Richard Steele (1672–1729)
Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)
STEELE, Sir RICHARD (1672–1729), essayist, dramatist, and politician, was born in Dublin in March 1672 (N. S.), and was baptised at St. Bridget's Church on the 12th of that month. He was consequently some weeks older than Joseph Addison [q. v.], who was born on 1 May following. Steele's father, also Richard Steele, was a well-to-do Dublin attorney, who had a country house at Mountain (Monkstown), and was at one time sub-sheriff of Tipperary. He married, in 1670, an Irish widow named Elinor Symes (or Sims), born Sheyles. When his son was ‘not quite five years of age’ (Tatler, No. 181), the elder Steele died, and of Mrs. Steele we know nothing but what the same authority tells us, namely, that she was ‘a very beautiful woman, of a noble spirit.’ She cannot have long survived her husband, since Steele seems to have passed early into the care of an uncle, Henry Gascoigne, private secretary to James Butler, first duke of Ormonde [q. v.], by whose influence the boy in November 1684 obtained a nomination to the Charterhouse, of which the duke was a governor. Two years later Addison entered the same school, and a lifelong friendship began between the pair.
In November 1689 Steele was ‘elected to the university’ of Oxford, whither Addison had already preceded him. On 13 March 1690 he matriculated at Christ Church, and on 27 Aug. 1691 he became a postmaster of Merton, his college tutor being Dr. Welbore Ellis [q. v.], afterwards mentioned in the ‘Christian Hero.’ He continued his friendship with Addison, then a demy at Magdalen, and appears to have visited him in his home at Lichfield (Preface to the Drummer, 1722, and Tatler, No. 235). While at college he enjoyed some reputation as a scholar. He dabbled also in letters, composing a comedy which, by the advice of a friend, Mr. Parker of Merton, he burned. Then suddenly, in 1694, much to the regret of ‘the whole Society,’ he left Merton without taking a degree, and entered the army as a cadet or gentleman-volunteer in the second troop of life-guards, at that time under the command of the second Duke of Ormonde, thereby losing, as he tells us in the ‘Theatre,’ No. 11, ‘the succession to a very good estate in the county of Wexford in Ireland.’ What this estate was his biographers have failed to discover, although it has been conjectured that, if it existed at all, it belonged to a relative of his mother.
On 28 Dec. 1694 Queen Mary died, and among the mourning bards who, in black-framed folio, celebrated her funeral was Steele, whose verses, described as ‘by a Gentleman of the Army,’ and entitled ‘The Procession,’ were, doubtless from motives of policy, dedicated to John, lord Cutts [q. v.], who had just become colonel of the 2nd or Coldstream regiment of foot-guards. Lord Cutts took Steele into his household, and in 1696–7 employed him as his confidential agent or secretary (cf. Carleton, Memoirs, 1728, ch. iii.). Ultimately he gave him a standard in his own regiment. By 1700 Steele is referred to as ‘Captain,’ and there is also evidence that he was in friendly relations with Sedley, Congreve, Vanbrugh, Garth, and other contemporary wits. In the same year (16 June), ‘one or two of his acquaintance’ having ‘thought fit to misuse him and try their valour upon him’ (Apology for himself and his Writings, 1714, p. 80), he fought a duel in Hyde Park with a Captain Kelly, whom he wounded dangerously, but not mortally (Luttrell, Diary, iv. 657). This occurrence made a serious impression upon him, and laid the foundation of that dislike of duelling which he ever afterwards exhibited. In all probability it is connected with his next literary effort, the treatise called ‘The Christian Hero: an Argument proving that no Principles but those of Religion are sufficient to make a great Man.’ This (which was also dedicated to Lord Cutts) was published by Tonson in April 1701, a second and enlarged edition following on 19 July. Steele's own account of this work in his ‘Apology,’ p. 80, is that, finding the military life ‘exposed to much irregularity,’ he wrote it ‘to fix upon his own mind a strong impression of virtue and religion, in opposition to a stronger propensity towards unwarrantable pleasures,’ which admission has probably been construed too literally (cf. Biogr. Brit. 1763, vol. vi. pt. i. p. 3823). The ‘Christian Hero’ was at first designed solely for his private use, but finding ‘that this secret admonition was too weak,’ he ultimately ‘printed the book with his name,’ as a ‘standing testimony against himself.’ It differs considerably both in style and teaching from the ordinary devotional manual, and without much straining may be said to exhibit definite indications of that faculty for essay-writing which was to be so signally developed in the ‘Spectator,’ in which indeed certain portions of it were afterwards embodied. Upon his colleagues at the Tower Guard (whence its Preface is dated) its effect was what might have been anticipated. ‘From being thought no undelightful companion, he was soon reckoned a disagreeable fellow. … Thus he found himself slighted, instead of being encouraged, for his declarations as to Religion, and it was now incumbent upon him to enliven his character, for which reason he writ the comedy called “The Funeral,” in which (tho' full of incidents that move laughter) virtue and vice appear as they ought to do’ (Apology, p. 80).
