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    Queen Victoria

    by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
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    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 mediæval 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
    Cæsar 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.
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