STEELE—THE SOLDIER AUTHOR
 YOU have heard a little about Dick Steele in connection with
Joseph Addison. Steele is always overshadowed by his great
friend, for whom he had such a generous admiration that he was
glad to be so overshadowed. But in this chapter I mean to tell
you a little more about him.
He was born, you know, in Dublin in 1671, and early lost his
father. About this he tells us himself in one of the Tatlers:
"The first sense of sorrow I ever knew was upon the death of my
father, at which time I was not quite five years of age. But was
rather amazed at what all the house meant, than possessed with a
real understanding, why nobody was willing to play with me. I
remember I went into the room where his body lay, and my mother
sat weeping alone by it. I had my battledore in my hand, and
fell abeating the coffin, and calling 'Papa,' for, I know not
how, I had some light idea that he was locked up there. My
mother catched me in her arms, and, transported beyond all
patience of the silent grief she was before in, she almost
smothered me in her embrace, and told me, in a flood of tears,
Pap could not hear me, and would play with me no more, for they
were going to put him under ground, whence he could never come to
 Steele's sad, beautiful mother died soon after her husband, and
little Dick was left more lonely than ever. His uncle took
charge of him, and sent him to Charterhouse, where he met
Addison. From there he went to Oxford, but left without taking a
degree. "A drum passing by," he says, "being a lover of music, I
listed myself for a soldier."
"He mounted a war horse, with a
great sword in his hand, and planted himself behind King William
the Third against Lewis the Fourteenth." But he says when he
cocked his hat, and put on a broad sword, jack boots, and
shoulder belt, he did not know his own powers as a writer, he did
not know then that he should ever be able to "demolish a
fortified town with a goosequill."
So Steele became a
"wretched common trooper," or, to put it more politely, a
gentleman volunteer. But he was not long in becoming an ensign,
and about five years later he got his commission as captain.
In those days the life of a soldier was wild and rough. Drinking
and swearing were perhaps the least among the follies and
wickedness they were given to, and Dick Steele was as ready as
any other to join in all the wildness going. But in spite of his
faults and failings his heart was kind and tender. He had no
love of wickedness though he could not resist temptation. So the
dashing soldier astonished his companions by publishing a little
book called the Christian Hero. It was a little book written to
show that no man could be truly great who was not religious. He
wrote it at odd minutes when his day's work was over, when his
mind had time "in the silent watch of the night to run over the
busy dream of the day." He wrote it at first for his own use,
"to make him ashamed of understanding and seeming to feel what
was virtuous and yet living so quite contrary a life."
Afterwards he resolved to publish it for the good of others.
 But among Steele's gay companions the book had little effect
except to make them laugh at him and draw comparisons between the
lightness of his words and actions, and the seriousness of the
ideas set forth in his Christian Hero. He found himself slighted
instead of encouraged, and "from being thought no undelightful
companion, was soon reckoned a disagreeable fellow."
So he took
to writing plays, for "nothing can make the town so fond of a man
as a successful play."
The plays of the Restoration had been very coarse. Those of
Steele show the beginning of a taste for better things, "Tho'
full of incidents that move laughter, virtue and vice appear just
as they ought to do," he says of his first comedy. But although
we may still find Steele's plays rather amusing, it is not as a
dramatist that we remember him, but as an essayist.
Steele led a happy-go-lucky life, nearly always cheerful and in
debt. His plays brought him in some money, he received a
Government appointment which brought him more, and when he was
about thirty-three he married a rich widow. Still he was always
in debt, always in want of money.
In about a year Steele's wife died, and he was shortly married to
another well-off lady. About this time he left the army, it is
thought, although we do not know quite surely, and for long
afterwards he was called Captain Steele.
Steele wrote a great many letters to his second wife, both before
and after his marriage. She kept them all, and from them we can
learn a good deal of this warm-hearted, week-willed, harum-scarum
husband. She is "Dearest Creature," "Dear Wife," "Dear Prue"
(her name, by the way, was Mary), and sometimes "Ruler,"
"Absolute Governess," and he "Your devoted obedient Husband,"
 "Your faithful, tender Husband." Many of the letters are about
money troubles. We gather from them that Dick Steele loved his
wife, but as he was a gay and careless spendthrift and she was a
proud beauty, a "scornful lady," for neither of them was life
It was about two years after this second marriage that Steele
suddenly began the Tatler. He did not write under his own name,
but under that of Isaac Bickerstaff, a name which Swift had made
use of in writing one of his satires. As has been said, the
genius of Steele has been overshadowed by that of Addison, for
Steele had such a whole-hearted admiration for his friend that he
was ready to give him all the praise. And yet it is nearly
always to Steele that we owe the ideas which were later worked
out and perfected by Addison.
