Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - About London, by J. Ewing Ritchie, 1860 - Chapter 20 - Conclusion

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ONE bright May morning in the year of our Lord, 1445, the streets of London presented an unusually animated appearance. Here and there were quaint devices and rare allegories, well pleasing alike to the rude eye and taste of citizen and peer. From dark lane and darker alley poured forth swarms eager to behold the stranger, who, young, high-spirited, and beautiful, had come to wear the diadem of royalty, and to share the English throne. The land of love and song had given her birth. Her "gorgeous beauty, as our national dramatist describes it, had been, ripened but by fifteen summers's suns. Hope told a flattering tale. She discerned not the signs that prophesied a dark and dreary future. A tempest rudely greeted her as she landed on our shores. Sickness preyed upon her frame. Those whose fathers's bones were bleaching on the battle-fields of France murmured that Maine and Anjou, won by so free an expenditure of English blood and gold, should be ceded to the sire of one who, dowerless, came to claim the throne, and, as [-204-] it speedily appeared, to rule the fortunes, of HENRY PLANTAGENET. In mercy the sad perspective of thirty wintry years was hidden from her view. She dreamt not of the cup of bitterness it was hers to drink - how she should be driven from the land' that then hailed her with delight - how all that woman should abhor should be laid to her charge - how, in her desolate chateau, stripped of her power, and fame, and crown, lonely and broken-hearted, she should spend the evening of her life in unavailing sorrow and regret, till, with bloodshot eyes, and wrinkled brow, and leprous skin, she should become all that men shuddered to behold. But onward passed the procession, and smiles were on her lips, and joy was in her heart. Bright was her queenly eye, and beautiful was her flaxen hair, so well known in romance or iii the songs of wandering troubadour. Around her were the children of no common race, gallant and haughty, dark-eyed Norman barons, ready to keep, as their fathers hind won, with their own good swords, power and nobility upon British soil.
    Years have come and gone. The great ones of the earth have felt their power slip from them. Crowns and sceptres have turned to dust. Thrones have tottered to their fall; but there was then that evolving itself of which succeeding ages have witnessed but the more full development. In that procession there were symptoms of a coming change-signs, and warning voices, that told the noble that the power and pride of the individual man was being torn from him-that lie had been weighed [-205-] in the balance and found wanting. The trading companies - the sons of the Saxon churl - THE MIDDLE CLASSES - for the first time appeared upon the scene, and were deemed a fitting escort to royalty. History herself has deigned to tell us of their show and bravery - how, on horseback, with blue gowns and embroidered shoes, and red hoods, they joined the nobles and prelates of our land. Four hundred years have but seen the increase of their wealth, of their respectability, and power. Their struggle upwards has been long and tedious, but it has been safe and sure. The wars of the red rose and the white-wars which beggared the princes of England, and spilt the blood of its nobles like water-were favourable to the progress of the middle class. The battle of Barnet witnessed the fall and death of the kingmaker, and with her champion feudalism fell. The power passed from the baron. The most thoughtless began to perceive that a time was coming when mere brute strength would fail its possessor. Dim and shadowy notions of the superiority of right to might were loosened from the bondage of the past, and set afloat; discoveries, strange and wonderful, became the property of the many; the fountains of knowledge, and thought, and fame were opened, and men pressed thither, eager to win higher honour than that obtained by the intrigues of court, or the accidents of birth.
    With all that was bright and good did the middle classes identify themselves. In them was the stronghold of civilization. The prince and peer were unwilling to [-206-] admit of changes in polity, in religion, or in law, which to them could bring no good, and might possibly bring harm. Conventional usage had stamped them with a higher worth than that which by right belonged to them; their adulterated gold passed as current coin; hence it was their interest to oppose every attempt to establish a more natural test. The aristocracy ceased to be the thinkers of the age. From the middle classes came the men whose words and deeds we will not willingly let die. Shakspere, Milton, and Cromwell shew what of genius, and power, and divine aim, at one time the middle classes contained.
