Life was quiet at Milston Rectory in Wiltshire for the Rector's daughter and her two brothers, and they counted the days till the holidays brought home their elder ,brother Joseph from Charterhouse. Not that Joseph himself made much stir, but he brought his friend Dick Steele with him, and where Dick was fun and bustle reigned.
The warm-hearted Irish boy, himself fatherless, never forgot the visits he paid to Milston, and long years after in a paper in The Tatler he wrote of the Rector and his children:
"I remember among all my acquaintance, but one man whom I have thought to live with his children with equanimity and a good grace. He had three sons and one daughter, whom he bred with all the care imaginable in a liberal and ingenuous way. The boys behaved themselves very early with a manly friendship; and their sister, instead of the gross familiarities and impertinent freedoms in behaviour usual in other houses, was always treated by them with as much complaisance as any other young lady of their acquaintance. It was an unspeakable pleasure to visit or to sit at a meal with that family."
Their schooldays over, the two friends went on to Oxford. Addison pursued his quiet course at Magdalen, where he became a Fellow, and a walk under the elms by the Cherwell still bears the name of the shy student who paced there between his hours of study. He did not mix much with others, but there was no more popular student than Steele until a sudden warlike impulse sent the young Irishman into the army.
In 1700 we find him a captain in the Guards, and in that year he fought a duel in which he had the misfortune to wound his rival so seriously that the event made a deep mark on his impressionable nature. From that time he had a great distaste for duelling, and wrote against it in a way far in advance of his age.
Never was there a more delightful mixture than the mercurial captain. His love of society and his overflowing good spirits led him into excesses of which he repented immediately. In one of his fits of penitence he wrote a little book called The Christian Hero, which he intended at first for his private use only; but when he found that his good intentions were not strong enough to keep him from getting into fresh trouble, he published it under his own name in the hope that it would be thus a stronger reminder. The result was that his boon companions looked on him with suspicion, so he promptly wrote a comedy to show them that he still loved a joke. In that play he struck a new note in a time when women were only looked on as playthings. "He is the first of our writers," said Thackeray, "who really seemed to admire and respect women."
We have abundant evidence what he thought of one woman in particular. In the British Museum there is a collection of four hundred letters which in spite of paper yellowed with age and faded ink might have been written yesterday. They are the letters of Steele to his wife, his "dear, little, peevish, beautiful, wise Governesse, sweet Prue".
From these letters we can picture very clearly the life lived three stairs up in Jermyn Street by faulty, extravagant, lovable Dick and his rather exacting wife. Only two or three of her replies have survived, but it is not difficult to guess the tone of many more from Steele's answers.
One day he begs her to bring to the coffee-house his "best Periwigg and new Shoes", and, hasty as is the note, he finds time to assure her that she is "Vitall Life to Yr Oblig'd Affectionate Husband and Humble Servant Richd. Steele". Another day he asks her to send his slippers and "clean Linnen" to the shop of a barber "over against the Devill Tavern at Charing Crosse" where he proposes to pass the night, evidently because some of his creditors were in waiting at Jermyn Street.
Mistress Prue was most particular that her husband should come home punctually for dinner, but often he failed, and instead a note would be handed to her:
"Dearest being on earth, pardon me if you do not see me till eleven o'clock, having met a schoolfellow from India,"
Or on another day:
"My dear, dear wife, I write to let you know I do not come home to dinner, being obliged to attend some business abroad, of which I shall give you an account (when I see you in the evening) as becomes your dutiful and obedient husband."
But even such excuses did not satisfy the exacting lady. "I wish I knew how to court you into good humour," he wrote sorrowfully one day, "for two or three quarrels more will dispatch me quite." Once he had to protest, "Dear Prue, do not send after me, for I shall be ridiculous."
Sometimes a little gift was sent with the letter to pacify his "Absolute Governesse", With one he sent "seven pen'orth of walnuts at five a penny, which is the greatest proof I can give you at present of my being, with my whole heart yours", Outside the sheet is written, "There are but 29 walnuts." Once, when neither walnuts nor excuses were of any avail, he wrote with dignity:
"I love you, better than the light of my eyes or the life-blood in my heart, but when I have let you know that, you are also to understand that neither my sight shall be so far enchanted or my affection so much master of me as to make me forgett our common interest. To attend my business as I ought and improve my fortune it is necessary that my time and my will should be under no direction but my own."
When Prue did smile on him he was in the seventh heaven of delight. She had called him "good Dick" in a letter written when she was away from home, and he was ready to walk all the way to Wales to see her.
Some of the most charming of his letters are about their children. "Our son," he writes in one, "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, very full of play and spirit. He is also a very great scholar, he can read his primer. We are very intimate friends and Playmates." At one time he was able to establish his wife in a house in the country with a coach and four horses, a saddle horse, a footman, a gardener, a boy who spoke Welsh, and her own maid. But such days were short-lived, and it need not surprise us to read in one letter that there was not "an inch of candle, a pound of coal, or a bit of meat in the house". Then, buoyant as ever, he launched what he called his "Fish-poll scheme", designed to bring fish alive to London, and was certain he would make his fortune out of it.
By this time Steele had left the army, where he proved better at caring for the welfare of his men than for his own, and was living in London writing such comedies as The Tender Husband, for which Addison wrote the Prologue.
On 22nd April, 1709, the blind hawkers in the London streets had a new paper to sell. It was a single sheet, priced one penny, announced to appear three times a week, and called The Tatler. The news was divided into five sections, each of which was dated from a well-known coffee-house. Thus
"All accounts of Gallantry, Pleasure and Entertainment shall be under the Article of White's Chocolate house; Poetry under that of Will's Coffee house; Learning under the title of Grecian. Foreign and Domestic News you will have from St. James Coffee house, and what else I have to offer on any other subject shall be dated from my own apartment."
The Editor signed his name as Isaac Bickerstaff, but as that was a name which Dean Swift had already borrowed from a shoemaker's shop sign, and used in a humorous skit, everyone knew that in this case also it was a nom de plume.
Many were the speculations as to who had started the new venture, but there was one man who guessed almost at once. When Joseph Addison read the fifth number he was so sure that the editor was his old school friend that he taxed him with the secret and offered his help. Steele well knew that no pen was more fitted to adorn such a paper, and he gladly accepted the offer. Doubtless he told Addison in that first talk what he afterwards told the world, that he had adopted the name of Isaac Bickerstaff as a mask in his editorials because he wished to censor what he thought wrong in prevailing manners and customs, and he knew that his own life was "at best but pardonable".
Two hundred and seventy-one numbers of The Tatler appeared, and of these one hundred and eighty-eight were written by Steele, and forty-two by Addison. Under the influence of Addison the character of the paper gradually changed, the news articles were dropped, and each number was confined to one subject.
Steele, ever generous of heart, was always emphatic in asserting the great services rendered by his friend to The Tatler, but we must not forget that it was Steele who began it, and it was he who saw the need for such a paper in the life of the day. It came to an end early in 1711, and before we reach the next milestone in the path of English periodicals we must discover how Addison had been passing his time since we left him pacing beneath the elms at Oxford.