Richard Steele by Jonathan Richardson

Richard Steele (1672-1729). Portrait by Jonathan Richardson (1167-1745). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Sir Richard Steele (1672 - 1 September 1729) was an Anglo-Irish poet, playwright, editor, and politician, best remembered for collaborations with his friend Joseph Addison on the magazines The Tatler and The Spectator.

Life Edit


Steele was the son of a Dublin attorney, who died when his son was 5 years old. On the nomination of the Duke of Ormond, he was sent to the Charterhouse School, where his friendship with Addison began, and went from there to Oxford, but left without taking a degree, and enlisted in the Horse Guards, for which he was disinherited by a rich relation. He, however, gained the favour of his colonel, Lord Cutts, himself a poet, and rose to the rank of captain. With the view of setting before himself a high ideal of conduct (to which unhappily he was never able to attain), he at this time wrote a treatise on morals entitled The Christian Hero (1701). Abandoning this vein, he next produced 3 comedies, The Funeral; or, Grief à la mode (1702), The Tender Husband (1703), and The Lying Lover (1704). 2 years later he was appointed Gentleman Waiter to Prince George of Denmark, and in 1707 he was made Gazetteer; and in the same year he married as his 2nd wife Mary Scurlock, his "dear Prue," who seems, however, to have been something of a termagant. She had considerable means, but the incorrigible extravagance of Steele soon brought on embarrassment. In 1709 he laid the foundations of his fame by starting the Tatler, the 1st of those periodicals which are so characteristic a literary feature of that age. In this he had the invaluable assistance of Addison, who contributed 42 papers out of a total of 271, and helped with others. The Tatler was followed by the Spectator, in which Addison co-operated to a still greater extent. It was even a greater success, running to 555 numbers (exclusive of a brief revival by Addison in which Steele had no part), and in its turn was followed by the Guardian. It is on his essays in these that Steele's literary fame rests. With less refinement and delicacy of wit than Addison, he had perhaps more knowledge of life, and a wider sympathy, and like him he had a sincere desire for the reformation of morals and manners. In the keen political strife of the times he fought stoutly and honestly on the Whig side, a result of which was that he lost his office of Gazetteer, and was in 1714 expelled from the House of Commons to which he had just been elected. The next year gave a favorable turn to his fortunes. The accession of George I brought back the Whigs, and Stee;e was appointed to various offices, including a commissionership on forfeited estates in Scotland, which took him to Edinburgh, where he was welcomed by all the literati there. Nothing, however, could keep him out of financial embarrassments, and other troubles followed: his wife died; differences arose with Addison, who died before a reconciliation could be 358 The remaining years were clouded by financial troubles and ill-health. His last work was a play, The Conscious Lovers (1722). He left London and lived at Hereford and at Carmarthen, where he died after a partial loss of his faculties from paralysis.[1]

Youth and educationEdit

Steele was baptized on 12 March 1672 in Dublin. His father, also Richard Steele, was an attorney, who died before his son had reached his 6th year. The boy found a protector in his maternal uncle, Henry Gascoigne, secretary and confidential agent to 2 successive dukes of Ormond. Through his influence he was nominated to the Charterhouse in 1684, and there met with Addison.[2]

5 years afterwards Steele proceeded to Christ Church, Oxford, and was a postmaster at Merton when Addison was a demy at Magdalen. Their schoolboy friendship was continued at the university, and probably helped to give a more serious turn to Steele's mind than his natural temperament would have taken under different companionship. Addison's father also took an interest in the warm-hearted young Irishman; but their combined influence did not steady him sufficiently to keep his impulses within the lines of a regular career.[2]

Without waiting for a degree he volunteered into the army, and served for some time as a cadet "under the command of the unfortunate duke of Ormond " (i.e. the 1st duke's grandson). This escapade was made without his uncle's consent, and cost him, according to his own account, "the succession to a very good estate in the county of Wexford in Ireland."[2]

