In the old legend of Rip Van Winkle with which the American writer Washington Irving has made us so familiar, the ne’er-do-weel Rip wanders off into the Kaatskill Mountains with his dog and gun in order to escape from his wife’s scolding tongue. Here he meets the spectre crew of Captain Hudson, and, after partaking of their hospitality, falls into a deep sleep which lasts for twenty years. The latter part of the story describes the changes which he finds on his return to his native village: nearly all the old, familiar faces are gone; manners, dress, and speech are all changed. He feels like a stranger in a strange land.
Now, it is a good thing sometimes to take a look back, to try to count over the changes for good or for evil which have taken place in this country of ours; to try to understand clearly why the reign of a great Queen should have left its mark upon our history in such a way that men speak of the Victorian Age as one of the greatest ages that have ever been.
If an Elizabethan had been asked whether he considered the Queen of England a great woman or not, he would undoubtedly have answered “Yes,” and given very good reasons for his answer. It was not for nothing that the English almost worshipped their Queen in “those spacious times of great Elizabeth.” Edmund Spenser, one of the world’s great poets, hymned her as “fayre Elisa” and “the flowre of Virgins”:
Helpe me to blaze
Her worthy praise;
Which, in her sexe doth all excell!
Throughout her long reign, courtiers, statesmen, soldiers, and people all united in serving her gladly and to the best of their powers.
Yet she could at times prove herself to be hard, cruel, and vindictive; she was mean, even miserly, when money was wanted for men or ships; she was excessively vain, loved dress and finery, and was often proud almost beyond bearing.
Notwithstanding all her faults, she was the best beloved of all English monarchs because of her never-failing courage and strength of mind, and she made the Crown respected, feared, and loved as no other ruler had done before her, and none other, save Queen Victoria, has reigned as she did in her people’s hearts.
She lived for her country, and her country’s love and admiration were her reward. During her reign the seas were swept clear of foreign foes, and her country took its place in the front rank of Great Powers. Hers was the Golden Age of Literature, of Adventure and Learning, an age of great men and women, a New England.
If an Elizabethan Rip Van Winkle had fallen asleep and awakened again at the opening of Victoria’s reign, more than 200 years later, what would he have found? England still a mighty Power, it is true, scarcely yet recovered from the long war against Napoleon, with Nelson and Wellington enthroned as the national heroes. But the times were bad in many ways, for it was “a time of ugliness: ugly religion, ugly law, ugly relations between rich and poor, ugly clothes, ugly furniture.”
The England of that day, it must be remembered, was the England described so faithfully in Charles Dickens’ early works. It was far from being the England we know now. In 1836 appeared the first number of Mr Pickwick’s travels. The Pickwick Papers is not a great work of humour merely, for in its pages we see England and the early Victorians—a strange country to us—in which they lived.
It is an England of old inns and stagecoaches, where “manners and roads were very rough”; where men were still cast into prison for debt and lived and died there; where the execution of a criminal still took place in public; where little children of tender years were condemned to work in the depths of coal-pits, and amid the clang and roar of machinery. It was a hard, cruel age. No longer did the people look up to and reverence their monarch as their leader. England had yet to pass through a long and bitter period of ‘strife and stress,’ of war between rich and poor, of many and bewildering changes. The introduction of coal, steam, and mechanism was rapidly changing the character of the whole country. The revenue had grown from about £19,000,000 in 1792 to £105,000,000 in 1815, and there seemed to be no limit to the national wealth and resources.
But these very changes which enriched some few were the cause of misery and poverty to struggling thousands. Machinery had ruined the spinning-wheel industry and reduced the price of cloth; the price of corn had risen, and, after the close of the great war, other nations were free once again to compete against our country in the markets where we so long had possessed the monopoly of trade.
The period which followed the year 1815 was one of incessant struggle for reform, and chiefly the reform of a Parliament which no longer represented the people’s wishes. Considerably more than half the members were not elected at all, but were recommended by patrons.
The average price of a seat in Parliament was £5000 for a so-called ‘rotten borough.’ Scotland returned forty-five members and Cornwall forty-four members to Parliament! The reformers also demanded the abolition of the ‘taxes on knowledge,’ by which was meant the stamp duty of fourpence on every copy of a newspaper, a duty of threepence on every pound of paper, and a heavy tax upon advertisements. The new Poor Laws aroused bitter discontent. Instead of receiving payment of money for relief of poverty, as had formerly been the case, the poor and needy were now sent to the ‘Union’ workhouse.
A series of bad harvests was the cause of great migrations to the factory towns, and the already large ranks of the unemployed grew greater day by day. The poverty and wretchedness of the working class is painted vividly for us by Carlyle when he speaks of “half a million handloom weavers, working 15 hours a day, in perpetual inability to procure thereby enough of the coarsest food; Scotch farm-labourers, who ‘in districts the half of whose husbandry is that of cows, taste no milk, can procure no milk’ . . . the working-classes can no longer go on without government, without being actually guided and governed.”
Such was Victoria’s England when she ascended the throne, a young girl, nineteen years of age.