroughbridge, a place
for which he was to be elected Member of Parliament on the 2nd of the
following month. The Patent was only received on the 19th of January,
and, therefore, as Cibber says, “We were forced that very night to draw
up in a hurry (till our counsel might more advisably perfect it) his
assignment to us of equal shares in the Patent, with farther conditions
of partnership…. This assignment (which I had myself the hasty
penning of) was so worded, that it gave Sir Richard as equal a title
to our property as it had given us to his authority in the Patent.
But Sir Richard, notwithstanding, when he returned to town, took no
advantage of the mistake.” Cibber adds that Steele’s equity and honour
proved as advantageous to himself as to them, for instead of £700, his
income from the theatre, by his accepting a share instead of the fixed
pension, was about £1,000 a year.

Steele was knighted, in company with two other Deputy-Lieutenants,
in April, and in May he celebrated the King’s birthday by a grand
entertainment in the great room at York Buildings. This room he
called the “Censorium,” and it was intended for select assemblies of
two hundred persons, “leaders in politeness, wit, and learning.” The
undertaking appears to have been successful, and it was carried on for
some time.

The _Englishman_ was revived in July, with the object of making good
the accusations which had been levelled long before against Oxford,
Bolingbroke, and other members of the late Government. Steele appears
to have asked for £1,000 a year before undertaking this work,[7] and
from the fact that he continued the paper after threatening to drop it
when the third number had been published, it would seem that he was
paid at least £500 by Walpole. Soon afterwards he applied, but without
success, for the vacant Mastership of the Charterhouse. Of Steele’s
various publications in 1715-6 it is impossible to speak here; it will
be enough to notice that Addison’s comedy, _The Drummer_, was published
by Steele on March 21, 1716, with a preface in which he said that the
play had for some years been in the hands of the author, who had been
persuaded by him to allow of its representation on the stage. In June
he was appointed one of the thirteen Commissioners who were to deal
with the estates forfeited by noblemen and gentlemen, chiefly Scottish,
who had taken up arms on the side of the Pretender during the late
rising. The salary was £1,000 a year.

Money difficulties made it necessary, in July, 1716, for Steele to
mortgage his interest in the theatre to an Edward Minshull, M.P., who
had on previous occasions lent him money. In January, 1717, further
money was raised upon Steele’s share of the scenery, clothes, and
profits. This led to much trouble, and ultimately to a Chancery
action, in 1722, which is described in the Appendix. In that same
year, Minshull, who was a gambler, was found guilty of fraud, but he
succeeded in escaping to Holland.

Lady Steele went to Carmarthenshire in November, 1716, and remained
there till the end of the following year. When she left London one of
her children was sickening for the smallpox, and, according to her
husband, there was not “an inch of candle, a pound of coal, or a bit of
meat in the house.” The little girl recovered, however, and money came
in; and, during the following weeks, Steele wrote some charming letters
about his “dear innocents,” full of good resolves for the future, which
did not meet with any very hearty response from his ailing wife. In
one letter he spoke of turning all his thoughts to finish his comedy,
but he also had great hopes from a “Fish-pool scheme,” the object
of which was to bring fish alive to London. When his “dear little
peevish, beautiful, wise governess” called him “good Dick,” he said he
was so enraptured that he could forget his miserable lameness–he was
suffering from gout–and walk down to Wales.

After many delays, Steele set out, in October, to attend the meetings
of the Forfeited Estates Commission at Edinburgh, where he was very
well received. He was, however, soon back in London, and, in June,
1718, obtained Letters Patent for the Fish-pool, which was followed by
much litigation on the part of a man named Sansome, who said he had
rendered valuable aid in developing the scheme. In the autumn, Steele
was again in Scotland, and in December he lost his “dear and honoured
wife.” She was buried in the south transept of Westminster Abbey.