    And now, once more, is there not an upheaving of humanity from beneath? and over society as it is, does not once more loom the shadow of a coming change? Does not middle-class civilization in its mode of utterance and thought, betoken symptoms of decay? ·Look at it as it does the genteel thing, and sleeps an easy hour in Episcopalian church or Dissenting chapel - as it faintly applauds a world-renovating principle, and gracefully bows assent to a divine idea. Ask it its problem of life, its mission, and it knows no other than to have a good account at the bank, and. to keep a gig; possibly; if it be very ambitious, it may, in its heart of hearts, yearn for a couple of flunkeys and a fashionable square. It is very moral and very religious. Much is it attached to morality and religion in the abstract; but to take one step in their behalf - to cut the      shop, for their sake, for an hour - is a thing it rarely does. Often is it too much [-207-] trouble for it to vote at a municipal election - to employ the franchise to which it has a right-to support the man or the paper that advocates its principles. That is, it refuses to grapple with the great principle of ill with which man comes into this world to make war; and, rather than lose a pound, or sacrifice its respectability, or depart from the routine of formalism into which it has grown, it will let the devil take possession of the world.
    Looked at from a right point of view, the world's history is a series of dissolving views. We have had the gorgeous age of nobility, the money-making one of the middle-classes-lower still we must go. Truth lies at the bottom of the well; the pearls, whose lustre outshine even beauty's eye are hidden in the deep. The men who now stamp their impress on the age-whose thought is genuine and free - who shew the hollowness of shams - who demand for the common brotherhood of man their common rights-who herald a coming age- who are its teachers and apostles-originally laboured in coal-mines, like Stephenson; or mended shoes, like Cooper; or plied the shuttle, like Fox; or stood, as did Burns and Nicoll, at the plough, with God's heaven above them, and God's inspiration in their hearts.
    The decline and fall of England has already found chroniclers enough. Ledru Rollin and the Protectionists are agreed as regards the lamentable fact. G. F. Young, the chairman of the Society for the Protection of British Industry and Capital, believed it as firmly as his own [-208-] existence. A similar opinion is more than hinted in the tedious History of Dr. .Alison. At a still earlier period the same doleful tale was ever on the lips and pervaded the writings of Southey, the Laureate and the renegade. If these gentlemen are right, then the melancholy conviction must be forced upon us that England has seen her best days; that it will never be with her what it was in time past, when she bred up an indomitable race, when her flag of triumph fluttered in every breeze, and floated on every sea. We must believe that England's sun is about to set; that, with its brightness and its beauty, it will never more bless and irradiate the world.
    Against such a conclusion we emphatically protest. We look back upon our national career, and we see that each age has witnessed the people's growth in political power; that especially  since that grand field-day of Democracy, the French Revolution, that power has gone on increasing with accelerated force; that it was to the increased ascendancy of that power that we owed it that we rode in safety whilst the political ocean was covered with wreck and ruin. If one thing be clearer than another in our national history, it is that our greatness and the power of the people have grown together. At a season like the present it is well to remember this. Prophets often fulfil their own prophecies. The Jeremiads of the weak, or the interested, or the fearful, may damp the courage of some hearts; and a people told that they are ruined, that the poor are becoming poorer every day, that the [-209-] end of all labour is the workhouse or the gaol, that their life is but a lingering death, may come to believe that the handwriting is upon the wall, and that it is hopeless to war with fate.
    The fact is, nations, when they die, die of felo-de-se. The national heart becomes unsound, and the national arm weak. The virtue has gone out of it. Its rulers have usurped despotic powers, and the people have been sunk in utter imbecility, or have looked upon life as a May-day game, and nothing more. In our cold northern clime-with the remains of that equality born and bred amidst the beech-forests that bordered tire Baltic-the English people could never stop to this; and hence our glorious destiny. No nation under heaven's broad light has been more sorely tried than our own. We have taken into pay almost every European power. Our war to restore the Bourbonds, and thus to crush Liberalism at home, and keep the Tories in office, was carried on at a cost which only Englishmen could have paid; and yet from our long seasons of distress - from our commercial panics, the result of fettered trade-from our formidable continental wars - we have emerged with flying colours, and indomitable strength. Mr. Porter's statistics showed what we had done in the face of difficulty and danger, and the progress we have made since Mr. Porter's time is something prodigious. Not yet has the arm of the people been weakened or its eye dulled.
