The date of the founding of The Tatler is important as marking the beginning of popular literature in England. From this humble origin sprang the great army[Pg 23] of magazines and reviews which, for the last two hundred years, have contained so much of the best English writing. Before The Tatler, it may be said that there was no good reading in popular form. The English novel was not yet born. The newspapers, about as large as a lady's pocket handkerchief, contained nothing but news, and very little of that. The political pamphlet was purely partisan, was usually written by penny-a-liners, and could rarely pretend to any permanent interest or literary quality. In 1704 Daniel Defoe had founded his Review, which deserves to be called the earliest of political journals; but the Review, though it contains much vigorous writing, was strictly a party organ. Steele's purpose in The Tatler was quite different. He is a humorist and moralist. He writes to entertain, and incidentally, to correct or improve; he aims to depict all the charms and the humours of society, and to turn a playful satire upon its follies. To do this is always to make literature; to do it as Steele and Addison could, is to "show the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."
The immediate success of The Tatler and The Spectator is easily understood. In the first place, there was now coming to be, for the first time, a large reading public in England. Before 1700 no English author had made a fortune or even a competence by the sale of his books. But the most important social fact in England at the beginning of the eighteenth century is the rapid growth of a great middle class. Shrewd, energetic, these men[Pg 24] were getting the trade and commerce of England mostly into their hands, filling up the great towns, and exerting an influence in public affairs which neither political party could afford to overlook. It was for them that the political pamphlet was written. How large a reading public a popular pamphleteer might command at this time, may be inferred from the fact that sixty thousand copies of one of Defoe's pamphlets are said to have been sold on the streets of London, and Swift's famous tract, The Conduct of the Allies, ran through four editions in a week. But these people demanded something better than the party pamphlet. Intelligent, ambitious, they had social aspirations, and were interested in the life of the hour, in the club, in the drawing-room, at the theatre. They had some relish, too, of the best things in poetry and art. When Pope translated the Iliad his publisher issued an elegant subscription edition of six hundred and fifty copies for more aristocratic purchasers; but he issued also a cheap duodecimo edition for the general public, and of this he seems to have sold about seven thousand copies almost immediately after publication. Indeed, if we except Addison, all the prominent men of letters of the Queen Anne time-Steele, Swift, Pope, Prior, Gay-themselves belonged to this middle class; they were all the sons of tradesmen.
The readers for whom Steele and Addison wrote nearly all lived in London-and loved it. They were interested in the passing life of the town, in the street,[Pg 25] the stage, the coffee-house. Doubtless that old London was an ugly, unkempt town. Its population was only about half a million-less than one-tenth what it is to-day. Its streets were narrow, ill-paved, and dirty, separated from the strip of sidewalk on either hand by reeking gutters. After nightfall, lighted only by flickering oil lamps, they were the haunt of footpads who terrorized the watchmen, and of bands of roistering young blades who headed up women in barrels and rolled them down hill for diversion, or chased the unwary stranger into a corner and made him dance by pricking him with their sword points. Public morals were very low. Drunkenness and license confronted the decent citizen on every hand, and, in public gardens like Vauxhall, often held high carnival. Taste and manners, even in what called itself polite society, were often coarse. Profanity, loud and open, might have been heard on the lips of fine ladies in places of public resort; while Swift's Polite Conversation affords convincing proof of how vapid and how gross the talk might be at the ridotto or over the card table.
Yet if society at this time had its seamy side, it was in the age of Anne that Englishmen began to feel the charm of wit and manners, of fashion and breeding. To the man about town, this murky London was the centre of all that was best and brightest in a new society. It was not so large but that he felt at home in every part of it. In one coffee-house he met the wits and men of letters, in another the scholars and clergy,[Pg 26] in another the merchants, in another the men of fashion and gallantry, and in all he could hear bright talk upon the news of the day. In the theatre he could see the latest play, written by Mr. Congreve or Mr. Addison, and with a prologue by Mr. Pope. He probably belonged to two or three clubs; and in the drawing-room or at the assembly he enjoyed the society of women with the charm of gentle manners and brilliant conversation. All that served to make life attractive and character urbane he found between Hyde Park and the Bank.
