According to the twelfth anecdote recorded in Addisoniana (1803), ‘The Inquisition was pleased in their great wisdom to burn the predictions of Isaac Bickerstaffe, Esq., for the year 1708, and to condemn the authors and readers of them.’Footnote 1 Such absolutist and Roman Catholic hostility might seem surprising to contemporary scholars, who tend to characterize The Tatler and The Spectator as emollient celebrations of politeness and commerce. But as the Inquisitors apparently concluded, no purveyors of Enlightened culture in late Stuart England were more important than Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele. Recognized as central to the development of print culture and the public sphere in the first decades of the eighteenth century, their complex commentary on commercial society, manners, fashion and gender, particularly through their critical avatar Mr Spectator, has been very fully explored in recent years.Footnote 2 But other aspects of their essays that derive from and promulgate an Enlightenment agenda have been relatively neglected. The Tatler and The Spectator include numerous essays that attack religious intolerance, extractive colonies, oppressive superstition and prejudice and that celebrate advances in natural history and support the extension of education, on the presumption that human intelligence is a universal characteristic of the species. Exploring these aspects of their periodical production reveals how such issues were not simply the concern of radical continentals and subversive Dissenters but figured in the nation’s most polite and improving literature.
Further, while their periodicals were of central importance culturally, it is crucial to recall that (like Voltaire) to their contemporaries Addison and Steele were known equally as playwrights. As Julie Ellison has argued, Addison’s Cato (1712–1713) created a discourse of softened Stoicism that has informed Anglo-American political rhetoric to this day, while Steele functioned as an informal dramatic censor.Footnote 3 Steele was further celebrated as the architect and popularizer of sentimental comedy, a form that worked deliberately to unify the fractious members of audiences who reflected a society and a state divided by nation, ethnicity, religion, class and gender.Footnote 4 Implicitly appealing to a theatrical spectator as polite and sympathetic as his periodical reader, Steele developed a dramatic genre that sought to unify audiences through pathos and extended the community of benevolent feeling to ethnic, religious, class and racial others. In a recent rearticulation of a long tradition of scepticism regarding the mode, sentiment has been recently characterized as a specifically imperial form of ‘emotional piracy’, as patronizingly ineffectual as Mr Spectator’s tears of sympathy for Yarico, complicit with colonial exploitation.Footnote 5 But plays depicting and establishing empathetic relations between Christians and Muslims and Europeans and Amerindians in the first decades of the eighteenth century also revised and criticized earlier negative representations of cross-cultural encounters and opened up new possibilities of respectful relationship.
Until recently, Addison and Steele were not regarded as participants in Enlightenment. That perception of their role flows in large part from Habermas’s characterization of the formation of the public sphere in early eighteenth-century Britain, which became available to Anglophone readers only in the 1980s, prompting a reconsideration of The Spectator and The Tatler as more than genial purveyors of Whig axioms.Footnote 6 Attention to the early periodicals is also central in the early eighteenth-century efforts to create a culture of ‘politeness’ documented by scholars including J. G. A. Pocock, John Brewer, Peter Clark and Lawrence Klein, who have tracked competing discourses of political virtue and commerce through philosophy, cultural networks and new forms of sociability.Footnote 7 Historical research has been matched by literary scholarship that has begun to recover writing long occluded by an uncritical acceptance of Scribblerian disdain for their political opponents, as Christine Gerrard’s study of the literary dimensions of the Patriot Opposition to Walpole, Abigail Williams’s account of Whig poetry and Brett Wilson’s analysis of Whig dramaturgy have extended our understanding of ‘Augustan’ culture, although only Karen O’Brien’s survey of women and progressive thought actually characterizes eighteenth-century British society as ‘Enlightened’.Footnote 8
Within this new context there is continuing debate over the way The Tatler and The Spectator contributed to early Enlightenment English culture. Erin Mackie influentially argued that the periodicals depend on and reiterate the corrupt forces of commerce they attempt to reform, while more recently Anthony Pollock has claimed that The Spectator creates an image of the public sphere as unmanageable, with spectators necessarily confined to a position of impotent if sympathetic neutrality.Footnote 9 Recent critics thus tend to be not only sceptical that Addison’s and Steele’s publications contributed to an early version of a potentially open and democratic political process but doubtful that periodicals intended to reform and control their readers were successful in their overt aims of moral and social improvement. Informed by the current scepticism about the eirenic capacities of periodical literature however, Scott Black avoids characterizing Addison as an ‘ideologue of the bourgeoisie’, whose essays modelled identities structured by republicanism, capitalism or the Protestant ethic, instead arguing that The Spectator was humanist, commercial and modern, providing the formal conditions by which the metropolitan world became self-reflective.Footnote 10 Black’s sense of the open and self-reflexive nature of essayistic practice in The Spectator is demonstrated by Tony Brown’s analysis of the role played by China, more specifically Temple’s accounts of Chinese gardens, in Addison’s aesthetics. Significantly, Brown is concerned not with The Spectator as instrument of domestic discipline but with Addison’s use of China to think through aesthetic questions. Brown explores the consequent revelation of the (English) self’s incompletion, thus recasting the standard approach to eighteenth-century aesthetics as an internal European development.Footnote 11 While Brown’s essay participates in the ongoing rethinking of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism as a process of intercultural interlocution, however, Richard Braverman’s essay on a Spectator paper’s depiction of the Jews suggests a less open engagement with non-Christian peoples in Addison’s writing. Discussing the turns of Spectator essay 495, Braverman observes that in the course of the essay Addison departs from a relatively tolerant characterization of Jews, a discourse that stresses their vital role in the maintenance of commerce and hence civility, to a much more negative assessment shaped by anti-Semitic Christian apologetics.Footnote 12Although these issues have attracted relatively little scholarly attention, there is nothing occasional about The Spectator’s engagement with Chinese culture and Jewish religion. The recent emphasis on the periodical’s negotiation of conflict between monied and landed interests, its promulgation of values suited to a commercial and colonizing society and its particular focus on regulating female conduct have to a large extent occluded Addison’s and Steele’s preoccupation with questions of natural religion, natural philosophy, natural genius and religious difference, all issues central to enlightened discourse. Although The Spectator is now seen largely through a prism of national social reformation and the recuperation of commerce, early commentators recognized that it had an intimate relation to continental enlightened culture, at one level functioning as a popularization of Pierre Bayle’s famously subversive Dictionnaire historique et critique (1697), the scourge of intolerance and absolutism. The Addisoniana records that ‘old Jacob Tonson used to tell, that he seldom called on Addison when he did not see Bayle’s Dictionary lying upon his table’,Footnote 13 while De Quincey accused Addison of actually plagiarizing from the Dictionnaire.Footnote 14 Donald Bond observes that many of the historical anecdotes in the papers can be traced to Bayle, and Addison himself repeatedly refers to the Dictionnaire both playfully and with respect. In Spectator 92, June 15, 1711, responding jokingly to a letter requesting help in assembling a lady’s library, Addison suggests that along with such clearly inappropriate tomes as Dalton’s Country Judge, The Compleat Jockey and Mr Mede Upon Revelations, ‘Mr Jacob Tonson Junr. Is of Opinion, that Bayle’s Dictionnary might be of very good Use to the Ladies, in order to make them good Scholars’ (1:390). In an entirely different tone, however, in Spectator 121, July 19, 1711, he quotes the Dictionnaire to bolster an argument about the divinely inspired nature of animal instinct:
To me, as I hinted in my last paper, [Instinct] seems the immediate Direction of Providence, and such an Operation of the Supreme Being as that which determines all the Portions of Matter to their Proper Centers. A modern Philosopher, quoted by Monsieur Bayle, in his Learned Dissertation on the Souls of Brutes, delivered the same Opinion, though in a bolder form of Words, when he says Deus est Anima Brutus, God himself is the Soul of Brutes.
