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THE VICTORIAN AGE

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THE VICTORIAN AGE

The Rede Lecture for 1922

by

WILLIAM RALPH INGE,
C.V.O., D.D., D.Litt., F.B.A.
Hon. Fellow of Jesus College







Cambridge
At the University Press
1922




THE VICTORIAN AGE


Each generation takes a special pleasure in removing the household gods of
its parents from their pedestals, and consigning them to the cupboard. The
prophet or pioneer, after being at first declared to be unintelligible or
absurd, has a brief spell of popularity, after which he is said to be
conventional, and then antiquated. We may find more than one reason for
this. A movement has more to fear from its disciples than from its
critics. The great man is linked to his age by his weakest side; and his
epigoni, who are not great men, caricature his message and make it
ridiculous. Besides, every movement is a reaction, and generates
counter-reactions. The pendulum swings backwards and forwards. Every
institution not only carries within it the seeds of its own dissolution,
but prepares the way for its most hated rival.

The German Von Eicken found, in this tendency of all human movements to
provoke violent reactions, the master key of history. Every idea or
institution passes into its opposite. For instance, Roman imperialism,
which was created by an intense national consciousness, ended by
destroying the nationality of rulers and subjects alike. The fanatical
nationalism of the Jews left them a people without a country. The Catholic
Church began by renouncing the world, and became the heir of the defunct
Roman empire. In political philosophy, the law of the swinging pendulum
may act as a salutary cold douche. Universal suffrage, says Sybel, has
always heralded the end of parliamentary government. Tocqueville caps this
by saying that the more successful a democracy is in levelling a
population, the less will be the resistance which the next despotism will
encounter.

But the pendulum sometimes swings very slowly, and oscillates within
narrow limits; while at other times the changes are violent and rapid. The
last century and a half, beginning with what Arnold Toynbee was the first
to call the Industrial Revolution, has been a period of more rapid change
than any other which history records. The French Revolution, which
coincided with its first stages, helped to break the continuity between
the old order and the new, and both by its direct influence and by the
vigorous reactions which it generated cleft society into conflicting
elements. Then followed a Great War, which shook the social structure to
its base, and awakened into intense vitality the slumbering enthusiasm of
nationality. At the same time, a variety of mechanical inventions gave man
an entirely new control over the forces of nature and a new knowledge of
the laws of nature, and this new knowledge, not content with practical
applications, soon revolutionised all the natural sciences, and profoundly
affected both religion and philosophy. The reign of Queen Victoria, which
I have chosen to mark the limits of my survey to-day, covered the latter
half of this _saeculum mirabile_, the most wonderful century in human
history.

There are of course no beginnings or ends in history. We may walk for a
few miles by the side of a river, noting its shallows and its rapids, the
gorges which confine it and the plains through which it meanders; but we
know that we have seen neither the beginning nor the end of its course,
that the whole river has an unbroken continuity, and that sections,
whether of space or time, are purely arbitrary. We are always sowing our
future; we are always reaping our past. The Industrial Revolution began in
reality before the accession of George III, and the French monarchy was
stricken with mortal disease before Louis XV bequeathed his kingdom to his
luckless successor.

But there can be no question that the river of civilisation reached a
stretch of rapids towards the end of the eighteenth century. For instance,
in locomotion the riding-horse and pack-horse had hardly given place to
the coach and waggon before the railway superseded road traffic; the fast
sailing clippers had a short lease of life before steam was used for
crossing the seas. Industrial changes came too quickly for the government
to make the necessary readjustments, at a time when the nation was
fighting for its life and then recovering from its exhaustion. The
greatest sufferings caused by the revolution in the life of the people
were in the first half of the century; the latter half was a time of
readjustment and reform. One great interest of the Victorian Age is that
it was the time when a new social order was being built up, and entirely
new problems were being solved. The nineteenth century has been called the
age of hope; and perhaps only a superstitious belief in the automatic
progress of humanity could have carried our fathers and grandfathers
through the tremendous difficulties which the rush through the rapids
imposed upon them.

Let us spend five minutes in picturing to ourselves the English nation in
a condition of stable equilibrium, as it was in the eighteenth century.
Before the Industrial Revolution, the country was on the whole prosperous
and contented. The masses had no voice in the government, but most of
them had a stake in the country. There were no large towns, and the
typical unit was the self-contained village, which included craftsmen as
well as agriculturists, and especially workers in wool, the staple
national industry. The aim of village agriculture was to provide
subsistence for the parishioners, not to feed the towns. The typical
village was a street of cottages, each with a small garden, and an open
field round it, divided up like a modern allotments area. The roads
between villages were mere tracks across the common, often so bad that
carts were driven by preference through the fields, as they still are in
Greece. So each parish provided for its own needs. The population was
sparse, and increased very slowly, in spite of the enormous birthrate,
because the majority of the children died. Families like that of Dean
Colet, who was one of twenty-two children, among whom he was the only one
to grow up, remained common till the middle of the eighteenth century.
Then, for reasons which have never, I think, been fully explained, the
deathrate rapidly declined, at the very time when economic conditions
demanded a larger population. This is the more remarkable, when we
remember the manner in which young children were treated before the
Factory Acts.

