Addison and Steele: Precursor of The English Novel

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The Basic Requisites of a Novel

      Before we consider the “Spectator” papers as the precursor of the novel, we have to keep in mind the generally accepted basic requisites of a novel. These can be roughly stated to be (i) characters, (ii) plot, incidents, (iii) continuity or story interest or narrative that carries forward the plot, (iv) artistic unity of theme, (v) dialogue. These elements have been recognized, more or less, to constitute the necessary ingredients of the novel.

The “Spectator” Essays

      The essays in the Spectator can easily be divided into three clearly distinct categories. Firstly, we have the completely didactic essays which are of a class apart and in truth have nothing to do with the elements of the novel. Secondly, there are the essays which deal with social customs and tastes, essays on the stage and feminine fashions. These essays give a clear picture of the vanities and manners and the time and in this sense are a step towards the novel of social manners. We have, thirdly, the de Coverley papers and this set of essays are the ones that are closest to the beginning of the English novel.

The de Coverley Papers

      It is then the de Coverley papers which have to be considered in the light of being the precursor of the novel. It is in these papers that the importance of Addison (and Steele) as the pioneer of the English novel has been realized. Let us see how far these papers which deal with the members of the Spectator Club, and Sir Roger in particular, go towards being the precursor of the English novel.


      It has been accepted that the most important aspect of a novel lies in its characterization. Great novels always have great characters. Even the very modern views on the novel can not do away with the character even though the importance of plot has been diminished. In this sense, we see that Addison has done a great deal. The members of the Spectator club have been very well delineated. The spectator himself, is shy and reserved but observant in a silent manner. A number of essays show flashes of the taciturnity and silence of Spectator and his sense of judgment. Will Wimble, the younger son of an aristocratic family idling his time in “little handicrafts” like making fishing rods for his friends, is a vivid and life-like character Moll White, Will Honeycomb, the chaplain and other such minor characters are also well-drawn. Addison and Steele usually pick on certain characteristics and draw a vivid character through those characteristics.

      The most impressive character is that of Sir Roger de Coverley. He also serves as a unifying force in all these essays. In the characterization of Sir Roger, we have a masterpiece and this is of greater credit to Addison who developed him from the conception of Steele. Though most of the characterization is done through description, there are instances where the character is developed dramatically. We see Sir Roger revealing himself through his encounter with Moll White, in his comments at the play, and through his encounter with the gypsies. We see Sir Roger in different contexts and the different aspects of his personality are revealed to us. He has been characterized as kindly, generous, charitable and possessing a sense of humor but he also has his eccentricities, his absurdities, the weaknesses, which is in fact, make him all the more human. The characterization has been done very well so that Sir Roger at once represents a type and also exists as an individual in his own rights. In the delineation of Sir Roger, there is a mixture of respect with ridicule. His behavior at the church and his comments on the tombs in Westminister Abbey are comical but his behavior never rises to the completely absurd so that we never lose our respect for him.

      We see that Addison’s characterization is indeed a great step towards the novel. The widow who disappointed Sir Roger in his youth, is quite individualized even though the reader gets to know her only through Sir Roger’s words. This skill at characterization is evident in all the delineations of character. This large development in characterization is surely to be regarded as a stage in the evolution of the genuine novel.

Plot: Lack of True Incidents

      A novel is formed of several incidents. An incident is what happens to a character or what is brought about by a character. Novelists generally concentrate on some important incidents to develop their plot. Now in the essays connected with Sir Roger, we have some incidents though not many. In the essay On Witchcraft, we have Sir Roger meeting the local witch Moll White and we get to know the puzzled attitude of the knight towards witchcraft. In the essay, Sir Roger on the Bench, we have three incidents—Sir Roger judges the dispute between two people by saying “Much may be said on both sides”, then the irrelevant speech made by him just to impress the gathering, and lastly, his tactfully getting the face on the inn sign changed from his own to a Saracen’s head. These incidents, however, are not connected or related to each other. In Sir Roger at the Play, there is an interesting adventure when the knight runs off in fright because he thinks two ruffians are following him in London. In the last essay of the de Coverley papers, Sir Roger is shown on his deathbed. Now we see that there are very few “incidents” as such in the essays. We see, in most of the essays, the knight in different contexts, different places and against different scenes. It is true, however, that in the essays which deal with his love affair with the perverse widow offer a good material for plot development but they are not developed.