The Peerage Bill was introduced by the Government in 1719, with a view
of limiting the power of creating new peers. The real object was to
prevent a growth of the influence either of king or people, in both
of which the aristocratic Whigs saw danger to themselves. Steele did
not agree on this question with the party leaders, and he was honest
and bold enough to oppose their bill in a paper called the _Plebeian_.
Addison replied in the _Old Whig_, and unfortunately the controversy
led to the estrangement of the two friends. There was no opportunity
for reconciliation, for Addison died shortly after the appearance of
these pamphlets. The Peerage Bill was revived in November, but was
thrown out in December, immediately after the publication of another
pamphlet by Steele.

The Government at once took steps to punish their candid friend. As
early as 1717, the Duke of Newcastle, who then became Lord Chamberlain,
had requested the managers of the theatre to accept a licence in
place of their patent. This Steele declined to do, and the matter
dropped; but in the following year there was further friction, owing
to the claim of the managers that they were exempt from the Duke’s
authority. The Attorney-General was consulted on this point, and upon
the question whether Steele had power to sell or alienate his interest
in the patent; but the result is not recorded. The first act of
revenge was an order, on December 19, 1719, forbidding Cibber–who had
dedicated his _Ximena_ to Steele–to act or take part in the management
of the theatre. Steele remonstrated, and commenced an interesting
periodical called the _Theatre_, in vindication of himself and his
fellow-managers. On January 23, 1720, the licence was revoked, and
the Lord Chamberlain threatened to obtain a sign manual to silence
the theatre. Steele petitioned the King, but on the 25th a warrant
was issued forbidding any acting at Drury Lane until further order.
On the 27th a licence, to be held during pleasure, was granted to
Wilks, Cibber, and Booth; and on March 4, in spite of every effort
of Steele’s to obtain justice, the King’s Company of Comedians were
sworn at the office of the Lord Chamberlain, to whom they agreed to be
subservient. Next month, in the last number of the _Theatre_, Steele
alluded to the loss he had sustained in not being able to produce his
own pieces advantageously, and stated that he would forthwith publish
a new comedy, called _Sir John Edgar_. This agrees with letters from
Dr. Rundle, who wrote that it was said that a most excellent comedy of
Steele’s was prevented being acted at the Haymarket Theatre, lest its
wit and sense should spoil the relish for operas. This comedy, however,
never saw the light.

Throughout 1720 the country was occupied with the fortunes of the
South Sea Company and other schemes, by which people hoped to make
rapid fortunes. Steele, both in and out of the House, again opposed
the action of ministers, and his conduct was justified in the autumn,
when the bubble burst. Aislabie, the elder Craggs, the Stanhopes, and
Sunderland were all compromised; and Walpole became First Lord of the
Treasury. Steele, as in the case of the 1715 Rebellion, advocated mercy
towards the directors of the company as individuals, though he had
fearlessly condemned their action while they had the power of doing
harm. On the 2nd of May, 1721, through Walpole’s influence, the Lord
Chamberlain issued a warrant, ordering the managers of the theatre to
account to Steele for his share of the profits, past and future. In the
autumn he was again in Scotland.

Articles quadrupartite were entered into on September 19, between
Steele, Wilks, Cibber, and Booth, by which it was agreed that Steele’s
executors should, for three years after his death, receive one-fourth
part of the profits of the theatre, and should also have, at his death,
£1,200 for his share in the patent, clothes, scenery, &c. Further
articles were also signed, which had for their object the protection of
the actors in case Steele were again deprived by order of the King or
Lord Chamberlain of his interest in the theatre. These agreements did
not prevent Steele having difficulty in getting from the other managers
his share of the profits, though he had already given them £400 each,
in consideration, as they said, of a fourth part of the scenery, &c.,
which belonged to them. At the close of the year Steele republished
_The Drummer_, which had not been included by Tickell in the collected
edition of Addison’s works, and prefixed to it a vindication of himself
from charges made by the editor. In March, 1722, he became Member of
Parliament for Wendover.


