Sir Roger at the Assizes
Upon completion of the unit, the learner will be able to:
The eighteenth century is renowned for the emergence and development of two literary genres: novels and periodical essays. The genres of novel and essay flourished during the eighteenth century. Henry Fielding is known as the father of English novels. The emergence of periodical essays is associated with Richard Steele. Periodical essays, according to Samuel Johnson, circulate general knowledge suited for the public sphere.
It is believed that periodical essays were initiated by Steele on April 12, 1709 with the launching of The Tatler. Many writers like Dr. Johnson, Alexander Pope and Oliver Goldsmith followed the same convention of periodical essays.
There were many historical reasons behind the spectacular success of periodical essays in the eighteenth century. The genre was successful because it had close affinity with the spirit of the time. Some of the reasons behind this success were its light content, brevity, popular and commonsensical ideas.
Joseph Addison, a close friend of Steele, contributed his first part to The Tatler on May 26. Out of a total 271 essays published in The Tatler, 188 essays were contributions of Steele and 42 were written by Addison. Among these essays, 36 essays were written jointly by Addison and Steele. As Steele abruptly put an end to the release of The Tatler on Jan 2, 1711, within the time span of two months, The Spectator marked its beginning. When The Tatler was released three times in a week, The Spectator was released daily. The reason for the popularity of The Spectator was that it was an unavoidable recording of manners, thoughts and morals of the English society of the time. Its political neutrality, inclusion of trade matters, and humorous and elegant style made it popular in English society of the time.
One of the remarkable contributions by Addison and Steele is the introduction of Sir Roger de Coverly This portrait of the ideal country gentleman of above thirty supersedes many other minor characters who were introduced in relation with him. The character of Sir Roger is famous for his typical country gentlemanliness. The following essay titled ‘Sir Roger at the Assizes’ is such an anecdote which may take you to the direct experience of the times.
Periodical Essay, Gentleman, Irony, Sarcasm
5.1.1 Sir Roger at the Assizes – Summary
At the very outset of the essay, Joseph Addison states that the first requisite of an individual is to have confidence in oneself. This would save oneself from the blames of others. Sir Roger is such a man who is blessed with internal peace as he is respected by himself and others. He receives due respect from his neighbours in return to his benevolence to all.
The narrator describes an incident in which an old Knight takes him and Will Wimble to a court session in the country. During their ride, they come across two gentlemen and Sir Roger starts giving an account of them to the narrator.
While the two gentlemen and Will Wimble move ahead, Sir Roger informs them that one of the two gentlemen is a farmer. The second one is a good neighbour. The only problem with him is that he shoots down partridges in large amounts for his food. Tom Touchy has a bad repute as he takes legal measures against everyone. He had even sought legal actions against honest persons for silly matters such as destroying hedges while they pass.
These two men, Will Wimble and Tom Touchy, seek Sir Roger’s opinion on a trivial subject like Wimble’s fishing in the river. Though the issue is silly, both the men hold opposite views on the matter. Sir Roger judiciously responds to them that “much might be said on both sides”. This response, without levelling charges against either of them, makes them satisfied. When Sir Roger and his companions reached the court, the session was about to end . Then the Knight stood up and delivered an insignificant lecture to impress the narrator and the assembly.
While they were returning, they stopped at an inn to refresh themselves and their horses. Without informing him, the owner of the inn, being a former servant of Sir Roger, made a portrait of his head as a gesture of respect in the sign board of the inn. Sir Roger compliments the owner of the inn, stating that it is a great honour to one who is under the position of a duke. Then, he suggests altering the image by adding some whiskers to make it appear like Saracen’s head. Even in this monstrous face, after the alteration, the narrator could identify some resemblances with Sir Roger. Noticing his laugh, Sir Roger asks him whether he can be identified even in his disguise. As a response to this question, the narrator comments that “much might be said on both sides”.
“Sir Roger at the Assizes” is a satirical essay by Joseph Addison. The tone and approach of the narrative convey the sense of the essay. The mismatch in content and form is very clear in the portrayal of Sir Roger’s character. Though Sir Roger is respected by everyone in the society, Addison depicts him with a sense of humour and mild satire.
As in all anecdotes on Sir Roger, “Sir Roger at the Assizes” also presents the imaginary character of Sir Roger as an eccentric knight. The narrator is a friend of Sir Roger who deliberates on various events in the life of Sir Roger with a tinge of humour.
There are a multitude of characters in the essay with contradictory traits. A comparison of characters like Sir Roger, Tom Touchy and Yeoman will reveal the genius of the writer. The dictum in the very beginning of the essay, “A man’s first care should be to avoid the reproaches of his own heart; his next to escape the censures of the world”, foreshadows the character of Sir Roger. The statement that a man enjoys peace of mind only if he is endearing to himself and gets approval from others is typical of Sir Roger. The humorous and satirical approach of Addison is distinctive in his depiction of characters like Will Wimble and Yeoman.
The representation of Yeoman begins with a humorous introduction of the character. He could have been a good individual if he had not killed birds in large numbers. The farmer is a real representative of an ordinary English man of Addison’s time. Tom Touchy is a notorious character as he takes legal measures against everyone in the country. Two men in his locale are prosecuted for silly reasons. Though he belongs to a rich family, he squandered most of his wealth for these legal actions to the extent of ruining the family wealth.
The humorous shade of Sir Roger’s character is showcased in an event where Tom Touchy and Will Wimble argue over fishing in the river. Their argument as well as the fight constitute a stark criticism against English society of the eighteenth century. It was customary to mess up on trivial matters. In order to please both characters, Sir Roger takes a balanced approach, stating that “much might be said on both sides”. Another brilliance of satire and irony employed in the essay is in connection with the court session. Though Roger and his companions arrive at the court session very late, Sir Roger delivers a short, insignificant speech which makes people gather around him to lavish praise on him. Roger is a character who always tries to conform to social norms and conventions. This leads him to deliver an inappropriate speech only to impress the narrator.
In the final paragraph of the essay, Addison outwits his narrative with satirical and ironical overtones. On their way back home, as they stop at the inn, when Sir Roger comes across his own portrait. His suggestion of altering the portrait is humorously presented. To the query of Sir Roger whether the altered painting resembles him, Addison uses mimicry and irony together in the response of the narrator.