It is Steele, too, that we owe the first pictures of English
family life. It has been said that he "was the first of our
writers who really seemed to admire and respect women,"
and if we add "after the Restoration" we come very near the truth.
Steele had a tender heart towards children too, and in more than
one paper his love of them shows itself. Indeed, as we read we
cannot help believing that in real life Captain Dick had many
child-friends. Here is how he tells of a visit to a friend's
"I am, as it were, at home at that house, and every member of it
knows me for their well-wisher. I cannot indeed express the
pleasure it is, to be met by the children with so much joy as I
am when I go thither. The boys and girls strive who shall come
first, when they think it is I that am knocking at the door. And
that child which loses the race to me, runs back again to tell
the father it is Mr. Bickerstaff.
"This day I was led in by a pretty girl, that we all thought must
have forgot me, for the family has been out of town these two
years. Her knowing me again was a
 mighty subject with us, and
took up our discourse at the first entrance. After which they
began to rally me upon a thousand little stories they heard in
the country about my marriage to one of my neighbor's daughters.
Upon which the gentleman, my friend, said 'Nay, if Mr.
Bickerstaff marries a child of any of his old companions, I hope
mine shall have the preference. There's Mistress Mary is now
sixteen, and would make him as fine a widow as the best of
After dinner the mother and children leave the two friends
together. The father speaks of his love for his wife, and his
fears for her health.
" 'Ah, you little understand, you that have lived a bachelor, how
great a pleasure there is in being really beloved. Her face is
to me more beautiful than when I first saw it. In her
examination of her household affairs she show a certain
fearfulness to find a fault, which makes her servants obey her
like children, and the meanest we have has an ingenuous shame for
an offence, not always to be seen in children in other families.
I speak freely to you, my old friend. Ever since her sickness,
things that gave me the quickest joy before, turn now to a
certain anxiety. As the children play in the next room, I know
the poor things by their steps, and am considering what they must
do, should they lose their mother in their tender years. The
pleasure I used to take in telling my boy stories of the battles,
and asking my girl questions about the disposal of her baby, and
the gossiping of it, is turned into inward reflection and
melancholy.' The poor gentleman would have gone on much longer
with his sad forebodings, but his wife returning, and seeing by
his grave face what he had been talking about, said, with a
smile, 'Mr. Bickerstaff, don't believe a word of what he tells
you. I shall still live to have you for my second, as I have
often promised you, unless he takes more care of himself than he
 has done since his coming to town. You must know, he tells me,
that he finds London is a much more healthy place than the
country, for he sees several of his old acquaintance and school-
fellows are here, young fellows with fair, full-bottomed
periwigs. I could scarce keep him this morning from going out
open-breasted.' " And so they sat and chatted pleasantly until,
"on a sudden, we were alarmed with the noise of a drum, and
immediately entered my little godson to give me a point of war.
His mother, between laughing and chiding, would have put him out
of the room, but I would not part with him so. I found, upon
conversation with him, though he was a little noisy in his mirth,
that the child had excellent parts, and was a great master of all
the learning on the other side of eight years old. I perceived
him to be a very great historian in Aesop's Fables; but he frankly
declared to me his mind, that he did not delight in that
learning, because he did not believe they were true. For which
reason I found he had very much turned his studies, for about a
twelve-month past, into the lives and adventures of Don Bellianis
of Greece, Guy of Warwick, the Seven Champions, and other
historians of that age.
"I could not but observe the satisfaction the father took in the
forwardness of his son, and that these diversions might turn to
some profit, I found the boy had made remarks which might be of
service to him during the course of his whole life. He would
tell you the mismanagements of John Hickathrift, find fault with
the passionate temper of Bevis of Southampton, and loved St.
George for being the champion of England; and by this means had
his thoughts insensibly moulded into the notions of discretion,
virtue, and honour.
"I was extolling his accomplishments, when the mother told me
that the little girl who led me in this morning
 was, in her way,
a better scholar than he. 'Betty,' says she, 'deals chiefly in
fairies and sprites, and sometimes, in a winter night, will
terrify the maids with her accounts, till they are afraid to go
up to bed.'
"I sat with them till it was very late, sometimes in merry,
sometimes in serious discourse, with this particular pleasure
which gives the only true relish to all conversation, a sense
that every one of us liked each other. I went home considering
the different conditions of a married life and that of a
bachelor. And I must confess it struck me with a secret concern
to reflect that, whenever I go off, I shall leave no traces
behind me. In this pensive mood I returned to my family, that is
to say, to my maid, my dog, and my cat, who only can be the
better or worse for what happens to me."