The Tatler and The Spectator did more than draw from Bayle’s survey of the evils of persecution and intolerance. In accordance with the enlightened English fascination with the new science, Spectator 121 is one of a number of papers in which Addison channels texts such as Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding (1690) and Newton’s Opticks (1704) to promulgate the most recent developments in natural philosophy. He always does so in accordance with Newton’s own adherence to Anglican belief – stressing here for example that instinct should be understood as ‘an immediate Impression from the first Mover, and the Divine Energy acting in the Creation’ (1:493). As the success of John Rich’s The Necromancer made clear, however, while practitioners might have characterized the new science as evidence of Providential Design, there were plenty among the devout and the credulous (including Defoe) for whom the heady discoveries and speculations generated suspicion and fear. That Addison was aware of such responses seems borne out by his essays on the supernatural, for while he describes himself as ‘neutral’ in regard to ghosts, his discussion of witches is an unambiguous attack on the superstition that results in aged, infirm and mentally fragile women being persecuted when they are in most need of charity (Spectator 117, July 14, 1711: 1:482).In representing new epistemological or ontological arguments, Addison has recourse to a heterodox series of authorities, complicating his invocation of orthodox Providentialism by routing it through radical discourse like Bayle’s or, in another instance, the Koran. In explaining Locke’s ideas on the variability of our perception of duration, in Paper 94, June 18, 1711, he invokes a ‘very pretty Story in the Turkish Tales which relates to that Passage of that famous Imposter, and bears some affinity to the Subject’ (1:401). Addison’s citation from The Turkish Tales (not coincidentally brought out a couple of years earlier by Kit-Kat Club stalwart and Bayle printer Jacob Tonson) tells the story of a sultan who falls asleep and dreams he lives for many years in a distant land in pinched circumstances. When he awakes he is furious with his doctor, whom he thinks has enchanted him but is mollified by realizing he has simply been asleep. The story ends with the following homily:
The Mahometan Doctor took this Occasion of instructing the Sultan, that nothing was impossible with God; and that He, with whom a Thousand Years are but one Day, can if he pleases make a single Day, nay a single Moment, appear to any of his Creatures as a Thousand Years. I shall leave my Reader to compare these Eastern Fables with the Notions of those great Philosophers [Mallebranche and Locke] whom I have quoted in my Papers.
The implication here is that the oriental tales, caulked on the Alcoran, articulating the dogma of the ‘Great Imposter’ nevertheless provide the same insight as ‘the great Philosophers’.
In another paper that begins by Mr Spectator claiming affinity with ‘Mahometans’, Addison explains that ‘I have so much of the Musselman in me that I cannot forebear looking into any Printed Paper which comes in my way’ (Number 85, June 7, 1711: 1:361). The complex trajectory of this essay involves an implicit equation between the potentially undignified fate of both the Koran and Christian theological writings, as Mr Spectator explains that ‘I have lighted my Pipe more than once with the Writings of a Prelate’ and that ‘I once met with a Page of Baxter in a Christmas Pye’ before proceeding to celebrate the value of old English ballads, often found serving the same ignominious purposes as redundant homiletics as linings for hatboxes, wall-paper and so forth (1:361). Addison’s vindication of ballads, celebrated as providing a true ‘copy of nature’, is being deployed here against Tory polemicist William Wagstaffe’s attack on texts that the latter despised for their ‘unpolished homeliness of dress’ (1:391) but which The Spectator consistently celebrates for their rough but vigorous indigeneity. The essay proceeds therefore by subjecting the common reverence shared by different ‘people of the Book’ for religious writing to a materialist critique that suggests that indigenous and demotic forms of orature have a vitality – perhaps even a truth to nature – that theological writings, whether Islamic or Christian, may lack.
Addison’s Spectators suggest a consistent attempt to invoke Islamic parallels, both to illustrate apparent universals and at other moments, much more subversively, to question the possibility of accessing any such possible truths. The power of oriental materials in negotiating this ambivalently relativist programme is signalled most spectacularly by the success of ‘The Vision of Mirza’, one of the most frequently cited and translated papers, contained in Spectator 159, September 1, 1711. The ‘Vision’ is a manuscript supposedly picked up by the writer ‘at the Grand Cairo’, in which the visionary is led to a high hill above ‘Bagdat’ where he sees a panoramic view of human existence. Life is shown as a progress over a rickety bridge in a dark tide of waters, ending in an inevitable fall into seas that sweep the fallen towards either a paradise of edenic islands or to a cloud-shrouded bank where their fate is obscured. The sublime evocation of life as a ‘vale of Misery’, a brief sojourn in watery turbulence, hopefully rewarded by eternal life on happy isles, clearly appealed to the British, for whom both the oceanic and the insular were master tropes of national identity. The paper was republished in collections and in Steele’s The Conscious Lovers, the hero Bevil Jr. introduces himself to the audience by apostrophizing ‘this charming Vision of Mirza’, going on to remark that ‘such an author consulted in a morning sets the spirit for the vicissitudes of the day better than the glass does a man’s person’ (Act 1, Scene 11). The friendly compliment to his former collaborator aside, Steele’s invocation of the Vision not only underscores Bevil Jr.’s polite virtue but invokes the tumultuous, obscure and maritime circumstances in which the heroine Indiana Sealand and her family have been enveloped and from which she must emerge onto safe (English) ground.The ‘Vision of Mirza’ is carefully characterized as a found object, for which no truth claims are advanced – as is the case with the degraded texts in Paper 85, the reader must decide herself what status it occupies. Policing the cultural/religious boundary, deciding how to respond to this Islamicist reverie thus becomes the responsibility of each particular reader. In a fashion demonstrated repeatedly in Ballaster’s Fabulous Orients, far from modelling an uncritical collapse into emotionally ineffective passivity, Spectators 85 and 159 invite their readers to enter into another imaginary, one both alike and yet still markedly different to their own, thereby creating the possibility of self-reflective critique. This education in empathy is matched by Addison’s emphatic hostility to zeal, which is carefully characterized as the accompaniment of all religion, not simply Catholicism, Islam or Judaism:
It is certain where [zeal] is at once Laudable and Prudential it is an hundred times Criminal and Erroneous, nor can it be otherwise if we consider that it operates with equal Violence in all Religions, however Opposite they may be to one another, and in all the subdivisions of each Religion in particular.
Addison goes on to quote Bayle to the effect that ‘some of the Jewish Rabbins’ say that ‘the first Murder was occasioned by a Religious Controversy’, casting doubt about the justification of religious belief tout court: for ‘if we had the whole History of Zeal from the Days of Cain to our Times, we should see it filled with so many Scenes of Slaughter and Bloodshed, as would make a wise Man very careful how he suffers himself to be actuated by such a Principle, when it only regards matters of Opinion and Speculation’ (2:228).Addison’s revulsion from zeal is the flipside to his attraction to genial persuasion and the establishment of empathy. In Spectator 239, December 4, 1711, he again alludes to Bayle while writing passionately, one might almost say violently, against ‘what we may call Arguing by Terror’ (2:430). The immediate context is the controversy over the presence of refugees from the Palatine (and the long-standing presence of Huguenots displaced by Louis XIV), but for Addison, as for other Whigs, violent persecution and attempts at the forced conversion of religious dissenters was a fundamental evil, against which Toleration stood as a bastion of humane reason.
Arguing by Terror … is a Method of Reasoning which has been made use of by the poor Refugees and which was so fashionable in our Country during the Reign of Queen Mary, that in a Passage of an Author quoted by Monsieur Bayle, it is said, the Price of Wood was raised in England, by reason of the Executions made in Smithfield. These Disputants convince their Adversaries with a Sorites commonly called a Pile of Faggots. The Rack is also a kind of Syllogism which has been used to good effect, and has made multitude of Converts. Men were formerly disputed out of their Doubts, reconciled to Truth by form of Reason, and won over to Opinions by the Candour, Sense and Ingenuity of those who had Right on their Side; but this method of Conviction operated too slowly. Pain was found to be more Enlightening than Reason.