Still, he did not lack advancement in the profession he had chosen. A poem on the funeral of Queen Mary (1695), dedicated to Lord Cutts, colonel of the Coldstream Guards, brought him under the notice of that nobleman, who took the gentleman trooper into his household as a secretary, made him an officer in his own regiment, and ultimately procured for him a captaincy in Lord Lucas's regiment of foot. His name was noted for promotion by King William, but the king's death took place before anything had been done for Captain Steele.[2]

A duel which he fought with Captain Kelly in Hyde Park in 1700, and in which he wounded his antagonist dangerously, inspired him with a dislike of the practice that he showed to the end of his life.[2]

Steele probably owed the king's favor to a timely reference to his majesty in The Christian Hero, his 1st prose treatise, published in April 1701. The "reformation of manners" was a cherished purpose with King William and his consort, which they tried to effect by proclamation and act of parliament; and a sensible well-written treatise, deploring the irregularity of the military character, and seeking to prove by examples — the king himself among the number — "that no principles but those of religion are sufficient to make a great man," was sure of attention.[2]


Steele complained that the reception of The Christian Hero by his comrades was not so respectful; they persisted in trying him by his own standard, and would not pass "the least levity in his words and actions" without protest. His uneasiness under the ridicule of his irreverent comrades had a curious result: it moved him to write a comedy. "It was now incumbent upon him," he says "to enliven his character, for which reason he writ the comedy called The Funeral."[2]

Although, however, it was Steele's express purpose to free his character from the reproach of solemn dullness, and prove that he could write as smartly as another, he showed greater respect for decency than had for some time been the fashion on the stage. The purpose, afterwards more fully effected in his famous periodicals, of reconciling wit, good humour and good breeding with virtuous conduct was already deliberately in Steele's mind when he wrote his 1st comedy. It was produced and published in 1701, and received on the stage with favor.[2]

His next comedy, The Lying Lover; or, the ladies' friendship, based on Corneille's Menteur, was produced 2 years afterwards, in December 1703, In it, Steele's moral purpose was directly avowed, and the play, according to his own statement, was "damned for its piety." The Tender Husband, an imitation of Moliere's Sicilien, produced 18 months later (in April 1705), though not less pure in tone, was more successful; in this play he gave unmistakable evidence of his happy genius for conceiving and embodying humorous types of character, putting on the stage the parents or grandparents of Squire Western, Tony Lumpkin and Lydia Languish.[2]

It was 17 years before Steele again tried his fortune on the stage with The Conscious Levers, the best and most successful of his comedies, produced in December 1722.[2]

The TatlerEdit

Meanwhile the gallant captain had turned aside to another kind of literary work, in which, with the assistance of his friend Addison, he obtained a more enduring reputation. There never was a time when literary talent was so much sought after and rewarded by statesmen. Addison had already been waited on in "his humble lodgings in the Haymarket," and advanced to office, when his friend the successful dramatist was appointed to the office of gazetteer. This was in April or May 1707. It was Steele's 1st connection with journalism.[2]

The periodical was at that time taking the place of the pamphlet as an instrument for working on public opinion. The Gazette gave little opening for the play of Steele's lively pen, his main duty, as he says, having been to "keep the paper very innocent and very insipid"; but the position made him familiar with the new field of enterprise in which his inventive mind soon discerned materials for a project of his own.[2]

The Taller made its debut appearance on 12 April 1709. It was partly a newspaper, a journal of politics and society, published 3 times a week. Steele's position as gazetteer furnished him with special advantages for political news, and as a popular frequenter of coffee-houses he was at no loss for social gossip. But Steele not only retailed and commented on social news, a function in which he had been anticipated by Defoe and others; he also gradually introduced into the Tatler as a special feature essays on general questions of manners and morality.[2]

It is not strictly true that Steele was the inventor of the English essay — there were essayists before the 18th century, notably Cowley and Temple — but he was the 1st to use the essay for periodical purposes, and he and Addison together developed a distinct species, to which they gave a permanent character, and in which they had many imitators.[2]

