The Spectator Papers as A Mirror of Society

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The Club: Representative Character

      The essays of Addison have been regarded by all critics as a faithful representation of the life, manners and morals of the society of the times. He is a chronicler of the social modes of the times. His essays are quite valuable to those who want to understand the life and thought of the times. Steele was the originator of the Spectator club. He was also responsible for the initial character sketches of the members of the club. But it was Addison who developed them into the characters as we know them. In any case, the plan of the club was made with a mind to making it representative of all the important classes of society, as Addison remarks in the essay, The Aim of the Spectator.

      Each member of the club represents a particular class or profession or way of life in the English society of the times. The first member, in terms of importance, is Sir Roger, the baronet. He is the representative of the country squires of England, the small landed gentry of the countryside, typical of the old and slowly vanishing feudal order. The Templar represents not only legal profession but the liberal arts. He is a champion of the literature and drama and theatre and takes these more seriously than his legal profession! Captain Sentry as the name itself suggests is the representative of the army. We have in Sir Andrew Freeport, the representative of the trading and commercial classes—an important class of the English society, rising in its importance. Will Honeycomb is the member of the class of gallants, a man about town, a courteous, well-mannered man whom the ladies loved.

Life and Manners

      The Spectator is a valuable social document as it gives a vivid and exact picture of the life and manners of the times. In particular, we get a minute picture of the life of the country squires, their tastes and habits, their modes of diversion. We also get an accurate picture of the vanities and foibles of the fashionable female’s world of the time. The writer’s assumed role of Spectator of life and manners enabled him to describe the life of the times in a minute and a detailed manner. The life of London, dominated by its clubs and coffee houses, also comes alive in the pages of the Spectator. The fashions of the time, whether in dress or in manners, have been immortalized in the essays contributed to this periodical, especially those by Addison.

Country Life

      Sir Roger represents the life of the country squire and through him, we get a glimpse, a clear one, of life in the country, and the manners in the country. The English countryside continued in its feudal order, though it was slowly vanishing. Sir Roger is the representative of this feudalism, but an idealized portrait of his relationship with his servants is presented, for the purposes of instruction and didacticism.

      In the de Coverley papers, we get a very clear idea of the life and manners of the rural England. The belief in supernatural phenomena comes out in the essay on Ghosts and Apparitions. The persecution of old and decrepit women as witches was a common practice in rural England. The Moll White of his essay, On Witchcraft represents many such old women scattered all over the many villages in England as Addison himself remarked. The country squire's passion for fox hunting and hunting, in general, comes out in a number of the essays dealing with Sir Roger, the main one of them being, A Hunting Expedition. Addison brings out a satiric picture of the younger sons of the landed gentry who were usually fit for no employment in life, and as such, wasted their life in idleness or trivial occupations. Will Wimble is one such person who, if his parents had only taken the trouble and overcome their stupid pride, could have made good in trade with the ordinary skill and intelligence he had. Rural Manners give us an idea of how difficult the communication between country and town must have been.

      The manners which originate in cities, travel down to the villages so slowly that by the time the villagers have adopted them, they are already outdated! It is this same difficulty in communication that had led to the isolation of country from towns and this led to the village folk continuing to be backward and superstitious. The old ways of thinking continue to hold sway.

London Life: Coffee Houses

      Spectator could not and did not ignore the center of all social and political activity, London. The life of London is faithfully and vividly portrayed in many of his essays. It is the life and manners of London that he criticizes in some of his essays. He criticizes the coffee house politicians, the people who gathered in these places and distributed their judgments upon all matters in a sweeping and general manner without really possessing any qualification or knowledge to do so. In the Coverley papers too, we find a number of references to coffee houses. In the first paper, we are told that Spectator would visit these coffee houses patronized by different types of people to gather the public opinion, their thoughts and views upon various matters.