The Spectator is obviously intended to model a truly ‘Enlightening’ form of suasion, directly opposed to such persecution. Louis XIV, who, Addison points out, ‘writ upon his great Guns – Ratio ultima Regnum – The Logick of Kings’ (2:431), was the primary contemporary instance of such intellectual and material violence. As so often, Addison’s source here is the Dictionnaire, in which Bayle wrote in his note B on the Anabaptists ‘What is said of Artillery, that it is the last Reason of Kings, Ratio ultima Regnum, may be applied to the Penal Laws; they are the last Reason of Divines, their most powerful Argument, their Achilles, etc.’ (quoted by Bond, 2:431). Limited as Toleration may have been in post-Revolution Britain, from an enlightened Whig perspective it was clearly preferable to the spiritual dragooning of an absolutist Catholic.
By contrast with Romish violence, the authors of The Spectator saw their own project of ‘Enlightening’ as one that proceeded through ‘Candour, Sense and Ingenuity.’ Privileging the imaginative inhabitation of a cultural other’s perspective as a rhetorical strategy that rendered alterity intimate while defamiliarizing the domestic was a favoured device not just in respect of the Orient but in the equally famous papers on the Four Indian Kings. The Spectator that ventriloquizes the Iroquois sachems who visited London in 1711 has long served as a brief resume of an emergent cultural relativism, in which noble savages function to remind Europeans of the specificity of their own customs and manners. The dismissiveness of this response should be modified however by Kate Fullagar’s recent account, The Savage Visit (2012), which makes clear the breadth and intensity of interest in the sachems and the political implications of their presence in London.Footnote 15 Political partners in the Canadian arm of the war against the French, the Iroquois served as the fulcrum for debate over the virtues of landed or commercial society. Such differences had significant political implications. Steven Pincus has recently demonstrated that far from sharing mercantilist presumptions about the landed basis of national wealth that shaped a common approach to empire, Whig and Tory colonial policy developed along very different lines after 1688. For Whigs human labour and ingenuity, industry and trade generated wealth, and colonies and other nations were best seen as trading partners in a virtuous circle of ever-growing commerce. For Tories, however, guided by strict mercantilists such as Charles Davenant, there was only a limited amount of global wealth and the best way to secure Britain’s position was by plunder.Footnote 16
If, as Pincus demonstrates, Addison is the voice of a Whig colonial policy actively hostile to conquest, resource extraction and slavery, his periodical representation of indigenous Americans in ‘The Vision of Marraton’, Spectator 56, May 4, 1711, has highly topical implications. ‘The Vision of Marraton’ recounts the dream of the paradisal afterlife imagined by an Indian sachem, replete with happy hunting grounds and arcadian uplands. The sole negative feature is a lake of molten gold in which the Indians recognize avaricious Europeans dying a horrible death of the element that they have fetishized. The obvious axis of the story is a division between the pastoral existence of the Indians, natural man in an environment uncorrupted by the evils of civil society and the contrasting representation of modern Europeans as (pace Temple) focused exclusively and destructively on the pursuit of wealth. But ‘Marraton’ had a more specific moral for his readers. In 1711 Whigs were infuriated by the Tory obsession in negotiations to end the War of Spanish Succession with demanding more territory from France – and in particular with gaining access to Latin American mines – rather than ensuring guarantees of trading rights. From the Whig point of view, access to extraction and extended territory colonial was worth little in comparison with an amplified ability to trade, and further, the emulation of Spanish colonial policies, notoriously based on policies of conquest, forced conversion and enslaved labour, was regarded as morally deplorable.Footnote 17 As ‘Marraton’, Addison spoke in a voice that combined Whig disgust for an ethically degraded and economically distorted colonial policy with the horror of an indigene whose way of life was immediately threatened if not already extirpated by such action.
‘The Vision of Marraton’ is then one of many Spectator essays whose invocation of such tropes as the rational Muslim, the noble savage or the persecuted woman is intended to model critique and to affect opinion and policy. One of the most important questions raised by The Tatler and The Spectator is the extent to which their sophisticated evocation of pity (for betrayed women, for exploited indigenes) can be seen as creating the means of critique of or (by contrast) facilitating commercial and colonial empire.
As we have seen, Anthony Pollock has recently argued persuasively that the creation of the reader’s avatar in the neutral and neutered form of Mr Spectator produced a model of citizenship capable of passive sympathetic witness that also precluded active intervention to rectify injustice. It is hardly surprising that Pollock, one of a long line of critics who have used the story of Inkle and Yarico as a testing ground for such speculations, agrees with the generally sceptical view of sentiment’s capacities for effecting reform. The connection between abolitionism and sentiment in particular has long been familiar, canvassed many years ago by Wylie Sypher as well as by Markman Ellis, Deirdre Coleman, George Boulukos and others.Footnote 18 In Sentimental Figures of Empire, Lynn Festa argues that sentimentality replaced epic in the eighteenth century as the dominant literary mode of empire by magnifying and mystifying colonial relations and by generating the tropes that render relations with distant others thinkable.Footnote 19 For Festa, sentimentality structured flows of affect between metropolitan subjects and colonial objects, not only by refashioning scenes of violence for facile consumption but by facilitating the constitution of the modern (metropolitan) self through repeated acts of emotional violence.
By contrast, I contest the view that the Spectator papers functioned only to establish ‘solidarity-in-guilt’, modelling their readers as witnesses to scenes of social violence to which no response except passive sentiment was required. Addison and Steele constructed their essays in a context in which reasoned forms of argument and sympathetic identification with various social, political, religious and ethnic others were deliberate strategies deployed to support an enlightened vision of society that – highly unusually, in an early modern European context – privileged tolerance. Although Spectator 262 (December 31, 1711) disingenuously claims that the paper ‘has not in it a Single Word of News, a Reflection in Politicks, nor a Stroke of Party’, and that there are ‘no fashionable Touches of Infidelity’ (2:517), the papers do in fact address pressing issues such as opposing territorial expansion, continuing the admission of religious refugees, maintaining toleration, questioning religious authority and increasing education and social opportunity. Yet another aspect of the neglected critical programme of The Spectator is in fact its extended argument for a meritocratic society in which all (men) receive an education appropriate to their talents, regardless of rank or race.Footnote 20 This position was most frequently articulated by Steele but occasionally voiced also by Addison. In Number 214, for instance, Steele attacks clientage relationships and the unthinking presumption of superiority that accompanies preferment, remarking approvingly that ‘I know a Man of good Sense who put his Son to a Blacksmith, tho’ an Offer was made him of his being received as a Page to a Man of Quality’ (November 5, 1711: 2:333), and Budgell continues the argument in Number 307 (February 21, 1712), lamenting the waste of talent through educational misapplication, claiming, ‘I have known a corn-cutter, who with a right Education would have been an excellent Physician’ and going on to say, ‘In like manner, many a Lawyer, who makes but an indifferent Figure at the Bar, might have made a very elegant Waterman, and have shined at the Temple Stairs, tho’ he get no Business in the House’ (3:109).One of the most extended treatments of the topic is Addison’s Paper 215, November 6, 1711, in which he recounts a ‘kind of wild tragedy’ concerning three Africans enslaved on a plantation in the Leeward Islands. The two men are in both in love with the same woman and as they are unable to decide which should marry her, they kill her together and then themselves. Addison’s motto is from Ovid, to the effect that ‘Liberal arts, where studied faithfully, soften the manners and prevent cruelty.’ He frames the story by comparing human nature generally to marble, suggesting that only education is capable of drawing out ‘every latent Vertue and Perfection’ (2:338) and draws a comparison between those at the bottom of European societies and the uncivil:
The Philosopher, the Saint, or the Hero, the Wise, the Good, or the Great Man, very often lie hid and concealed in a Plebean, which a proper Education might have disinterred, and brought to Light. I am therefore much delighted with reading the Accounts of Savage Nations, and with contemplating those Vertues which are wild and uncultivated; to see Courage exerting itself in Fierceness, Resolution in Obstinacy, Wisdom in Cunning, and Patience in Sullenness and Despair.