As a humbler motive for this fortunate venture Steele had the pinch of impecuniosity, due rather to excess of expenditure than to smallness of income. He had £300 a year from his gazetteership (paying a tax of £45), £100 as gentleman waiter to Prince George, £850 from the Barbadoes estates of his 1st wife (a widow named. Margaret Stretch), and some fortune by his second wife, Mary (Scurlock), the "dear Prue" of his charming letters.. But Steele lived in considerable state after his 2nd marriage, and before he started the Tatler was reduced to the necessity of borrowing.[2]

The pseudonym of the editor was Isaac Bickerstaff, but Addison discovered the real author in the 6th number, and began to contribute in the 18th. It is only fair to Steele to state that the success of the Tatler was established before Addison joined him, and that Addison contributed to only 42 of the 271 numbers that had appeared when the paper was stopped, obscurely, in January 1711. Some papers satirizing Harley appeared in the Tatler, and Steele lost or resigned the post of gazetteer. It is possible that this political recklessness may have had something to do with the sudden end of the venture.[2]

Later publicationsEdit

Only 2 months elapsed between the stoppage of the Tatler and the appearance of the Spectator, which was the organ of the 2 friends from 1 March 1711 till 6 December 1712. Addison was the chief contributor to the new venture, and the history of it belongs more to his life. Nevertheless, it is to be remarked as characteristic of the 2 writers that in this as in the Tatler Addison generally follows Steele's lead in the choice of subjects.[2]

The 1st suggestion of Sir Roger de Coverley was Steele's, although it was Addison that filled in the outline of a good-natured country gentleman with the numerous little whimsicalities that convert Sir Roger into an amiable and exquisitely ridiculous provincial oddity. Steele had neither the fineness of touch nor the humorous malice that gives life and distinction to Addison's picture; the Sir Roger of his original hasty sketch has good sense as well as good nature, and the treatment is comparatively commonplace from a literary point of view, though unfortunately not commonplace in its charity. Steele's suggestive vivacity gave many another hint for the elaborating skill of his friend.[2]

The Spectator was followed by the Guardian, the 1st number of which appeared on 12 March 1713. It had a much shorter career, extending to only a 176 numbers, of which Steele wrote 82. This was the last of his numerous periodicals in which he had the material assistance of Addison. But he continued for several years to project journals, under various titles, some of them political, some social in their objects, most of them very short-lived.[2]

Steele was a warm partisan of the principles of the Revolution, as earnest in his political as in his other convictions. The Englishman was started in October 1733, immediately after the stoppage of the Guardian, to assail the policy of the Tory ministry. The Lover, started in February 1714, was more general in its aims; but it gave place in a month or 2 to The Reader, a direct counterblast to the; Tory Examiner. The Englishman was resuscitated for another volume in 1715; and he subsequently projected in rapid succession 3 unsuccessful ventures — Town Talk, the Tea Table, and Chit Chat.[2]

3 years later Steele started his most famous political paper, The Plebeian, rendered memorable by the fact that it embroiled him with his old ally Addison. The subject of controversy between the 2 lifelong friends was Sunderland's Peerage Bill. Steele's last venture in journalism was The Theatre, 1720, the immediate occasion of which was the revocation of his patent for Drury Lane.[2]

Besides these journals he wrote also several pamphlets on passing questions — on the disgrace of Marlborough in 1711, on the fortifications of Dunkirk in 1713, on the "crisis" in 1714, An Apology for Himself and his Writings (important biographically) in the same year, and on the South Sea mania in 1720.[2]


The fortunes of Steele as a zealous Whig varied with the fortunes of his party. Over the Dunkirk question he waxed so hot that he threw up a pension and a commissionership of stamps, and went into parliament as member for Stockbridge to attack the ministry with voice and vote as well as with pen. But he had not sat many weeks when he was expelled from the house for the language of his pamphlet on the Crisis, which was stigmatised as seditious. The Apology was his vindication of himself on this occasion.[2]

