Sunday, September 1, 2019

A life too bustling

‘I have taken a resolution to write down in this book, as in times of leisure I may have opportunity, things past, or things that may occur hereafter, for the perusal and consideration of my [. . .] beloved children.’ This is Sir Richard Steele, a British political and literary figure from the late 17th and early 18th centuries, who died 290 years ago today. He tried once to keep a diary, starting with the above resolution, and left behind but a handful of entries. The editor of his memoirs regrets that his subject never kept more of a diary - ‘his life was too bustling’. Nevertheless, he had plenty of Steele’s letters to choose from, as well as snippets from a letter-journal kept by Steele’s friend Jonathan Swift.

Steele was born in Dublin in 1672 to an attorney and his wife; however he was largely brought up by an uncle and aunt. He was educated at Charterhouse School where he met Joseph Addison, and at Oxford (first Christ Church and then Merton college). He joined the Life Guards of the Household Cavalry in order to support King William’s wars against France, and was commissioned in 1697. In 1700, he gravely wounded a fellow officer in a duel. He rose to the rank of captain before leaving the army in 1705 (probably because he had neither the money or connections necessary for advancement). The following year, he was appointed to a position in the household of Prince George of Denmark, consort of Anne, Queen of Great Britain. By this time, he was already advancing a parallel career as a writer, with essays and plays. The Christian Hero was a moralistic tract, published in 1701, which led to him being branded a hypocrite for not following the ways of his own writings; and The Funeral and The Tender Husband were two theatrical comedies which brought him some success.

In 1705, Steele married the widow Margaret Stretch, but she died the following year. At the funeral, he met Mary Scurlock who he married two years later. They had one daughter (though Steele also had one illegitimate daughter as well). In 1709, he co-founded (with his friend Addison) The Tatler, featuring cultivated essays - many written by Steele - on contemporary matters. Although it would only last two years, the name has lived on, being re-used several times for later journals. The same is also true for Steele’s next short-lived ventures, The Spectator (1711) and The Guardian (1713). That year, 1713, Steele became a Member of Parliament for Stockbridge but was soon expelled for issuing a pamphlet in favour of The Hanoverian Succession. But when George I (born in Hanover) came to the throne the following year, Steele was knighted and given responsibility for the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane; and he returned to Parliament in 1715 representing Boroughbridge. In 1719, Steele fell out with Addison, who died that same year.

In 1722, Steel wrote his last and most successful comedy, The Conscious Lovers. Two years later - and still notoriously improvident, impulsive, ostentatious, and generous (the Encyclopedia of World Biography says) - he was forced to retire from London because of his mounting debts and his worsening health. He went to live on his wife’s estate in Wales, where he suffered a paralysing stroke in 1726, eventually dying on 1 September 1729. Further information is also available at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and The Twickenham Museum.

Steele was not a diarist, and Henry R. Montgomery, editor of Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Sir Richard Steele, soldier, dramatist, essayist, and patriot (William P. Nimmo, 1865 - see Internet Archive, volume one and volume two), laments this fact more than once. In his preface, however, he does commend Steele for his letters: ‘These letters are wholly unlike those of Pope and many other literary men, written for display. They are artless, unpremeditated effusions of the moment, and serve in some degree to supply the absence of anything in the shape of a diary or journal. It is indeed to be regretted that he did not leave us something of that kind. But his life was too bustling for that. Swift’s Journal to Stella is one of the most interesting things he has left behind him. What would we not give for a Boswell of those men and those times!’ Subsequently, Montgomery says of Steele’s many letters to his (second) wife, ‘while regretting the absence of a diary, which would have taken in a wider range of topics, this correspondence, which is almost as regular as a journal, supplies its place in a more limited circle, it is true, but, so far as it goes, in a more interesting form.’

