Addison's first step towards fame was taken when, a young Oxford student, he dedicated a poem to Dryden. This introduced him to one who was to have an important influence over his life and that of many of the eighteenth-century writers. This was Jacob Tonson, who has been called the Father of British Publishers, because of the instinct he showed for divining the public taste and thinking out means to meet it.
At this time Tonson had noticed a revived interest in the literature of Greece and Rome, and he was anxious to find translators to aid him. In the young student of Magdalen he found a good classical scholar, and he asked him to undertake translations of Ovid and Herodotus. More than that, he introduced him to some of the important men in London, and among them to Charles Montague, later Lord Halifax.
Montague saw that young Addison's pen would be a valuable possession for the Whig party, but scholarship alone was not a sufficient equipment for the stormy arena of politics. At that time the education of all young men of fortune included a tour of Europe, and although Addison unaided could never have enjoyed such an experience, we can imagine how overjoyed he was when Montague placed at his disposal a pension of £300 a year to be spent on foreign travel.
His first object was to study French, the recognized language of diplomacy, and for this purpose he stayed for eighteen months at Blois. From there he passed to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and Holland.
When at the end of four years he returned to England, fully equipped for the career to which Halifax had destined him, a great disappointment awaited him. William III had just died, the new queen did not favour Halifax, and with the fall of his patron the pension and the prospects of Addison vanished into thin air.
He was now thirty years of age, with no private means and no fixed profession. But he had read widely and thought much, he had seen other lands and met men and women of every type, and could compare favourably or unfavourably the manners and customs of England with those of other countries.
Once more Jacob Tonson was to prove a friend in need. That enterprising bookseller had founded a club called the Kit Kat Club which met at the eatinghouse of a certain Christopher Catt, famed for his mutton pies. The club had thirty-nine members, almost all leading members of the Whig party, and to it Addison was introduced by its founder.
The Kit Kat buzzed with news in these days. Marlborough was at the height of his military fame, and when London heard of the victory of Blenheim, on the 2nd of August, 1704, the club felt that a triumph so great must be celebrated in verse. Halifax recommended Addison for the task, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, visiting him in his humble lodgings over a shop, commissioned him to write a poem. The Campaign was the result. It was a victory for him as well as for Marlborough, and his reward was an Under-Secretaryship of State.
His post left him time for writing, but his next venture, an opera, fell flat, and he was glad to accept soon afterwards the appointment of Under-Secretary to the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland. The most interesting development from this was that he became friendly with Swift. The two men were very unlike, but the Dean's opinion of Addison was that "if he had a mind to be chosen king he would hardly be refused", so great was his prestige. Addison, on his side, dedicated a book on Italy to Swift, "the most agreeable companion, the truest friend and the greatest genius of the age".
Unfortunately politics sooner or later severed most of the friendships of Queen Anne's reign, and it was not long before Swift wrote to his friend Stella:
". . . called at the coffee house where I had not been for a week and talked coldly with Mr. Addison. All our friendship and dearness are off, we are civil acquaintances, take words of course of when we shall meet and that's all. Is it not odd?"
Up till this point, although Addison had not been idle, he had not yet found his true life work. It is not as a poet or as a dramatist that we remember him but as an essayist, and it was in The Tatler that his pen for the first time moved with complete ease.
He did not lay it down when The Tatler ceased to appear. Two months later the first number of the still more famous Spectator was hawked about the streets of London. In its production he had the help of Steele, as Steele had had his with The Tatler.
When we look at the picture of Addison we see a serene, rather expressionless face crowned with a large periwig. And yet these quiet eyes were keenly observant. From his corner in the club Addison watched the life of his time pass before him, and he saw that something essential was needed. He saw that politicians were forgetting their country in their zeal for party. He saw a Court which no longer encouraged art and letters, and was alienated from the nation. He saw the townsfolk scoffing at the country people and the country squires clinging all the more obstinately to their old ways. He saw a new middle class arising which had no guiding ideas on morals or literature or manners. He saw women leading aimless lives because no one thought them worth educating. And he saw how much a spectator could do by founding a journal in which all these isolated units in the nation might find common interests, and from which they might learn a higher culture, more kindly toleration, and gentler manners.
We shall understand better how he went about his task if we notice how he catered for his women readers. For there is no doubt that Addison was the founder of the Woman's Page and the Women's Magazines. Steele, with his warm heart and his reverence for women, had led the way in The Tatler, but it was Addison who definitely made provision for their tastes.