While Addison’s conviction of his own cultural superiority shapes his belief that ‘savage nations’ are less capable of producing men of great learning, devotion or heroism, he is emphatic that human beings of all races are endowed with identical capacities, identifying a ‘Savage Greatness of Soul’ in slaves who reportedly suicide after their master’s death and lamenting that their virtues are not ‘rightly cultivated’. He goes on to attack ‘the Contempt with which we treat this Part of our Species’ and question ‘that we should not put them upon the Common foot of Humanity, that we should only set an insignificant Fine upon the Man who murders them; nay, that we should, as much as in us lies, cut them off from the Prospects of Happiness in another World as well as in this?’ (2:339).
Addison is certainly adamant that it is ‘an unspeakable Blessing to be born in those Parts of the World where Wisdom and Knowledge flourish’ (2:340), but he is equally frank about the inequity of education’s distribution in both the metropolis and Britain’s colonies. However, we should note that far from encouraging a passive acceptance of this unjust status quo, he wrote the essay in the months following the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht, which we have seen was deplored by Whigs for its mistaken (and immoral) preoccupation with gaining slave trading rights and colonies and access to centres of extraction in Latin America. Further, the essay was published on the day after Bonfire Night, (November 5), still celebrated for the failure of Guy Fawkes and his fellow Catholic aristocrats to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Identifying ignorance with perverted ‘greatness of soul’, Addison is surely denouncing the zeal or violent extremism inculcated in Roman Catholics of whatever rank by what he saw as a misguided education.Footnote 21
The Spectator’s own didacticism was aimed at establishing sympathy as a counter to zeal, modelling the imagining of fellow feeling rather than entrenching differences likely to encourage violence, while underlining the ethical claims of Whig policies and circulating contemporary advances in philosophy and science. Given that the model offered in The Spectator is that of the viewer, and that ‘Mr Spectator’ identifies the theatre as his one sphere of influence, it’s unsurprising that Addison and Steele regarded the stage as the other great scene of action for sympathy. It’s important to note that their condescension to ‘plebean’ intelligence does not extend to dramatic spectatorship: in stressing the universality of literary appeal, Steele famously cites the anecdote recording Moliere’s dependence on his housekeeper’s judgement of his comedies while in Spectator 235, November 29, 1711, Addison celebrates the taste-making capacity of the Trunk-maker in the Upper-Gallery, ‘a large black man, whom no-body knows’ (2:414). ‘Black’ here might signal the man’s hair colour, low rank, swarthiness or Irish ethnicity but is unlikely to suggest a non-European identity. This paper suggests, in fact, a rather remarkable coincidence between the role of the Spectator, for whom nothing lies more within his Province than ‘Publick Shows and Diversions’, and the plebeian censor of the upper gallery, who has ‘saved many a good Play, and brought many a grateful Actor into Reputation’, by ruling the audience like the ‘Director of a Consort’, or ‘Virgil’s Ruler of the Winds’ from his perch high up in the cheap seats (2:416). Mr Spectator explains in Number 370, May 15, 1712, that ‘It is, with me, a Matter of the highest consideration what Parts are well or ill-performed, what Passions or Sentiments are indulged or cultivated, and consequently, what Manners and Customs are transferred from the Stage to the World, which reciprocally imitate each other’ (3:242). In assuming just such a censorial role and successfully imposing his judgments on players and audience alike by means of his patriotically oaken staff, the Trunk-maker’s exhibition of faultless if untutored taste foreshadows the opening of the Enlightenment stage to natural genius.
Rather than presuming that sentiment originates in fiction, and that its earliest texts then ‘migrated’ to the playhouse, we might explore an alternative story of sentiment, empire and Enlightenment. To do so requires returning to an older scholarship, in which the origins of sentimental discourse are shown to lie in the theatre as well as the formulations of the Cambridge Platonists or Shaftesbury.Footnote 22 Arguing that Steele served as unofficial censor for many of the first three decades of the century, Kinservik has shown that Restoration satire morphed into politer forms in which reform was to be effected by sympathetic identification with transgressors, rather than contemptuous disavowal. Tracking the overlap of Shaftesbury’s claims for the sensis communis in the early Whig drama of patriotic public feeling, Brett Wilson makes a parallel case for the power of sympathy in serious plays of the period.While Addison had a particularly prominent part in articulating the tolerationist and rationalist agenda of The Spectator, in which the reader was interpellated as a feeling viewer encouraged to adopt politically and culturally charged opinions, Steele had the more prominent role in the construction of dramatic sympathy. Self-described as an ‘Englishman born in Dublin’, Steele was personally invested in creating dramatic vehicles intended to meld together the heterogenous audiences who literally embodied the recently united kingdom. As Joseph Roach has suggested in Cities of the Dead, the late Stuart theatre was an early scene of imagined community, one in which one’s fellow subjects are physically proximate rather than virtually united by the simultaneous but spatially distinct consumption of print.Footnote 23 The early eighteenth-century stage was understood by contemporaries to model the kingdom as a whole, its fractious heterogeneity as much as its aesthetic peculiarities an index of the nation’s historical vicissitudes but also its great particularities – the Enlightened English shibboleths of political liberty and religious toleration. For Colley Cibber, Steele’s ally in the promulgation of Whig dramaturgy, theatre’s unique capacity to raise strong common feeling among divided spectators was the key to its national importance, as we see in his remarks on Addison’s Cato (1713):
When the Tragedy of Cato was first acted, let us call to mind the noble Spirit of Patriotism, which that Play then infus’d into the Breasts of a free People, that crowded to it; with what affecting Force, was that most elevated of Human Virtues recommended? Even the false Pretenders to it felt an unwilling Conviction, and made it a Point of Honour to be foremost, in their Approbation; and this too, at a time when the fermented Nation had their different Views of Government. Yet the sublime Sentiments of Liberty, in that venerable Character, rais’d, in every sensible Hearer such conscious Admiration, such compell’d Assent to the Conduct of a suffering Virtue, as even demanded two almost irreconcilable Parties to embrace, and join in their Applause of it. Now, not to take from the Merit of the Writer, had that Play never come to the Stage, how much of this valuable effect of it must have been lost?Footnote 24
David Marshall has stressed the importance of theatrical modelling in Adam Smith’s account of sentiment, a theoretical framework for social bonding that cultural historians now argue constitutes a characteristically British way of understanding national identity.Footnote 25 It was by watching theatrical performances of the emergent modes of pathetic and sentimental drama that audiences learned to become unified by a common, national feeling.
As he pursued a career as a cultural impresario in late Stuart/early Hanoverian Britain, Steele’s Irish origins shaped his embrace of reforming Whiggery’s projects of politeness and piety, a cultural and political programme that could include and manage the relations of individuals and groups divided by ethnicity, rank, religious belief and political loyalties. In working to invent a sympathy machine that would reduce all his audience, generals included, to tears, Steele was not simply aiming at a reconciliation of trade and land, or the promulgation of middle-class morality. The union he sought to create was one that might sink ethnic, religious or national differences in proper feeling, ideally what Cibber called ‘the noble Spirit of Patriotism’. To succeed in this venture he turned to old plays and in particular, the she-tragedies of Banks. In The Conscious Lovers (1721) he created a template that would be used repeatedly by dramatists seeking to recuperate all those heterogenous groups who were part of but marginal to the United Kingdom and empire – Jacobites, Jews, the Irish, Scots, nabobs, creoles and African slaves. As we have noted above, the extent to which dramatic sentiment actually succeeded in that later, more extensive project of ‘humanization’ is as much contested now as it was in the eighteenth century: George Boulukos argues that sentimental depictions of ‘the grateful slave’ actually made racist discourse conventional, while David Worrall argues that anti-slavery plays popularized the abolitionist juggernaut.Footnote 26 What is certain however is that eighteenth-century British dramatists repeatedly turned to pathos and sentiment in attempting to generate religious toleration, cultural rapprochement and national reconciliation.
