British periodical, 1709–1711
The Tatler was a collaborative effort: the authorial mask of Isaac Bickerstaff was a satiric invention of Jonathan Swift’s, whose pseudonymous pamphlet Predictions for the Year 1708 pilloried the astrologer John Partridge. In the last issue, no. 271 of 2 January 1711, Joseph Addison’s role is acknowledged, although his anonymity is preserved: “The Hand that has assisted me in those noble Discourses upon the Immortality of the Soul, the glorious Prospects of another Life, and the most sublime Idea’s of Religion and Virtue, is a Person too fondly my Friend ever to own them.” The editor credits his friend with providing “the finest Strokes of Wit and Humour in all Mr. Bickerstaff’s Lucubrations.” But the design and execution of the Tatler are principally the work of Richard Steele, as he himself reveals in the same number.
Steele had been a successful comic playwright, experience that served him well in his role of drama critic and theatrical commentator in the Tatler. He had also served as editor of the London Gazette, and so had prepared himself for the rigors of producing a thriceweekly newspaper. Although the Tatler is now revered as a literary magazine and as a prototype both for the single-author, pseudonymously published journals to follow (the Spectator and the Rambler being probably the most famous examples) and for the magazine miscellanies such as the Gentleman’s that held a dominant place in the popular press for most of the 18th century, Steele initially conceived of the Tatler as a newspaper, in competition with the Gazette, the Daily Courant, and Post Boy. As such, it reported, under the heading “St. James’s Coffee-house,” on foreign and domestic news, as well as fulfilling its stated purpose “to expose the false Arts of Life, to pull off the Disguises of Cunning, Vanity, and Affectation, and to recommend a general Simplicity in our Dress, our Discourse, and our Behaviour.”
The Tatler essays are an invaluable record of the geography, politics, manners, and artistic achievement of early 18thcentury England. Collectively, they offer a sort of walking tour of London, highlighted by visits to Westminster Abbey, the Tower, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Bethlehem Hospital, and the Old Bailey. In its function as an almanac, the paper records notable calendar events and the weather, and comments on events of local notoriety such as the State Lottery of 1710, which “turned a Tax into a Diversion.”
As an instrument of social reform, the paper advocated moderation: avoidance of extremes in custom and fashion, and adherence to reason and benevolence. The “Censor” takes on an unholy parade of “drunkards,” gamblers, rakes, atheists, pugilists, swearers, and those who unjustifiably wear the mantle of “men of wit.” For the lovelorn, the paper serves as a sort of marriage counselor preaching the virtues of patience and domestic harmony and avoidance of libertinism. For its more erudite readers, the paper comments on the virtues of classical learning, holding up Homer, Virgil, Horace, and Cicero for special praise and commending modern authors such as Shakespeare and Milton for their good taste.
For his first number of 12 April 1709, Steele as “Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq.” announced the organizational plan for the journal. He would be a sort of domestic correspondent, sorting into various categories material that issued from founts of news and gossip in London. For verisimilitude, he used the names of actual coffeehouses and other places of social congregation. Under the heading “White’s Chocolate-house” would appear all matter concerning “Gallantry, Pleasure, and Entertainment.” These entries tended to be personality sketches—some of them “characters” in the 17th-century sense, some of them thinly veiled, recognizable figures. The anecdotes ostensibly illustrated some moral point.
The entry for the first number is a character of a “very pretty Gentleman” who has been smitten by the sight of a young Lady passing by in a coach—and who thenceforth lets his passions “maul” him. No. 21 for 28 May 1709 provides contrasting characters of a “Man of Conversation” and his pale imitation, the “Pretty Fellow.” No. 25 for 7 June 1709 takes on one of Steele’s favorite targets for his satirical moralizing, the “fatal folly” of duelling.
Will’s Coffee-house would serve as the forum for commentary on the subject of poetry. This feature also provides theater historians with invaluable information on the staging and performances of contemporary plays such as Jonson’s Volpone and The Alchymist, Wycherley’s The Country-Wife, Dryden’s All for Love, Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer, and Centlivre’s The Busie Body. The first number reviews a production of Congreve’s Love for Love, a benefit performance for Thomas Betterton, who was nearing the end of his life and whom Steele esteemed as the preeminent British actor of his era. The review applauds the “all-star” cast of Mrs. Barry, Mrs. Bracegirdle, and Mr. Dogget, all veteran players. From the columns under this heading comes a wealth of critical commentary on contemporary performers, dramatic authors, audiences, the plays themselves, and the general state of British theater.