You will be sorry to know that, a few Tatlers further on, the
kind mother of this happy family dies. But Steele was himself so
much touched by the thought of all the misery he was bringing
upon the others by giving such a sad ending to his story, that he
could not go on with the paper, and Addison had to finish it for
The Spectator, you know, succeeded the Tatler, and it was while
writing for the Spectator that Steele took seriously to politics.
He became a member of Parliament and wrote hot political
articles. He and Swift crossed swords more than once, and from
being friends became enemies. But Steele's temper was too hot,
his pen too hasty. The Tories were in power, and he was a Whig,
and he presently found himself expelled from the House of Commons
for "uttering seditious libels." Shut out from politics, Steele
turned once more to essay-writing, and published, one after the
other, several papers of the same style as the Spectator, but
none of them lived long.
Better days, however, were coming. Queen Anne died,
 and King
George became a king in 1714, the Whigs returned to power, Steele
again received a Government post, again he sat in Parliament, and
a few months later he was knighted, and became Sir Richard
Steele. We cannot follow him through all his projects,
adventures, and writings. He was made one of the commissioners
for the forfeited estates of the Scottish lords who had taken
part in the '15, and upon this business he went several times to
Scotland. The first time he went was in the autumn of 1717. But
before that Lady Steele had gone to Wales to look after her
estates there. While she was there Dick wrote many letters to
her, some of which are full of tenderness for his children. They
show us something too of the happy-go-lucky household in the
absence of the careful mistress. In one he says:—
"Your son at the present writing is mighty well employed in
tumbling on the floor of the room, and sweeping the sand with a
feather. He grows a most delightful child, and very full of play
and spirit. He is also a very great scholar. He can read his
primer, and I have brought down my Virgil. He makes most shrewd
remarks about the pictures. We are very intimate friends and
play-fellows. He begins to be very ragged, and I hope I shall be
pardoned if I equip him with new clothes and frocks." Or again:-
- "The brats, my girls, stand on each side of the table, and
Molly says what I am writing now is about her new coat. Bess is
with me till she has new clothes. Miss Moll has taken upon her
to hold the sand-box,
and is so impertinent in her office that I
cannot write more. But you are to take this letter as from your
three best friends, Bess, Moll, and their Father.
"Moll bids me let you know that she fell down just now and did
not hurt herself."
Soon after this Steele set out for Scotland, and although
 the business which brought him could not have been welcome to many a
Scottish gentleman, he himself was well received. They forgot
the Whig official in the famous writer. In Edinburgh he was
feasted and feted. "You cannot imagine," wrote Steele, "the
civilities and honours I had done me there. I never lay better,
ate or drank better, or conversed with men of better sense than
there." Poets and authors greeted him in verse, he was "Kind
Richy Spec, the friend to a' distressed," "Dear Spec," and many
stories are told of his doings among these new-found friends. He
paid several later visits to Scotland, but about a year after his
return from this first short visit Steele had a great sorrow.
His wife died. "This is to let you know," he writes to a cousin,
"that my dear and honoured wife departed this life last night."
And now that his children were motherless, Steele, when he was
away from them, wrote to them, always tender, often funny,
letters. It is Betty, the eldest, he addresses, she is "Dear
Child," "My dear Daughter," "My good Girlie." He bids them be
good and grow like their mother. "I have observed that your
sister," he says in one letter, "has for the first time written
the initial or first letters of her name. Tell her I am highly
delighted to see her subscription in such fair letters. And how
many fine things those two letters stand for when she writes
them. M. S. is Milk and Sugar, Mirth and Safety, Music and
Songs, Meat and Sauce, as well as Molly and Spot, and Mary and
Steele." I think the children must have loved their kind father
who wrote such pretty nonsense to them.
So with ups and downs the years passed. However much money
Steele got he never seemed to have any, and in spite of all his
carelessness and jovialness, there is something sad in those last
years of his life. He quarreled with, and then for ever lost his
life-long friend, Joseph Addison. His two sons died, and at
length, broken in
 health, troubled about money, he went to spend
his last days in Carmarthen in Wales. Here we have a last
pleasant picture of him being carried out on a summer's evening
to watch the country lads and lasses dance. And with his own
hand, paralyzed though it was, he would write an order for a new
gown to be given to the best dancer. And here in Carmarthen, in
1729, he died and was buried in the Church of St. Peter.
BOOKS TO READ
Essays of Richard Steele, selected and edited by L. E. Steele.
Steele Selections from the Tatler, Spectator, and Guardian, edited by Austin Dobson.