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I. THE TATLER AND THE SPECTATOR.
THE Sir Roger de Coverley Papers are selections from five hundred and fifty-five daily issues 1 of a sheet called the Spectator. This was the natural successor of another periodical of similar character-the Tatler, founded in London, in 1709, by Richard Steele, and published three times a week over the signature of ISAAC BICKERSTAFF. The circumstances which led to the selection of the pen name are of curious interest.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century, prophetic almanacs were extremely popular in England, under the title of "Prognostications. The Stationers' Company employed for several years as its principal "prophet” a fellow who was a shoemaker by trade, named John Partridge. He appropriated to himself the title of "Student in Astrology," and like other astrological impostors pretended to tell the course of events by consulting the stars.
After Partridge's "Prognostications for 1708" appeared, that mad wag Jonathan Swift-the author of "Gulliver's Travels," then an Irish vicar of rising fame visiting in London-published a satire entitled "Predictions for the year 1708, wherein the month, and the day of the month, are set down, the persons named, and the great actions and events of next year particularly related, as they will come to pass. Written to prevent the people of England from being further imposed on by the vulgar almanac
1 There were 635 Spectators, but there was a break after 555 had been issued, and the last 80 were not daily issues, as will be seen farther on.
makers. By ISAAC BICKERSTAFF, Esq." He begins very solemnly by deploring the fact that faith in astrology seems to be on the wane, and attributes it to the fact that so many "illiterate traders between us and the stars impart a yearly stock of nonsense, lies, folly, and impertinence, which they offer to the world as genuine from the planets, though they descend from no greater a height than their own brains." After showing up the frailties of pseudoastrologers, "Bickerstaff " vaunts his own ability as a stargazer and star-reader, with so much seeming seriousness and candor as to take in many good people and some bad ones; in fact, the Inquisition at Portugal actually burnt his tract because of its heresy, and thundered its anathemas against the author and his readers.
Finally Bickerstaff begins his concrete prophecies: "My first prediction is but a trifle, it relates to Partridge the almanac-maker. I have consulted the star of his nativity by my own rules, and find he will infallibly die upon the 29th of March next, about eleven at night, of a raging fever: therefore I advise him to consider of it, and settle his affairs in time."
On the day following the fateful twenty-ninth of March appeared another pamphlet, entitled "The accomplishment of the first of Mr. Bickerstaff's predictions, being an account of the death of Mr. Partridge, the almanacmaker, upon the 29th instant, in a letter to a person of honor." In this it was stated that Partridge died at "about five minutes after seven; by which it is clear that Mr. Bickerstaff was mistaken almost four hours in his calculation."
Partridge, however, was not only very much alive, but incomparably angry; and the fact that all the wits of the time aided in spreading the report of his demise, served to increase his wrath. He is said to have knocked down before his very door a vender of Swift's obituary pamphlet who was crying it about the streets. Finally there appeared a
pamphlet purporting to come from Partridge (but really written by Congreve and the Rev. Dr. Yalden) and complaining most piteously of the joke which had been practised upon him. He stigmatizes Isaac Bickerstaff as an "unscientific Frenchman and Papist who is striving to bury alive a respectable Protestant astrologer." He then goes on to state that when the night of his pretended decease "of a raging fever" had come, though he was in his usual health, his wife, who had been wrought upon somewhat by the false prophet, prevailed upon him to take a sweat and retire early. Suddenly a neighbouring bell began to toll, and as the servant went to a window to inquire the cause she was told that Doctor Partridge had suddenly died. The maid hotly gave her informer the lie, but he insisted thatif we may paraphrase Saxe's conceit-some one had told the sexton so and the sexton had tolled the bell. Every passerby also stoutly affirmed that Partridge was dead.
Presently a grave person called and asked if that were Doctor Partridge's residence. He was supposed to be a patient and shown into the dining-room. Partridge went down and found him measuring the room to be hung with mourning for the doctor's death. Nothing could convince the undertaker's deputy that the supposed corpse stood before him; and when the latter, summoning up his spirit, ordered the ghostly decorator out of doors, the deputy said that he perceived the doctor's death had disordered the gentleman's mind. Doubtless he was a near relative— perhaps a brother. The draper would go away, and return next morning.
Partridge again repaired to his bed, but again, like an ill-laid ghost, was conjured up by the sexton. He had come to see about the grave, the funeral sermon, etc. Partridge insisted that all this was a work of supererogation; but the fellow stoutly declared that the whole town knew the almanac-maker was dead, and the joiner was hurrying up his coffin for fear he would become impatient for it. He re
proached Partridge for trying to keep his death so secret, and hinted that he might be mean enough to try to avoid paying his funeral expenses.
"In short," Congreve and Yalden make Partridge say, "what with undertakers, embalmers, joiners, sextons, and elegy-hawkers upon a late practitioner in physic and astrology,' I got not one wink of sleep that night, nor scarce a moment's rest ever since. I could not stir out of doors for the space of three months after this but presently one comes up to me in the street:
Mr. Partridge, that coffin you was last buried in, I have not been yet paid for.'
"My poor wife is run almost distracted with being called widow Partridge,' when she knows it is false; and once a term she is cited into the court to take out letters of administration.”1
"The most memorable consequence of Swift's frolic,' writes Sir Walter Scott, "was the establishment of the Tatler, the first of that long series of periodical works which, from the days of Addison to those of Mackenzie, have enriched our literature with so many effusions of genius, humor, wit, and learning."
Early in 1709 Steele resolved upon the issue of a triweekly literary periodical which should convey to its readers in a chatty, informal style a variety of information. As the name of "Isaac Bickerstaff was then in everybody's mouth, it seemed a peculiarly favorable opportunity to publish the new paper over his name. Acting perhaps upon the advice, certainly with the consent, of Swift, Steele availed himself of all the advantages accruing from the use of the well-known name, and began the Tatler.
For a hundred years previous there had been occasional
The whole of this diverting paper may be found in Swift's Works, and in Nathan Drake's Essays on the Tatler, Spectator, and Guardian, vol. i., p. 64 ff.
2 Look up this word in the dictionary and see what it does mean, and also what it, properly, should mean. It is an interesting example of the fact that custom makes law.