The Queen's Reign And its commemoration. A literary and pictorial review of the period. Etc
AND ITS COMMEMORATION · ALITERARY AND PICTORIAL REVIEWOF THE PERIOD · THE STORY OF THEVICTORIAN TRANSFORMATION· BY SIR WALTER BESANT
The Werner Company · · London
Chicago · New York · Berlin · Paris
Eighteen Hundred and Ninety Seven
When Sydney Smith, towards the close of his life,considered the changes which had passed overthe country within his recollection, he saidthat he wondered how the young men of histime had managed to preserve even a decentappearance of cheerfulness. Sydney Smithdied in 1845, just at the beginning of thosedeeper and wider changes of which he suspected nothing; for, thoughhe was a clear-headed man in many ways, he was no prophet—he sawthe actual and the present, but was unable to feel the action of the invisible and potent forces whichwere creating a future to him terrible and almost impossible. Had he possessed the prophetic spirit,he would have been another Jeremiah for the destruction of the old forms of society; the levelling upand the levelling down destined to take place would have been pain and grief intolerable to him.
I have always maintained that the eighteenth century lingered on in its ways, customs, and modes ofthought until the commencement of Queen Victoria’s reign, and I regard myself with a certain complacencyas having been born on the fringe of that interesting period. I might also take pleasure inremembering that one who has lived through this reign has been an eyewitness, a bystander, perhaps insome minute degree an assistant, during a Revolution which has transformed this country completely fromevery point of view, not only in manners and customs, but also in thought, in ideas, in standards; in theway of regarding this world, and in the way of considering the world to come. I do not, however, takemuch pleasure in this retrospect, because the transition has taken place silently, without my knowledge;it escaped my notice while it went on: the world has changed before my eyes, and I have not regarded6the phenomenon, being busily occupied over my own little individual interests. I have been, indeed, likeone who sits in a garden thinking and weaving stories, nor heeding while the shadows shift slowly acrossthe lawns, while the hand of the dial moves on from morning to afternoon. I have been like such a one,and, like him, I have awakened to find that the air, the light, the sky, the sunshine have all changed, andthat the day is well-nigh done.
Do not expect in this volume a Life of Queen Victoria. You have her public life in the events ofher reign: of her private life I will speak in the next chapter. But I can offer you no special, otherwiseunattainable, information; there will be here no scandal of the Court; I have climbed no backstairs; Ihave peeped through no key-hole; I have perused no secret correspondence; I have, on this subject,nothing to tell you but what you know already.
Do not again look in these pages for a résumé of public events. You may find them in any Annualor Encyclopædia. What I propose to show you is the transformation of the people by the continualpressure and influence of legislation and of events of which no one suspected the far-reaching action. Thegreatest importance of public events is often seen, after the lapse of years, in their effect upon thecharacter of the people: this view of the case, this transforming force of any new measure, seldomconsidered by statesman or by philosopher, because neither one nor the other has the prophetic gift—if itcould be adequately considered while that measure is under discussion—would be stronger than anypossible persuasion or any arguments of expediency, logic, or abstract justice.
I propose, therefore, to present a picture of the various social strata in 1837, and to show how theremarkable acts of British Legislation, such as Free Trade, cheap newspapers, improved communications,together with such accidents as the discovery of gold in Australia, and of diamonds at the Cape, havealtogether, one with the other, so completely changed the mind and the habits of the ordinary Englishmanthat he would not, could he see him, recognise his own grandfather. And I hope that this sketch mayprove not only useful in the manner already indicated, but also interesting and fresh to the general readers.
Easter Sunday, 18th April 1897.
