A Literary Worthy
WHAT is the fascination that makes our men of letters conceive a special liking for the things of Queen Anne’s reign ? Thackeray is the embodiment of this partiality, and he may have given a direction to Victorian taste ; but there is an original attraction in the age when Bohemianism was classical, in the first of our literary epochs to which we are admitted in undress, and especially in men so human that there is no presumption in our thinking of the best of them oftentimes as of “ the friends who never could be ours.” The author of this volume 1 is under the spell ; it has made him a seasoned habitué of the haunts of Queen Anne’s city. He knows his London like an antiquary, and rebuilds it like a dramatist. The strenuous exactness of modern biography, it is true, interferes with the proper effects of theatrical art, the names of the supernumeraries confuse the cast, the necessary minutiæ of the action and episodes in corners crowd the stage, and at the best it is only a chronicle play ; but with all this research and verification and detail of affairs that cramp the literary hand at nearly every sentence, these pages have the lively truth of Steele’s own sketches of himself and the town. Something of this vividness is due to the author’s taking many of the scenes en bloc from Steele’s confessions, — those autobiographic passages, so free from self-consciousness, which most endear him, as they best paint him, to our thoughts. These revelations, however, do not suffice for a biography, but must be joined, and lighted up, and made to reflect upon one another, and the other characters must be given their right relation in the dialogue, and little anecdotes must be told by the way ; in all this there can be no aid from Steele. By what felicity, for instance, shall the semblance of a form be given to Mrs. Steele ? Many a reader must have shared our curiosity respecting her, and our chagrin, also, at the ill-success of any efforts to get into her good graces, if only so far as to obtain one fair view of the domestic charmer to which all those marital billets-doux were sent. Who was she ? — for that correspondence is like nothing so much as some torn romance, in which one reads of only one lover. The biographer has evoked her from the shades, unsubstantial, but at least imaginable; he has even caught a glimpse of her, with the mind’s eye, still in “ the indolent sommeils du matin (dear to Millamant) of irresponsible maidenhood.” He first suggests her qualities : “As an unmarried woman she had been a beauty and a ‘ scornful lady,’ to use the seventeenth-century synonym for a coquette, and she apparently continued to retain as a wife a good deal of that affected disdain and tenacity of worship which had characterized her as a spinster. She seems also to have been given to vapors, and variable beyond the license of her sex ; and from her injunction to her husband, when choosing a house, to get one near a church, was probably something of a dévote.” Then, with literary tact, he concludes with a drawing quite in Thackeray’s masculine manner: “ The escape from impecuniosity is less easy for the woman than for the man. Steele, with his elastic vitality and his keen interest in human nature, could easily fling to the Cretan winds both Barbadoes and the bailiffs over a bottle with an opportune ‘ schoolfellow from India.’ But it must have been far otherwise for ‘ dearest Prue,’ nursing the wreck of her expectations in tearful tête-à-tête with the sympathetic Mrs. Binns, or waiting nervously, in an atmosphere of Hungary water, for the long-expected tidings that her husband’s vaguely defined affairs’ were at last successfully composed.” Such was “ Prue,” not without some traits of kindness for “good Dick.” more than are indicated here; but these the author is careful to add upon a later page.
