Sir Roger’s Ancestors: Essay - Summary & Analysis

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The Portraits of the Ancestors

      Steele is the author of the essay. Once when he was walking in the picture gallery of Sir Roger’s house, Sir Roger himself join him remarking that he hoped that his guest was enjoying his conversation with the silent pictures. He pointed out that certain fashions which were generally followed in one age continued to be patronized by a particular set of people in succeeding ages so that these fashions lived on from generation to generation. He gave the example of the dress worn by the exiting palace guards which were very suitable to them and had been the general fashion in the days of Henry VII.

Ancestor of Warlike Qualities

      Sir Roger then described the person in one of the pictures who was portrayed with a broken lance at his feet. This man was a brave warrior and was the last one to win a prize in the tilt yard. He distinguished himself by defeating his rival in a tournament. He caught hold of his rival after shattering his lance to pieces and placed him on the front portion of his horse and rode round the yard. He did this not out of a wish to ridicule his opponent but because it was a chivalric tradition. He placed the rival in front of his mistress who was sitting in the gallery and whom both combatants loved, put down his rival with an air of humility and triumph. He married the lady. But he was equally well versed in the ways of peace. He could play very well on a musical instrument. The lady he married had been a maid of honor at the court but she also made him a good wife and bore him ten children. Sir Roger also drew attention to the lady’s dress which was an ancient version of the modern petticoat.

The Three Sisters

      Sir Roger then pointed out a series of three pictures which were of three sisters. Two of them, said Sir Roger, were beautiful but died unmarried. The third was quite plain but was quite rich with the portions of her sisters also added to her own. An adventurous neighboring gentleman who was determined and a man of stratagems carried her off, in the process, killing a few watchdogs and injuring some poachers who tried to stop him.

The Ancestor Who Put the Estate into Debt

      The next portrait showed a gentleman whom Sir Roger called soft. He was a man of weak nature. Though he was a man of extreme politeness and courtesy, he did not have a head for business. He ruined everyone who had any dealings with him. This man, said Sir Roger, had too much wit to live in this world. He had no sense of justice and fairness. He was lazy and casual about the most serious business though he was not lazy in matters of courtesy. He was believed to be the first man to make love to a lady by pressing her hand! He left the estate in heavy debt which was paid off by a gift from someone who was in no way related to the family of De Coverley, said Sir Roger.

Sir Humphrey de Coverley

      Another ancestor in one of the portraits in the gallery was described by Sir Roger as Sir Humphrey de Coverley who was a model gentleman and the honor of their family name. He was punctual and economical, a good manager of his affairs. He was a man of his word and tried to live according to his high principle even though this was difficult to do. He did not believe in accumulating a large fortune. He set himself a goal and all the money he made beyond that he gave away to charity. But he never became lazy. He was a brave man who narrowly escaped death in the civil war, according to Sir Roger.


      The essay, Sir Roger’s Ancestors recapitulates the past of the de Coverley family. It brings the reader into contact with some members of the family who are portrayed in the picture gallery in Sir Roger’s house. Though this essay lacks the unity and coherence that can be found in the essays of Addison it exhibits a skill in characterization. The different people from the past of the de Coverley family come to life in the hands of Steele. But through this picturization of Sir Roger’s ancestors, we also get a clear idea of the knight himself. We gather that he was proud of his ancestry, that he has a habit of beginning a conversation in an abrupt manner, and that he is a mixture of wisdom and simplicity. The last point comes out clearly in the remarks that he makes at various, points in the essay. His comments upon fashions is shrewd and wise but his simplicity comes out in his remarks regarding Sir Humphrey’s narrow escape from death when in reality he escaped the danger of death by a whole day. Steele often idealized a character and he does this in this essay too, in the person of Sir Humphrey de Coverley who seems to be too good to be true.

      Anecdotes liven up the essay adding as they do vivid touches to the characterization. The exploit of his brave ancestor who married a woman who was a maid of honor in the court, the soft gentleman who invented the way of making love with hands! All these add interest to the essay. These contribute to the humor of the essay. The style is humorous too—note the manner of telling about the gentleman who was enterprising to steal an heiress! A touch of humor is to be found in the description of the dresses of the ladies of the olden days.

      Steele is usually held to be inferior in matters of style to Addison who was more elegant. But he often exhibits a felicity of expression, may be in patches. He had a turn for the epigrammatic form of expression. There are a number of sentences in this essay which have this aphoristic note. The following sentences are not-able for economy of expression:

(i) “Had too much wit to know how to live in the world”

(ii) “Great and good had not the same signification”

(iii) “Punctual as a tradesman, and as generous as a gentleman”

      And who can not appreciate the admirable use of language of the phrase “laudable courtesy, and pardonable insolence”.


      Line. 7-15. I knew......thought: The Spectator was once walking along the picture gallery in Sir Roger’s house. These pictures were of Sir Roger’s ancestors. The old knight came upon the Spectator and remarked that he hoped that the Spectator enjoyed the silent conversation with so much good company. The Spectator was aware that he was referring to the pictures of his ancestors. He also knew that Sir Roger, who was so proud of the old family from which he descended, would tell about the pictures and the people in them. As he expected, Sir Roger suddenly turned to face one of the pictures and began talking in his abrupt manner. He started talking on a topic without any introduction. He talked without caring to see whether his words had a coherence and whether they followed each other logically. In this passage we see Sir Roger’s qualities being mentioned almost casually, in a manner that gives vividness to the character portrayal. We see that the knight was proud of his ancient descent and that he had this odd habit of talking a bit incoherently, Steele’s skill with the pen at bringing to life a character is evident in the passage.

