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
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.