‘The Funeral; or, Grief a-la-Mode,’ was acted at Drury Lane late in 1701, and was published in book form in December of that year, with a dedication to the Countess of Albemarle. The principal parts were taken by Cibber, Wilks, and Mrs. Verbruggen, and the championship of the author's military friends helped to secure its success. ‘With some particulars enlarged upon to his advantage’ (by which must probably be understood certain politic references to William III in the ‘Christian Hero’), it also obtained for him the notice of the king. ‘His [Steele's] name, to be provided for, was in the last table-book ever worn by the glorious and immortal William the Third’ (ib. p. 81). His majesty, however, died on 8 March 1702, and Steele's fortunes were yet to make. In the preceding month he had become a captain in Lord Lucas's newly formed regiment of foot (Aitken, Life, i. 79); and in December 1703 he produced at Drury Lane a second comedy, ‘The Lying Lover; or, the Ladies Friendship,’ which was published on 26 Jan. 1704. This piece was based upon the ‘Menteur’ of Corneille, and differed from its predecessor, ‘The Funeral,’ in that it was a more deliberate attempt to carry out upon the stage those precepts which, a few years earlier, Jeremy Collier [q. v.] had advocated in his ‘Short View of the Profaneness and Immorality of the English Stage.’ Among other things it contained an indictment of duelling. Upon its first appearance it ran but six nights. Its author described it years afterwards as ‘damned for its piety’ (Apology, p. 48), but it was also inferior to its predecessor. Steele nevertheless set to work upon a third effort, ‘The Tender Husband; or, the Accomplished Fools.’ This, a frank imitation of Molière's ‘Sicilien,’ was brought out at Drury Lane in April 1705. It was better than the ‘Lying Lover,’ but scarcely more successful, though Addison (now back from Italy) wrote its prologue, and added ‘many applauded [though now undistinguishable] strokes’ to the piece itself (Spectator, No. 555). In May, when the play was printed, it was dedicated to Addison ‘as no improper memorial of an inviolable friendship.’
Soon after the production of the ‘Tender Husband,’ which, for several years, closed Steele's career as a playwright, he married. His wife (for particulars respecting whom we are indebted to the researches of Mr. Aitken) was a widow named Margaret Stretch, née Ford, the possessor of more or less extensive estates in Barbados, which she had inherited from a brother then recently dead. It has been also hinted that she was elderly, and that her fortune was the main attraction to her suitor, whose indefinite means had about this time been impaired by futile researches for the philosopher's stone (New Atalantis and Town Talk, No. 4). The marriage must have taken place not long after March 1705, when Mrs. Stretch took out letters of administration to her West Indian property, which is said to have been worth 850l. per annum. It was, however, encumbered with a debt of 3,000l., besides legacies, &c. In December 1706 Mrs. Steele died, and Steele, in his turn, administered to her estate in January 1707. During the brief period of his married life—in August 1706—he had become a gentleman waiter to Prince George of Denmark (salary 100l. yearly, ‘not subject to taxes’), and in April or May 1707, on the recommendation of Arthur Mainwaring [q. v.], he was appointed by Harley gazetteer, at a further annual salary of 300l., which was, however, liable to a tax of 45l. ‘The writer of the “Gazette” now,’ says Hearne in May 1707, ‘is Captain Steel, who is the author of several romantic things, and is accounted an ingenious man.’ Steele seems to have honestly endeavoured to comply with ‘the rule observed by all ministries, to keep the paper very innocent and very insipid’ (Apology, p. 81); but the rule was by no means an easy one to abide by. His inclinations still leaned towards the stage. Already, in March 1703, he had received from Rich of Drury Lane part payment for an unfinished comedy called ‘The Election of Goatham’ (Aitken, i. 112), a subject also essayed by Gay and Mrs. Centlivre; and in January 1707 he was evidently meditating the completion of this or some other piece when his wife's death interrupted his work (Muses Mercury, January 1707). But his only definite literary production between May 1705 and 1707 was a ‘Prologue’ to the university of Oxford, published in July 1706.
