The British essayist, dramatist, and politician Sir Richard Steele (1672-1729) is best known for his collaboration with Addison on a series of essays for the Tatler and the Spectator.
Richard Steele was born in Dublin, Ireland, in March 1672. The exact date of his birth is not known, but he was baptized on March 12. Steele's father, an attorney, died in 1676, and his mother died the next year. He was placed under the guardianship of his maternal uncle, Henry Gascoigne, who was secretary and confidential agent to the Duke of Ormonde. In 1684 he began attending Charterhouse School, London, where he met Joseph Addison. Both Steele and Addison went to Oxford, Steele entering Christ Church in 1689 and transferring to Merton College in 1691. His Oxford career was undistinguished, and he left in 1692 without taking a degree in order to volunteer for cadet service under the command of the Duke of Ormonde. Steele then served in the Life Guards and later transferred to the Coldstream Guards. In 1695 Lord Cutts, to whom Steele had dedicated a poem on the funeral of Queen Mary, became Steele's patron. Steele first served him as private secretary and then became an officer in Cutts's regiment in 1697. Two years later Steele received a captaincy in a foot regiment.
During these years of military service in London, Steele became acquainted with a circle of literary and artistic figures, and he began to write. His first comedy, The Funeral, or Grief A-la-mode, was performed successfully at Drury Lane Theatre in 1701. This play was a satire on the new profession of undertaking. It was followed by The Lying Lover, or The Ladies' Friendship in 1703. His third comedy, The Tender Husband, or The Accomplished Fools, produced in 1705, achieved some success, perhaps because Addison helped him write it.
A constant need for money dominated much of Steele's life because his spending habits were impulsive and extravagant. In 1705 he married an elderly and propertied widow, Margaret Stretch. She died in 1706, leaving him an annual income of £850, and in 1707 Steele married Mary Scurlock (died 1718), the "Dear Prue" of a series of delightful letters he addressed to her. They had four children, but only Elizabeth, the eldest daughter, survived to maturity. Steele lived in considerable style after his second marriage, and his habits continued to be free-spending and improvident. He left the army in 1707, or perhaps earlier, and in the years following secured several minor appointments.
On April 12, 1709, Steele launched his own paper, the Tatler, to be published three times weekly. Partly a newspaper and partly a journal of politics and of society events, the Tatler soon featured essays on general questions of manners, morality, and entertainment. The great majority of the Tatler issues were authored by Steele, Addison writing about 46 by himself and about 36 in conjunction with Steele. The Tatler, though prosperous, discontinued publication for obscure reasons on Jan. 2, 1711.
The first issue of the Tatler's brilliant successor, the Spectator, appeared on March 1, 1711. It was a joint venture of Steele and Addison, who was the chief contributor to the new paper. However, in this paper, as in the Tatler, Addison followed Steele's choice of subjects. The Steele-Addison literary partnership ranks as one of the most successful in the history of English literature. Both men were Whigs and sympathized with the moral attitudes of England's rapidly growing middle class. They differed greatly in temperament, Steele being impulsive and warmhearted and Addison restrained and sedate. The Spectator had a run of 555 daily numbers, discontinuing publication on Dec. 6, 1712. Of this number, Steele authored about 240 issues.
Steele made many additional forays into periodical journalism. The most notable of these, some of which were purely political, were the Guardian (March 12-Oct. 1, 1713); the Englishman (Oct. 6, 1713-Feb. 11, 1714; July 11-Nov. 21, 1715); and the Lover (Feb. 25-May 27, 1714), which saw the publication of 40 essays by Steele. The Plebeian (1718), Steele's most famous political journal, involved him in a dispute with Addison, whose death in 1719 frustrated Steele's attempt at reconciliation.
During these years Steele served as the chief Whig propagandist; as the principal journalist of the Whigs in opposition, he was the antagonist of Jonathan Swift, who held the corresponding job for the Tories. Steele's writings frequently made his political career perilous. Appointed commissioner of stamps in 1710, he was forced to resign from this office in 1713. That same year he was elected to Parliament from Stockbridge, but he was expelled in 1714 on a charge of sedition.
After the accession of George I to the English throne in 1714, Steele obtained a number of political favors. In 1715 he was knighted and was reelected to Parliament. Steele's intemperance gradually undermined his health, and he suffered from gout for many years. In 1722 he wrote his last and most successful comedy, The Conscious Lovers. In 1724—still notoriously improvident, impulsive, ostentatious, and generous—Steele was forced to retire from London because of his mounting debts and his worsening health. He went to live on his wife's estate of Llangunnor in Wales, and in 1726 he suffered a paralytic stroke. His health broken, Steele died at Carmarthen, Wales, on Sept. 1, 1729.
Most of Steele's works are available in modern editions. The Tatlerwas edited by George A. Aitken (4 vols., 1899) and The Spectator by Donald F. Bond (5 vols., 1965). The standard biographies of Steele are George A. Aitken, The Life of Richard Steele (2 vols., 1889), and Willard Connely, Sir Richard Steele (1934). Other studies of value include George S. Marr, The Periodical Essayists of the Eighteenth Century (1923); F. W. Bateson, English Comic Drama, 1700-50 (1929); John Loftis, Steele at Drury Lane (1952); Rae Blanchard, ed., The Englishman: A Political Journal (1955); Arthur R. Humphreys, Steele, Addison and Their Periodical Essays (1959); and Bertrand A. Goldgar, The Curse of Party: Swift's Relations with Addison and Steele (1961).