Political power was in the hands of a genuine aristocracy, who did more to
deserve their privileges than any other aristocracy of modern times. They
were, as a class, highly cultivated men, who had travelled much on the
Continent, and mixed in society there. In 1785 Gibbon was told that 40,000
English were either travelling or living abroad at one time. They were
enlightened patrons of literature and art, and made the collections of
masterpieces which were the pride of England, and which are now being
dispersed to the winds. Their libraries were well stocked, and many of
them were accomplished classical scholars. They were not content, like
their successors to-day, to load their tables with magazines and
newspapers. Lastly, they fought Napoleon to a finish, and never showed
the white feather. Those who have studied the family portraits in a great
house, or the wonderful portrait gallery in the Provost's Lodge at Eton,
will see on the faces not only the pride and self-satisfaction of a
privileged class, but the power to lead the nation whether in the arts of
war or of peace.

No doubt, political corruption was rampant; but it was not till George III
tried to govern himself by means of corruption, that its consequences were
disastrous. The loss of America was the first serious blow to the
aristocratic régime.

The necessary changes would have come about earlier but for the French
Revolution and the war. The former caused a panic which now seems to us
exaggerated. But we are accustomed to revolutions, and know that they
never last more than a few years; the French Revolution was the first of
its kind. Moreover, France had long been the acknowledged leader of
civilisation, and a general overturn in that country terrified men like
Gibbon into prophesying that a similar outbreak was likely to overwhelm
law, order and property in England. They did not realise how different the
conditions were in the two countries. The most modest democratic reforms
were therefore impossible till Napoleon was out of the way, and till the
anti-revolutionary panic had subsided.

One result of the war has not always been realised. The eighteenth century
had been international; there was no Chauvinism or Jingoism anywhere till
the French, fighting ostensibly under the banner of humanity, had kindled
the fire of patriotism in Spain, in Germany, and even in Russia. England
had always had a strong national self-consciousness; and after the war the
bonds of sympathy with France were not at once renewed, so that our
country, during the early part of Victoria's reign, was more isolated from
the main currents of European thought than ever before or since. Men of
letters who lamented this isolation now turned for inspiration rather to
Germany than to France. On the other hand, the war did not interrupt the
intellectual life of the country to anything like the same extent as the
recent Great War. At no period since the Elizabethans was there such an
output of great poetry; and it does not seem to have occurred to any young
lady of that time to ask Scott, Wordsworth or Jane Austen what they were
doing during the war.

Modern sociologists have drawn lurid pictures of the condition of the
working class during the earlier part of the last century. It seems in
truth to have been very bad. Byron in 1812 told the Lords: 'I have been in
some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey, but never under the most
despotic of infidel governments did I behold such squalid wretchedness as
I have seen since my return in the very heart of a Christian country.' In
1831 a member of parliament said: 'An agricultural labourer and a
pauper - the words are synonymous.' Those who want details can find them in
the well-known controversial books by the Hammonds, which state the case
against the governing class in an exhaustive manner. There was in fact
too much ground for Disraeli's statement that England at that time
consisted of two nations, the rich and the poor. The poor were still
largely illiterate, and so inarticulate; and the comparative absence of
the large half-educated class which now dominates all public discussion
made the cultivated gentry a class apart. Their own standard of culture
was higher than that of the leisured class to-day; but they took little
interest in the lives of the poor, until they were forced to do so. We
however who have witnessed the succession of economic crises which attend
and follow a great war ought not to forget the appalling difficulties with
which the government was confronted. In 1795 there was actual famine,
which was met by the famous system of doles out of the rates, in
augmentation of wages, a most mischievous bit of legislation, like the
similar expedients of the last three years. It had the double effect of
pauperising the rural labourer and of putting an artificial premium on
large families - the children who were carted off in waggon-loads to feed
the factories. It was repealed only when the ruined farmers were
abandoning their land, and the glebe-owning clergy their livings.
Fluctuations in prices had much to do with the miseries of the hungry
thirties and forties; but over-population, as the economists of the time
pointed out with perfect justice, was one of the main causes. It was not
till much later that there was food enough for all; and this was the
result of the new wheat fields of America and the sheep walks of
Australia, which brought in food and took away mouths. In Ireland the
barbarous and illiterate peasantry multiplied till the population exceeded
eight millions, when the inevitable famine illustrated nature's method of
dealing with recklessness. The only error with which the economists of
this time may be charged was that they did not realise that
over-population is the result of a very low standard of civilisation.
Families are restricted whenever the parents have social ambitions and a
standard of comfort. Where they have none, the vital statistics are those
of Russia, Ireland, India and China.