Before he had held the post of gazetteer many months he married again. The lady, whose acquaintance he had made at his first wife's funeral, was a Miss, or Mistress, Mary Scurlock, the daughter and heiress of Jonathan Scurlock, deceased, of Llangunnor in Carmarthen, and, according to Mrs. Manley (New Atalantis, 6th ed. vol. iv.), ‘a cry'd up beauty.’ For reasons now obscure, the marriage was kept a secret, but it is supposed to have taken place on 9 Sept. 1707, soon after which time Steele set up house in Bury Street, or (as his letters give it) ‘third door, right hand, turning out of Jermyn Street.’ This was a locality described by contemporary advertisements as in convenient proximity ‘to St. James's Church, Chapel, Park, Palace, Coffee and Chocolate Houses,’ and was obviously within easy distance of the court and Steele's office, the Cockpit at Whitehall. Both before and after marriage Steele kept up an active correspondence with his ‘Charmer’ and ‘Inspirer,’ names which, later on, are exchanged, not inappropriately, for ‘Ruler’ and ‘Absolute Governess.’ Mrs. Steele preserved all her husband's letters, over four hundred of which John Nichols the antiquary presented in 1787 to the British Museum (Add. MSS. 5145, A, B, and C), where they afford a curious and an instructive study to the inquirer. The lady, though genuinely attached to her husband, was imperious and exacting; the gentleman ardent and devoted, but incurably erratic and impulsive. His correspondence reflects these characteristics in all their variations, and, if it often does credit to his heart and understanding, it as often suggests that his easy geniality and irregular good nature must have made him ‘gey ill to live with.’ It was a part of his sanguine temperament to overestimate his means (Aitken, passim). Hence he is perpetually in debt and difficulties (he borrowed 1,000l. of Addison, which he repaid; letter of 20 Aug. 1708); hence always (like Gay) on the alert for advancement. In October 1708 the death of Prince George deprived him of his post as gentleman waiter, and, though he had previously been seeking an appointment as usher of the privy chamber, and almost immediately afterwards tried for the under-secretaryship rendered vacant by Addison's departure for Ireland as secretary of state to Lord Wharton, the lord-lieutenant, he was successful in neither attempt. All these things were but unpromising accompaniments to a chariot and pair for his ‘dear Prue,’ with a country box (in the shadow of the palace) at Hampton Wick; and it seems certain that towards the close of 1708 an execution for arrears of rent was put into the Bury Street house. In the following March his daughter Elizabeth was born, having for godfathers Addison and Wortley Montagu. A month later, without premonition of any kind, Steele inaugurated his career as an essayist by establishing the ‘Tatler.’
The first number of the ‘Tatler,’ a single folio sheet, was issued on 12 April 1709, and it came out three times a week. The first four numbers were given away gratis; after this the price was a penny. The supposed author was one ‘Isaac Bickerstaff,’ the pseudonym borrowed by Swift from a shopdoor to demolish John Partridge [q. v.] the astrologer. The paper's name, said Steele ironically, was invented in honour of the fair sex (No. 1), and it professed in general to treat, as its motto for many numbers indicated, of ‘Quicquid agunt homines,’ dating its accounts of gallantry, pleasure, and entertainment from White's coffee-house, its poetry from Wills's, its learning from the Grecian, and its foreign and domestic intelligence (which Steele hoped to supplement out of his own official gazette) from the St. James's. Whatever came under none of these heads was dated from ‘My own apartment.’ As time went on the project developed, and when the first volume was dedicated to Mainwaring (who, as already stated, had helped Steele to his gazetteership), it was already claimed for the new venture that it had aimed at ‘exposing the false arts of life, pulling off the disguises of cunning, vanity, and affectation, and recommending a general simplicity in our dress, our discourse, and our behaviour’ (see also Tatler, No. 89). In this larger task Steele was no doubt aided by Addison, who, playing but an inconspicuous part in the first volume (his earliest contribution was to No. 18), gave very substantial aid in its successors; and from a hotch-pot of news and town gossip the ‘Tatler’ became a collection of individual essays on social and general topics. In the preface to the fourth and final volume, Steele, with a generosity which never failed him, rendered grateful testimony to his anonymous coadjutor's assistance. In thanking Addison for his services as ‘a gentleman who will be nameless,’ he goes on to say: ‘This good office [of contributing] he performed with such force of genius, humour, wit, and learning, that 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.’
