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Isaac Bickerstaff, Physician and Astrologer by Richard Steele. Papers from Steele's "Tatler."

Introduction by Henry Morley.

Of the relations between Steele and Addison, and the origin of Steele's "Tatler," which was developed afterwards into the "Spectator," account has already been given in the introduction to a volume of this Library, * containing essays from the "Spectator"-- "Sir Roger de Coverley and the Spectator Club." There had been a centre of life in the "Tatler," designed, as Sir Roger and his friends were designed, to carry the human interest of a distinct personality through the whole series of papers. The "Tatler's" personality was Isaac Bickerstaff, Physician and Astrologer; as to years, just over the grand climacteric, sixty-three, mystical multiple of nine and seven; dispensing counsel from his lodgings at Shire Lane, and seeking occasional rest in the vacuity of thought proper to his club at the "Trumpet."

The name of Isaac Bickerstaff Steele borrowed from his friend Swift, who, just before the establishment of the "Tatler," had borrowed it from a shoemaker's shop-board, and used it as the name of an imagined astrologer, who should be an astrologer indeed, and should attack John Partridge, the chief of the astrological almanack makers, with a definite prediction of the day and hour of his death. This he did in a pamphlet that brought up to the war against one stronghold of superstition an effective battery of satire. The pamphlet itself has been given in our volume of "The Battle of the Books, and other short pieces, by Jonathan Swift." * The joke once set rolling was kept up in other playful little pamphlets written to announce the fulfilment of the prophecy, and to explain to Partridge that, whether he knew it or not, he was dead. This joke was running through the town when Steele began his "Tatler" on the 12th of April, 1709. Steele kept it going, and, in doing so, wrote once or twice in the character of Bickerstaff. Then he proceeded to develop the astrologer into a central character, who should give life and unity to his whole series of essays.

They were published for a penny a number, at the rate of three numbers a week. Steele, for his threepence a week, sought to give wholesome pleasure while good-humouredly helping men to rise above the vices and the follies of their time. Evil ways of the court of Charles the Second still survived in empty tradition. The young man thought it polite to set up for an atheist, said Steele, though it could be proved on him that every night he said his prayers. It was fashionable to speak frivolously of women, and affect contempt of marriage, though the English were, and are, of all men the most domestic. Steele made it a part of his duty to break this evil custom, to uphold the true honour of womanhood, and assert the sacredness of home. The two papers in this collection, called "Happy Marriage" and "A Wife Dead," are beautiful examples of his work in this direction. He attacked the false notions of honour that kept duelling in fashion. Steele could put his heart into the direct telling of a tale of human love or sorrow, and in that respect was unapproached by Addison; but he was surpassed by Addison in a subtle delicacy of touch, in the fine humour with which he played about the whims and weaknesses of men. The tenth paper in this volume, "A Business Meeting," is a good example of what Addison could do in that way.

Of the papers in this volume, the first was sent to Steele by the post, and--Steele wrote in the original Preface to the completed "Tatler"--"written, as I since understand, by Mr. Twisdon, who died at the battle of Mons, and has a monument in Westminster Abbey, suitable to the respect which is due to his wit and valour." The other papers were all written by Steele, with these exceptions:--No. V., "Marriage of Sister Jenny," and No. VII., "The Dream of Fame," were described by Steele, in a list given to Tickell, as written by himself and Addison together. No. XIV., "The Wife Dead," is Steele's, with some passages to which Addison contributed. No. XIII., "Dead Folks," was, the first part, by Addison; the second part, beginning "From my own Apartment, November 25," by Steele; Addison wrote No. X., "A Business Meeting," No. XVI., "A very Pretty Poet," and No. XX., "False Doctoring." Addison joined Steele in the record of cases before "Bickerstaff, Censor," No. XVIII. Of the twenty-six sections in this volume, therefore, three are by Addison alone; one is in two parts, written severally by Addison and Steele; four are by Addison and Steele working in friendly fellowship, and without trace of their separate shares in the work; eighteen are by Steele alone.

* Cassell's National Library.



From my own Apartment, May, 4, 17O9.

Of all the vanities under the sun, I confess that of being proud of one's birth is the greatest. At the same time, since in this unreasonable age, by the force of prevailing custom, things in which men have no hand are imputed to them; and that I am used by some people as if Isaac Bickerstaff, though I write myself Esquire, was nobody: to set the world right in that particular, I shall give you my genealogy, as a kinsman of ours has sent it me from the Heralds' Office. It is certain, and observed by the wisest writers, that there are women who are not nicely chaste, and men not severely honest, in all families; therefore let those who may be apt to raise aspersions upon ours please to give us as impartial an account of their own, and we shall be satisfied. The business of heralds is a matter of so great nicety that, to avoid mistakes, I shall give you my cousin's letter, verbatim, without altering a syllable.

