In common with every clubman and coffee-house juror ‘twixt Horse-ferry and the Minories, I dropped a quiet tear at the recent demise of the old shire knight Sir Roger de Coverley, who although fictitious, has lately been our very genial companion. In this age of party strife, impeachings, and riot, all accompanyed by savage maulings in the press, the gentle raillery of the de Coverley Papers has been a welcome balm, for which we must thank their author, Joseph Addison.
Addison is the very embodiment of plump equability, as you will know if you have ever sat with him for his eight hours daily at Button’s in Russell-street; and his writings reflect this temperament. His prime creation, Mr Spectator, a sturdy mute who publishes his observations each morning, “to the diversion or improvement of the country,” shuns party rage and maintains a strict neutrality between the Whigs and the Tories. He is in no wise a participant in affairs, but a meer observer and reporter; and although his representations of his Tory friend, Sir Roger de Coverley, are certainly satiric, they are leavened with so much affection as to render them amiable to all but the rabid Sacheverells of the world.
The old cavalier Sir Roger is a Tory of the Queen Anne sort, by which I mean, his first concern is the safety of the Church of England. He counts off his tenants every Sunday in church, where he has railed in the altar, and he enjoins his parson to recite off-the-peg sermons from the great divines rather than risk of any preaching that may want the High Church stamp of approval. His chief hobgoblins are neither the French, nor the Dutch, but atheists, dissenters, and hassock-shy tithe-dodgers; his praises being reserved for the fifty new churches and the Act of Occasional Conformity.
But for all this Anglican bigotry, he is well loved by his dependents (at least on the face of it) for his policy of exercising not only the authority of a father upon them, but also the solicitude. He rewards his servants with tenancies, sends their boys off to prentice, and inclines rather to helping them to help themselves than dropping them scraps from his table. The impartial Mr Spectator avers that, “his orders are received as favours rather than duties,” and that upon returning to his estates from any absence, he is greeted with tears.
Sir Roger’s usual manner of speech is to ramble aimlessly, without preface or purpose, and he makes a booby of himself talking out loud at the county assizes, and in London, where he offers up his opinions very volubly in the middle of The Distrest Mother at Drury Lane. Later, his custom of greeting all and sundry with a neighbourly halloo causes him to be smoked by wags on the Thames, yet he takes it little to heart.
The old knight ascribes his mild nature to a certain widow that neighbours him, whom he has loved since his youth, but who, being a reading lady, and having done with men, has only ever returned his rustic attentions with mockery. In breaking this spaniel heart she has rendered it not bitter, but softer than it would otherwise be; so we see in consequence a relenting sort of man, who goes about un-armed and un-armoured.
And this, along with the fact that he kicked Bully Dawson in a publick coffee-house, is why we forgive Sir Roger his faults, and wish there could be more like him, and why we mourn his loss now that Addison has sent him to his rest.