With the accession of the House of Hanover his fortunes changed. Honors and substantial rewards were showered upon him. He was made a justice of the peace, deputy-lieutenant of Middlesex, surveyor of the royal stables, and governor of the royal company of comedians. After the suppression of the Jacobite rebellion he was appointed a commissioner of forfeited estates, and spent some 2 years in Scotland in that capacity. In 1718 he obtained a patent for a plan for bringing salmon alive from Ireland.[2]

Differing from his friends in power on the question of the Peerage Bill he was deprived of some of his offices, but when Walpole became chancellor of the exchequer in 1721 he was reinstated. With all his emoluments, however, the imprudent, impulsive, ostentatious and generous Steele could never get clear of financial difficulties, and he was obliged to retire from London in 1724 and live in the country. He spent his last years on his wife's estate of Llangunnor in Wales, and, his health broken down by a paralytic seizure, died at Carmarthen on the 1st of September 1729.[2]


is inseparably associated in the history of literature with his personal friend Addison. He cannot be said to have lost in reputation by the partnership, because he was inferior to Addison in purely literary gift, and it is Addison's literary genius that has floated their joint work above merely journalistic celebrity; but the advantage was not all on Steele's side, inasmuch as his more brilliant coadjutor has usurped not a little of the merit rightly due to him.[3]

Steele's often-quoted generous acknowledgment of Addison's services in the Taller has proved true in a somewhat different sense from that intended by the writer: "I fared like a distressed prince who calls in a powerful neighbour to his aid; I was undone by my auxiliary; when I had once called him in I could not subsist without dependence on him." The truth is that in this happy alliance the one was the complement of the other; and the balance of mutual advantage was much more nearly even than Steele claimed or posterity has generally allowed.[3]

A selection from Steele's essays, with a prefatory memoir, has been edited by Austin Dobson (1885; revised 1896). Dobson contributed a fuller biography to Andrew Lang's series of English Worthies, in 1886. In 1889 another and more exhaustive life was published by G.A. Aitken, who also edited Steele's plays (1898) and the Tatler (1898).[2]


Steele was knighted in 1715.[2]

In Popular CultureEdit

Steele plays a minor role in the novel The History of Henry Esmond by William Makepeace Thackeray. It is during his time with the Life Guards, where he is mostly referred to as Dick the Scholar and makes mention of his friend "Joe Addison." He befriends the title character when Esmond is a boy.



  • The Procession: A poem on Her Majesty's funeral, by a gentleman of the Army. London: Thomas Bennett / John Whitlock, 1695.
  • An Imitation of the Sixth Ode of Horace: Apply'd to His Grace the Duke of Marlborough. London: 1704.
  • Occasional verse (edited by Rae Blanchard). Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1952.


  • The Funeral; or, Grief a-la-mode: A comedy. London: Jacob Tonson, 1702.
  • The Lying Lover; or, The ladies friendship: A comedy. London: Bernard Lintott, 1704; 3rd edition, London: William Mears, 1717.
  • The Tender Husband; or, The accomplish'd fools: A comedy. London: Jacob Tonson, 1705; Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1967.
  • The Mistake: A comedy. London: Jacob Tonson, 1706.
  • The Funeral / The Tender Husband. London: Jacob Tonson, 1717.
  • The Conscious-lovers: A comedy. London: Jacob Tonson, 1723.
  • Dramatick Works. London: Jacob Tonson / Bernard Lintot, 1723.
  • Plays (edited by G.A. Aitken). London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1894.
  • Plays (edited by Shirley Strum Kenny). Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1971.


