Sir Richard Steele was an Irish writer, playwright, and politician. He 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. 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.
Steele wrote some prose comedies, the best of which are The Funeral (1701), The Lying Lover (1703), The Tender Husband (1705), and The Conscious Lovers (1722). They follow in the general scheme the Restoration comedies but are without the grossness and impudence of their models. Indeed, Steele’s one importance as a dramatist rests on his foundation of the sentimental comedy, avowedly moral and pious in aim and tone. In places, his plays are lively and reflect much of Steele’s amiability of temper.
It is as a miscellaneous essayist that Steele finds his place in literature. He started The Tatler in 1709, The Spectator in 1711, and several other short-lived periodicals, such as The Guardian (1713), The Englishmen (1713), The Reader (1714), and The Plebeian (1719). The Plebeian is Steele’s most famous political journal, which involved him in a dispute with Addison, whose death in 1719 frustrated Steele’s attempt at reconciliation. Steele’s working alliance with Addison was so close and so constant that the comparison between them is almost inevitable. Of the two writers, some critics assert that Steele is the worthier. In versatility and originality, he is at least Addison’s equal. His humour is a border and less restrained than Addison’s, with a naive, pathetic touch about it that is reminiscent of Goldsmith. His pathos is more attractive and more humane. The aim of Steele’s essays was frankly didactic; he desired to bring about a reformation of contemporary society manners and is notable for his consistent advocacy of womanly virtue and the ideal of the gentleman of courtesy, chivalry, and good taste. His essays on children are charming, and he is full of human sympathy.
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 several political favors. In 1715 he was knighted and was re-elected 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 was broken, Steele died at Carmarthen, Wales, on Sept 1, 1729.