After a career, prolonged to 271 numbers, about 188 of which were from Steele's own pen, the ‘Tatler’ came to a sudden end on 2 Jan. 1711. The ostensible reason for this was that the public had penetrated the editor's disguise, and that the edifying precepts of the fictitious ‘Mr. Bickerstaff’ were less efficacious when they came to be habitually identified in the public mind with the fallible personality of Steele himself (Tatler, No. 271). But it has been shrewdly surmised that there were other and more pressing reasons (which Steele also hints at) for its abrupt cessation. In addition to his office of gazetteer, he had been made in January 1710 a commissioner of stamps, an office which increased his income by 300l. per annum. When in August of the same year Harley became head of the government, certain papers satirising him had recently made their appearance in the ‘Tatler;’ and in the following October Steele lost his gazetteership. That he was not deprived of his commissionership of stamps as well has been ascribed to the intervention of Swift, whose friends were in power (Journal to Stella, 15 Dec. 1710), and with this forbearance of the ministry the termination of the ‘Tatler’ is also supposed to be obscurely connected. ‘What I find is the least excusable part of this work,’ says Steele in the final number quoted above, ‘is that I have in some places in it touched upon matters which concern both the church and state.’ But however this may be, the ‘Tatler’ was not long without a successor. Two months later (1 March) began the ‘Spectator,’ professing in its first number ‘an exact neutrality between the whigs and tories,’ and setting in motion almost from the first that famous club of which Sir Roger de Coverley is the most prominent member. The first sketch (in No. 2) of this immortal friendly gathering was undoubtedly due to Steele's inventive alertness. But Addison, working at leisure upon his friend's rapid and hasty outline, gradually filled in the features of the figure whose fortunes to-day constitute the chief interest of the periodical. Diversified in addition by the critical essays of Addison and the domestic sketches of Steele, the ‘Spectator’ proceeded with unabated vivacity to its five hundred and fifty-fifth number and seventh volume, surviving even that baleful Stamp Act of August 1712 (10 Anne, cap. 19) which nipped so many of its contemporaries. Out of the whole of the papers Addison wrote 274 and Steele 236. As before, no satisfactory explanation is forthcoming for the termination of the enterprise, the success of which is admitted. Towards the end of its career, the ‘Spectator’ was selling ten thousand per week, and Steele himself says that the first four volumes had obtained it a further sale of nine thousand copies in book form (No. 555). What is clear is that Addison's assistance was still anonymous, and Steele's gratitude to him as strong as ever. ‘I am indeed,’ he wrote, ‘much more proud of his long-continued friendship than I should be of the fame of being thought the author of any writings he is capable of producing. … I heartily wish that what I have done here were as honorary to that sacred name [of friendship] as learning, wit, and humanity render those pieces which I have taught the reader now to distinguish for his’—i.e. by the letters C, L, I, O.
During the progress of the ‘Spectator,’ Steele had made his first definite plunge as a politician by ‘The Englishman's Thanks to the Duke of Marlborough.’ This appeared in January 1712, just after the duke had been deprived of all his offices, a catastrophe which also prompted Swift's opposition ‘Fable of Midas.’ There were other signs of political disquiet in some of Steele's subsequent contributions to the ‘Spectator’ (‘he has been mighty impertinent of late,’ wrote Swift to Stella in July 1712); and although in the new periodical, which he began in March 1713, he made profession of abstinence from matters of state, only seven days before he had put forth a ‘Letter to Sir Miles Wharton concerning Occasional Peers.’ In the ‘Guardian’ he philosophically declared himself to be, with regard to government of the church, a tory; and with regard to the state, a whig. But he was, in Johnson's phrase, ‘too hot for neutral topics;’ and before the middle of 1713 he was actively embroiled with the ‘Examiner,’ the casus belli being an attack that tory paper (behind which was the formidable figure of Swift) had made in its No. 41 upon Lord Nottingham's daughter, Lady Charlotte Finch, the Nottinghams having deserted to the whigs. On 4 June he resigned his commissionership of stamps, and his pension as Prince George's gentleman-in-waiting, and entered the lists of faction with an indictment of the government upon the vexed question of the postponed demolition, under the treaty of Utrecht, of the Dunkirk fortifications. ‘The British nation,’ he declared, ‘expects the demolition of Dunkirk’ (Guardian, No. 128). The ‘Examiner’ retorted by charging him with disloyalty. Steele rejoined (22 Sept.) by a pamphlet entitled ‘The Importance of Dunkirk consider'd,’ addressed to the bailiff of Stockbridge, Hampshire, for which town in August he had been elected M.P. Swift answered by a bitterly contemptuous ‘Importance of the Guardian consider'd.’ Before this came out, however, on 31 Oct. the ‘Guardian’ had been dead for a month, and had been succeeded on 6 Oct. by the ‘Englishman,’ ‘a sequel’ of freer political scope.
