Letters of Richard Steele to his beloved Mary Scurlock, who would become his wife during the course of these correspondences from August 9 through October 22, 1707, illustrate the transformation of a genuinely romantic relationship from infatuation through marriage. While the style of Steele's letters seems shallow and almost comical at times, the author nevertheless betrays his deep adoration for Mary, an adoration which subsumes his love of anything else for the time during which he woos her. In these letters, Steele addresses very little other than his affection for Mary. Mary remains for the reader of these letters a nebulous figure, at times appearing cold and distant especially in comparison to the doglike Steele. Moreover, Steele does not offer any detailed descriptions of his beloved's physical features, so she remains shrouded in mystery and adulation. Only on a few occasions does Steele make any mention of a world other than the one existing in his mind and heart: for instance when he writes about his business affairs that are so difficult to conduct when in love or when he comments about getting drunk. Based on the intimate content of the letters and his writing on September 9, "I beg of you to show my letters to no one living," Steele did not intend for these letters to be published. Three letters, written on August 14, August 22, and September 5, 1707, indicate particularly poignant moments in the course of the relationship, at least according to the writer. The letters by Richard Steele to Mary Scurlock/Steele offer immense value to the study of eighteenth-century literature insofar as they shed light on the character of Steele himself as well as the diction, tone, and style of writing at the time. Moreover, the letters indicate, at least in part, how heterosexual romantic relationships were conducted at that time, as well as how some men viewed women.
1. Between August 9 and October 22, 1707, Richard Steele penned numerous love letters to his beloved Mary Scurlock. At first, Steele wrote to Mary Scurlock daily, courting her and wooing her. His letters gradually become less frequent, but their tone remains reverential. The subject matter of Steele's letters to Mrs. Scurlock is narrow, focused on his feelings for her and on his desire to be with her. Only on a few occasions does Steele lose focus on Mary to talk about other affairs, such as his work or his drinking. Although Steele uses spiritual language occasionally and offers his prayers and blessings to his beloved, there is little indication that Steele possesses a broader vision of their relationship, which comes across as being a narcissistic one based on the tone, style, and diction of the letters.
According to the customs of the times, Steele must call on Mrs. Scurlock formally, which is why the letters begin with his entreating her to let him come visit her at her home. Initially Mary rebuffs him for whatever reason, telling him to come back at "another time of more leisure." Interestingly, Steele writes from her house, ostensibly while he waits for her, on August 14: "I am now under your own roof while I write." Steele, infatuated with Mary, turns his waiting into an almost erotic fantasy: "that imaginary satisfaction of being so near you, tho' not in your presence, has in it something that touches me with so tender ideas, that it is impossible for me to describe their force." While Steele never uses overtly sexual imagery and instead elevates Mary to a level beyond the mundane, his letters to her are wrought with sexual tension, desire, and hidden eroticism. For example, on August 15, Steele writes, "To know so much pleasure with so much innocence is, methinks, a satisfaction beyond the present condition of human life; but the union of minds in pure affection is renewing the first state of man." Here, Steele betrays his lust by using the words "pleasure" and "innocence" together, along with the words "satisfaction" and "union." He also refers to her "obliging behavior to me," which of course does not refer to sex in this case but nevertheless evokes human sexuality and his desires to be with her. Finally, Steele states on August 15, "I forbear indulging myself in a stile which my eager wishes prompt me to, out of reverence to that occasion." The occasion he refers to is simply Mary's agreement to meet him.
Eagerly waiting for the moment when they can meet, Steele addresses Mary as if she were a saint: "I will live upon that expectation, and meditate on your perfections till that happy hour." Throughout the correspondences, Steele adulates Mary, signing the letters "your most obedient, most faithful humble ser'nt," and addressing her as "Madam" even after they are married. Steele's letter-writing style is personal and unsophisticated and although he writes straight from the heart and with brutal honesty, the love letters seem strangely devoid of true passion. One reason for this lack of passion in spite of elaborately gushy diction is that Steele does not use any specifics when referring to Mary; he never once describes her facial features, her body, or the exact nature of her personality. Thus Steele could have written these letters to almost any woman.
On certain dates, the language Steele uses is so over-the-top as to seem trite. For example, on August 17 he asks her for some token of her affection, such as one of her gloves. He then writes, "You are too great a bounty to be received at once, therefore I must be prepared by degrees lest the mighty gift distract me with joy." However, it is apparent his sentiments are real; Mary eventually and quite quickly succumbs to his advances and marries him within months of the first letters in this collection.
For all the pathos he imparts through his letters, Steele's tone also carries with it a sense of humor. The excessive nature of the writings mirrors a lighthearted, amicable, yet serious love affair. "In a word, you must give me either a fan, a mask, or a glove you have wore, or I cannot live." Exaggeration here serves a dual purpose: underscoring the depth of his genuine affections for Mary and inspiring a smile. By this point he has certainly won over Mary's heart, and his continuing flowery language also evokes a smile on the modern reader's face. Another instance in which Steele uses humor is on August 30, when he writes, "I am dead drunk for your sake, which is more than 'I dye for you.'" This letter was indeed likely written while Steele was drunk.
Steele's love for Mary subsumes all other events and circumstances in his life. In fact, one of his friends needs to keep an eye on him, as Steele indicates on August 25. "I am observed, by a friend who is with me, in every gesture and motion I make." He must write to Mary from an adjoining room, and that day's correspondence is consequently very short. Five days pass and Steele is now found in a coffee-house, where he notes that he is among "a dirty crowd of busy faces all around me, talking politics and managing stocks." During this rare discussion of the world outside of his relationship with Mary, Steele notes how trivial life seems without his beloved. "All my ambition, all my wealth, is love!" Love consumes Steele, and he cannot concentrate. On September 1, Steele writes, "It is the hardest thing in the world to be in love, and yet attend business." Combining his lack of concentration with his sense of humor, Steele also writes on September 1, "I must lock myself up, or other people will do it for me."
Steele's obsession with Mary wanes a bit after they are wed. While his diction does not change much and he still addresses Mary with reverence and admiration, the content and scope of the writing shifts. The last two correspondences of this collection, from October 16 and 22, are extremely brief and basically involve Steele apologizing for his absence. By now it is clear that while he still retains some of his puppy love for Mary, Steele no longer feels the acute pangs of romantic infatuation. He has settled into a satisfactory relationship with Mary and has delved back into the affairs that comprise his life outside the marriage.
2. It is doubtful that Steele intended for this series of letters to Mary to be published. The clearest indication of this is on September 9, when Steele tells Mary, "I beg of you to show my letters to no one living." Even if Steele had not implored her to keep the letters private, the intimate nature of the correspondence plus the lack of polished and refined prose indicate that Steele meant these letters for Mary's eyes only. If he had intended for these letters to be published, Steele probably would have edited them.
3. Three letters, those written on August 14, August 22,…