A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature/Steele, Sir Richard

Steele, Sir Richard (1672-1729). -- Essayist and dramatist, s. of a Dublin attorney, who d. when his s. was 5 years old, was on the nomination of the Duke of Ormond, sent to the Charterhouse School, where his friendship with Addison began, and thence went to Oxf., 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 three comedies, The Funeral, or Grief à; la Mode (1702), The Tender Husband (1703), and The Lying Lover (1704). Two 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 m. as his second 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 S. soon brought on embarrassment. In 1709 he laid the foundations of his fame by starting the Tatler, the first 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, and ran to 555 numbers, exclusive of a brief revival by Addison in which S. had no part, and in its turn was followed by the Guardian. It is on his essays in these that the literary fame of S. 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, one 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 favourable turn to his fortunes. The accession of George I. brought back the Whigs, and S. 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 d.; differences, arose with Addison, who d. before a reconciliation could be effected.page 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 d. after a partial loss of his faculties from paralysis.

Lives by Austin Dobson (1886) and G.A. Aitken (1889). Ed., Plays by Aitken (1893), Essays (selected) Clarendon Press (1885), Tatler, Aitken (1898), Spectator, H. Morley (1868), Gregory Smith (1897-8), Aitken (1898).