  • The Christian Hero. London: Jacob Tonson, 1701.
  • The Lucubrations of Isaac Bickerstaff (with Joseph Addison). (2 volumes), London: Charles Lillie / John Morphew, 1710.
  • The Englishman's Thanks to the Duke of Marlborough. London: A. Baldwin, 1712.
  • The Importance of Dunkirk Consider'd. London: A. Baldwin, 1713.
  • The Crisis: with some seasonable remarks on the danger of a Popish successor. London: Sam. Buckley, for F. Burleigh, 1713, 1714.
  • The French Faith Represented in the Present State of Dunkirk. London: Ferd. Burleigh, 1714.
  • A Letter to a Member of Parliament. London: Ferd. Burleigh, 1714.
  • Mr Steele's Apology for Himself and His Writings. London: R. Burleigh, 1714.
  • Mr Steele's speech upon the Proposal of Sir Thomas Hanmer for Speaker. London: L. Mathard, 1714.
  • Political Writings. London: Jacob Tonson, 1715.
  • The British Subject's Answer to the Pretender's Declaration. London: 1716; Dublin: John Walley, 1716.
  • Chit-chat: In a letter to a lady in the country. London: Richard Burleigh, 1716.
  • A Letter to a Member etc: Concerning the condemn'd Lords. London: J. Roberts / J. Graves / A. Dodd, 1716.
  • Sir Richard Steele's Speech for Repealing the Triennial Act. London: 1716; Dublin: Cornelius Carter, 1716.
  • An Account of the Fish Pool. London: H. Meere / J. Pemberton / J. Roberts, 1718.
  • The Antidote; in A letter to the Free-thinker. London: J. Roberts, 1719.
  • A Letter to the Earl of O—d: Concerning the bill of peerage. London: J. Roberts, 1719.
  • A Discourse upon Honour and Peerage. London: J. Roberts, 1719.
  • The Spinster: In defence of the woollen manufacturers. London: J. Roberts, 1719.
  • The Crisis of Property. London: W. Chetwood, et al, 1720.
  • A Nation a Family: Being the sequel of the crisis of property. London: W. Chetwood, et al, 1720.
  • The State of the Case between the Lord-Chamberlain and the Governor of the Royal Company of Comedians. London: J. Roberts / J. Graves / Charles Lillie, 1720.
  • Tracts and Pamphlets (edited by Rae Blanchard). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1944.
  • Periodical Journalism (edited by Rae Blanchard). Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1959.


  • The Tatler. London: John Morphew, 1709-1711; London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1953.
  • The Spectator (edited with Joseph Addison). London: Sam. Buckley, 1711-14; London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1945.
  • The Guardian. London: Jacob Tonson, 1713-1714; Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1982.
  • The Englishman. London: R. Burleight, 1713-1715; Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1955.
  • The Ladies Library. (3 volumes), London: Jacob Tonson, 1714; 3rd edition, London: Jacob Tonson, 1722.
  • The Lover: Written in imitation of the Tatler. London: J. Walker, 1714.
  • Poetical Miscellanies. London: Jacob Tonson, 1714.
  • The Reader. London: Jacob Tonson, 1714.
  • The Plebeian: To be continued monthly. London: S. Popping, 1719.
  • The Theatre. London: J. Tonson, 1720.


  • Epistolary Correspondence (edited by John Nichols). (2 volumes), London: John Nichols, 1787.
  • Letters (edited by R. Brimley Johnson). London: John Lane / New York: Dodd, Mead, 1927.
  • Correspondence (edited by Rae Blanchard). London: Humphrey Milford, for Oxford University Press, 1941; Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1968.

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[4]

See alsoEdit


  • PD-icon.svg Minto, William, & Austin Dobswon (1911). "Steele, Sir Richard". In Chisholm, Hugh. Encyclopædia Britannica. 25 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 865-866. . Wikisource, Web, Mar. 5, 2018.


  1. John William Cousin, "Steele, Sir Richard," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1910, 357-358. Wikisource, Web, Mar. 5, 2018.
  2. 2.00 2.01 2.02 2.03 2.04 2.05 2.06 2.07 2.08 2.09 2.10 2.11 2.12 2.13 2.14 2.15 2.16 2.17 2.18 2.19 2.20 2.21 2.22 2.23 2.24 2.25 2.26 Minto & Dobson, 866.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Minto & Dobson, 865.
  4. Search results = au:Richard Steele, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Dec. 2, 2016.

External linksEdit