By this time Steele was in the thick of party strife. In November a scurrilous ‘Character’ of him ‘by Toby Abel's kinsman’ (i.e. Edward King, nephew of Abel Roper of the ‘Postboy’) was issued by some of Swift's ‘under spur-leathers,’ and early in January 1714 Swift himself followed suit with a paraphrase of Horace (ii. 1), in which it was suggested that when he (Steele) had settled the affairs of Europe, he might find time to finish his long-threatened (but unidentified) play. Shortly afterwards (19 Jan.) Steele put forth another widely circulated pamphlet, ‘The Crisis,’ in which, aided by the counsels of Addison, Hoadly, William Moore of the Inner Temple, and others, he reviewed the whole question of the Hanoverian succession. Swift was promptly in the field (23 Feb.) with the ‘Public Spirit of the Whigs,’ one of his most masterly efforts in this way; and when Steele took his seat in parliament he found that his doom was sealed, and on 12 March he was formally accused of uttering seditious libels. Supported by Walpole, Addison, General Stanhope, and others of his party, he spoke in his own defence for some three hours, and spoke well; but what he afterwards called, with pardonable energy, ‘the insolent and unmanly sanction of a majority’ (Apology, p. xvi) prevailed, and on 18 March 1714 he was expelled the House of Commons.
In these circumstances he turned once more to his proper vocation—letters. Even at the end of 1714 he had contrived to issue a volume of ‘Poetical Miscellanies,’ dedicated to Congreve, and numbering Pope, Gay, and Parnell among its contributors. In this he reprinted his own ‘Procession’ of 1695. The short-lived ‘Englishman’ came to an end in February 1714, and was immediately succeeded by the ‘Lover’ (25 Feb.). In April came the ‘Reader.’ Both of these were dropped in May. In No. 6 of the latter Steele announced that he was preparing a ‘History of the War in Flanders,’ a subject for which he was not without qualifications. But the project came to nothing. He produced, however, several pamphlets: the ‘Romish Ecclesiastical History of late Years’ (25 May), a ‘Letter concerning the Bill for preventing the Growth of Schism’ (3 June), and another on Dunkirk (2 July). Then, on 1 Aug., Queen Anne died. On 18 Sept. George I landed at Greenwich, and the tide turned. The champion of the Hanoverian succession was speedily appointed J.P., deputy-lieutenant for the county of Middlesex, and surveyor of the royal stables at Hampton Court. What was better still (and more definitely lucrative), he obtained the position of supervisor of the Theatre Royal of Drury Lane, the license of which had expired with the queen's death. The license was shortly afterwards converted into a patent, and Steele in this manner came into receipt of 1,000l. per annum.