      Lack of continuity or story interest
We see Sir Roger in different circumstances and against different scenes but these episodes are not connected except for the fact that they are all centered around Sir Roger. There is no logical development, the sense of inevitability of an incident following another. The episodes exist in their own right and do not flow from one into the other and they are not brought into any relationship with one another. There is further, no dramatic incident which can grip the attention of the reader. “There is no thread of narrative which we can follow.” This is not to say that Addison lacks the skill of description. Indeed he does not. He exhibits this skill to a great degree and in fact anticipates Defoe in the description of minute details. This lends a realistic atmosphere. Addison’s narrative skill is good but there is no attempt to organize or sustain a plot.

Artistic Unity

      Whether a novel has a plot or not, there is usually a unity of theme or “point of view” in a novel. A novel is often the interpretation of life. The essays in the Spectator are more in the nature of a representation of the society of the day rather than an interpretation of it. We get to know from these papers about the life in those days, that too in a superficial manner. We do not get any particular point of view of the authors except that they intended to reform the society.

Dialogue and Other Elements

      There are not too many instances of dialogue and conversation in the de Coverley papers but those that are there are in a racy and interesting language. These are certainly in the line of the development of the novel. What is more, the dialogue is of a personal kind and distinctive of the character who is speaking. This is specially to be noticed in the knight’s talks about the perverse widow.

      Another important feature is the description of the setting for the characters in a realistic and evocative manner. We can visualize the scene and “see” the setting. A matter of greater importance is in the matter of developing a suitable prose style, flexible and fluent enough to be adapted to many purposes. This prose style helped greatly in the development of the novel.

Conclusion: not a Novel but has the Germ of the Novel

      The de Coverley papers do not, in their present form, qualify for the term of novel. We have separate episodes unconnected with one another except for the fact that in all of them one central figure, that of Sir Roger, figures. Minor characters are not developed and often do not appear more than once. But the characterization is of the best order. The characters are made life-like and vivid. And in the characterization of Sir Roger, we indeed have an important stage in the evolution of the novel. It is an indisputable fact that ‘‘in many of the Spectator papers in which scenes from the life of Sir Roger are described, we have the modern novel in germ.” Indeed it has many elements of the novel and merely needs a better organization and development of minor characters. “The widow is there in the background ready to be produced and made into a heroine; many of the incidents are told novel-fashion already......The personages of the club have merely to step down and out; the scenes to be connected, amplified and multiplied; the conversation to undergo the same process.”

      As E. Albert remarks: “As it is, this essay series brings within measurable distance of the genuine eighteenth-century novel.” We may not agree with the extravagant praise of Macaulay that if Addison had written a novel on an extensive plan, it would have been superior to any that we possess”. But the essays do indeed contain the germ of the English novel. 

University Question

1. Examine the Coverley papers as a precursor of the English novel.
2. Assess the importance of the “Spectator” essays in the emergence of the eighteenth-century English novel.
3. Examine the view that Addison was a pioneer of the English novel.
4. “Their studies of human character, as exemplified in Sir Roger de Coverley, are a preparation for the modern novel.” Discuss.
5. ‘‘It is scarcely too much to say that in many of the “Spectator” papers, in which scenes from the life of Sir Roger are described we have the modern novel in germ.” Discuss in the context of the prescribed essays of Addison.
6. How far would it be true to say that de Coverley's papers would form a novel if they were put together.
7. Discuss Addison’s contribution to English fiction.

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