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How the spirit of The Spectator dates back to 1711

1 March 2018

8:35 AM

1 March 2018

8:35 AM

Few sights are commoner in the second-hand bookshop than battered sets of the eighteenth-century Spectator. Common enough too is the misconception that these elegant octavos formed the first instalment of the magazine you are now browsing. A moment’s investigation will prove that the two are entirely distinct. Look closer, however, and the modern Spectator reveals how much inspiration it drew from its predecessor – and not just in name.

Although the original Spectator flourished so briefly, emerging on 1 March 1711 before disappearing on 6 December 1712, its influence was instant and immense. After the Bible, no prose work was as ubiquitous in Georgian libraries. The collection of 555 diurnal essays delighted readers with urbane observations on matters trivial and serious. The anonymous authors, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, had evolved from schoolboy friends into literary peers. Always varied and inventive, they wrote with flair and vigour on morals, manners, philosophy and literature. A given week could laud heroic humility (no.340), reprove women taking snuff (no. 344), and outline the transmigrations of Pugg the monkey (no. 343). The self-assured ease of each foolscap theme captivated and curated polite society under Queen Anne.

The series vividly embodied a fully-formed literary character – Mr Spectator, a dispassionate observer on the world, shaped by years of travel, study and reflection. Crucially, his freedom from political partisanship allowed open and unfettered comment, both in his own voice and refracted through his fellow clubmen – the hapless country squire Sir Roger de Coverley, the affable man-about-town Will Honeycomb, and the industrious merchant Sir Andrew Freeport.

Within two years The Spectator had folded, stymied by stamp tax and flagging inspiration. Several hands attempted successors, most notably Addison himself, who (with the aid of Pope and others) published 80 more essays in 1714. But the original was established as a quintessential classic, passing through well over 50 editions in its first century; Macaulay equated its popularity with that later enjoyed by Dickens and Scott.

Our other Spectator began 190 years ago, with Robert Stephen Rintoul (1787-1858), the archetypal enterprising Scot. Having risen from printer to editor at the Dundee Advertiser, he moved to London to edit The Atlas for two sparky years (1826-8), before attempts by others to ‘vulgarise and betwaddle’ the project compelled him to poach the paper’s staff and found a new weekly. The venture was funded from his own pockets and those of several Radical friends, including Joseph Hume, the indefatigable Aberdeenshire MP, and the Hon. Douglas Kinnaird, banker and intimate friend of Byron. Perhaps Kinnaird recalled that poet’s long-standing wish (in 1811) to start ‘a periodical paper, something in the Spectator or Observer way.’

The first issue of this ‘weekly journal of news, politics, and literature’ emerged on 6 July, 1828. As a Sunday paper it sought to scrutinise the previous week’s events under the pregnant name of The Spectator. Its hard-hitting first sentence may be dubbed Rintoul’s Razor: ‘The principal object of a Newspaper is to convey intelligence.’ After summarising the week’s news in limpid prose, it tackled ‘topics of the day’ – ‘independent discussions of all interesting points in Politics, Morals, and Manners’. Reviews of theatre and music followed, before an outspoken literary section. This novel, sixteen-page format was a feat of editorial clarity and rigour.

‘We have begun the Spectator,’ Rintoul told the publisher William Blackwood, ‘on the neutral ground in politics, but decided in its criticisms.’ As a ‘strictly independent paper’ and ‘the organ of no party’ it sought to promote principled debate amidst the political fug of the Canningite-Whig machinations of 1827-8. Soon, however, the tumult over the Reform Bill caused Rintoul to tell his readers that ‘it is very difficult to be a mere spectator in times like these… it is the duty of even neutrals to arm.’ Driven by conviction, the paper became ardently pro-Reform, coining the immortal cry ‘the Bill, the whole Bill, and nothing but the Bill’.

Within six months the Spectator was read and quoted far and wide, standing as a heavyweight weekly rival to the Radical Examiner and the Tory John Bull. Although it strongly supported social and sanitary reform, free trade and systematic colonisation, it purposefully included contrary correspondence to foster debate. As editor-cum-proprietor Rintoul staunchly defended the independent press and journalistic anonymity.

Where, then, are Addison and Steele in this enterprise? Despite manifest differences in form, there’s no doubt that the new Spectator sought to revive their spirit. Under Rintoul and his nineteenth-century successors the paper and its correspondents talk of ‘Mr Spectator’ and ‘Dear Spec’ in the unmistakeable idiom of the original. The initial ‘Mr Spectator’ is cited as ‘our esteemed namesake’ and ‘grave prototype’. The autonomous swagger of the first Spectator is reflected in even the first issue of its namesake: it is presumably deliberate that the first issue of Rintoul’s paper not only mentions Addison and his ‘precepts’ but reappropriates the heading ‘Works of the Learned’, which Addison had pointedly mocked (Spec. no. 457). Even the paper’s striking gothic masthead (retired at last in 1937) closely reflects that in Bisset’s popular 1793 edition of the Addison-Steele Spectator.

Rintoul’s programmatic language strengthens this link. Rejecting ‘all the indecent and vulgar trash which too great a portion of the Sunday press teems with’, he devised a paper for ‘the most indiscriminate perusal, without distinction of sex or age.’ As ‘a harmless intruder into the domestic circle’ it could be safely read aloud for evening amusement. Such language closely echoes the original Mr Spectator, who recommended his ‘speculations to all well-regulated families’ (no.10). When Rintoul advertised that his Spectator was ‘not a sectarian or a partisan, in any sense, but a citizen of the world’, readers would recall Addison’s Mr Spectator fancying himself ‘a Citizen of the World’ at the Royal Exchange (no. 69). Given such an outlook, it’s unsurprising that Addison and Steele are cited more than once as beacons of anonymous journalism. And just like its model, Rintoul’s paper was soon celebrated for ‘its piquant, yet not malignant satire upon the foibles of society.’

Still, now 9,890 issues on, Rintoul’s innovations – ‘planned on a great scale, for long endurance’ – live on. The news section gradually contracted into ‘Portrait of the Week’, the exemplar of laconicism since 1958. The unsigned ‘topics of the day’ evolved into signed ‘middles’ and then modern features. The veil of anonymity did not slip until 1921, with the warning that ‘signed articles do not necessarily represent the views of the Spectator’. The reviews section remains a study in stability. Whereas the modern Tatler and Guardian reflect nothing of their Addison-Steele namesakes, The Spectator still breathes the essence of its original; in fact, the Spectator’s Notebook, originating in 1932, is the closest offspring of their eighteenth-century essays. The eclecticism, independence and irreverence of the modern Spectator bring it closer in character to its predecessor than Rintoul could ever have anticipated. Indeed, it’s not by idle coincidence that The Spectator named its online blog Coffee House, a moniker deliberately chosen to recreate the lively mix of political debate, cultural criticism and spirited tittle-tattle that filled the ginnels and snickets of Queen Anne’s London.

So, yes, it’s a surprisingly common error to say that the current Spectator was founded in 1711; but it’s no less a mistake to miss the real and profound influence that the first series had on the world’s oldest weekly magazine, R.S. Rintoul’s ‘perfect paper’.

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