The genre of the essay allows for an almost interminable list of subjects, ranging from the serious to the trivial, the abstract to the concrete, the expected to the surprising. Richard Steele’s ‘Love-Letters’ shows flexibility, not only of subject but also of form, by being a somewhat practical analysis of the best ways for men to address women in matters of love.
In discussing the history of the essay, we often discuss Steele (1672-1729) together with Joseph Addison (1672-1719) because the two are mostly known for their collaboration in publishing two periodicals printed on newssheet, The Tatler and The Spectator. These periodicals were printed several times a week and were very popular both with contemporaries of the authors and with future generations of readers. There was clearly a wide readership that enjoyed the wit, the critique, the moralizing, and sometimes the gossiping in the essays.
In ‘Love-Letters’, Steele compares and contrasts two main ways of writing letters to women, and to do so he creates two fictitious male personae, who are presented as writing love-letters to a lady the day before they are both killed in battle. One of them, aptly named John Careless, speaks to the lady about his future return from war with a playful tone that suggests that he has an interest in the lady but definitely not an obsession. On the other hand, Colonel Constant, his rival, treats the lady with utmost respect and speaks, mournfully, of the honour of fighting for one’s country and of dying as long as she can remember him.
Steele believes that one of these two approaches is more likely to attract the lady. (Read the essay if you’d like to know which!)
Of course, with the hindsight provided by time, Steele’s essay may be criticised for the way it essentialises women and some of the assumptions it makes about gender relations, though some readers today may sympathise with some of the claims made in the essay. However, it may also be read within the context of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century writing interested in social manners that takes itself only moderately seriously (think of Jane Austen, for example).
Image Credit: Tender Missive, by Jessica Libor installation