Stage and Theatre

      Another important aspect of the fashionable London life was theatre and drama. Spectator visits these places frequently. The Templar, we are told, is a frequent and knowledgeable visitor to the theatre. Sir Roger, too, once made a visit to the theatre. In a number of essays totally devoted to stage and theatre, we get a clear picture of the practices and drawbacks of the contemporary theatre. We get a fairly detailed and critical account of the theatre of the day. Special essays in this group are Nicolini and the Lions in which he attacks the absurdities of Italian opera. We have a similar picture of silly practices on stage in the essay, Stage Realism.

Political Parties Conflicts

      Party strife both political and religious, was tearing the nation to pieces. This is portrayed in the essays of the Spectator as something to be avoided. The Whigs and Tories were opposite political parties which tore the nation into opposing sides and groups. Spectator declares that he was going to observe strict neutrality between the two parties and not take the side of either. In the essay, Party Patches, we are given an idea about how stupid people possessed with the party spirit, could become.

The Follies and Frivolities of the Female World

      A very important section of society which the Spectator addressed was the world of the females. The ladies of fashion are quite well portrayed, though it is true that Addison’s portrayal is whole of the surface—the foibles of dress and manners. The essays present the life of the city as a hopelessly artificial and empty and frivolous type. French fashions held sway; fans were flourished and all sorts of “French fopperies” were adopted by the fashionable lady of the town. The essays reveal the female world as frivolous and empty-headed, interested only in superficialities such as dress and trivialities like jam making and toilet.

      The female habit of gossiping and wrecking the reputation of others also held full sway as we come to know from the essay, Female Orators. Woman was a mere toy for man to play with, and she had become a flirt using all art and artistry in ensnaring the heart of a man and then being heartless. It is an impression of “an empty life, directed by an empty head and shallow heart”. The life of women, at least on the surface, is exposed in the papers as being very shallow, concerned with the superficialities, trivialities and idle gossip which could be malicious and hurtful at times. The intellect of women in general was not given any importance, or developed to any extent Of course, exceptions existed as Addison himself remarks.

      The essay, Fans, brings out the superficial concerns of the ladies. The use of the fan as a weapon to capture and kill the gallants of the time, is typical of the fashions of the age. In the essay, The Aim of the Spectator, we get to know the trivial occupations of the ladies of the day and which they considered not only important but very tiring too!

The Limitations of the Portrayal of Society in Addison

      Addison, it must be realized, was first and foremost a satirist and reformer of society. As such he indulged in some exaggeration and extenuation like any satirist bent on exposing vice and folly does. He has to make sure that his reader gets his point and hence sometimes he has to exaggerate the follies and foibles of society which he wants to correct. But in spite of this, Addison has not given a distorted picture of the society in England. One can generally rely on the thoroughness and realism of the picture given in the essays.

      We do not find any mention of the vices, the real crimes and vices of society in Addison’s essays. We must remember that he was concerned with the superficial follies of manners and behavior which were below the attention of law and religion. As such, there is no place in these essays for a portrayal of the “seamy side” of life in the England of those times. There is no picture of the underworld i.e. the ugliness, the low life of London, the grimy and squalid areas of London life. Addison concentrates upon the minor vices and aberrations of manners prevalent in his society.

      Furthermore, the life of women as presented in the essays is again on the superficial level. Their fashions, foibles of dress and manners are presented but there is no picture of the ‘inner’ woman, her mind and heart. One can not in fact call these faults of Addison He set out to expose only minor faults and foibles of behavior, not major vice and crime and sin. He was a social reformer only as far as manners were concerned and as such, he was more concerned with the ‘polite’ society than with the seamy side of life.

University Questions

1. What picture of the 18th century England do you get from the essays of the ‘Spectator’?
2. Examine the role of Addison and Steele as painters and critics of the life and manners of their age.
3. Assess the importance of the ‘Spectator’ as a record of English social life in the early 18th century.
4. “There is a masterly portraiture in the ‘Spectator’, but it is rather that portraiture of society than of the artists themselves.” Examine' this dictum in the context of Addison’s essays.

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