18th century

Mister Spectator’s Coffeehouse Club | Stephen Basdeo

By Stephen Basdeo

On 1 March 1711 a new periodical appeared entitled The Spectator, written and edited by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele.

Addison and Steele were aristocrats who in their periodicals wished to comment upon the habits, follies, social faux pas of those in polite society. Their periodicals were intended to be read and debated in coffeehouses, which were all the rage in the early 18th century. The reason for this is that, as Brian Cowan says, it was a unique social space where (literate) men of all rank could gather and discuss the issues of the day that were printed in newspapers and periodicals. And there was a lot of printed matter around in 1711 thanks to the expiration of the Licensing Act in 1695, in which state censorship of published works effectively ceased. This was the birth of what Jurgen Habermas called the public sphere, or as we might think of it, public opinion. And it marks a transition in power and influence from the relatively closed world of the Royal Court to members of the public: in short, politicians now had to take note of what the public thought about measures they were taking, as it was the public who now held a great deal of power and influence.

Joseph Addison

Addison and Steele recognised the inclusive nature of this newly-emergent public sphere, and so in The Spectator they created 6 fictional character types, or correspondents, who similarly were drawn from all ranks of life and who could comment on issues from their own perspective. These fictional correspondents were all represented as being members of a club who met regularly in one of London’s many coffeehouses.

The first was Mister Spectator himself. He wished to remain anonymous, to better enable him to move around London unrecognised, so that the people in the places where he visited would not modify their behaviour when he was present:

I live in the World, rather as a Spectator of Mankind, than as one of the Species; by which means I have made my self a Speculative Statesman, Soldier, Merchant, and Artizan, without ever medling with any Practical Part in Life. I am very well versed in the Theory of an Husband, or a Father, and can discern the Errors in the Œconomy, Business, and Diversion of others, better than those who are engaged in them; as Standers-by discover Blots, which are apt to escape those who are in the Game […] I have acted in all the parts of my Life as a Looker-on, which is the Character I intend to preserve in this Paper.

He was of aristocratic lineage. He is no backward and insular country gentleman, however, for he lives in the city. Mister Spectator’s periodical is aimed at a cosmopolitan and metropolitan elite. Those who like to think of themselves as well-informed, up to date with politics, and who move around in various social circles.

Now, in the 18th century a lot of reading matter was divided along (political) party lines. Contemporaries applied the term “the rage of party” to describe the tumultuous political situation in the years between 1688 and c.1715 (in which an election was held almost every two years). The two main political parties were the Whigs (liberals) and the Tories. And the division between them is reflected in the titles of periodicals from the era such as The Whig Examiner. Addison’s periodical is going to be different, however, for:

I never espoused any Party with Violence, and am resolved to observe an exact Neutrality between the Whigs and Tories, unless I shall be forc’d to declare myself by the Hostilities of either side.

What readers will get in The Spectator is an impartial source of news, and this is aided by the fact that Mister Spectator resolves to remain anonymous (although, in truth, Addison was a Whig, and there are certainly elements of Whiggism that come through in a few of his papers).

The aristocracy is indeed well-represented in Addison and Steele’s periodical. And balancing any Whig biases that Mister Spectator may allow to shine through in his work is the country Squire Sir Roger de Coverley, though he maintains a residence in London also. An aristocrat of ‘antient descent,’ he is quite cantankerous, and of his character Addison says this:

He is a Gentleman that is very singular in his Behaviour, but his Singularities proceed from his good Sense, and are Contradictions to the Manners of the World, only as he thinks the World is in the wrong. However, this Humour creates him no Enemies, for he does nothing with Sourness or Obstinacy; and his being unconfined to Modes and Forms, makes him but the readier and more capable to please and oblige all who know him.

Sir Richard Steele

So, he is a Tory, who thinks the world is wrong on most matters. But despite his politics (which most people just humour), he is in his own way friendly, and would do anything for anybody. He’s also quite eccentric in his choice of clothes, and often wears things that were in fashion during the time of King James II.

Non-aristocrats were also amongst Mister Spectator’s retinue. Members of the professions are the people whom Mister Spectator mentions next. There is the un-named Lawyer of the inner temple:

A Man of great Probity, Wit, and Understanding.

But his contributions won’t be those of a dry lawyer’s; on the contrary this gentleman from the inner temple is well-read in all of the classics:

Aristotle and Longinus are much better understood by him than Littleton or Cooke. The Father sends up every Post Questions relating to Marriage-Articles, Leases, and Tenures, in the Neighbourhood; all which Questions he agrees with an Attorney to answer and take care of in the Lump. He is studying the Passions themselves, when he should be inquiring into the Debates among Men which arise from them.