Steele’s investment in an expansive and inclusive United Kingdom was shaped by his own colonial background. His grandfather’s career as a dashing East India Company merchant commissioned to open up the Persia trade, and celebrated as a friend of the Great Mughal, was memorialized by Coryat. Steele’s grandmother and her children (one of whom was born in India) were settled by the family patriarch in a plantation near Ballyinaskill and experienced a terrible siege in the castle there during the Irish Confederation uprising of 1641. Orphaned at ten, Steele was removed to school in England but never hid his antecedents, functioning as a Steward for example during the memorial processions for the 1641 rebellion.Footnote 27 His always shaky finances received a very substantial boost when he inherited a Barbadian plantation from his first wife – who had herself inherited when her brother was captured by French privateers. The estate, worth at least £850 a year, was worked by two hundred slaves and Steele sold it after his first wife’s death to facilitate his second marriage.Footnote 28 He was friendly with several West Indians and was the first subscriber to offer books to the library at the newly established Yale College in Connecticut.
Steele was thus connected to at least three main arenas of colonial activity but by no means consistently in positions of profit, mastery or virtue. His Irish origins were an obvious source of vulnerability when he sought to establish himself as a figure of political as well as cultural authority. Unlike Addison however, who achieved high office through patronage, Steele sought to become an increasingly visible political player. As part of this process, he gradually abandoned the increasingly transparent personae of Isaac Bickerstaffe, Tatler and Censor, Mr Spectator and Nestor Ironside to appear in his later periodicals without disguise, under his own name as ‘an Englishman born in Dublin’. Regarded no longer as an impartial observer above the fray but as an engaged participant in political and cultural conflict, Steele became the subject of evermore vituperative attack, with the publication of The Importance of Dunkirk Consider’d (1713) in particular producing highly personal responses. Steele’s financial problems, his drunkenness, his supposed ingratitude to patrons and his alchemical projects were all canvassed by opponents, but as Charles Knight and Rae Blanchard have noted, the primary focus of these negative characterizations is his nationality.Footnote 29In several of the hostile accounts of Steele, the dramatist figures as a fortune-hunting stage Irishman, an Irishman moreover whose profitable marriage to a Barbadian heiress taints him with a certain creole arrogance – Defoe accused him of addressing the Queen ‘just as an imperious Planter at Barbadoes speaks to a Negro Slave’.Footnote 30 John Lacy attacks him in similar terms in The Ecclesiastical and Political History of Whigland (1714):
Many Years ago, Don Ricardo had Ingenuity enough to make his own Fortune, by that Qualification, which seems to be more particularly innate to him, than any of his Countrymen, who are famous for a constant and diligent Impudence, the Practice of which, in the most flagrant Degree, gives them a Dominion over the weak Sex; who are unable, tho’ they even hate, to resist such violent and unnatural attacks as they usually make upon ’em, till they are forced to be their Wives, as the only Way to get Rid of ’em. A West-Indian Beauty, attacked in this Manner, gave herself and with her Person, more Mines of Gold, than would have made a plentiful Fortune for a worthier Mortal than Don Ricardo.Footnote 31
Lacy goes on to claim that Steele’s infidelity caused his wife’s death, an accusation already canvassed by Delarivier Manley in her New Atalantis, describing him as ‘thick set, his Eyes lost in his head, hanging Eye-Brows, broad Face and tallow Complexion … has an inexhaustible fund of Dissimulation, and does not bely the Country he was born in, which is fam’d for falsehood and Insincerity.’Footnote 32 In a dialogue with a Mrs Tofts later in the Memoirs, the lady remarks to Don Phoebo (Steele) of his dead wife that ‘Your Fame is not quite so clear in Reference to that ugly and odd Misfortune, that was so fatal to her, occasion’d by your Sister.’Footnote 33 When focusing on Steele’s activities as a political author, the pretentions of an Irishman to English identity and authority are a recurring trope – as William Wagstaffe writes in A Letter from the facetious Doctor Andrew Tripe at Bath: ‘Sir, I more particularly remember they said of you … that you attempted to make an Englishman of Teague.’Footnote 34 Swift’s is perhaps the most extreme instance of such exclusionary language, when at the end of The Publick Spirit of the Whigs he suggests that ‘I agree with this Writer, that it is an idle thing in his Antagonists to trouble themselves upon the Articles of his Birth, Education or Fortune; for Whoever writes to his Sovereign, to whom he owes so many personal Obligations, I shall never enquire whether he be a gentleman born, but whether he be human creature.’Footnote 35Occasionally Steele fought back in kind. In his ‘Apology for Himself and His Writings’ (1714), in which he defended himself from the charges of seditious libel that had led to his expulsion from the House of Commons early in 1714, he described Thomas Foley, an in-law of Harley’s, who led the attack against him as follows:
The Man I mean was of an Enormous Stature and Bulk, and had the Appearance, if I may speak so, of a Dwarf-Giant. His Complection Tawny, his Mein disturb’d, and the whole Man something particularly unfamiliar, disingenuous, and shocking to an English Constitution. I fancied, by his exotick Make and Colour, he might be descended from a Moor, and was some Purchase of our African, or other trading Company, which was manumised. This Man, thought I, was certainly bred in Servitude, and being now out of it, exerts all that he knows of Greatness in Insolence and Haughtiness.Footnote 36
This invention of a fantastic history for Foley involving North African ancestry, enslavement, manumission and illegitimate entry into Parliament reworks many of the tropes employed in the attacks on Steele himself: blackness, creole arrogance, profoundly un-English origins and a passage from colonial obscurity to the nation’s seat of power. The biography that Steele creates for his accuser mirrors the delegitimating narrative projected onto him by the pamphleteers. But while its primary target is personal, the passage also implies that the slave trade has the capacity to fundamentally disfigure and denature the English constitution, evoked here in both its bodily and political dimensions. Unlike the mutually enriching operations of doux commerce, maritime trade has here injected an alien body into the nation’s political heart – a heart unnaturally hardened, Steele goes on to suggest, by his accuser’s unjust cruelty. As the tide seemed to be turning in Steele’s favour, ‘The untam’d Creature stood up to turn off the merciful Inclination which he saw grow towards the Member accus’d’, suppressing their natural inclination to tenderness.Footnote 37 In the miniature sentimental narrative Steele has constructed for his readers, the manumitted slave’s mimicry of his former masters’ tyranny triumphs over the natural benevolence of the nation’s representatives. In his hostility to slavery understood not as Aristotelian metaphor but as a trade, we see the same emergent Whig hostility to the institution notable in Addison’s views of colonial policy.
Steele continued his campaign against the Harleys in The Lover, in terms that seem to underscore his sensitivity to the specifically ethnic nature of the attacks in The Examiner and elsewhere. At the close of Lover 14, March 27, 1714, for example, ‘Ephraim Cattlesoap’ concludes his account of ‘the Exotick and Comick Designs of this unaccountable Race’ the Crabtrees (Oxford, his brother Edward, and Foley) who are, he writes, ‘(according to their own different Accounts of their Parts and Births) occasionally Syrians, Egyptians, Saxons, Arabians, and every thing but Welch, British, Scotch, or anything that is for the Interest of these Dominions’.Footnote 38 The obscurely and exotically ancestored Harleys are contrasted to those whose positively valenced British identities actually exclude the English. The valorization and claim to a Cambro-British heritage starts to replace Steele’s self-described English identity. In 1720, for example, he claims, ‘I was begot in Dublin by a Welsh gentleman upon a Scots Lady of Quality’, reinscribing his suspiciously hybrid Anglo-Irishness as a rich compendium of the United Kingdom’s ancient nations.Footnote 39Although biographers other than Charles Knight have passed over the attacks and critics by and large disregard the topic, it would have been near impossible for Steele’s ethnicity to have been ignored in the pamphlet wars of the 1710s. A brief inspection of the recent historiography of British national identity in the eighteenth-century makes it clear why Steele’s position was so confused and vulnerable. In Britons (1992), Linda Colley argues that the eighteenth-century British were united by their Protestantism, their hostility to Catholic enemies, their commitment to trade and their common interest in imperial expansion.Footnote 40 But she pays rather less attention to the religious and national or ethnic differences that continued to divide the Scots, Irish, Welsh and English under the later Stuarts and Hanoverians.Footnote 41 While nativist traditions drawing on Celtic pasts were variously deployed from the seventeenth century on to stress cultural distinctiveness, Colin Kidd has shown the extent to which various theological and antiquarian arguments about pan-European Gothicism provided rhetorical resources for those who sought to underline the essential historical unity of the British as well as their ancestral links to other modern Europeans.Footnote 42 As Gothicism was incorporated into popular Whig apologetics in the post-Revolutionary period, it provided a specifically historical justification for understanding the component kingdoms of the British Isles as the common inheritors of the Teutonic legacy of liberty. Steele himself provides a classic articulation of this idée reçu in The Englishman 28, from December 8, 1713:
If liberty be then so valuable, those Nations whose Government has appear’d to be founded on its Maxims the most conducive to its Preservation, though not conversant in the politer parts of Learning, are so far from being deserving to be stiled Barbarous, that they justly merit as glorious Panegyricks as ever came from the Mouth of Tully or Demosthenes.