Now it was to this quickened social sense that The Tatler and The Spectator made appeal. They pictured the life of the town from day to day, especially in its lighter, more humorous phases. And this was always done with some underlying moral purpose. As the months go past, we have in these papers an exhaustless flow of kindly satire upon the manners and minor morals of society,-on behaviour at church, on ogling the ladies, on snuff-taking, on the folly of enormous petticoats and low tuckers, on the brainless fops that display themselves in club windows and the brainless flirts that display themselves in stage boxes. We have bits of keen character-painting too-the small poet who assures you that poets are born, not made; the beau who is caught practising before the mirror to catch a careless air; the man who is so ambitious to be thought wise that he sets up for a free-thinker and talks atheism all day at the club, though he says his prayers very[Pg 27] carefully every night at home. One can imagine with what pleasure the town must have seen its follies taken off so smartly. Occasionally, too, there are short stories-usually written by Steele-bits of domestic narrative showing the peace and purity of home. In The Spectator, the papers are somewhat longer and more ambitious than those of The Tatler, and here are many essays on graver themes, and carefully elaborated critical studies, like the famous series by Addison on Milton's Paradise Lost. Yet, from first to last, the most interesting papers, both of The Tatler and The Spectator, are those which depict with kindly irony the daily life of the town. There is not to be found in English literature up to that time any satire so wholesome, any pictures of contemporary society so vivid and so entertaining. Indeed, it may perhaps be said that, of the sort, we have had nothing better in English literature since.
For such writing as this it would be difficult to imagine two men better fitted than Richard Steele and Joseph Addison. Each supplied the deficiencies of the other. Steele was an impulsive, warm-hearted man of the world. Few men knew the society of that day in all its phases better than he did, and certainly no man liked it better. No English writer before him feels so keenly the charm of the passing hour, or takes such brisk and cheery interest in all the thousand events of daily experience. His sympathies, too, were warm as well as broad. His heart was tender, and he always[Pg 28] carried it on his sleeve. This amiable and ingenuous temper made his writing very attractive, and still goes far to atone for all its imperfections. Addison, on the other hand, was a rather cool, self-contained, observant man, who loved to sit in his club with a little circle of admirers about him, and promote the good-nature of the world in a somewhat superior and distant fashion. His temper, less buoyant than Steele's, was more thoughtful and reflective; his humour, more delicate and subtle. And if his observation was not so broad as that of Steele, it was nicer and more penetrating. Steele, seeing life at more points, struck out more new incidents and characters; Addison had more skill to elaborate them.
In point of style the work of Addison is manifestly superior to that of Steele. Steele's writing has, indeed, the great merit of spontaneity. It is full of himself. To read his easy, lively page is like hearing him talk at your elbow; and, now and then, when his emotions are warmed, he can snatch a grace beyond the reach of art. But he was too impulsive and eager to stay for that painstaking correction without which literary finish is impossible. His rhetoric and even his grammar are sometimes sadly to seek. The faults of his extempore writing were matter of caustic comment by the critics of his own day; and ever since it has been customary to award the literary honours of The Tatler and The Spectator not to Steele but to Addison. Nor is this unjust. For Addison was the first of our writers to perceive clearly[Pg 29] that simple and popular prose was capable of finished, artistic treatment. That minute care, that trained skill which hitherto had been reserved for poetry, he bestowed upon his prose. He had naturally a nice taste, an especially quick sense of movement and melody in prose, and he took infinite pains. He would stop the press to change a phrase, or set right a conjunction. And this effort issued in a style in which all sense of effort is lost in graceful ease. His thought is never profound, and seldom vigorous; his range is not wide; on serious subjects he is sometimes a little dull, and on lighter subjects sometimes a little trivial; but his manner is always suave, refined, urbane. He was the first Englishman who succeeded in writing prose at once familiar, idiomatic to the very verge of colloquialism, and at the same time highly finished. You think such writing is easily done until you try it yourself; then you soon find your mistake.