As early as 1720 Steele spoke in the _Theatre_ of “a friend of mine”
who was lately preparing a comedy according to the just laws of the
stage, and had introduced a scene in which the first character bore
unprovoked wrong, denied a duel, and still appeared a man of honour
and courage. This was clearly an allusion to the play eventually to
be published as _The Conscious Lovers_. And in a paragraph in Mist’s
_Weekly Journal_ for November 18, 1721, printed a year before the play
appeared, readers were informed that “Sir Richard Steele proposes to
represent a character upon the stage this season that was never seen
there yet: His _Gentleman_ has been two years a dressing, and we wish
he may make a good appearance at last.” In June, 1722, Vanbrugh, in
a letter to Tonson, lamented the absence of new plays of any value.
“Steele, however,” he said, “has one to come on at winter, which they
much commend.” On September 22 the _British Journal_ stated that a
considerable number of new plays were promised at Drury Lane that
season, and that Steele’s new comedy would be set up immediately after
Mrs. Centlivre’s _The Artifice_. In October the newspapers announced
that Steele’s play would be called _The Unfashionable Lovers_, or as
others said, _The Fine Gentleman_. When the play was produced, on
November 7th, the title chosen was _The Conscious Lovers_.

Mrs. Oldfield, Mrs. Younger, Booth, Wilks, and Cibber took the
principal parts in what was, in many respects, Steele’s best play,
and Benjamin Victor says that the author, with whom he sat at the
first performance, was charmed with all the actors except Griffin,
who represented Cimberton, a very ungrateful part. The play ran for
eighteen nights, which at that time meant a great success, and there
were eight further performances during the season. It was published in
December,[8] with a dedication to the King, for which Steele appears to
have received five hundred guineas.

In the Preface the success of the play was attributed to the excellent
manner in which every part was acted; for a play is meant to be seen,
not read. “The chief design of this was to be an innocent performance,
and the audience have abundantly showed how ready they are to support
what is visibly intended that way; nor do I make any difficulty to
acknowledge that the whole was writ for the sake of the scene of the
fourth act, wherein Mr Bevil evades the quarrel with his friend; and
hope it may have some effect upon the Goths and Vandals that frequent
the theatres, or a more polite audience may supply their absence.” The
general idea of the play was taken from Terence’s _Andria_, but after
the first two acts Steele’s indebtedness to Terence is very slight.
Cibber, however, rendered valuable assistance. “Mr. Cibber’s zeal for
the work,” wrote Steele, “his care and application in instructing
the actors, and altering the dispositions of the scenes, when I was,
through sickness, unable to cultivate such things myself, has been a
very obliging favour and friendship to me.” Theophilus Cibber, who had
a part in the original cast, says that when Steele finished the comedy,
the parts of Tom and Phillis were not in it, and that Colley Cibber,
when he heard it read, said he liked it upon the whole, but that it was
rather too grave for an English audience, who think the end of a comedy
is to make them laugh. Steele thereupon agreed to the introduction
of some comic characters, and at his request the play received many
additions by Cibber. The piece was, as Victor says, “the last blaze of
Sir Richard’s glory”; and it is probable that Cibber deserves all the
thanks Steele gave him for preparing for the stage the manuscript which
had for so long been in preparation, and which, without assistance,
might never have been completed. It is difficult, however, to accept
Theophilus Cibber’s account in its entirety, because the germ of the
delightful scene in which Tom, the gentleman’s gentleman, describes
how he fell in love with Phillis, is to be found in No. 87 of the
_Guardian_, where Steele says he had in mind a scene which he had
recently observed while passing a house. This is the form which the
story ultimately took:–

_Tom._ Ah! Too well I remember when, and how, and on what occasion I
was first surprised. It was on the first of April, one thousand seven
hundred and fifteen, I came into Mr. Sealand’s service; I was then a
hobbledehoy, and you a pretty little tight girl, a favourite handmaid
of the housekeeper. At that time we neither of us knew what was in us:
I remember I was ordered to get out of the window, one pair of stairs,
to rub the sashes clean; the person employed on the inner side was
your charming self, whom I had never seen before.

_Phillis._ I think I remember the silly accident: What made ye, you
oaf, ready to fall down into the street?

