Establishing the idea of a social order: The Tatler and the Spectator

Once a nexus of myths such as those I have identified has been discursively created, it needs to be diffused and accepted throughout the relevant sections of society, where it becomes a naturalised form of discourse. Within the class of the gentry and the Whig aristocracy, Shaftesbury’s writings were influential in triggering this process of discursive diffusion, as were the writings of Addison, Defoe, Steele and many others, even Swift. But to be generally accepted as a hegemonic discourse, the diffusion has to spread down to other levels of social structure. In the case of the eighteenth century, the rising middle classes needed to embrace the myths and accept the discursive underpinnings of the new ideology. The ideology of politeness had to be popularised through different forms of discourse to gain acceptance, and the ideal means of doing this was through the periodicals printed in London but enjoying enormous popularity well beyond the confines of the capital.[1] In this subsection I shall briefly discuss the construction of social values represented in the Whig literary periodicals from 1709 on, in particular in the Spectator, and then, in subsection 5.2, show how “grammar” and “politeness” were explicitly connected in the transference from the polite language myth to the legitimate language myth in the work of Hugh Jones (1724), whose grammar, the first “colonial” grammar of English, was published in London but written in Williamsburg, Virginia. Subsection 5.3 focuses specifically on the full-scale commercialisation of standard English in grammars, dictionaries, pronouncing dictionaries and handbooks of style in the last 30 to 40 years of the eighteenth century.

The polite language myth focused on the social values defining the gentry that were set up by Shaftesbury and dealt with in section 4: “decorum”, “grace”, “beauty”, “symmetry” and “order”. These values were nowhere more clearly presented than in the two literary periodicals theTatler and the Spectator, the first initiated by Richard Steele, the second initiated by Addison. Addison and Steele were regular contributors to both periodicals, and they were both literary figures (playwrights) as well as critics. But rather than criticise other authors, it was their purpose to hold up a critical social mirror to London society. Their major concern was to popularise the social, moral and aesthetic values of society—in other words, to bring Shaftesbury’s philosophy out of the drawing rooms of the landed gentry and into the coffee houses and onto the tea tables of the metropolis. They very rarely mention the terms “polite” or “impolite” explicitly, but as Fitzmaurice (2000: 201) puts it,

The combination of authority and expertise results in the citation of the Spectator

as representative of the best in English prose and thus as a candidate for the model

par excellence of polite language of the period. By the second half of the century,

quotations from the periodical, with Addison invariably identified as the source of the quotation, come to be the staple fare offered by grammars characterising polite language. This kind of citation presents the linguistic aspect of good manners and behaviour. The grammarians cite and change the Spectator’s language to demonstrate how elegant language might be improved by grammatical correctness.

Thus one of the main aims of both these Whig periodicals was to reach as large a reading public as allowed by the constraints of daily printing and of dissemination from within London in the early eighteenth century. McCrea (1990: 34) suggests that

whether Addison and Steele explain the great philosophers, associate activities that we now separate, or domesticate satire, the touchstone for their work remains their commitment to popularity. Pursuing popularity, they cast themselves in the role of explainers and demystifiers.

But whereas McCrea argues that the modern, professional English department in the twentieth century—and here I presume he means “department of English literature”—needed to compartmentalise and specialise its language to forge an academic niche for itself, literature and literary language for Addison and Steele were very much public matters. Their commitment to as large a readership as possible led them to espouse a form of “plain English” that would be understandable to their readers. It was a variety of English in which words are taken “to be the ‘representation of speech’, and speech to be the representative of truth” (McCrea 1990: 42).

Ketcham (1985: 5) points out that the conventions of tolerant irony, a “sympathetic respect for the commonplaces of life” and the centrality of the family as the generator of human affection were actually created by the Spectator essayists

to establish rather than question an idea of social order. They do not test conventions or test language in order to examine their inadequacies or hidden potentials. Instead they create conventions which will, in turn, create a self-confirming system of values. We do not find incisive thinking in theSpectator nor ironic undermining of expectations, but we find a social structure being created out of a literary structure.

This is an eminently important point. If literary structure is constructed out of “polite language”, then social structure is determined by the principles of politeness. Once polite social structure has been constructed, the only appropriate literature to represent it will be “polite literature”—literature that does not shock the reader, that displays the aesthetic values of “decorum and grace”, “the study and love of beauty” and “the study and love of symmetry and order”, and that retains the purity of the English language. Hence, the conventions constructed by the Spectator help to create what Ketcham calls

“a self-confirming system of values”. The ideology of politeness actually constructs not only the ideological discourse of the standardisation of English but also the eighteenth-century canon of what written texts deserve to be considered literary.

The essays of the Spectator, Ketcham says, “reflect assumptions about the structures of social life which in turn reveal changing images of social man in the early eighteenth century” (1985: 3). Ketcham argues that Addison, Steele and the other contributors to theSpectator were actively trying to “establish rather than question an idea of social order” (5) and that they were doing so not to test or comment on social conventions or the language in which they were purveyed, but actually to establish those conventions. The way in which the character of Mr Spectator is constructed and allowed to comment on and act as a filter through which the reader could judge a variety of forms of social behaviour supports Ketcham’s argument and detracts from McCrea’s interpretation that they were only angling for popularity.

The touchstone of Ketcham’s “sympathetic respect for the commonplaces of daily life” (5) is the continual attempt to relate outward behaviour to inward character. It is clear, therefore, that the principle of politeness as representing a natural connection between an individual’s character and actions (including her variety and style of speech) is the main component in a conscious strategy by Addison and Steele to construct the idea of social order. This, in turn, is closely linked to the attempt to gentrify philosophy, as is explicitly stated in the Spectator, no. 10:

It was said of Socrates, that he brought Philosophy down from Heaven, to inhabit among Men; and I shall be ambitious to have it said of me, that I brought Philosophy out of Closets and Libraries, Schools and Colleges, to dwell in Clubs and Assemblies, at Tea-Tables, and in Coffee-Houses.

The periodicals of the second and third decades of the eighteenth century in Britain were immensely influential in helping to construct social conventions, particularly those of “politeness” as I have defined the term in this chapter. They were in fact one of the major sites for the cultural reproduction of polite behaviour and its intimate connection with social class differentiation and the emergence of standard English as a class “dialect”. I shall now illustrate the effects of this potent and, in terms of the recent vitriolic debate over standard English in Britain (cf. Honey 1997), problematic connection by briefly looking at Hugh Jones’s 1724 grammar of English.

  • [1] Cf. Swift’s comment in the Proposal on university students reading the “daily Trash” sent down tothem from London: “SEVERAL young Men at the Universities, terribly possessed with the fear of Pedantry,run into a worse Extream, and think all Politeness to consist in reading the daily Trash sent down to them fromhence: This they call knowing the World, and reading Men and Manners. Thus furnished they come up to Town,reckon all their Errors for Accomplishments, borrow the newest Set of Phrases, and if they take a Pen into theirHands, all the odd Words they have picked up in a Coffee-House, or a Gaming Ordinary, are produced asFlowers of Style; and the Orthography refined to the utmost”.
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