The Queen's Reign and its Commemoration
A Literary and Pictorial Review of the Period
Library of Alexandria
When Sydney Smith, towards the close of his life, considered the changes which had passed over the country within his recollection, he said that he wondered how the young men of his time had managed to preserve even a decent appearance of cheerfulness. Sydney Smith died in 1845, just at the beginning of those deeper and wider changes of which he suspected nothing; for, though he was a clear-headed man in many ways, he was no prophet—he saw the actual and the present, but was unable to feel the action of the invisible and potent forces which were 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 up and 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 of thought until the commencement of Queen Victoria’s reign, and I regard myself with a certain complacency as having been born on the fringe of that interesting period. I might also take pleasure in remembering that one who has lived through this reign has been an eyewitness, a bystander, perhaps in some minute degree an assistant, during a Revolution which has transformed this country completely from every point of view, not only in manners and customs, but also in thought, in ideas, in standards; in the way of regarding this world, and in the way of considering the world to come. I do not, however, take much 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 regarded the phenomenon, being busily occupied over my own little individual interests. I have been, indeed, like one who sits in a garden thinking and weaving stories, nor heeding while the shadows shift slowly across the 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, and that 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 of her reign: of her private life I will speak in the next chapter. But I can offer you no special, otherwise unattainable, information; there will be here no scandal of the Court; I have climbed no backstairs; I have 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 Annual or Encyclopædia. What I propose to show you is the transformation of the people by the continual pressure and influence of legislation and of events of which no one suspected the far-reaching action. The greatest importance of public events is often seen, after the lapse of years, in their effect upon the character of the people: this view of the case, this transforming force of any new measure, seldom considered by statesman or by philosopher, because neither one nor the other has the prophetic gift—if it could be adequately considered while that measure is under discussion—would be stronger than any possible persuasion or any arguments of expediency, logic, or abstract justice.