_Tom._ You know not, I warrant you–You could not guess what surprised
me. You took no delight, when you immediately grew wanton, in your
conquest, and put your lips close, and breathed upon the glass, and
when my lips approached, a dirty cloth you rubbed against my face, and
hid your beauteous form; when I again drew near, you spit, and rubbed,
and smiled at my undoing.

_Phillis._ What silly thoughts you men have!

_Tom._ … Oh, Phillis! Phillis! shorten my torment and declare you
pity me.

_Phillis._ I believe it’s very sufferable; the pain is not so
exquisite but that you may bear it a little longer.

“If I were rich,” said Phillis in another place, “I could twire and
loll as well as the best of them. Oh, Tom! Tom! Is it not a pity that
you should be so great a coxcomb, and I so great a coquette, and yet be
such poor devils as we are?”

The names of some of the characters recall earlier writings, for
Lucinda and her father, Mr. Sealand, Mr. Charles Myrtle, and Humphrey,
the servant, had all appeared in the _Theatre_, while there was another
Myrtle in the _Lover_. There are, too, passages which at once remind
us of the style of the earlier periodicals; thus Bevil, after escorting
a music-master to the door, says to Indiana, “You smile, madam, to
see me so complaisant to one whom I pay for his visit: Now, I own, I
think it is not enough barely to pay those whose talents are superior
to our own (I mean such talents as would become our condition, if we
had them). Methinks we ought to do something more than barely gratify
them for what they do at our command, only because their fortune is
below us”; to which Indiana replies, “You said, I smile; I assure you
it was a smile of approbation; for, indeed, I cannot but think it the
distinguishing part of a gentleman to make his superiority of fortune
as easy to his inferiors as he can.” Or, to take another passage in
the conversation of these same “conscious lovers,” Bevil remarks, “If
pleasure be worth purchasing, how great a pleasure is it to him, who
has a true taste of life, to ease an aching heart, to see the human
countenance lighted up with smiles of joy on receipt of a bit of ore
which is superfluous and otherwise useless in a man’s own pocket.” He
even remembers to praise Addison: “The moral writers practise virtue
after death: This charming Vision of Mirza! Such an author consulted
in a morning sets the spirit for the vicissitudes of the day better
than the glass does a man’s person.” And when Sir John Bevil observes
that, “What might injure a citizen’s credit may be no strain to a
gentleman’s honour,” Mr. Sealand says, “Sir John, the honour of a
gentleman is liable to be tainted by as small a matter as the credit
of a trader.” Much the same lesson is taught, less sententiously, when
Phillis exclaims, “Oh, Tom! Tom! thou art as false and as base as the
best gentleman of them all.”

Parson Adams said that he thought _The Conscious Lovers_ the only
play fit for a Christian to see; “indeed,” he added, “it contains
some things almost solemn enough for a sermon.” In this kindly satire
Fielding indicated the weakness of the play. The chief interest
of the piece is sentimental, and the hero is not always free from
priggishness. Yet the duelling scene, for which, as Steele says, the
whole was written, has much dramatic interest, and the protest against
false ideas of honour–“decisions a tyrant custom has introduced,
to the breach of all laws both divine and human”–was at that time
courageous, and much needed. If some of the things expressed in this
play are more suited for a paper in the _Spectator_, there is nothing
in true comedy which makes it incongruous to convey, in a manner suited
to that form of art, a serious lesson of life. If, again, as some say,
there is more pathos than is allowable in the scene in which Sealand
recovers his long-lost daughter and sister, the end is that of true
comedy; the “pedantic coxcomb” Cimberton no longer wants Sealand’s
daughter when he finds that, by the discovery of Indiana, Lucinda’s
fortune will be halved; Bevil is able, in marrying Indiana, the lady
he loves, to comply with his father’s wish that he should be united to
Sealand’s daughter; and Bevil’s friend, Myrtle, the true lover whose
affection is not lessened by change in the lady’s dowry, is rewarded
with the hand of Lucinda. The friends, formerly supposed by one of them
to be rivals, thus become brothers.