QUEEN AND CONSTITUTION
In 1837 the Queen mounted the throne. It was a time of misgiving and ofdiscontent. The passing of the Reform Act of 1832 had not as yet producedthe results expected of it; there were other and more sweeping reforms in theair: the misery and the oppression of the factory hands, the incredible crueltypractised on the children of the mill and the mine, the deep poverty of theagricultural districts, the distress of the trading classes, formed a gloomy portalto a reign which was destined to be so long and so glorious. Thus, in turningover the papers then circulated among the working-classes of the time, oneobserves a total absence of anything like loyalty to the Crown. It has vanished. A blind hatred hastaken its place. What is loyalty to the Crown? To begin with, it is something more than anintelligent adhesion to the Constitution; it regards the Sovereign as personifying and representing thenation; it ascribes to the Sovereign, therefore, the highest virtues and qualities which the nation itselfwould present to the world. The King, among loyal people, is brave, honest, truthful, the chief supportof the Constitution, the Fountain of Honour. To obey the King is to obey the country. To die for theKing is to die for the country. The Army and the Navy are the King’s Army and Navy. The Kinggrants commissions; the King is supposed to direct military operations. The King is the First Gentlemanin his country. When one reads the words which used to be addressed to such a man as Charles theSecond one has to remember these things. Charles the Second, unworthy as he was in his private life,was still the representative of the nation. Therefore, to ascribe to that unworthy person these virtueswhich were so notoriously lacking was no more than a recognition of the fact that he was King. Has,then, personal character, private honour, truth, principle, nothing to do with kingcraft? Formerly,8nothing or next to nothing. Now, everything. Another George the Fourth would now be impossible.But he has been made impossible by the private character of his niece.
Consider a little further the question of loyalty. I say that in 1837 among the mass of the people,even among the better class, there was none. Indeed the loyalty of the better sort had suffered for morethan a hundred years many grievous knocks and discouragements. The first two Georges, good andgreat in official language, were aliens; they spoke a foreign tongue; they saw little of the people; yetthey were tolerated, and even popular in a way, because they steadfastly upheld the Constitution and theProtestant religion. The third George began well; he was a Prince always of high moral character,strong principle, and great sincerity. Since Edward the Confessor or Henry the Sixth there had been noSovereign so virtuous. But his constant endeavoursto extend the Royal Prerogative, hisobstinate treatment of the American Provincesagainst the impassioned and reiterated entreatiesof Chatham, Burke, and the City of London, hisstubborn refusal to hear of Parliamentary Reform,his desire to govern by a few families, hislong affliction and seclusion, destroyed most ofthe personal affection with which he began.His successor, the hero of a thousand caricatures,a discredited voluptuary, never commanded theleast respect except in official addresses; nordid William the Fourth, old, without force orcharacter, without dignity. Wherefore, in1837, when the cry of “Our Young Queen”was raised, it met with little response from thegreat mass of the people.
In its place there was an eager lookingforward to Revolution and a Republic. Therecan be no doubt that in the thirties and theforties there were many who looked forward toa Republic as actually certain; that is to say,as certain as the next day’s sun. The Chartistsnumbered many strong Republicans in theirbody, though the Law of Treason forbade them to put forward the establishment of a Republicas one of their aims. There were newspapers, however, which spoke openly of a Republic as amatter of time only. The great European upheaval of 1848, save for the miserable fiasco of theChartist meeting, left this country undisturbed. Not a single Republican rising was attempted in GreatBritain. Those living men who can remember thirty or forty years back, can very well recall theRepublican ideas which were floating about in men’s minds. Where are those ideas now? They aregone; they exist no longer, save, perhaps, among a very small class. I do not know even if they have anorgan of their own. The reason is, that as the Chartist movement—the agitation for Reform—was duemainly to the widespread distress and the discontent of the country, so, when the distress vanished, thedesire for change vanished also.
In this account of transformation the return to loyalty must be noted first. It is not only loyalty tothe Queen herself, though that is universal, but to the Crown. There is a general feeling that the9Leader of the Nation—not the Imperator, Dictator, or Emperor, but a nominal Leader, such as ourown, one under whose presidency the Government is carried on, who is not, however, the Government—ismore conveniently the heir of a certain family rather than a person elected by the country at large atregular intervals. The United States think differently. This, however, is what seems to us. We donot