First of all, in the twelfth number of his new paper he showed, with that friendly banter which he so often used with good effect, that he knew what he was talking about. He wrote a paper describing the training of young women in the exercise of the fan, the different courses being,
"Handle your fans, unfurl your fans, discharge your fans, ground your fans, recover your fans, flutter your fans. By the right observation of these few plain words of command a woman of a tolerable genius, who will apply herself diligently to her exercise for the space of but one half-year, shall be able to give her fan all the graces that can possibly enter into that little modish machine. There is the angry flutter, the modest flutter, the timorous flutter, the confused flutter, the merry flutter, the amorous flutter."
Having thus put his women readers in good humour by this cheerful little paper, Addison ventured to publish, two weeks later, what he called A Fine Lady's Journal.
In this he purported to give an account of how a fashionable lady of the period spent five days of her life. Here is Clarinda's record for Friday.
Friday. Eight in the morning. Abed. Read over all Mr. Froth's letters.
Ten o'clock. Staid within all day not at home.
From ten to twelve. In conference with my mantua maker. Sorted a suit of ribbons. Broke my blue china cup.
From twelve to one. Shut myself up in my chamber, practised Lady Mary Modley's skuttl'e.
One in the afternoon. Called for my flowered handkerchief. Worked half a violet leaf in it. Eyes ached and head out of order. Threw by my work and read over the remaining part of Aurangzebe.
From three to four. Dined.
From four to twelve. Changed my mind, dressed, went abroad and played at crimp till midnight. Found Mrs. Spitely at home. Conversation, Mrs. Brilliant's necklace false stones. Old Lady Loveday going to be married to a young fellow that is not worth a groat. Miss Prue gone to the country. Tom Townley has red hair. Mem. Mrs. Spitely whispered in my ear that she had something to tell me about Mr. Froth, I am sure it is not true.
Between twelve and one. Dreamed that Mr. Froth lay at my feet and called me Indamora.
Hundreds of women throughout the country who read that copy of The Spectator realized for the first time how empty were their lives, and in a few days Mr. Spectator took the next step. He wrote a paper about women.
"Their amusements seem contrived for them, rather as they are women, than as they are reasonable creatures. The toilet is their great scene of business and the right adjustment of their hair the principal employment of their lives. The sorting of a suit of ribbons is reckoned a very good morning's work; and if they make an excursion to a mercer's or a toy shop, so great a fatigue makes them unfit for anything else all the day after. . . . This is, I say, the state of ordinary women, though I know there are multitudes of a more elevated life and conversation, that move in an exalted sphere of knowledge and virtue, that join all the beauties of the mind to the ornaments of dress and inspire a kind of awe and respect, as well as love, in to their male beholders. I hope to increase the number of these by publishing this daily paper."
It was not long before his women readers showed their appreciation of his attention to their needs. One who signed herself Leonora wrote:
"Mr. Spectator, Your paper is part of my tea equipage and my servant knows my humour so well that, calling for my breakfast this morning she answered The Spectator was not yet come in, but the tea kettle was boiled and she expected it every moment."
Leonora asked for his advice on books and Addison replies:
"As I have taken the Ladies under my particular care, I shall make it my Business to find out in the best authors ancient and modern such passages as may be for their use and endeavour to accommodate them as well as I can to their taste. My fair Readers are already deeper scholars than the Beaus; I could name some of them who talk much better than several Gentlemen that make a figure at Will's; and as I frequently receive Letters from the fine Ladies and pretty Fellows I cannot but observe that the former are superior to the others not only in Sense but in the Spelling."
Leonora was not the only one to whom The Spectator's arrival was the event of the morning. It is calculated that 10,000 copies were sold daily in its second year, and the imaginary characters to whom Addison introduced his readers, Sir Roger de Coverley, Sir Andrew Freeport, Will Wimble, and Will Honeycomb, became as popular as any citizens of London.
Reserved as Addison was, he was the admired centre of Button's coffee-house, but he had a far larger audience than ever gathered there. In town and country, men and women, young and old, wit and cit as the old phrase goes, looked for his daily talk in The Spectator and in his later periodical The Freeholder, and modelled their thoughts and conduct on his suggestions. When he died, at the age of forty-seven, he had, in a wonderful manner, formed that vague but very real thing, public opinion.