amongst those may be reckoned the ancient Inhabitants of the Northern Parts of Europe, out of which in different Ages have gushed those mighty swarms of Goths, Vandals, Saxons, Angles, Franks, Huns, Danes and Normans, which subdu’d all the Western Parts of Europe.
the grand Northern hive from whence they came, has by some Authors been stiled Officina Gentium, the Shop of Nations; and might with as much Justice have been called Officina Libertatis, the Shop of Liberty.
In the case of those we now call the Anglo-Irish, including Steele and Swift, the sense of an English identity that survived transplantation to Ireland was even more distinct, as new settlers distinguished themselves from the ‘mere Irish’ – the dispossessed Catholics – despite the fact that the metropolitan English refused to recognize such differences.Footnote 43 The irony for the Anglo-Irish – like other settlers – was that in colonizing, the ‘West British’ became colonials.Steele’s investment in the Whig project thus has a cultural and political specificity conditioned by his Irish antecedents. His admiration for William III was arguably informed by a positive attachment to the idea that what mattered in a ‘Christian hero’ was that he was a hero of the Protestant interest and that his non-English origins were decidedly irrelevant to his role as national saviour. Writing in The Englishman 3, October 10, 1713, Steele explains,
When I say an Englishman, I mean every true Subject of her Majesty’s Realms, the Briton of the North as well as he of the South; and know no Reason for saying Englishman instead of Scotsman, but that latter Appellation is drawn into the former from the Residence of the Queen in the Southern Part of Great Britain. I abhor the Distinction, and think it absolutely necessary for our mutual Honour and Safety, as far as it is possible, to abolish it. It is below the Sincerity of Heart and innate Honesty of a true Englishman to enter into a partial Friendship; and it is a Matter of Lamentation, to observe the cool Distance, that is maintained towards Men who have resigned great Immunities, and placed themselves irrevocably under the same Soveraignty with us, in order to our mutual Wealth, Glory and Happiness.Footnote 44
But as we have seen, the ‘mere English’ did not necessarily share Steele’s views, not in politics, nor in the playhouse. John Dennis believed the stage’s contemporary decline was caused by venal and low-bred actor-managers supplanting theatrical management by nobles but he also cited demographic shifts in the audience consequent on the more general political and social changes that followed the golden age of the Restoration:
The Audiences were English all or most of them, audiences that understood what they saw and heard; and we had the none of those shoals of exoticks, that came in by the Revolution, the union, and the Hanover Succession, which tho They were events that were necessary all, and without which we had been undone; yet they have hitherto had but an evil Influence upon the genuine Entertainments of the stage, and the studies and arts of Humanity.Footnote 45
For in addition to the ‘shoals of exoticks’ who require a dumbed-down theatre, Dennis is incensed by the undiscriminating ignorance of successful military men and stock-jobbers: ‘a new and numerous Gentry has risen among us by the Return of our fleets from sea, of our Armies from the Continent, and from the wreck of the South Sea. All these will have their Diversions and their easie Partiality leads them against their own palpable interest to the Hundreds of Drury’.Footnote 46 For Dennis a vicious cycle had emerged, whereby a newly heterogenous and uneducated spectatorship was pandered to by equally low, ill-informed and in Steele’s case un-English theatrical managers. In his ‘Picture of Sir John Edgar’, he describes Steele as follows:
He was a Gentleman born, Witness himself; of a very Honorable Family, certainly of a very Ancient one. For his Ancestors flourish’d in Tipperary long before the English ever set foot in Ireland. He has Testimony of this more Authentick than the Herald’s office or than mere Human Testimony; for God has mark’d him more abundantly than Cain, and stamp’d his Native Country upon his Face, his Understanding, his Writings, his Actions, his Passions, and above all, his Vanity. The Hibernian Brogue is still upon all these, tho long Habitude and Length of Days has worn it from off his Tongue.Footnote 47
To say, therefore, that the Nature of Government requires an absolute Submission in the whole governed Society, even to a Degree of total Ruin, when that shall seem fit to the governing Part, is just as if it should, with great Gravity be affirmed, That the Nature of Government requires, that the very End for which only it was instituted, should be frustrated, and wholly destroyed …
It is as if it should be said, That the Nature of a Guardianship requires, that the Children, for whose Good it was settled, must, without Limitation, submit, should a Guardian sell them to the Slavery of the Galleys …Footnote 51
Steele’s example of illegitimate, despotic governance uses the same figure of literal enslavement that he invoked in his defence of his conduct in the ‘Apology’, in which, as we saw, he characterized his parliamentary tormentor as a brutalized former slave. Literal enslavement often appears in Steele’s polemical writing as the horrific telos of the political domination he associates with absolutism, while an inclusive compassion is good government’s virtuous antithesis. But in his ‘Apology’, as clearly as in the celebrated fable of Inkle and Yarico, the invocation of slavery actually collapses that crucial opposition between the free trading nation and its tyrannic rivals. Feeling himself not only humiliated but literally cast out of the political nation by his expulsion from the House, Steele’s rhetorical misrecognition of his accuser as a depraved denizen of the slave trade recurs to a fundamental contradiction in his beloved ‘English constitution’, identifying slavery as a delegitimating canker on the British body politic. The dark body and ‘exotick’ origins that he shares with his Accuser, rhetorically at least, continually threaten entry to or expulsion from the idealized, free Protestant nation into a condition of slavery, whether material or political.
It’s unsurprising that Steele, forced to reflect repeatedly upon his own and others’ nationalities, seems peculiarly sensitive to the shifting, contingent and hierarchical nature of ethnic and national identities and affects. With multiple national affiliations and residencies, he was in pole position to originate literary techniques that manage difference and distance. While the flow of sympathy in sentimental drama (or novels) may help constitute and consolidate identities, it also blurs boundaries, whether one figures the sympathetic self as subjugated by feeling or aggressively appropriative of another’s most intimate experience via identification. Given Steele’s own always uncertain hold upon an ‘English Constitution’, it makes sense he should find the ‘universal’ appeal of virtuous sympathy – in which national, party and even gender differences are putatively sunk – so compelling.
Steele was not of course alone in his attempts at constructing sentimental union. Following Shaftesbury’s early articulation of a common ‘moral sense’, Scottish historians and philosophers Francis Hutcheson, David Hume and eventually Adam Smith began theorizing the sympathetic exchanges that they believed bound together families, communities and nations.Footnote 52 In developing the notion of an innate capacity of feeling for others, the Scots all include what seemed to them our natural feeling for our fellow citizens as aspects of our intrinsic benevolence. Francis Hutcheson claimed that among our strongest motivations ‘we shall find strong natural affections, friendships, national love, gratitude’.Footnote 53 Bracketing the more usual explanations for national characteristics based on geography and climate, Hume suggested that to sympathy ‘we might ascribe the great uniformity in the humours and turn of thinking of those of the same nation’.Footnote 54 Although he never offers a hard and fast definition of sympathy, Hume’s accounts of its workings suggest an almost physical transmission of feeling from one individual to another: ‘As in strings equally wound up, the motion of one communicates itself to the rest; so the affections readily pass from one person to another, and beget corresponding movements in every human creature’ (576). Adam Smith would argue that sympathy works in a more mediated fashion, through the visual impressions of another’s experience, a copy of which will convey only a partial version of the original experience and whose intensity depends to quite some degree on the willingness of the spectator to extend sympathy. This model of sympathy corresponds particularly well to theatrical experience – a favourite analogy in his analysis of sympathy’s workings – not least because the theatrical contract implies a heightened willingness to be moved by exhibitions of suffering.
