A Look Back

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
escribes 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


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


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


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 pounds in 1792 to 105,000,000 pounds 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 pounds 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'


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


Such was Victoria's England when she ascended the throne, a young

girl, nineteen years of age.