The Spectator Club by Sir Richard Steele and several essays by Jonathan Swift

by Paul Mathers

ImageI am several essays behind in my blog posts, so I am going to fly over several in one post. They have little in common save for being in the same volume.

The Spectator Club is a portal into an alien world, and by that I mean Great Britain of the early 1700s. I know the basic history of The Spectator and The Tatler, enough to know that the modern versions of those magazines (Isabella Blow comes to mind with the latter, and conservative England with the former) bear only about as much resemblance as they are printed on paper. The original “magazines” were daily publications which people would read in the morning and then talk about. They would push forward fads and worldviews which… come to think of it is not really all that different.

The piece was a bit like watching a pilot episode of a television series you might like and then never watching another episode of that show. Here, several characters are introduced with the promise that they are going to be amusing, vessels of ideas, conversation fodder, and then… nothing. Well, I suppose I could hunt down collected issues of The Spectator from the 1700s. But it’s pretty far down on my “to read” list. It just seems odd to me why Dr. Eliot would include this. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Did I get something out of it? I suppose I got a general grasp of what The Spectator was all about. Would I recommend it? No. Instead I would recommend going and reading the actual collected editions of The Spectator which are widely available free of charge due to their antiquity and their complete innocence of demand. Twenty seconds of searching found a free Kindle version on Amazon and a version on Project Gutenberg.

This oddity is followed by several pieces by Jonathan Swift. I shudder to think of the sort of person who would not love Jonathan Swift.

The first essay is Hints Towards an Essay on Conversation. In it, Swift presents a variety of humorous “types” of modes of conversation with specific attention to the more unfortunate choices. Loath as I am to cull a comparison from pop culture, it rather put me in mind of the song from Mary Poppins in which the title character and Dick Van Dyke’s outrageous caricature sing about ways that various people laugh. But as is so often the case with such things, the humor serves as a didactic etiquette tool.

Next is a similar piece, A Treatise on Good Manners and Good Breeding. It’s the sort of thing that I wish were taught to schoolchildren today. One of the primary lessons is that good manners are more often than not simply a matter of common sense. So the essay sort of becomes an apology for common sense.

Best of all, I thought, was his Letter of Advice to a Young Poet. It is precisely what the title suggests and is so excellent that I feel as if I could either write many pages about it or simply say that you should read it for yourself. I think I would be wiser to do the latter.

His final essay in this volume is On the Death of Esther Johnson. It is as earnest and loving an obituary as I’ve ever read. It had the, I’m sure, intended effect on me of wish I’d had the honor of her acquaintance. However, the purpose of the piece does not seem to simply be to eulogize one of the finest people Swift ever knew. Rather, he uses her behavior to instruct. This is what I really love about Swift. He writes material for the amelioration of the reader in a palatable, indeed even delectable form.

Did I enjoy them and gain from reading them? A thousand times yes. Would I recommend them? Doubly so.