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« Manifest Destiny Before The Great War | Main | Art and THE SONG OF THE LARK »

Great Britain before the Great War

A year before Queen Victoria died, in the summer of 1900, the petit monarch was returning to England from Ireland aboard the royal yacht. She was 81 but still in relatively good health. A large wave struck the boat, disturbing her Majesty at rest. She summoned her doctor. “Go up at once, Sir James,” she said to him, “and give the Admiral my compliments but tell him the thing must not occur again.”

Her attitude was a metaphor for the times. The sea was rising. It must not. Apparently, just by saying so.

Lord Salisbury, leader of the last truly patrician British government, about 1900Five years earlier, in 1895, Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, Lord Salisbury, the ninth Earl and the third Marquess of his line, became prime minister in a crushing Conservative victory, installing in power what would be the last truly patrician government in British history. At sixty-five, Lord Salisbury surrounded himself with his own circle from Oxford and marriage, mostly peers of the realm; his cabinet included a Viscount, three Barons, and two Baronets. Of its commoners, one was a director of the Bank of England; one, a squire whose family had represented the same county in Parliament since the sixteenth century; and one, Lord Salisbury’s nephew who had inherited a Scottish fortune estimated at four million pounds. The outlier was a manufacturer from Birmingham, chosen to represent the working class, despite being the richest man in England.

They were hot-house flowers grown to gargantuan proportions and in their final bloom—exhibit A: Salisbury himself. The Cecils had been a part of the ruling class since Richard II had taken a shine to their ancestral halls and swapped country estates with them in the late 1300s. Salisbury himself was tall at six four, both imposing and haughty. Even among his peers, he stood out—although he opted out of almost all social occasions. He refused to live in “shabby” Downing Street and had no truck with the accoutrements of his set. He despised riding, the true spot of a gentleman. He was otherwise bored and fidgety, prone to shaking his leg until members of his bench complained of seasickness.

Ensconced in his family’s amber, he was also dismissive, even verbally repellent. He called the Irish “Hottentots”; he referred to an Indian member of Parliament as “that black man.” Lord Morley once said that he loved to read the Prime Minister’s speeches because “they were sure to contain one blazing indiscretion which was a delight to remember.” Indeed, the Prime Minister’s own name became a by-word for his behavior: a “Salisbury” was an impolitic remark about someone just within hearing.

A sonorous but gifted speaker, prone to long speeches without a note at hand, he got his heart racing by riding a tricked-up, adult-sized tricycle at full blower through Saint James’s Park, his manservant on the contraption’s back step, ready to push the old gent up the hills, but otherwise erect and unswerving, his coat tails flapping in the breeze on the down slopes as Salisbury leaned over the handle bars, a gleam in his eyes.

It could be said that her Majesty and the Prime Minister were the last gasp of the nineteenth century, already in its dotage. And the forces were massing against them. Labor was only momentarily downed. Its matinee Idol, the legendary Gladstone, had backed home rule for the Irish. His party had been torn in two over his stance, half its members becoming Conservatives overnight. Still, the Irish question remained unsettled, despite Salisbury’s brutal crack-downs on the Emerald Isle.

What’s more, the factories of central England were starting to groan under the strain of unfair labor practices. And so the quays along the Thames were filling with the homeless, the impoverished, the outcasts, all the detritus of raw-energy capitalism, even more so than in Dickens’ day. Back then, the poor at least worked. Now, English products competed with cheap goods from abroad.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Douglas, about 1893And then there was a certain playwright, satirist, and gadfly, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde. His trial in 1895, the year Salisbury formed his government, set London on its ears. It had always been supposed that artistocracy would close ranks around its favorites. And Wilde was certainly a favorite. But then came the facts: he’d taken up with the Marquess of Queensbury’s son, Lord Alfred Douglas, who eventually lured Wilde out of the posh gentleman’s clubs and into the seedy underworld of working-class male prostitutes. Queensbury, to shame Wilde and break up the relationship with his son, left a calling card one night at Wilde’s club: “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic].” Wilde brashly sued for libel. What came next was a circus: private detectives in the dankest alleys, revelations of gentlemen in each other’s bedrooms at the most respected houses, a London underground of cross-dressers and drag singers.

The court found Wilde guilty of “gross indecency among males.” Wilde’s wife and children were reduced to penniless poverty. Country houses were shuddered, disreputable for years. The fin had come for fin de siécle decadence. Sure, there had been men caught before. Just five years earlier, Lord Arthur Somerset, the son of the Duke of Beaufort, had been arrested in one of London’s homosexual brothels. But Somerset had been whisked off to the Continent where he lived out his life in relative quiet. Now, times had changed. The Church of England was railing against lewdness. The troubles in South Africa were simmering. The Boer War loomed. The Americans, too, were making threatening gestures in South America. Best then to close ranks—without the interlopers.

Wilde’s conviction severed the aristocracy from its erstwhile fling with the “Gay 90s.” A new regime stepped into power, Lord Salisbury’s, vehemently opposed to home rule for Ireland, antagonistic to voting reforms, hostile to any notion that the workers needed a safeguard against abuse, uptight, rigorously religious, thick-set with “family values,” and supremely convinced of their own centrality. As Salisbury himself once said to those pushing for increased suffrage: “You are pitting an overwhelming number of the employed against a hopeless minority of employers.” He felt that statement should settle the question.

But the sea was continuing to rise. The Kaiser was hankering to be noticed on the Continent, yearning to pick a fight with just about anyone. The answer from London? Hunker down all the more. Her Majesty became seemingly more resplendent, more maddeningly adored by her public.

Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, 1897So Britain pulled up short, looked in, and sat down. On the Queen’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, all the crowned heads of Europe had been in attendance. On her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, none was invited. She was instead surrounded by Salisbury and her government’s ministers, along with the premiers of the global empire, government heads from Canada, New Zealand, the Cape Colony, the six states of Australia, India, Cyprus, and more. It was a telling list: the world as owned by Great Britain. The rest could go hang.

Millions of her subjects turned out in London to see the Queen’s carriage as it rolled through the streets to her formal celebrations. “No one ever, I believe, has met with such an ovation as was given me,” she journaled.

A young Rudyard KiplingYet the next morning, the music of some late-night balls still going strong, the streets barely swept clean, a young Anglo-Indian with writerly aspirations, one Rudyard Kipling, published a poem in The Times simply but audaciously called “Recessional.” It was an indictment of empire, of hubris, of smug self-complacency. It was a slap in the patrician face, framed in their own language, that of the Church of England:

God of our fathers, known of old—
Lord of our far-flung battle line—
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
Dominion over palm and pine—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies—

The Captains and the Kings depart—
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
An humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

Far-called our navies melt away—

On dune and headland sinks the fire—
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
Judge of the Nations, spare us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose

Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe—
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law—
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!

For heathen heart that puts her trust

In reeking tube and iron shard—
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding calls not Thee to guard.
For frantic boast and foolish word,

Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!


           “All our pomp yesterday is one with Ninevah and Tyre”? The famed, worldly cities God despised in the Old Testament? The ones Jonah was sent to preach against? Waves, waves, waves. What else could one do but send up word that they shouldn’t exist? What else could one do?


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