He’s also a harsh critic:

His Taste of Books is a little too just for the Age he lives in; he has read all, but Approves of very few. His Familiarity with the Customs, Manners, Actions, and Writings of the Antients, makes him a very delicate Observer of what occurs to him in the present World. He is an excellent Critick, and the Time of the Play is his Hour of Business; exactly at five he passes through New Inn, crosses through Russel Court; and takes a turn at Will’s till the play begins

So this lawyer from the inner temple will be giving his thoughts upon literary works and plays. Like a reviewer almost. The point here is that you do not need to be an aristocrat to engage in cultural pursuits, as the character of the lawyer illustrates. There is also the retired army officer, Captain Sentry. He brings a bit of frankness to these otherwise cultured members of the club, being possessed of:

A strict Honesty and an even regular Behaviour…Frankness runs through all his Conversation. The military Part of his Life has furnished him with many Adventures, in the Relation of which he is very agreeable to the Company; for he is never over-bearing, though accustomed to command Men in the utmost Degree below him; nor ever too obsequious, from an Habit of obeying Men highly above him.

Hence the professional classes are represented in these two characters. And they bring a bit of ‘bourgeois-ness’ to what would be otherwise a heavily aristocratic periodical.

Another thing you should know about the 18th century was that money talked.

Whilst politics was firmly the domain of the landed gentry, merchants were also growing in wealth and esteem during this period. And Britain’s increasing wealth during the 18th century was driven by merchants and their propagation of overseas trade. This is why the interests of merchants were seen as complementary to the interests of the landed gentry. The Guardian (another of Addison’s periodicals) for example, said that the:

Landed and trading interests of my country…mutually furnish each other with all the necessaries and conveniences of life.

Similarly, The Tatler counselled its readers that traders and merchants were just as entitled to appropriate for themselves the term ‘gentlemen’ as much as the aristocratic classes were. Thanks to the coffeehouse public sphere and its periodicals, merchants now had the opportunity of coming to understand their own importance through mutual discussion. Commerce and trade accordingly received their type in the person of Sir Andrew Freeport:

A Merchant of great Eminence in the City of London: A Person of indefatigable Industry, strong Reason, and great Experience. His Notions of Trade are noble and generous…he calls the Sea the British Common. He is acquainted with Commerce in all its Parts.

And his company is valued by the aristocratic Mister Spectator, for:

A General Trader of good Sense is pleasanter Company than a general Scholar; and Sir Andrew having a natural unaffected Eloquence, the Perspicuity of his Discourse gives the same Pleasure that Wit would in another Man.

He did not possess the aristocratic refinements of Mister Spectator and Sir Roger. However, Sir Andrew Freeport’s wealth and self-taught knowledge qualified him to be a member of the club.

Engraving of a coffeehouse in the 17th century

The historian Karen Harvey labels the 18th century as ‘the century of sex,’ being surprisingly liberal in its attitude towards vice (this, of course, has many exceptions). One of the more interesting characters to appear in Mister Spectator’s club was Will Honeycomb, a rake.

He is very ready at that sort of Discourse with which Men usually entertain Women. He has all his Life dressed very well, and remembers Habits as others do Men. He can smile when one speaks to him, and laughs easily. He knows the History of every Mode, and can inform you from which of the French King’s Wenches our Wives and Daughters had this Manner of curling their Hair, that Way of placing their Hoods; whose Frailty was covered by such a Sort of Petticoat, and whose Vanity to show her Foot made that Part of the Dress so short in such a Year. In a Word, all his Conversation and Knowledge has been in the female World.

And there was a lot for a rake to do in 18th-century London, the period in which such nightlife guides as Harris’ List of Covent Garden Ladies (1757), written by the ‘Pimp-General of Great Britain’, appeared. It told prospective clients of the ‘specialities’ of all the prostitutes around Covent Garden. Betsy Bentinck, for instance, had had sex so many times that:

She is reported to have very little sensation, and…the largest man in England [he with the biggest penis] may draw her on like a jack-boot.

The perception that Georgian times were a guilt-free highpoint in sexual liberation does, therefore, have some justification. Honeycomb is there to provide a bit of light relief; his character was gay, loud, and vain, and he often might exaggerate his amorous tales as

He boasted of favours from ladies whom he had never seen.

Perhaps Honeycomb is here also to provide moral instruction; the rake was a motif which was used in satirical and didactic representations throughout the eighteenth century. One such character formed the principal focus of a series of paintings by William Hogarth between 1732 and 1733 entitled The Rake’s Progress. Nevertheless such behaviour seems to be at best tolerated, and at worst castigated. Towards the end of The Spectator‘s print run, however, he reforms himself, marries, and settles down.

It was these interesting characters that represented the new cosmopolitan elite of 18th-century London. In the characters of Mister Spectator’s club was a microcosm of the people who mattered in society: the aristocracy and the middle classes. In time, however, it was merchants and professionals who took preeminence over the landed gentry, appropriating for themselves many of the refinements and cultural modes of the nobility. Looking forward into the 19th century, the middle classes would by then grow into a position of such power and influence that they effectively held the levers of power.

Header Image – (c) British Museum

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