Henceforward his life grows more and more barren of notable incident. In the same month in which his honours came upon him he published the compilation known as ‘The Ladies' Library,’ volume iii. of which was dedicated, with much grace and tenderness, to his wife. He also vindicated his past proceedings with considerable spirit in the pamphlet entitled ‘Mr. Steele's Apology for himself and his Writings’ (22 Oct.), citations from which have already been made. On 2 Feb. 1715 he was elected M.P. for Boroughbridge, Yorkshire, and two months later (8 April) the presentation of an address to the king procured him a knighthood. During the next few years he continued as of old to busy himself with projects, literary and otherwise. He established in Villiers Street, York Buildings, Strand, a kind of periodical conversazione called the ‘Censorium,’ which he inaugurated on his majesty's birthday (28 May) by a grand banquet and entertainment, to which Tickell supplied the prologue and Addison the epilogue (Town Talk, No. 4). He wrote another overgrown pamphlet on the Roman catholic religion (13 May), began a new volume of the ‘Englishman’ (11 July to 21 Nov.), and established and abandoned three more periodicals, ‘Town Talk’ (17 Dec.), ‘The Tea-Table’ (2 Feb. 1716), and ‘Chit Chat’ (6 March). In June he was appointed one of the thirteen commissioners for forfeited estates in Scotland, the salary being 1,000l. per annum. Two years later, in June 1718, he obtained a patent for a project called the ‘Fish pool,’ a plan (which proved unsuccessful) for bringing salmon alive from Ireland in a well-boat. Then, in December 1718, he lost his ‘dear and honoured wife.’ Lady Steele died on the 26th, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Early in the succeeding year Steele's evil star involved him in a painful controversy with his lifelong friend Addison. He started a periodical called the ‘Plebeian’ (14 March) to denounce Lord Sunderland's bill for limiting the power of creating new peers. Addison replied acrimoniously in the ‘Old Whig,’ and, what was worse, died so soon afterwards (17 June) that the breach thus created was never healed, while Steele's opposition to the measure (which was dropped) led indirectly to the withdrawal by the Duke of Newcastle in January 1720 of the Drury Lane patent. With this last occurrence is connected the establishment of another, and perhaps the most interesting, of his later periodical efforts, as it was also the last, ‘The Theatre’ (2 Jan. to April 1720).
His next publications were two pamphlets, ‘The Crisis of Property’ (1 Feb.) and its sequel ‘A Nation a Family’ (27 Feb.), in which he warmly combated the South Sea mania. In 1721 his former ally, Walpole, became chancellor of the exchequer, and the Drury Lane patent was restored (2 May). In December of the same year he published a second edition of Addison's ‘Drummer,’ in the preface to which, addressed to Congreve, he vindicated himself against the aspersions cast upon him in the edition of Addison's works, which Tickell had put forth in the preceding October. In March 1722 he became member for Wendover, Buckinghamshire. Then, in November of the same year, he produced at Drury Lane his last comedy, ‘The Conscious Lovers,’ which, notwithstanding that (in Parson Adams's words) it contained ‘some things almost solemn enough for a sermon,’ proved a hit, and brought its writer five hundred guineas from George I, to whom it was dedicated. Its groundwork was the ‘Andria’ of Terence, and it attacked duelling. Besides the ‘Conscious Lovers,’ Steele began, but did not finish, two other pieces, ‘The School of Action’ and ‘The Gentleman,’ fragments of which were printed by Nichols in 1809. Lawsuits and money difficulties thickened upon him in his later days, and in 1724, in pursuance of an honourable arrangement with his creditors, and not, as Swift wrote, ‘from perils of a hundred gaols,’ he retired first to Hereford, and finally to Carmarthen, where he lived chiefly at Tygwyn, a farmhouse overlooking the Towy. In Victor's ‘Original Letters’ (1776, i. 330) there is a pretty picture of his still unabated kindliness of nature. Broken and paralytic, he is shown delightedly watching from his invalid's chair the country folk at their sports on a summer evening, and writing an order upon his agent for a prize of a new gown to the best dancer. He died at a house in King Street, Carmarthen, on 1 Sept. 1729, aged 58, and was buried in St. Peter's Church, where in 1876 a mural tablet was erected to him. There is also an earlier memorial to him at his old estate of Llangunnor. Two only of his four children survived him: Mary, who died in the year following his death; and Elizabeth, the eldest daughter, who ultimately married a Welsh judge (afterwards the third Lord Trevor of Bromham). His two sons, Richard and Eugene, died in 1716 and 1723 respectively. He had also a natural daughter, known as Miss Ousley, who married a Welsh gentleman named Stynston. About 1718 it seems to have been proposed to marry her to Richard Savage [q. v.] the poet.
