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Queen Victoria

Anyone who possesses spiritual or political courage has made up his mind
to a prospect of immutable mutability; but even in a "transformation"
there is something catastrophic in the removal of the back scene. It is
a truism to say of the wise and noble lady who is gone from us that we
shall always remember her; but there is a subtler and higher compliment
still in confessing that we often forgot her. We forgot her as we forget
the sunshine, as we forget the postulates of an argument, as we commonly
forget our own existence. Mr. Gladstone is the only figure whose loss
prepared us for such earthquakes altering the landscape. But Mr.
Gladstone seemed a fixed and stationary object in our age for the same
reason that one railway train looks stationary from another; because he
and the age of progress were both travelling at the same impetuous rate
of speed. In the end, indeed, it was probably the age that dropped
behind. For a symbol of the Queen's position we must rather recur to the
image of a stretch of scenery, in which she was as a mountain so huge
and familiar that its disappearance would make the landscape round our
own door seem like a land of strangers. She had an inspired genius for
the familiarising virtues; her sympathy and sanity made us feel at home
even in an age of revolutions. That indestructible sense of security
which for good and evil is so typical of our nation, that almost
scornful optimism which, in the matter of ourselves, cannot take peril
or even decadence seriously, reached by far its highest and healthiest
form in the sense that we were watched over by one so thoroughly English
in her silence and self-control, in her shrewd trustfulness and her
brilliant inaction. Over and above those sublime laws of labour and pity
by which she ordered her life, there are a very large number of minor
intellectual matters in which we might learn a lesson from the Queen.
There is one especially which is increasingly needed in an age when
moral claims become complicated and hysterical. That Queen Victoria was
a model of political unselfishness is well known; it is less often
remarked that few modern people have an unselfishness so completely free
from morbidity, so fully capable of deciding a moral question without
exaggerating its importance. No eminent person of our time has been so
utterly devoid of that disease of self-assertion which is often rampant
among the unselfish. She had one most rare and valuable faculty, the
faculty of letting things pass--Acts of Parliament and other things. Her
predecessors, whether honest men or knaves, were attacked every now and
then with a nightmare of despotic responsibility; they suddenly
conceived that it rested with them to save the world and the Protestant
Constitution. Queen Victoria had far too much faith in the world to try
to save it. She knew that Acts of Parliament, even bad Acts of
Parliament, do not destroy nations. But she knew that ignorance,
ill-temper, tyranny, and officiousness do destroy nations, and not upon
any provocation would she set an example in these things. We fancy that
this sense of proportion, this largeness and coolness of intellectual
magnanimity is the one of the thousand virtues of Queen Victoria of
which the near future will stand most in need. We are gaining many new
mental powers, and with them new mental responsibilities. In psychology,
in sociology, above all in education, we are learning to do a great many
clever things. Unless we are much mistaken the next great task will be
to learn not to do them. If that time comes, assuredly we cannot do
better than turn once more to the memory of the great Queen who for
seventy years followed through every possible tangle and distraction the
fairy thread of common sense.

We are suffering just now from an outbreak of the imagination which
exhibits itself in politics and the most unlikely places. The German
Emperor, for example, is neither a tyrant nor a lunatic, as used to be
absurdly represented; he is simply a minor poet; and he feels just as
any minor poet would feel if he found himself on the throne of
Barbarossa. The revival of militarism and ecclesiasticism is an invasion
of politics by the artistic sense; it is heraldry rather than chivalry
that is lusted after. Amid all this waving of wands and flaunting of
uniforms, all this hedonistic desire to make the most of everything,
there is something altogether quiet and splendid about the sober disdain
with which this simple and courteous lady in a black dress left idle
beside her the sceptre of a hundred tyrants. The heart of the whole
nation warmed as it had never warmed for centuries at the thought of
having in their midst a woman who cared nothing for her rights, and
nothing for those fantastic duties which are more egotistical than
rights themselves.