In his book, Montgomery also employs Jonathan Swift’s famous Journal to Stella which was in fact composed from letters (as opposed to journal entries). Swift was a contemporary of Steele’s, and a friend. Montgomery says: ‘The intimacy of Steele with Swift has been previously noticed. He now made a memorable visit, arriving in London in the beginning of September 1710, with a commission to solicit from the Queen the remission of the first fruits and twentieth parts, payable to the Crown by the clergy of Ireland. There is reason to believe that he procured that commission with the view of pushing his own affairs at the present important crisis when the ministry was tottering. At all events he got so deeply involved in politics on his arrival that his stay was prolonged during the next two or three years. During that time he maintained a regular correspondence with Miss Esther Johnson, better known under the poetical name of Stella, in which he has celebrated her. [. . .] The correspondence was maintained in the form of a journal or diary, and is very valuable as preserving a minute record of the events of those few eventful years. By bringing into one view the scattered notices of Steele that occur in it, we obtain glimpses of him and his affairs at this time more minute and interesting than are to be obtained from any other source.’ (See also Live ten times happier for more on Journal to Stella.)

Steele may not have been a diarist, but at least once in his life he did try to become one. In 1721, just two days after his friend Robert Walpole became prime minister, Montgomery says, ‘we find [Steele] stating distinctly his impression of the secret cause of the deprivation of his rights, in a way to exonerate the Duke of Newcastle, at least of the exclusive blame.’ Unfortunately, his patience with the diary form lasted but a few days. Here is Montgomery again: ‘These entries, with another small fragment at a later date, constitute the whole of the diary; and comparatively trifling as they are, these few items but make us regret the more what we might have had if the plan which he thus late and fitfully took up had been sooner adopted, and he had given us the spirit of those Attic nights which he enjoyed in the company of Addison, Congreve, and the other wits, as well as notices and anecdotes of the leading men and events of the time.’ What follows is most of the diary material left behind by Steele.

April 4, 1721.
‘I have lately had a fit of sickness, which has awakened in me, among other things, a sense of the little care I have taken of my own family. And as it is natural for men to be more affected with the actions and sufferings and observations upon the rest of the world, set down by their predecessors, than by what they receive from other men; I have taken a resolution to write down in this book, as in times of leisure I may have opportunity, things past, or things that may occur hereafter, for the perusal and consideration of my son, Eugene Steele, and his sisters Elizabeth Steele and Mary Steele, my beloved children.’

9 April 1721
‘Easter Sunday. After the repeated perusal of Dr Tillotsou’s seventh sermon, in the third volume of the small edition of his admirable and comfortable writings, and after having done certain acts of benevolence and charity to some needy persons of merit, I went this day to the holy sacrament. In addition to the proper prayers of the Church, I framed for my private use on this occasion the following prayer: [. . .]’

9 [10?] April 1721
‘I have this morning resolved to pursue very warmly my being restored to my government of the Theatre Royal, which is my right, under the title of the Governor of the Royal Company of Comedians, and from which I have been violently dispossessed by the Duke of Newcastle, Lord Chamberlain of his Majesty’s Household, upon a frivolous pretence of jurisdiction in his office, which he has been persuaded to assert against the force of the King’s patent to me. This violation of property I take to have been instigated by the late Secretaries Stanhope and Craggs, for my opposition to the Peerage Bill, by speeches in the House and printed pamphlets.

The Duke of Newcastle brought me into this present Parliament for the town of Burroughbridge, upon which consideration I attempt all manner of fair methods to bring his grace to reason without a public trial in a court of justice: and, therefore, after applying to my Lord Sunderland and Walpole for their good offices, I writ the following letter to his grace’s brother, Mr Henry Pelham, lately appointed one of the Lords of the Treasury [. . .]’

29 April 1721
‘I purchased this day fifteen assignments in the Fish-pool undertaking, with a promissory note to deliver to Mr Robert Wilks (who sold them to me) a bond of five hundred pounds upon demand; the said bound to be payable within two years after this day.’

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