The astonishing progress in all measurable values which marked the first
half of the reign produced a whole literature of complacency. I quoted
some examples of the language which was then common, in my Romanes Lecture
on 'The Idea of Progress.' Macaulay supplies some of the best examples. We
must remember that the progress was real, and that its speed was
unexampled in history. The country was, in vulgar language, a going
concern, as it never was before and has not been since. The dominions
beyond the seas were being peopled up and consolidated. At home education
was spreading, liberty was increasing, and the light taxes were raised
with an ease which fortunately for ourselves we no longer even remember.
Principles seemed to have been discovered which guaranteed a further
advance in almost every direction, intellectual as well as material. For
that was the great age of British science; and most branches of literature
were flourishing. Hope told a flattering tale, and optimism became a sort
of religion.

Nevertheless, such complacency was bound to produce a violent protest.
Disraeli, whose well-remembered warning about 'the two nations' has
already been quoted, described the age as one which by the help of
mechanical inventions had mistaken comfort for progress. And comfort, as
another critic of social science has said, is more insidious than luxury
in hampering the higher development of a people. The literature of social
indignation was contemporaneous with the literature of complacency.
Carlyle and Ruskin were its chief prophets; but we must not forget the
novels of Dickens, Charles Reade and Kingsley.

Carlyle and Ruskin both denounced the age with the vehemence of major
prophets - vehemence was in fashion at that time in English literature - but
they did not approach the 'condition of England question' from quite the
same angle. Carlyle was a Stoic, or in other words a Calvinist without
dogmas; he had also learned to be a mystic from his studies of German
idealism. He represents one phase of the anti-French reaction; he hated
most of the ideas of 1789, as displayed in their results. He hated the
scepticism of the Revolution, its negations, its love of claptrap rhetoric
and fine phrases, and above all its anarchism. He wished to see society
well ordered, under its wisest men; he wished to overcome materialism by
idealism, and loose morality by industry and the fear of God. Justice, he
declared, is done in this world; right is might, if we take long views.
Institutions collapse when they become shams, and no longer fulfil their
function. The sporting squires ought to be founding colonies instead of
preserving game. As for the new industrialism, he disliked it with the
fervour of a Scottish peasant.

Ruskin was a Platonist, steeped in the study of Plato, and bound to him by
complete sympathy. We cannot separate Ruskin the art-critic from Ruskin
the social reformer. His great discovery was the close connection of the
decay of art with faulty social arrangements. Ugliness in the works of man
is a symptom of social disease. He could not avert his eyes from the
modern town, as Wordsworth did, because the modern town meant a great
deal to him, and all of it was intolerable. He observed that the
disappearance of beauty in human productions synchronised with the
invention of machinery and the development of great industries, and he
could not doubt that the two changes were interconnected. We sometimes
forget that until the reign of George III a town was regarded as improving
a landscape. A city was a glorious and beautiful thing, an object to be
proud of. The hill of Zion is a fair place, the joy of the whole earth,
because it had the holy city built upon it. Never since civilisation began
has such ugliness been created as the modern English or American town.
Ruskin saw in these structures a true index of the mind of their builders
and inhabitants, and the sight filled him with horror. He read with entire
approval what Plato wrote of industrialised Athens. 'The city of which we
are speaking,' he says in the _Laws_, 'is some eighty furlongs from the
sea. Then there is some hope that your citizens may be virtuous. Had you
been on the sea, and well provided with harbours, and an importing rather
than a producing country, some mighty saviour would have been needed, and
lawgivers more than mortal, if you were to have even a chance of
preserving your State from degeneracy. The sea is pleasant enough as a
daily companion, but it has a bitter and brackish quality, filling the
streets with merchants and shopkeepers, and begetting in the souls of men
uncertain and dishonest ways, making the State unfaithful and unfriendly
to her own children and to other nations.' Like Plato, Ruskin would fain
have returned to a much simpler social structure, when each country, and
even to a great extent each village, was sufficient to itself. He did not
show how such a return is possible without blowing up the great towns and
their inhabitants; but he quite seriously regarded the Industrial
Revolution as a gigantic blunder, and believed that England would never be
healthy or happy until what his contemporaries called progress had been
somehow swept away with all its works. How this was to be done he hardly
considered. Like a true Platonist, he set before his countrymen, in
glowing language, the beauty of the eternal Ideas or absolute Values,
pleaded that there was no necessary connection between equality of
production and equality of remuneration, and instituted various
experiments, not all unsuccessful, in restoring the old handicrafts and
the temper which inspired them.