The work of the Queen for progressive politics has surely been greatly
underrated. She invented democratic monarchy as much as James Watt
invented the steam engine. William IV., from whom we think of her as
inheriting her Constitutional position, held in fact a position entirely
different to that which she now hands on to Edward VII. William IV. was
a limited monarch; that is to say, he had a definite, open, and
admitted power in politics, but it was a limited power. Queen Victoria
was not a limited monarch; in the only way in which she cared to be a
monarch at all she was as unlimited as Haroun Alraschid. She had
unlimited willing obedience, and unlimited social supremacy. To her
belongs the credit of inventing a new kind of monarchy; in which the
Crown, by relinquishing the whole of that political and legal department
of life which is concerned with coercion, regimentation, and punishment,
was enabled to rise above it and become the symbol of the sweeter and
purer relations of humanity, the social intercourse which leads and does
not drive. Too much cannot be said for the wise audacity and confident
completeness with which the Queen cut away all those cords of political
supremacy to which her predecessors had clung madly as the only stays of
the monarchy. She had her reward. For while William IV.'s supremacy may
be called a survival, it is not too much to say that the Queen's
supremacy might be called a prophecy. By lifting a figure purely human
over the heads of judges and warriors, we uttered in some symbolic
fashion the abiding, if unreasoning, hope which dwells in all human
hearts, that some day we may find a simpler solution of the woes of
nations than the summons and the treadmill, that we may find in some
such influence as the social influence of a woman, what was called in
the noble old language of medięval monarchy, "a fountain of mercy and a
fountain of honour."

In the universal reverence paid to the Queen there was hardly anywhere a
touch of snobbishness. Snobbishness, in so far as it went out towards
former sovereigns, went out to them as aristocrats rather than as kings,
as heads of that higher order of men, who were almost angels or demons
in their admitted superiority to common lines of conduct. This kind of
reverence was always a curse: nothing can be conceived as worse for the
mass of the people than that they should think the morality for which
they have to struggle an inferior morality, a thing unfitted for a
haughtier class. But of this patrician element there was hardly a trace
in the dignity of the Queen. Indeed, the degree to which the middle and
lower classes took her troubles and problems to their hearts was almost
grotesque in its familiarity. No one thought of the Queen as an
aristocrat like the Duke of Devonshire, or even as a member of the
governing classes like Mr. Chamberlain. Men thought of her as something
nearer to them even in being further off; as one who was a good queen,
and who would have been, had her fate demanded, with equal cheerfulness,
a good washerwoman. Herein lay her unexampled triumph, the greatest and
perhaps the last triumph of monarchy. Monarchy in its healthiest days
had the same basis as democracy: the belief in human nature when
entrusted with power. A king was only the first citizen who received the
franchise.

Both royalty and religion have been accused of despising humanity, and
in practice it has been too often true; but after all both the
conception of the prophet and that of the king were formed by paying
humanity the supreme compliment of selecting from it almost at random.
This daring idea that a healthy human being, when thrilled by all the
trumpets of a great trust, would rise to the situation, has often been
tested, but never with such complete success as in the case of our dead
Queen. On her was piled the crushing load of a vast and mystical
tradition, and she stood up straight under it. Heralds proclaimed her as
the anointed of God, and it did not seem presumptuous. Brave men died in
thousands shouting her name, and it did not seem unnatural. No mere
intellect, no mere worldly success could, in this age of bold inquiry,
have sustained that tremendous claim; long ago we should have stricken
Cęsar and dethroned Napoleon. But these glories and these sacrifices did
not seem too much to celebrate a hardworking human nature; they were
possible because at the heart of our Empire was nothing but a defiant
humility. If the Queen had stood for any novel or fantastic imperial
claims, the whole would have seemed a nightmare; the whole was
successful because she stood, and no one could deny that she stood, for
the humblest, the shortest and the most indestructible of human gospels,
that when all troubles and troublemongers have had their say, our work
can be done till sunset, our life can be lived till death.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton


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