"DEAR COUSIN, "Since you have been pleased to make yourself so famous of late by your ingenious writings, and some time ago by your learned predictions; since Partridge, of immortal memory, is dead and gone, who, poetical as he was, could not understand his own poetry; and, philomathical as he was, could not read his own destiny; since the Pope, the King of France, and great part of his court, are either literally or metaphorically defunct: since, I say, these things not foretold by any one but yourself have come to pass after so surprising a manner: it is with no small concern I see the original of the Staffian race so little known in the world as it is at this time; for which reason, as you have employed your studies in astronomy and the occult sciences, so I, my mother being a Welsh woman, dedicated mine to genealogy, particularly that of our family, which, for its antiquity and number, may challenge any in Great Britain. The Staffs are originally of Staffordshire, which took its name from them; the first that I find of the Staffs was one Jacobstaff, a famous and renowned astronomer, who, by Dorothy his wife, had issue seven sons--viz., Bickerstaff, Longstaff, Wagstaff, Quarterstaff, Whitestaff, Falstaff, and Tipstaff. He also had a younger brother, who was twice married, and had five sons--viz., Distaff, Pikestaff, Mopstaff, Broomstaff, and Raggedstaff. As for the branch from whence you spring, I shall say very little of it, only that it is the chief of the Staffs, and called Bickerstaff, quasi Biggerstaff; as much as to say, the Great Staff, or Staff of Staffs; and that it has applied itself to Astronomy with great success, after the example of our aforesaid forefather. The descendants from Longstaff, the second son, were a rakish, disorderly sort of people, and rambled from one place to another, till, in the time of Harry the Second, they settled in Kent, and were called Long-Tails, from the long tails which were sent them as a punishment for the murder of Thomas-a-Becket, as the legends say. They have been always sought after by the ladies, but whether it be to show their aversion to popery, or their love to miracles, I cannot say. The Wagstaffs are a merry, thoughtless sort of people, who have always been opinionated of their own wit; they have turned themselves mostly to poetry. This is the most numerous branch of our family, and the poorest. The Quarterstaffs are most of them prize-fighters or deer-stealers; there have been so many of them hanged lately that there are very few of that branch of our family left. The Whitestaffs are all courtiers, and have had very considerable places. There have been some of them of that strength and dexterity that five hundred of the ablest men in the kingdom have often tugged in vain to pull a staff out of their hands. The Falstaffs are strangely given to drinking: there are abundance of them in and about London. And one thing is very remarkable of this branch, and that is, there are just as many women as men in it. There was a wicked stick of wood of this name in Harry the Fourth's time, one Sir John Falstaff. As for Tipstaff, the youngest son, he was an honest fellow; but his sons, and his sons' sons, have all of them been the veriest rogues living; it is this unlucky branch has stocked the nation with that swarm of lawyers, attorneys, serjeants, and bailiffs, with which the nation is overrun. Tipstaff, being a seventh son, used to cure the king's evil; but his rascally descendants are so far from having that healing quality that, by a touch upon the shoulder, they give a man such an ill habit of body that he can never come abroad afterwards. This is all I know of the line of Jacobstaff; his younger brother, Isaacstaff, as I told you before, had five sons, and was married twice; his first wife was a Staff, for they did not stand upon false heraldry in those days, by whom he had one son, who, in process of time, being a schoolmaster and well read in the Greek, called himself Distaff or Twicestaff. He was not very rich, so he put his children out to trades, and the Distaffs have ever since been employed in the woollen and linen manufactures, except myself, who am a genealogist. Pikestaff, the eldest son by the second venter, was a man of business, a downright plodding fellow, and withal so plain, that he became a proverb. Most of this family are at present in the army. Raggedstaff was an unlucky boy, and used to tear his clothes in getting birds' nests, and was always playing with a tame bear his father kept. Mopstaff fell in love with one of his father's maids, and used to help her to clean the house. Broomstaff was a chimney-sweeper. The Mopstaffs and Broomstaffs are naturally as civil people as ever went out of doors; but, alas! if they once get into ill hands, they knock down all before them. Pilgrimstaff ran away from his friends, and went strolling about the country; and Pipestaff was a wine-cooper. These two were the unlawful issue of Longstaff.


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