Architecture of love’s prose

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Sir Roger pays court to Widow, with confidante. (Project Gutenberg)

Reprinting this long passage from Richard Steele’s essay No. 113 in The Spectator of Monday, July 10, 1711, is meant to amuse readers who might have become bored with the plain prose about architecture that is the meat and potatoes of Architecture Here and There. Steele’s prose is not about architecture; it is architecture, indeed his prose is poetry. Architecture is a language no less than English. Steele’s cadences may be compared with the classical ornament that makes— … Oh, never mind. No excuses – just enjoy!

The Spectator was published daily in 555 numbers from March 1, 1711, until some date in 1712, after which it became intermittent. Steele, who with Joseph Addison also formed The Tatler in 1710, contributed numbers there and in The Spectator on a range of topics designed to enlighten and amuse. I have always found Steele the more pleasant, and far less pedantic than Addi- son. The Spectator has a stable of fictional characters, apparently based on real people, who often populate the essays. In this example, Steele has Sir Roger de Coverley describe his most vexing disappointment in Love:

***

“I can assure you I was not a little pleased with the kind Looks and Glances I had from all the Balconies and Windows, as I rode [as county sheriff] to the Hall where the Assizes were held. But when I came there, a beautiful Creature in a Widow’s Habit sat in Court, to hear the Event of a Case concerning her Dower. This commanding Creature (who was born for Destruction of all who behold her) put on such a Resignation in her Countenance, and bore the Whispers of all around the Court with such a pretty Uneasiness, I warrant you, and then recovered her self from one Eye to another, till she was perfectly confused by meeting something so wistful in all she encountered, that at last, … she cast her bewitching Eye upon me. I no sooner met it, but I bowed like a great surprized Booby; and knowing her Case to be the first which came on, I cried, like a captivated Calf as I was, Make Way for the Defendant’s Witnesses. This sudden Partiality made all the County immediately see the Sheriff also was become a Slave to the fine Widow. …

“You must understand, Sir, this perverse Woman is one of those unaccountable Creatures, that secretly rejoice in the Admiration of Men, but indulge themselves in no further Consequences. Hence it is that she has ever had a Train of Admirers, and she removes from her Slaves in Town to those in the Country, according to the Seasons of the Year. She is a reading Lady, and far gone in the Pleasures of Friendship: she is always accompanied by a Confidant, who is Witness to her daily Protestations against our Sex, and consequently a bar to her first Steps towards Love, upon the Strength of her own Maxims and Declarations.

“However, I must needs say this accomplished Mistress of mine has distinguished me above the rest, and has been known to declare Sir Roger de Coverley was the tamest and most humane of all the Brutes in the Country. I was told she said so, by one who thought he rallied me; but upon the Strength of this slender Encouragement of being thought least detestable, … I set out to make my Addresses. …

“[W]hen I came to her House I was admitted to her Presence with great Civility; at the same Time she placed herself to be first seen by me in such an Attitude, as I think you call the Posture of a Picture, that she discovered new Charms, and I at last came towards her with such an Awe as made me speechless. This she no sooner observed but she made her Advantage of it, and began a Discourse to me concerning Love and Honour. … Her Confidant sat by her, and upon my being in the last Confusion and Silence, this malicious Aide of hers turning to her says, ‘I am very glad to observe Sir Roger pauses upon this Subject, and seems resolved to deliver all his Sentiments upon the Matter when he pleases to speak.’ They both kept their Countenances, and after I had sat half an Hour meditating how to behave before such profound Casuists, I rose up and took my Leave.

“Chance has since that Time thrown me very often in her Way, and she as often has directed a Discourse to me which I do not understand. This Barbarity has kept me ever at a Distance from the most beautiful Object my Eyes ever beheld. It is thus also she deals with all Mankind, and you must make Love to her, as you would conquer the Sphinx, by posing her. … After she had done speaking to me, she put her Hand to her Bosom and adjusted her Tucker. Then she cast her Eyes a little down, upon my beholding her too earnestly. They say she sings excellently: her Voice in her ordinary Speech has something in it inexpressibly sweet. …

“I can assure you, Sir, were you to behold her, you would be in the same Condition; for as her Speech is Musick, her Form is Angelick. But I find I grow irregular while I am talking of her; but indeed it would be stupidity to be unconcerned at such perfection. Oh the excellent creature! she is as inimitable to all women, as she is inaccessible to all men.”

I found my Friend begin to rave, and insensibly led him towards the House, that we might be joined by some other Company; and am convinced that the Widow is the secret Cause of all that Inconsistency which appears in some Parts of my Friend’s Discourse. …

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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