Steele alluded to current criticism when he said, in his Preface,
that the incident of the threatened duel and the case of the father
and daughter were thought by some to be no subjects of comedy; “but I
cannot,” he continued, “be of their mind, for anything that has its
foundation in happiness and success must be allowed to be the object of
comedy.” His object, as Welsted said in the Prologue, was to

“please by wit that scorns the aid of vice;
The praise he seeks, from worthier motives springs,
Such praise, as praise to those that give, it brings.”

It was for the audience

“To chasten wit, and moralise the stage.”

If success is to be measured by the amount of discussion caused by a
work, _The Conscious Lovers_ was, indeed, fortunate. Dennis began the
attack in a pamphlet before the play was publicly acted, and afterwards
returned to the charge. Much of what he said was personal abuse, but
some of his remarks are interesting, and show what were then held to
be the weak points in the piece. He complained that Bevil was given
the qualities of an old man, and maintained that the characters were
not just images of their contemporaries, that patterns for imitation
were set up instead of follies and vices being made ridiculous, and
that the subject of the comedy was not by its constitution comical.
Bevil’s filial piety, he said, was carried too far, and his behaviour
to Indiana was still more unaccountable, for though he had in one
sense concealed his passion, there was no retreat with honour for
him, because by his generosity and constant visits he had raised a
passion for him in Indiana, and had compromised her. The catastrophe,
he confessed, was very moving, but it might have been more surprising,
if handled differently. The action in Terence’s play was natural, as,
for example, the conduct of Glycerium at the funeral of Chrysis; but
the scene at the masquerade between Bevil and Indiana was an absurd
imitation, for Indiana did not know that her affection was returned.
As for Bevil, “this man of conscience and of religion is as arrant
an hypocrite as a certain author,” and was constantly dissimulating.
Dennis concluded by saying that the sentiments were often frivolous,
false, and absurd; the dialogue awkward, clumsy, and spiritless; the
diction affected, barbarous, and too often Hibernian.

There were other pamphlets for and against the play, and the newspapers
contained many articles on the subject. One writer remarked that a
great part of Squire Cimberton’s conversation, “some of which has since
been omitted,” could not be reconciled with rules often laid down by
Steele. “He [Steele] must always be agreeable, till he ceases to be at
all; and yet it has been always fashionable to use him ill: Blockheads
of quality, who are scarce capable of reading his works, have affected
a sort of ill-bred merit in despising ’em; and they who have no taste
for his writings, have pretended to a displeasure at his conduct.”


The remaining years of Steele’s life need not detain us long. In 1723
he wrote to his eldest daughter, Betty, “I have taken a great deal
of pains to serve the world, and hope God will allow me some time to
serve my own family. My good girl, employ yourself always in some good
work, that you may be as good a woman as your mother.” A few days later
Vanbrugh wrote, “Happening to meet with Sir Richard Steele t’other
day at Mr. Walpole’s in town, he seemed to me to be (at least) in the
declining way I had heard he was.” The complications arising from the
mortgage of Steele’s interest in the theatre still troubled him, and
from the 18th of June the other managers each took, for his own use,
£1 13s. 4d. for every day upon which a play was acted, an arrangement
from which Steele was excluded.

The success of _The Conscious Lovers_ encouraged Steele to endeavour
to finish another play; and the newspapers reported that it would be
acted that winter. This was _The School of Action_, which has for its
scene a theatre, mistaken by a lady’s guardian for an inn; but the
piece was left in a very incomplete condition. There is also a fragment
of another play, _The Gentleman_; it was a dramatised version of a
paper in the _Spectator_ upon high life below stairs. In September
illness forced Steele to go to Bath, and a few weeks later his only
surviving son, Eugene, died. “Lord, grant me patience; pray write to me
constantly,” the father wrote to Betty: “Why don’t you mention Molly?
Is she dead, too?” In the spring of 1724 he was again in London, and in
April a proposal for the payment of his debts was drawn up, from which
it appears that, as he lived for more than five years afterwards, his
liabilities were probably all met before his death. There was again
reference to “a new play, which Sir Richard may produce next winter.”
In June an indenture quadrupartite was made between Steele, of the
first part; Wilks, Cibber, and Booth, of the second part; a number
of creditors, of the third part; and the Rev. David Scurlock, of the
fourth part, to provide for the payment of debts out of Steele’s share
of the profits of the theatre. For this purpose Mr. Scurlock–Lady
Steele’s cousin–was appointed trustee.

