A ‘Moral’ Diorama: British National Character in 'The Tatler' and 'The Spectator'

Theresa Schön

In his definition of the early 19th-century “panoramic” literature, Walter Benjamin has de-scribed the textual in terms of the visual: ‘panoramic’ literature captures manifold social and ethical details of everyday life in the frame of individual (character) sketches. Guided by a fundamental interest in the shaping of national identity, the observations of and on society provided by a variety of authors serve to mirror reality on the one hand and to criticise contemporary behaviour on the other. Usually taken to be a particularity of the 19th century, this art form proves to have intrinsic connections to early 18th-century periodical essays, especially to those published by Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in The Tatler and The Spectator. Hidden behind the mask of fictional personae the essayists explored contemporary London society and offered their readers satirical portraits of themselves, ultimately aiming at the formation of a British nation. My article focuses on a particular method Addison and Steele employed in their attempt to define British national character. They exploited foreigners’ perspectives to delineate the manners of the British. In so doing they created lively self-portraits embedded in different epistemological frameworks, i.e. quasi-scientific notes and the personal letter, amounting to a ‘moral’ diorama of early 18th-century British society.

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