    These are facts such as the united Croaker tribe can [-210-]  neither refute nor deny. We understand the meaning of such men when they raise a cry of alarm. What such men dread does in reality infuse into the constitution fresh vigour and life. Not national death, but the reverse is the result. The removal of one abuse, behind which monopoly and class legislation have skulked, is like stripping from the monarch of the forest the foul parasite by which his beauty is hidden and his strength devoured. From such operations the constitution comes out with the elements of life more copious and active in it than before. It finds a wider base iii the support and attachment of the people; it becomes more sympathetic with them. It grows with their growth and strengthens with their strength.
    It is not true, then, that for us the future is more fraught with anxiety than hope. The theory is denied by fact. It is not true commercially, nor is it true morally. Our progress in morals and manners is, at least, equal to our progress in trade. The coarse manners-the brutal intoxication-the want of all faith in spiritual realities, held not merely by the laity but by the clergy as well of the last century, now no longer exists. Reverend Deans do not now write to ladies as did the bitter Dean of St. Patrick's to his Stella. Sure are we that Victoria cannot speak of her bishops as, according to Lord Hervey, George II. did, and justly, speak of his. No Prime Minister now would dare to insult the good feeling of the nation by handing his paramour to her carriage from the Opera in the presence of Majesty. Fielding's novels [-211-] graphically display a state of things which happily now no longer exists. The gossip of our times reveals enough  -alas ! - too much-of human weakness and immorality; but the gossip of our times is as far superior to that which Horace Walpole has so faithfully preserved, or to that which Mrs. Manley in her "New Atlantis" sullied her woman's name by retailing, or to that which Count Grammont thought it no disgrace to record, as light to darkness or as dross to gold. Macaulay thus describes the country squire of the seventeenth century:- His chief pleasures were commonly derived from field-sports, and from an unrefined sensuality. His language and his pronunciation were such as we should now only expect to hear from ignorant clowns. His oaths, coarse jokes, and scurrilous terms of abuse were uttered with the broadest accents of his province. The country squire of the nineteenth century is surely some improvement upon this; nor has the improvement been confined to him-it has extended to all classes. We still hear much, for instance, of drunkenness, but drunkenness does not prevail as it did when publicans wrote on their signs, as Smollett tells us they did,- "You may here get drunk for one penny, dead drunk for two pence, and clean straw for nothing."
    After all, then, we lay down our pen in hope. We have undergone struggles deep and severe, and such struggles we may still continue to have. With a debt of eight hundred millions like a millstone round our neck- with a population increasing at the rate of a thousand a [-2l2-] day - with Ireland's ills not yet remedied - with half the landed property of the country in the hands of the lawyer or the Jew - with discordant colonies in all parts of the globe - with large masses in our midst degraded by woe and want - barbarians in the midst of civilization - 
- heathens in the full blaze of Christian light - no man can deny that there are breakers ahead. Rather from what we see around us we may conclude that we shall have storms to weather, severe as any that have awakened the energy and heroism of our countrymen in days gone by. But the history of the past teaches us how those storms will be met and overcome. Not by accident is modern history so rich in the possession of the new creed and the new blood, for the want of which the glory of Athens and Corinth, and of her "who was named eternal" passed away as a dream of the night. Not that England may perish does that new blood course through the veins' and that new creed fructify in the hearts of her Sons. The progress we have made is the surest indication of the progress it is yet our destiny to make. Onward, then, ye labourers for humanity, heralds of a coming age - onward then until
           "We sweep into a younger day. 
            Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay."
     Those who would deny the people their political rights - who would teach a Christianity unworthy of its name-who would inculcate a conventional morality - who would degrade the national he art by perpetuating [-213-] religious and political shams -they, and, not the foreigner, are our national enemies. Against them must we wage untiring war, for they are hostile to the progress of the nation, and by that hostility sin against the progress of the world. England will still stand foremost in the files of time - and of that England, London will still remain the heart and head.

source: J. Ewing Ritchie, Aboutf London, 1860