Miscellaneous material appeared under the heading “From my own apartment.” No. 1 carries on Swift’s joke about Mr. Partridge, whose death is reannounced: “I therefore give all Men fair Warning to mend their Manners, for I shall from Time to Time print Bills of Mortality; and I beg the Pardon of all such who shall be named therein, if they who are good for Nothing shall find themselves in the Number of the Deceased.” No. 167 for 4 May 1710 offers a memorial tribute to Betterton. Bickerstaff has particular praise for Betterton’s Othello: “The wonderful Agony which he appeared in, when he examined the Circumstance of the Handkerchief in Othello; the Mixture of Love that intruded upon his Mind upon the innocent Answers Desdemona makes, betrayed in his Gesture such a Variety and Vicissitude of Passions, as would admonish a Man to be afraid of his own Heart.”
Clearly, the places of origin revealed in the headings appealed directly to a coffeehouse readership. In its advertisement for the first issue, the Tatler specifies its intended audience. The paper is “principally intended for the Use of Politick Persons, who are so publick-spirited as to neglect their own Affairs to look into Transactions of State.” But the paper also quickly signals its moralizing intent by satirizing its coffeehouse constituency, much as it would castigate all manner of vice and folly: “Now these Gentlemen, for the most Part, being Persons of strong Zeal and weak Intellects, It is both a Charitable and Necessary Work to offer something, whereby such worthy and wellaffected Members of the Commonwealth may be instructed, after their Reading, WHAT TO THINK.” The editor also promises material designed for the “Fair Sex, in Honour of whom I have invented the Title of this Paper.”
No. 229 for 26 September 1710 hints at the extraordinary popular reception of the Tatler, which drew the praise and condemnation of “The Town” as well as a slew of imitators: “Should I lay down my Paper, What a Famine would there be among the Hawkers, Printers, Booksellers, and Authors?… I have been annotated, retattled, examined, and condoled” by admirers, critics, and plagiarists. Clearly the tone, organization, and subject matter left a lasting impression, exemplified by borrowings in virtually all of the Tatler’s journalistic offspring.
In No. 162, at the end of the first year of publication, Bickerstaff assigns himself the title “Censor of Great Britain.” In so doing he defined what has become known as “Augustan” satire: “making frequent Reviews of the People,” looking “into the Manners of the People,” and “punishing Offences according to the Quality of the Offender.” The Tatler’s moral assignment was to chastise folly and to punish vice, a censorious function associated with the Scriblerians and early 18th-century satire in general.
Early 18th-century writing was frequently collaborative and normally anonymous or pseudonymous. Attribution problems facing those attempting to sort out who contributed which essays to the Tatler are similar to those facing students of virtually any writing of this period. Typically, there is a lack of reliable evidence to determine confidently which essays are Steele’s, Addison’s, or other contributors’. About 200 of the 271 issues have been ascribed to Steele. Controversy remains over whether to accept Thomas Tickell’s record of Addison’s contributions in the first collected edition of Addison’s works (1721), although Tickell was said to have asked Steele to identify them.
Twentieth-century critics have largely followed the judgment of late 18th-century writers who found in Addison and the Spectator the apotheosis of wit and morality and who deemed the Tatler a decidedly inferior forebear. The Tatler, as its name suggests, was certainly more topical in content and chatty in style than the Spectator, seldom reaching the latter’s philosophical complexity. Yet, in part because of its topicality and diversity in voice and subject, the Tatler provides literary historians access to the period probably unmatched by any other single source.
See also Periodical Essay
The Tatler, nos. 1–271, 12 April 1709–2 January 1711; edited by Donald F.Bond, 3 vols., 1987
The Lucubrations of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., edited by John Nichols, 6 vols., 1786
Bond, Richmond P., The Tatler: The Making of a Literary Journal, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971
Winton, Calhoun, Captain Steele: The Early Career of Richard Steele, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1964
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