Addison’s approach to society as revealed in the Essays, Sir Roger at Home and Sir Roger at Church
Addison was a great critic and social reformer who wished to bring about a change in the life of the contemporary people through his contribution to The Spectator, which he founded in collaboration with his friend Richard Steel. In periodical essays, he appears as a judicious critic of the manners and morals of the society. The main aim was to reform the society and it was Addison’s task “to enliven morality with wit; and to temper wit with morality.” He satirises the vanity of the society but he is very careful and mild in his satire and, unlike Pope or Dryden, he is never personal in his attack, his mission being to correct the manners of the people and to improve their moral standards.
Through the observations of Mr. Spectator, Addison and Steele attempted to usher in a complicated and subtle change in English society. The best of all the characters in the Spectator club for this function is Sir Roger de Coverley, the fictional stock-type of a Tory squire. Sir Roger portrayed the antiquated country gentleman stereotype, allowing for The Spectator to deride him as a nostalgic relic and depict the Tory party as dated and out of fashion.
The traditional paternalistic attitude of Sir Roger when dealing with his tenants and servants is an example of a country trait that the authors appears to be sympathetic and commendable, as the attitude stood in sharp contrast to the new generation of hard-hearted landed aristocrats. Unlike these new landowners, Sir Roger continued to observe traditional forms of country hospitality. Sir Roger’s power in the household came from the fondness his servants showed him due to his genuine concern for their well-being. In Sir Roger at Home, Fielding’s purpose is twofold. He focuses on what was good in the old order of things; at the same time he shows that such relations are things of the past. Sir Roger’s ruling his household and the village with a genial yet somewhat autocratic sway, is a relic to be adored, but impossible to emulate.
While the healthy living and paternalistic communal relations demonstrated by Sir Roger are portrayed with subtle admiration, his dealings with the local church are highly satirized. Mr. Spectator could not suppress a hint of bemusement over Sir Roger’s complete authority in the church writing that, ‘As Sir Roger is Landlord to the whole Congregation; he keeps them in very good Order, and will suffer no body to sleep in it besides himself…’ The squire routinely caused disruptions such as lengthening the verses of psalms, standing while others were kneeling so as to note any absences and interrupting the sermon to tell people not to disturb the congregation with fidgeting or making noise. Mr. Spectator opines that the worthiness of his character made these behavioural oddities seem like foils rather than blemishes of his good qualities. He also notes that none of the other parishioners were polite or educated enough to recognise the ridiculousness of Sir Roger’s behaviour in and authority over the church. These observations of Sir Roger’s love of the high-Anglican church in the countryside are essential to the authors’ original purpose for creating the character, to mock the seemingly backwards rural Tory. During the decades following the writing of The Spectator, religious toleration gradually replaced strict conformity. Like the rest of the Tory party, Sir Roger de Coverley stubbornly resisted this change. Besides he had vested interest in Church’s authority.
The idea that Sir Roger and the country were frozen in a previous era demonstrates why Sir Roger de Coverley received such satirical yet partial treatment. He had the ability to represent both the positives and negatives of England’s past, as evidenced by his paternalistic charity and derided etiquette. Despite being light-heartedly satirised as a symbol of a past way of life, Sir Roger was an admirable pastoral character with a nostalgic appeal. Nonetheless, Sir Roger de Coverley served as both the lovable outdated Tory and, more importantly, also the epitome of those Addison and Steele did not want governing the nation.