Only Shaftesbury’s meditations on sympathy were available to Steele, although prior to his finally producing The Conscious Lovers, generally accepted as the fullest exemplum of the sentimental comedy, he had been theorizing the genre for years. In Tatler 172 he argues against the recourse to the ‘History of Princes and Persons who act in high Spheres’, believing in ‘the great Use (if any Body could hit it) to lay before the World such Adventures as befall Persons not exalted above the common Level’.Footnote 55 He rejected ‘poetical justice’ and preferred plays ‘in which the persons are all of them laudable, [in which] their misfortunes arise from unguarded virtue than propensity to vice’ (Tatler 98). The aim of the dramatist was to unite the audience in a sympathetic response to suffering virtue, the sign of such pity being tears.Where was the model for such a dramaturgy? Steele identifies it in the practice of John Banks, author of oriental heroic plays before he started composing a run of she-tragedies with subjects drawn exclusively from British history in the 1680s. For Steele, the great virtue of Banks’s plays that they were tear pumps, as he remarks (not altogether admiringly) in Tatler 14:
Yesterday we were entertain’d with the Tragedy of the Earl of Essex, in which there is not one good line, and yet a Play which was never seen without drawing Tears from some part of the Audience; a remarkable instance, that the Soul is not to be mov’d by Words, but Things; for the Incidents in this Drama are laid together so happily, that the Spectator makes the Play by Himself, by the Force which Circumstance has upon his Imagination.Footnote 56
Colley Cibber, also a contender for the title of first sentimental dramatist, makes precisely the same point about Banks. Exhorting would be playwrights to remember the primacy of plot, Cibber invokes Banks’s example:
There are three Plays of his, The Earl of Essex, Anna Bullen, and Mary Queen of Scots, which tho’ they are all written in the most barren, barbarous Stile, that was ever able to keep the Stage, have all interested the Hearts of his Auditors. To what then could this Success be owing, but to the Intrinsik, and naked Value of the Tales he has simply told us? There is Something so happy in the Disposition of all his Fables; all his chief Characters are thrown into such natural Circumstances of Distress, that their Misery or Affliction, wants very little Assistance from the Ornaments of Stile, or Words to speak them … At such a Time, the attentive Audience supplies from his own Heart, whatever the Poet’s Language may fall short of, in Expression, and melts himself into every pang of Humanity, which the like Misfortunes in real life could have inspired.Footnote 57
Banks’s she-tragedies, several of which were suppressed in the 1680s, all held the stage through the eighteenth century.Footnote 58 Although recent commentators, such as Louise Marshall and Christine Gerrard, stress Elizabeth’s continuing value as an emblem of proper Protestant rule in the plays produced under the Hanoverians, John Watkins argues that the Elizabeth depicted in Banks’s drama is a repudiation of her status as a great sovereign as she is refigured as a suffering tragic heroine whose miseries are essentially private.Footnote 59 In an account consonant with other recent readings of pathetic tragedy, Watkins argues that Elizabeth’s tragic suffering models the conflicted interiority of the emergent bourgeois subject.Footnote 60 Without contesting the centrality of class mediation in these texts, I want to suggest that Banks’s tragedies were also successful over a period of decades in moving significant portions of audiences because his heroines were domestic in both senses – primarily concerned with private passions but equally important, characters in the national narrative. Although his female protagonists were royal, they were figures from a shared and not too distant British past, thus diminishing the distance from the audience who were simultaneously united in watching a common history unfold.Footnote 61 Banks was himself very emphatic about the importance his choice of domestic subjects, writing in the ‘Preface to Anna Bullen’ (1682) that unlike those of his fellow dramatists, ‘His Heroes all to England are confin’d’, suggesting further that this should ensure the spectators’ approbation: ‘To your own Fathers sure you will be kind.’Footnote 62
Although The Unhappy Favorite and The Island Queens were both suppressed by the Lord Chancellor in the 1680s, Banks insisted that his plays were innocent of parallels. While it is hard to see dramas in which a Protestant ruler executes a Catholic Stuart heir as entirely free of contemporary reference, the subsequent reception history of these texts suggests that they were valued for their ability to unify audiences by means of specifically British subjects and affects.
Steele’s choice of Terence’s Andria as a model for his new kind of comedy has been acutely explained as a useful classical analogue that authorized the creation of what was seen as an un-English kind of text.Footnote 63 This seems highly plausible and not least because one is tempted to consider that Steele may have identified with Terence. A manumitted slave from Carthage, darkly complexioned, educated in the metropolis through the benevolence of his master and subject to suggestions that he plagiarized the nobles with whom he was intimate, Terence may have seemed to model a difficult outsider career as well as a play. The humane feeling with which Terence’s plays were associated, possibly a function of his experiences of loss, dislocation and compassion, provides another point of concurrence.
When Steele came to write The Conscious Lovers (possibly as early as 1713), although the play appeared only in 1721, he created a comic form that skirts tragedy. This allowed him to use figures ‘not above the common level’, closer to the audience than Banks’s British queens but capable of generating a similar pathos. In the rough notes that Steele drew on for his Preface, he writes that ‘Addison told me I had a faculty of drawing Tears- and bid me compare the Places in Virgil wherein the most judicious Poet made his Hero weep’, and while he himself thought Bevil’s refusal to fight in the fourth act the play’s most important scene, audiences and critics were agreed that the recognition scene in which Indiana is reunited with her father was the affective climax of the drama.Footnote 64
The action of the play is focused on Indiana, long-lost daughter of the East Indies merchant Sealand. Rescued from a lecherous French captor, Indiana has come penniless to London where she is under the protection of the virtuous hero, Bevil Jr.. Bevil’s father wishes his son to marry the wealthy Lucinda, beloved by Bevil’s friend Myrtle. The forced marriage is averted by Sealand’s recognition of Indiana, thus paving the way for her match with Bevil Jr.. Recent critics of The Conscious Lovers have focused on the interrelated issues of the play’s thematic reconciliation of monied and landed interests and the question of aesthetic legitimacy raised by the novel sentimental form in which the action is cast. Lisa Freeman has argued that Steele’s project of inculcating ‘good breeding’ by means of an exemplary comedy was challenged by accusations that his new genre was an illegitimate hybrid whose curbing of humour embodied a threat to liberty.Footnote 65 Nicole Horejsi reverses Freeman’s account of the play’s positive vision of overseas trade by stressing Indiana’s vulnerability to accidents contingent on East Indian trafficking.Footnote 66 Peter Hynes revisits the question of legitimacy by analysing how Terence’s cultural authority as a classical progenitor of tender comedies was invoked to defend Steele’s text and larger project of dramatic reform.Footnote 67These readings suggest that Steele’s cultural authority was fractured by his own hybrid national status, particularly after 1714. The fusillade of attacks on the play by Dennis follow the practice of earlier pamphleteers in focusing on Steele’s Irishness. In ‘A Defence of Sir Fopling Flutter, a Comedy by Sir George Etheridge’ (1722), Dennis’s argument about literary authority turns on nativism as much as genteel status: ‘I shall only add, that I would advise for the future, all the fine Gentlemen, who travel to London from Tipperary, to allow us Englishmen, to know what we mean, when we speak our own Language.’Footnote 68 As Freeman notes, Dennis is particularly incensed by what he sees as Steele’s violation of Thalia because of his conviction that comic excellence is a peculiarly national trait: ‘the very Boast and Glory of the British Stage is Comedy, in which Great Britain excels any other Country: Nay, we can show more good and entertaining Comedies than all the rest of Europe.’Footnote 69 In attacking The Conscious Lovers, Dennis invokes two kinds of authority: classical poetics and insider knowledge of overseas trade. The first, extended critique of the play uses an Aristotelian standard of verisimilitude to indict the text for repeated failures in the probability necessary to create plausible social representation:
But now this whole Dramatick Performance seems to me to be built upon several things which have no Foundation, either in Probability, or in Reason, or in Nature. The Father of Indiana, whose Name is Danvers, and who was formerly an eminent Merchant at Bristol, upon his Arrival from the Indies, from whence he returns with a great Estate, carries on a very great Trade at London, unbeknownst to his Friends and Relations at Bristol, under the Name of Sealand. Now this Fiction, without which there would be no Comedy, nor anything call’d a Comedy, is not supported by Probability, Reason or Nature.Footnote 70
Dennis queries the strategy of concealment, the implausibility of Sealand’s never sending for news of his missing wife, sister and child from Bristol and in particular, the unlikelihood of a merchant returning ‘from the Indies with a vast Estate, and the World should not know either what he is, or what he was when he went thither, especially when he traded to every Part of the Globe. Or was there ever any great Merchant of London whose Family and Original was not known to the Merchants of Bristol?’Footnote 71 For Dennis, the trading world is too transparent, secure and well-networked to allow women to be taken prisoner and ‘disappeared’. He calls Indiana’s capture ‘Pregnant with Absurdity’ (268) because ‘’Tis highly improbable, that an East-Indies Vessel, which had Force enough to venture without a Convoy, should be taken by a Privateer’ (268). He finds it ridiculous that Indiana’s aunt could send no letters from France asking for help and insists that even were she unable to write, not only ‘the whole East-India Company but all London would have known what was become of the Ship, at a time when so many News-Writers contended which could furnish the Town with the freshest News’ (268).