The autumn of 1724 was spent at Carmarthen. In February, 1725, Steele
was at Hereford, where he received £100 from the King’s bounty; and
in July he was again at Carmarthen. He retired to the country from
“a principle of doing justice to his creditors,” and not, as Swift
said after his death, because of the “perils of a hundred gaols.” In
December, 1724, the other managers urged him to return to town at
once; the audiences decreased daily, and it was impossible to contend
against other forms of entertainment; the profits had fallen by more
than a half. Nothing came of this application, and in September, 1725,
protracted law proceedings were instituted in the Court of Chancery,
by Steele and Scurlock, against Wilks, Cibber, Booth, Castleman, and
Woolley. An abstract of the pleadings will be found in the Appendix.
The Court gave judgment in February, 1728, confirming the allowance of
£1 13s. 4d. a day to each of the three managers; but the case was not
brought to a close until July, when, as Cibber says, “Sir Richard not
being advised to appeal to the Lord Chancellor, both parties paid their
own costs, and thought it their mutual interest to let this be the last
of their law suits.”

During the remaining three years of his life Steele lived chiefly
at Tygwyn, a farm-house overlooking the Towy, and within sight of
Carmarthen. There he had a stroke of paralysis, which was accompanied
by a partial loss of speech, but he kept his sweetness of temper and
kindliness towards others to the last. There is a pleasant anecdote,
told by Victor, and fully confirmed elsewhere, that he “would often be
carried out on a summer’s evening, where the country lads and lasses
were assembled at their rural sports, and, with his pencil, give an
order on his agent, the mercer, for a new gown to the best dancer.”
By his will, made in 1727, and witnessed by John Dyer, the poet, he
left the residue of his small property, after certain legacies, to his
“dear and well-beloved daughters, Elizabeth and Mary.” Elizabeth, who
had many admirers, afterwards married Lord Trevor; Mary died shortly
after her father. Before his death Steele was moved to a house in
King Street, Carmarthen, where he passed away on September 1, 1729.
On the 4th he was privately buried in the vault of the Scurlocks, in
St. Peter’s Church. This vault was accidentally opened in 1876, and
Steele’s remains exposed to view; but they were carefully re-interred,
and the skull enclosed in a small lead coffin.

Steele’s faults are apparent, and they have not been allowed to be
forgotten by writers of his own day or of later times. That he was
thriftless is manifest, but his income, though it came from various
sources, was uncertain and irregular, and he had passed the prime of
life before he had anything like handsome means. Many of his debts,
too, are to be accounted for by the generosity and open-handedness
which are a characteristic of the nation in which he was born. That
he sometimes drank more than was wise is equally well known, but that
fault does not strike us so much when we remember that hard drinking
was then the common practice, and that many could consume, with
impunity, an amount which would undoubtedly have upset Steele entirely.

Against these defects, and a certain general weakness of character to
which they were due, we have to set his unselfish patriotism, the high
aims of his writings, which had a most beneficial effect upon his own
and future generations, his affection for wife and children, and his
loyalty to his friends. Whatever there is to forgive is more than made
up for by these qualities, which have made him, to this day, one of the
best-loved characters of his time.

Steele’s comedies were often reprinted in separate form during the
century following their production, and there were about a dozen
editions in which these separate plays were collected together, with
a general title-page. The last of these bears the date 1761. In 1809
Nichols published the fragments of two unfinished comedies in his
edition of Steele’s Correspondence. In the present volume all Steele’s
dramatic works have for the first time been gathered together, and an
attempt has been made to provide such annotation as seemed necessary.
Changes of scene, sometimes not noticed in the old copies, have been
indicated, and modern conventions respecting spelling and the like have
been adopted, while punctuation, which was very erratic in the early
issues, has, where necessary, been modified. The text has been collated
with the first and later editions of each play.

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