As with the enigmatical and ever-retiring Lady Steele, so in a higher degree with the well-known persons and broadly flaunting fashions of the time, Mr. Dobson has the art of the literary limner. Addison and Swift, with the amiable gentlemen of the Guards, or the boards, or the public offices, Lord Cutts or Lord Finch, Estcourt or Mainwaring, or even her ladyship of various employments, Mrs. De la Rivière Manley, are continually gliding in and out; and the crowd of gamblers and duelists and Mohawks of all kinds, the fops and gulls and boobies, the beaux and the fine madams, make up the busy background of the ever-frivolous town. It has sometimes seemed marvelous to us that such vitality resides in these old modes. Never was a literary work of high rank so burdened with mortality, one would think, as these Tatlers and Spectators, and their sequent brood of ephemeral periodicals, interminably hatching, whose name truly was legion. If the comedy of manners is, as is said, necessarily short-lived, and satire does not survive its sting, and moralizing, however elegant, falls from the silver-lipped pulpit orator like lead to the ground, how is it that the fates have dealt so kindly with the Society-Circular that Steele edited, which is full of all such matter of decay ? It lives, certainly, and still delights; and if the great reputation of Addison has made it classical, yet it is Steele’s nature, as much as Addison’s art, that keeps it whole and sound. Mr. Dobson continually reminds the reader of this, and rightly ; for Addison’s name has cast his loyal school-fellow’s so much into the shade that it is with surprise that one comes upon such an encomium of Steele as is here quoted from Gay, in which the whole credit of the Tatler, and the revolution of tastes and manners it began, is given with whole-souled vigor to the popular gazetteer. So welcome was Bickerstaff at tea-tables and assemblies, so “ relished and caressed by the merchants on the Change,” writes Gay, that “ there is not a Lady at Court, nor a Banker in Lombard Street, who is not verily persuaded that Captain Steele is the greatest Scholar and best Casuist of any man in England.” Steele deserved this praise, for he was not only the active and inventing principal in the venture, but to this day the humanity of his genius is as essential to the immortality of the eighteenth-century essay as are the contemplative benignity and the instinct for refining the mind’s creations which belonged to his more imposing and more belauded associate. But let us keep with our author, and not throw stones at Addison, however unfairly the award of reputation may seem to have been made between the two members of one of the most fortunate, as well as famous, literary partnerships : only let us not allow Steele to suffer too much by the humility of his affection, and the readiness with which his own lips ran over with noble compliments to his friend.
Criticism and biography, however, are very distinct things ; and this little volume has invited and detained our attention, as it must that of any lover of literature who has felt the glamour of that reign of Queen Anne’s, not because of its wise and kindly discrimination between the work and genius of the two fraternal essayists, and its nice allotments of place and fame to each ; nor because of its revival of the temporalities of the theatre, the coffee-house, the Parliament, the house in Bloomsbury Square, and the box at Hampton-Wick, with all their belongings ; but because it is the life of a man who may properly be inscribed among English Worthies, in a sense, but who was, over and above all else, the most humane, the most winning and cheerful heart in the literary England of his time. This is the first true life of him, written fully and with sympathy and judgment at once. Steele himself is its subject; and he is found to be as much a man of affairs as of letters. He was, of course, born with the “gift; ” but he seems to have employed it usually in the service of life, and on some occasion more pressing than the ordinary call of pure literature to the young man to sit down and write. He was always busy, almost continuously a place-holder, and generally entangled besides with private embarrassments, growing out of his unrealizable fortunes. He had leisure to observe the world, nevertheless, and he was filled from his earliest literary days, at any rate, with a missionary fervor to reform first his own morals, and then those of his fellows and of the town. He had a quick eye, and an impulsive pen was a good second to an impressible heart. The comedies, the essays, and the tracts tell the rest of the story, so far as literature is interested. In polities and in all the relations of private life, he acted, at the critical points, with courage, feeling, and honor, whether toward Swift, or Oxford, or Addison. He has written his own domestic and social character where all the world can read it. He suffered from an irresistible temptation to make a clean breast of all his transgressions, on the slightest provocation ; and this quality. together with the flings of faction at his private name, have laid his weaknesses bare. These Mr. Dobson does not conceal; he does not probe them with respectable morality, nor cover them with patronizing solicitude, but toward the close of his account of a most manly life, so far as purpose, conscience, and honest effort go, he writes down explicitly the very obvious truth that there “ have been wiser, stronger, greater men ; ” but he adds, — and the words are so graceful that we will conclude with them, — “ Many a strong man would have been stronger for a touch of Steele’s indulgent sympathy; many a great man has wanted his genuine largeness of heart; many a wise man might learn something from his deep and wide humanity. His virtues redeemed his frailties. He was thoroughly amiable, kindly, and generous. Faute d’archanges il faut aimer des créatures imparfaites.”
- Richard Steele. By AUSTIN DOBSON. [English Worthies.] London: Longmans, Greene & Co. 1886.↩