Dennis has other complaints, about Indiana’s dubious claims to modesty and Bevil’s unbelievable filial piety, although his emphasis falls heavily on what he regards as a travesty of overseas trade. But the incidents from which Steele has constructed his action are not simply romance tropes recycled from Terence’s Andria – they are reminiscent of events in his own family history. One of his aunts was born in South Asia and named Indiana; his first wife’s brother was captured by French privateers while sailing from the West Indies and was killed. Steele’s dead brother-in-law left a ‘Negro woman’ and numerous children, all of whom were manumitted on his death but received no inheritance, being reduced to indigence. Steele was able to bring his own marriage plot to a happy conclusion when the West Indian inheritance of a plantation and slaves he gained from his first wife facilitated his marriage to a woman who brought him a small landed estate in Wales.
Anglo-Irish adventurism was not, it seems, hard to cloak in the tropes of romance or Terentian antecedent. The point was to bring the audience into collusion with this particular version of the trials and triumphs of ‘the new and numerous Gentry’ deplored by Dennis as he warned of Irish cultural corruption: ‘The Sentiments in The Conscious Lovers are often frivolous, false, and absurd; the Dialogue is awkward, clumsy, and spiritless; the Diction affected, impure, and barbarous, and too often Hibernian. Who, that is concern’d for the Honour of his Country, can see without Indignation whole Crowds of his Countrymen assembled to hear a Parcel of Teagues talking Tipperary together, and applauding what they say?’ (274).Steele is able to effect the triumph of what Danvers/Sealand also identifies in a famous speech as a new ‘species of gentry, that have grown into the world this last century’ (4.2.52) by yoking affiliation to sentiment. Cibber’s commentary on the reception of Cato makes it clear that the expression and avowal of a feeling response to Addison’s play in performance was mandated – to remain unmoved would be to mark oneself not just undiscriminating but profoundly unpatriotic. Ten years later, The Conscious Lovers sought to exercise a similar power; the play’s ostensible programme of elite reconciliation, extreme filial piety, rakish reform and exemplary benevolence was to be enforced by the spontaneous, communal response to Indiana’s reunion with her father. Commentators through the eighteenth century bear out the claim that the play moved audiences: an early sonnet ‘To Sir Richard Steele’ (1726) remarks, ‘At Sealand’s Feet to see his Daughter lie / Each tender Heart o’erflows with Tears of Joy’.Footnote 72 Another commentator, writing several decades, recalls a famous anecdote:
We have already observed, that it is impossible to witness the tender scenes of this comedy without emotion; that is, no man who has experienced the delicate solicitudes of love and affection, can do it. Sir Richard has told us, that when one of the players told Mr Wilks, that there was a general weeping for Indiana, he politely observed ‘that he would not fight the worse for it.’Footnote 73
The early panegyrics to Steele that celebrated the play were equally emphatic about the play’s patriotic effect: ‘The British Fair, thy finish’d Model shown, / By Indiana’s Conduct set their own’ declaims one celebrant, ‘What Briton now, will reckon Vertue dull?’ asks another.Footnote 74 By weeping, the audience demonstrated their incorporation of and assent to the sentimental norms modelled on stage. No response could distinguish one weeping spectator from another except an indifference that would mark the viewer as uncivil – self-condemned to unfeeling isolation. Almost maddened by his sense of alienation from this community of taste and feeling, Dennis proclaimed wildly in his ‘Remarks on a Play call’d The Conscious Lovers’ that ‘I am as to this Matter, in a State of Nature with these Persons.’Footnote 75 In a deliberate, direct riposte to the ethnic aspersions that follow, Benjamin Victor praised Steele’s multiple hybridity: ‘the greatest Panegyrick upon you, is the unprejudic’d and bare Truth of your Character, the Fire of Youth, with the Sedateness of a Senator, and the modern Gayety of an English Gentleman, with the Noble Solidity of an Ancient Briton’.Footnote 76 Refusing the ethnocentric singularity of Dennis’s definitions of comedy and national identity, Victor celebrates Steele’s personal combining of opposites as a model of contemporary British manhood. The value of the sentimental drama was equivalent, as its novel union of dramatic elements succeeded in erasing ethnic as well as sectarian, status or party differences in a temporary community of proper feeling.
Both before and after the decades following the great success of The Conscious Lovers, other writers adopted pathetic and sentimental scenarios in pursuit of agendas that reiterated but also stretched beyond Steele’s conventional unionist, latitudinarian Anglican and Whig apologetics. Deist sympathizers such as John Hughes, Aaron Hill and James Thomson wrote highly pathetic philo-Islamic plays that implicitly supported universal toleration: George Coleman the Elder adapted Voltaire’s sentimental L’Ecossaise to rebuke contemporary Scotophobia and encourage inter-union harmony. Plays about cruelly treated Indians reiterated the black legend of Spanish Conquest in America and set up an implicit contrast with British colonial policy. As abolition became a heated topic of cultural and political debate from the 1760s on, Southerne’s Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave was repeatedly revised to excise its comedy, heighten its pathos and drive home an abolitionist message. Just how successful anti-slavery drama was in confirming rather than undermining African humanity is an open question, but there is no doubt that contemporary commentators themselves believed it to be an effective weapon, remarking of Coleman’s sentimental Inkle and Yarico that it was ‘as capable of writing a petition for the abolition of the slave-trade as any of those associated bodies who have taken so much pains for that laudable purpose’.Footnote 77 It is equally clear that pathetic and sentimental drama worked persistently to confirm spectators in their own sense of national superiority, not least their possession of that most vital of Enlightenment virtues, humane feeling.Footnote 78 What seems more surprising is that they convinced others of it too: in a letter about Oroonoko sent by a French traveller to a friend back home, Jean Bernard Le Blanc commented, ‘The author has painted the strongest of all virtues in it, with the strongest and most moving strokes; and let us say to the honour of the English, that which is the peculiar characteristic of their nation, humanity’.Footnote 79 If sentimental drama did not succeed in abolishing the slave trade, it certainly assisted in the construction of a national imaginary in which humane feeling assumed a central role.