      Line. 18-26. One may......palaces: Talking about the dresses portrayed in the pictures in the gallery, Sir Roger makes these rather intelligent remarks. He makes a valid observation that fashion in dresses are sometimes continued through succeeding ages by a particular group of people. A fashion patronized by all in one age is continued to be patronized by a certain section of society in the following ages. Thus a particular fashion does not end with a particular period but lived on through the ages. He gives the example of the big coat which was made to stand out from the body in expansive folds and small hats which were the fashion of the day in the period of Henry VII, and had continued to be patronized by a group of people to this day, namely the soldiers who stood guard at the palace gates. He remarks that this dress was most suitable to the people who wore them, for, it made the wearer look taller and broader. The hat gave the face a wider look and made it look more awe-inspiring. It was wise and prudent to continue in this dress for the palace guards as it served to purpose of making them formidable and hence, more appropriate to stand guard at the gates of the palace. These remarks show that Sir Roger was capable of wise and rather shrewd observation.

      Line. 30-41. You see the......insolence: Sir Roger is describes one of his ancestors in one of the pictures in his gallery to the Spectator. This ancestor was apparently a courageous person. was the last man in England to have won a prize in a tournament, for after that tournaments were discontinued. In the painting he was shown with a broken lance lying near his feet. Sir Roger explained that it was the lance of his ancestor’s rival which he had broken to pieces. After breaking the lance he had lifted his rival off his saddle, put him on the front part of his own saddle, and gone around the tournament yard. This he did to follow custom and not to ridicule him. Then he deposited his rival before the lady whom both of them loved and who was sitting in the gallery watching the combat. This he did with an air of haughtiness combined with politeness. He was polite in the manner of the chivalric tradition. But he could not help showing triumph as well, and in the circumstances this was excusable. He had after all achieved a glorious victory. The last sentence of the passage is a most felicitous one having an epigrammatic note. Steele, in this essay, often exhibits an elegant turn of phrase.

      Line. 73-83. He was one of the world: Here, Sir Roger is describing one of his ancestors who was a rather odd and Uncommon character. He was a romantic gallant and a fairly good poet. But he was not suited to the management of his business affairs. His intelligence was not the type to cope with day to day affairs of the world. He could not deal well with people. He was an unjust and unfair man in his dealings. But his manners were perfect. Since he was no good at business, he ruined the people who had any dealing with him in the way of business. Yet he was a man who was so civilized that he never once said a rude word. He was a very lazy man and would casually sign a document that meant the loss of half of his property without bothering to scrutinize it. But he was not so lazy when it came to social niceties. He would be rigid in the observance of the politeness of removing his hat before a lady even if his keeping on the hat would have been essential to saving his country! This is a humorous manner of saying that this gentleman had no sense of proportion where fine manners were concerned. It was this gentleman who invented the queer method of making love to ladies by squeezing their hands. When he died he left the estate in a state of heavy debt, a debt of ten thousand pounds. But he was considered by everyone to have been the finest gentleman on earth, i.e., a very refined and cultured man. The passage shows a delightful vein of humor. One can not help smiling at the queer method of love making invented by this fine gentleman. The style of writing is also amusing. There is striking humor in the paradoxical statement, ‘‘had too much wit to know how to live in the world.” The sentence is also epigrammatic in ione.

      Line. 96-106. He was in his dealings......snares of ambition: This is the description of Sir Humphrey, another ancestor of Sir Roger. He was a man who kept his promise and would have found it as painful to break his word as to have lost his money and been bankrupt. He was as correct in his dealings as a trader and as generous as a gentleman. He tried to act according to his principles. He was a member of the House of Commons representing his country. He found that it was difficult to follow his strict principles in all his dealings with people and in the day to day affairs of business. For this reason, he did not take upon himself the additional burdens of government service, because, in that case, the difficulties of maintaining the principles strictly would have increased. Employed in the service of the government he would have many temptations and ambitions to overcome. We see here another idealized picture drawn up by Steele. It is to be noted that Steele can not refrain from adding this touch of idealism in his writing. Addison never painted a character who is almost too good to be true but this was often done by Steele.

      Line. 106-115. Innocence of life......friends and neighbors: Describing the character of Sir Humphrey, one of his ancestors Sir Roger says that this man was possessed of a lack of worldliness. He was a man of great talents and ability but he was, at the same time, a man of simplicity and goodness. He used to say that it was a pity that great ability and talents had often made men give up goodness in their pursuit of great position and fame. He used to say that greatness, i.e. his position in society did not mean goodness of heart. It was a great pity that greatness and goodness did not always go together. Good people often did not achieve greatness. Sir Humphrey was. also, a good manager of his affairs but he had decided not to spend more than necessary, nor to keep for himself more than a certain amount of money. The money he made above this limit he would give in charity secretly so that his name would not be published. But though he had got the money he had aimed to have for himself, he did not become lazy or stop his hard work. He continued to work and spend the money which was extra on friends and neighbors who were in need. Once again we see Steele’s tendency to idealize a character. Sir Humphrey is almost too good to be true. But this passage also has examples of the style that Steele seems to have been capable of at times; there are sentences which have an epigrammatic note as well as wit.

      Line. 121-124. The whim of......simplicity: This is a summing up of the character of Sir Roger by Steele. Sir Roger speaks of one of his ancestors having narrowly missed death where as he had in actuality missed its possibility by a whole day. It is indeed Sir Roger’s innocent simplicity of nature that makes him regard this as a narrow escape. But before this remark, he had made certain observations which could only be considered as wise and shrewd. Thus he leaves with the puzzled impression of a mixture of wisdom and simplicity. In the essay, Steele has indeed brought out this combination very effectively and most humorously.

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