The essays in the Spectator cover a wide diversity of subjects. They are a faithful reflection of the life of the contemporary time viewed with a dispassionate eye. All these essays are the best known in which the characters represent the new social life of England. Sir Roger De Coverley appears in about 35 essays out of a total 555 essays in the Spectator. He has described a number of characters in these essays but the most important character is Sir Roger De Coverley for which these papers are called The Coverley Papers.
Sir Roger is undoubtedly the central character and through his activities, we get a comprehensive picture of the life of the early part of the eighteenth century England. In these character sketches of the spectator, we have the seed of the novel of characters developed in the nineteenth century. The essays in which Sir Roger De Coverley does not figure are more or less obsolete for us. But the essays covering the life and activities of Sir Roger De Coverley have a permanent appeal and originality. The character of Sir Roger was not drawn by Addison alone; the outline of his character was sketched by Richard Steele. It was Addison who took crude outlines into his own hands, retouched them, colored them, and is in truth the creator of Sir Roger De Coverley with whom we are all familiar.
According to W.J Long, Sir Roger De Coverley is the genial dictator of life and manners in the quiet English countryside. Addison himself has called him a “humorist” and whose virtues, as well as his imperfections, are tinged by a certain extravagance. By no means, Addison tried to delineate a perfect man. He has presented a character in whom virtue and vice are mixed. He has his human genial failing and frailties. “All Addison’s principal gifts,” says Hugh Walker, “a delicate taste, a keen sense of humor and an insight into character, are united in the character of Sir Roger De Coverley.” Sir Roger has been shown to us in various contexts. His colorful personality, diverse interests have been revealed to us. Addison makes us familiar with Sir Roger’s kindness, humanity, generosity, largeheartedness, and charitable disposition as shown in his treatment of his chaplain, his parishioners, the alleged witch Moll White, the gypsies, common beggars etc. Sir Roger had a gift of narration and conversation and we find this quality of his in the account of various incidents and episodes and in his description of persons like Tom Touchy.
To be more particular, Sir Roger’s kind-heartedness strikes us. Being a man of high birth, he never misbehaved with his servants for which his servants loved him sincerely. He considered it a great pleasure to work under and for him. Instead of avoiding his presence, they always sought opportunities of approaching him and receiving orders for him. Sir Roger is a grateful type of man and has not forgotten the service rendered to him by a servant who once saved him from drowning. Even he tries to place them in good positions which can ensure them of a good income and independent status. His kindness extends to their children and even their children’s children. He never feels irritated or annoyed with them and does not scold them with bad language. He is very concerned with their welfare and always wants to see them well-provided.
But in spite of benevolence towards all irrespective of position, he did not like to do away with class distinction. He is a believer in class-distinction. He was always mindful of his position and wanted his servants to be aware of their respective position. For example, he does not give them his cast-off clothes because these are likely to give rise to the silly ideas of equality in their minds. Sir Roger was, in facts, a proud man. He takes pride in his ancestors. He speaks proudly of the warlike qualities and of the aptitude for the arts of peace of one of his ancestors. Still, he is not a blind lover of his forefathers. He does not hesitate to describe the bad qualities of his ancestors. He speaks of one of the ladies who ran away with a “man of stratagem and resolutions”. Sir Roger has an understanding of human nature in all its variety; the understanding of his heart enables him to depict the characters of men.
Sir Roger was eccentric and he never allowed anybody to go before him in the church. He acted like a guardian in his tenancy and always was careful of his subject welfare in this world and in the world beyond. He wanted that everyone should join the church on Sunday. If anyone was found sleeping in the church, he would wake him himself or send his subject to wake him. He was uncompromising toward the breakers of the religious law.
But Sir Roger could not marry as he received a shock in his first love. At the age of twenty-three, he fell in love with a beautiful widow who had a perverse nature. His love for her ended in failure. As he lacked the art of winning a woman’s heart, he remained a bachelor for the rest of his life. Sir Roger found himself dumb in the presence of the widow. We hear him complaining about the widow he loved ‘you can’t imagine Sir,’ he says to the Spectator, ‘what it is to have to do with a widow’. We love him, we admire him and we respect him for those good qualities.
The character of Sir Roger is an immortal creation of Addison and one of the treasures of English. The elimination of Sir Roger from the Spectators’ essays would be like eliminating the Prince of Denmark from the play of Hamlet. The character of Sir Roger amuses us by his extreme simplicity and by his absurdities. It is so nicely drawn that Sir Roger is regarded as one of the masterpieces of characterization.