There are three principal portraits of Steele, all mentioned by himself (Theatre, No. 2) in answer to an attack made upon him by John Dennis the critic. The first, by Jonathan Richardson, now in the National Portrait Gallery, was executed in 1712, and gives us the Steele of the ‘Spectator.’ It was engraved in the following year by J. Smith, and later by Bartolozzi and Meadows. The second, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, was painted shortly afterwards for the Kit-Cat Club (of which Steele was among the earlier members), and exhibits him in one of the fine full-bottomed black periwigs he wore when he rode abroad (Drake, Essays, 1814, i. 179). This belongs to Mr. Baker of Bayfordbury, and has been engraved by Vertue, Simon, Faber, Houbraken, and others. The third, by Thornhill, is at Cobham Hall, and was reproduced in copper by Vertue in 1713, and by James Basire. In this Steele appears in a dressing-gown and a tasselled cap. The Richardson, he tells us, makes him ‘indolent,’ the Kneller ‘resolute,’ the Thornhill ‘thoughtful.’ There is another reputed Kneller at Stationers' Hall; and there is said to be a portrait of him when he was a commissioner in Scotland, by Michael Dahl. The Thornhill is the best known; the Kneller Kit-Cat is probably the best likeness. Sir Godfrey also executed a picture of Lady Steele, which does full justice to her good looks. It belongs to Mrs. Thomas of Moreb, Llandilo, Carmarthenshire, and figures as the frontispiece to vol. ii. of Mr. Aitken's ‘Life.’
As regards the written portraits of his character, Macaulay in his famous essay on Addison sought by deeply drawn lines to heighten the contrast between Steele and his colleague. Thackeray softened the asperity of the likeness in his lecture (in the ‘English Humorists’). Forster's vindicatory study in the ‘Quarterly’ is not entirely sympathetic. That Steele was an undetected hypocrite and a sentimental debauchee is now no longer maintained, although it cannot be denied that his will was often weaker than his purpose; that he was constitutionally improvident and impecunious; and that, like many of his contemporaries in that hard-drinking century, he was far too easily seduced by his compliant good-fellowship into excess in wine. ‘I shall not carry my humility so far as to call myself a vicious man,’ he wrote in ‘Tatler’ No. 271, ‘but must confess my life is at best but pardonable.’ When so much is admitted, it is needless to charge the picture, though it may be added that, with all his faults, allowed and imputed, there is abundant evidence to prove that he was not only a doting husband and an affectionate father, but also a loyal friend and an earnest and unselfish patriot. As a literary man his claim upon posterity is readily stated. As a poet—even in that indulgent age of Anne—he cannot be classed; as a pamphleteer he is plain-spoken and well-meaning, but straggling and ineffectual; as a dramatist, despite his shrewd perceptive faculty and his laudable desire to purify the stage, his success is no more than respectable. In the brief species of essay, however, which he originated and developed—the essay of the ‘Tatler’ and its immediate successors—he is at home. Without ranking as a great stylist—his hand was too hasty for laboured form or finish, and he claimed and freely used the license of ‘common speech’—he was a master of that unembarrassed manner which (it has been well said) is the outcome of unembarrassed matter. He writes, as a rule, less from his head than from his heart, to the warmth of which organ his rapid pen gives eager and emphatic expression. His humour is delightfully kindly and genial, his sympathies quick-springing and compassionate, his instincts uniformly on the side of what is generous, honest, manly, and of good report. ‘He had a love and reverence of virtue,’ said Pope; and many of his lay sermons are unrivalled in their kind. As the first painter of domesticity the modern novel owes him much, but the women of his own day owe him more. Not only did he pay them collectively a magnificent compliment when he wrote of Lady Elizabeth Hastings, that ‘to love her was a liberal education’ (Tatler No. 49); but in a time when they were treated by the wits with contemptuous flattery or cynical irreverence, he sought to offer them a reasonable service of genuine respect which was immeasurably superior to those ‘fulsome raptures, guilty impressions, senseless deifications and pretended deaths’ with which (as he himself wrote in the ‘Christian Hero’) it was the custom of his contemporaries to insult their understandings.
[Biographia Britannica; Drake's Essays, 1805; Hazlitt's English Comic Writers, 1819; Macaulay's Essay upon Addison, 1843; Leigh Hunt's Book for a Corner, 1849; Thackeray's English Humorists, 1853; Forster's Essay on Steele, 1855; Montgomery's Memoirs of Steele, 1865; All the Year Round, 5 Dec. 1868; Clarendon Press Selections from Steele, 1885, 1896; Richard Steele (English Worthies), 1886; Aitken's Life of Richard Steele, 1889 (a work, of extraordinary patience in research, which practically exhausts the facts of the subject, besides including an elaborate bibliography); Contemporary Review, October 1889; Aitken's Steele's Plays, 1894, and contributions to the Athenæum, 27 Dec. 1890, 16 June 1891, 5 Dec. 1891, and 19 Nov. 1892; an excellent selection from Steele's entire works has also been published (1897) by Prof. Carpenter of Columbia University.]