The problem of mending or ending industrialism, foolishly called
capitalism, remains unsolved. Ruskin's own artistic life would have been
impossible without the paternal sherry and the rich men who drank it; and
Morris' exquisite manufactures depended absolutely on the patronage of the
capitalists whom he denounced. But the indignation which these Victorian
social reformers exhibited had much justification, even after the worst
abuses had been partially remedied.

A mixture of rapid progress and extreme departmental inefficiency is one
of the characteristics of the earlier part of the reign. Lord Justice
Bowen has written an instructive sketch of the administration of the Law
between 1837 and 1887. There were two systems of judicature, Law and
Equity, with a different origin, different procedure, and different rules
of right and wrong. One side of Westminster Hall gave judgments which the
other side restrained the successful party from enforcing. The bewildered
litigant was driven backwards and forwards. Merchants were hindered for
months and years from recovering their dues. The fictitious adventures of
John Doe and Richard Roe, the legal Gog and Magog, played an important
part in trials to recover possession of land. Arrears accumulated year by
year. The Court of Chancery was closed to the poor, and was a name of
terror to the rich. It was said by a legal writer that 'no man can enter
into a Chancery suit with any reasonable hope of being alive at its
termination, if he has a determined adversary.' Bowen says that Dickens'
pictures of the English law 'contain genuine history.' The horrors of the
debtors' prison are well known, and nearly 4000 persons were sometimes
arrested for debt in one year. In 1836, 494 persons were condemned to
death, though only 34 were hanged. Public executions continued to 1867. If
a farmer's gig knocked down a foot passenger in a lonely lane, two persons
were not allowed to speak in court - the farmer and the pedestrian. Most of
these abuses were rectified long before the end of the reign.

The Universities were slowly emerging from the depths to which they had
sunk in the eighteenth century, when they neither taught nor examined nor
maintained discipline. We all remember Gibbon's description of the Fellows
of his College, 'whose dull but deep potations excused the brisker
intemperance of youth.' These gentlemen were most of them waiting for
College livings, to which they were allowed to carry off, as a solatium,
some dozens of College port. Cambridge, it is only fair to say, never fell
quite so low as Oxford, and began to reform itself earlier. The
Mathematical and Classical Triposes were both founded before Queen
Victoria's accession. But public opinion thought that the University
authorities needed some stimulation from outside, and in 1850 a Royal
Commission was appointed for Oxford, and two years later another for
Cambridge. The Reports of these two Commissions are very amusing,
especially that of the Oxford Board, which lets itself go in a refreshing
style. Its members had received provocation. The Governing Bodies
generally refused to answer their questions. Some of the Colleges had
exacted an oath from new Fellows to reveal nothing about the affairs of
the College. The Dean of Christ Church declined to answer letters from the
Royal Commission; the President of Magdalen replied that he was not aware
that he had misused his revenues, and begged to close the correspondence.
These dignified potentates are not spared in the Report. The Cambridge
Report, which is much more polite, did good service by recommending the
foundation of a medical school. Changes later, such as the abolition of
all Anglican privileges, and the permission of Fellows to marry, came
later. In the case of the Universities, as in that of the Law, the
improvements between 1837 and the first Jubilee were enormous.

The Civil Service, it is almost needless to say, was a sanctuary of
aristocratic jobbery. The Clerks were languid gentlemen with long
whiskers, who arrived late and departed early from their Offices.

The Army in 1837 consisted, in actual strength, of about 100,000 men, of
whom 19,000 were in India and 20,000 in Ireland. There had been a strong
movement after the peace to abolish the army altogether, on the ground
that another war was almost unthinkable. The Duke of Wellington was only
able to keep up this small force by hiding it away in distant parts of the
empire; the total number of troops in Great Britain was only 26,000.
Officers were ordered to efface themselves by never wearing uniform except
on parade. A Royal Duke could not be given a military funeral, because
'there were not troops enough to bury a Field Marshal.' As to the quality
of the troops, the Duke frequently called them 'the scum of the earth,'
and the brutal discipline of the time did everything to justify this
description, for the soldier was supposed to have surrendered all his
rights as a man and a citizen. The privates enlisted for life or for
twenty-one years, and it was so difficult to get recruits that they were
frequently caught while drunk, or frankly kidnapped. They were dressed,
for campaigning in the tropics, in high leather stocks and buttoned up
jackets, so that hundreds died of heat apoplexy. Lord Wolseley thinks that
in 1837 50,000 Frenchmen could have easily taken London. Nor was the
danger of a French invasion at all remote. The Volunteer movement, the
social effects of which were excellent, was mainly due to the Prince
Consort, a far wiser man than was recognised during his lifetime.

The Crimean War revealed in glaring colours the incompetence of the
military authorities and of the Cabinet at home. If we had been fighting


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Online LibraryWilliam Ralph IngeThe Victorian age; → online text (page 1 of 3)