A CLAUSE FOR THE NEW REFORM
AT this dull season of the political year, and in the absence of all other rumours, the rumour of a New Reform Bill is beginning to strengthen prodigiously. No one seems to know exactly what the bill is to be, or who is asking for it most loudly, or what particular party means to bring it in. Whether, among its other extraordinary results, it is destined to show that Tories are Radicals, and Radicals Tories, and Whigs nothing in particular—whether it is to be an artful Bill of the old sort, which first delights us with magnificent professions, and then astonishes us with minute performances; or whether it is to be a Bill of original character, and of unparalleled resources in giving practical advantage to the people at large—seems to be more than the wisest of our political sages can tell us. All that we really know about the matter is, that a new Reform Bill is being compounded somewhere. What the strength of the political mixture may be, which of the State Doctors will serve it out, and what it will taste like when the British patient gets’ it, are mysteries, which no uninitiated mortal in the country can hope to solve.
Under such circumstances, this would seem to be the favourable time for every man who has got anything like an idea of reform in his mind to bring it out, and furbish it up as smartly as maybe, on the chance of its being accepted by the competent authorities, in the shape of a practical hint. An idea has been, for some little time past, suggesting itself persistently to our minds—an idea which is of the social rather than the political sort, and which is, as we venture to think, especially fitted to figure in the new Reform Bill on that very account—an idea which is bold enough to involve nothing less than a sweeping change in the national reception of Her Majesty the Queen, when she pays her next public visit to her loving and faithful People.
On a topic of this importance we come frankly to the point at once. Let us assume, to begin with, that the main interest of the Queen, when she makes a Royal Progress, is to see for herself what the character and the condition of her people actually is. It follows from this, that the main duty of the People is to present themselves honestly for what they really are, and to show all that belongs to them plainly for what it really is, when their Sovereign comes among them. The question we desire to raise on these premises is, whether this essentially loyal, useful, and honest purpose is now answered; and whether the Queen has such full and fair opportunities afforded to her of knowing her own people in their own character, and of seeing all that surrounds them in its true aspect, as she has both a personal and a royal right to expect.
When, for instance, the Queen visits one of our great towns, what does the great town do? Does it not clumsily try, at a considerable expense, to make itself look as like a bad travelling circus as possible? Does it not stick up, in honour of the occasion. theatrical canvas arches, and absurd flags that are no flags, and pretended drab statues in pretended drab niches that are not statues and not niches, and lamentable dead boughs that are a ghastly parody on living and growing trees? Does it not commit every sort of unpardonable offence against Taste, and make itself as ridiculously unreal as possible in the broad, truth-telling daylight? Why should these things be? Commemorate the Queen’s visit by a holiday, by all means—we have not holidays enough in England—but, for mercy’s sake, leave the great town alone, and let it speak for itself. Let it say to the Queen, in effect:— “Please your Majesty, these are my plain stone-paved streets, where so many thousand people in Lancashire and Yorkshire clogs, wake my echoes as they go to their work at five or six in the morning. Please your Majesty, these are my great chimneys, always vomiting smoke when your Majesty is not here; smoke which is very ugly to look at and very unpleasant to smell, but which is also inseparable from many of the most beautiful and useful works in your Majesty’s kingdom. Please your Majesty, this concourse of inhabitants, in clean plain clothes, that lines both sides of your way, is a striving, loyal, respectful, good-humoured, long-suffering specimen of your Majesty’s working subjects. It is my opinion that I can show your Majesty nothing better or more interesting than this; and the scene-painter of my not particularly patronised theatre shall therefore not be called into requisition any more to turn me into a trumpery municipal masquerader, or to take your Majesty off, on allegorical false pretences, as a Heathen goddess horrible to view, or as the eminent modern lady who goes up the Tight-rope, amongst Fireworks, in the public gardens.”
Can it be imagined that, in all her progresses, the Queen ever saw anything half so striking, pleasant., and memorable to her as the miles of working-people who turned out to receive her at Manchester? It would be preposterous to suppose that she can be otherwise than interested in the real, honest, everyday aspect of her populous towns, in which multitudes of her subjects live and die, working wearily all their lives long to make the commodities for which England is famous; slowly, surely, resolutely hammering out her greatness in the arts of peace and war, from a pin’s head to a monster mortar. It is only reasonable to believe that the Queen is naturally and deeply interested in such sights as these. But what sane man can suppose that she is interested in poles and canvas, and red drugget, and theatrical properties, which take nobody in, and which lead to the most inexcusably wasteful expenditure of money. Is not every town which opens its purse to pay for such sadly mistaken loyalty, sick and sorry for weeks afterwards? And what has the futile demonstration done for the Queen after all? It has probably given her beloved Majesty the headache. It has certainly offended her taste; which is formed, be it remembered, in her own sphere, on the finest models that the Art of the civilised world can supply. And, worst and clumsiest mistake of all, it has flatly contradicted the principle on which the Queen’s own appearance is regulated when she travels. When the Queen visits a town, does she drive into it in the state-coach dressed in the robes in which she assembles Parliament, with the sceptre in one hand and the ball in the other, and the crown jewels, instead of a bonnet, on her head? No—she comes attired quietly and in excellent taste—dressed, in a word, as a’ lady should be dressed. All the people who look at her, see her enter the place she visits, simply and sensibly, in her own natural everyday character—and see the unfortunate town, on the other hand, carefully deprived of as’ much of its natural, everyday character as the mayor and corporation can possibly take away from it. How the local officials can survey the Queen’s natural, nineteenth-century bonnet passing under a miserably ineffectual imitation of a pagan arch of triumph, without acutely feeling the rebuke which that eloquent part of her Majesty’s costume administers to them, entirely passes our comprehension. Surely the reporters conceal from us a certain class of municipal accident: surely there are sensitive mayors, who, on such occasions as these, sink self’ reproachfully into their own robes, and are seen no more.
Not that we rashly despise a mayor. He is sometimes an excellent fellow; but why—still connecting him with state receptions—why, like the town he rules, should he go wildly out of his way on account of a royal visit? And why, above all, should the unfortunate man get into the Queen’s way? Surely it is time that those ridiculous Addresses which he brings obstinately to station-platforms, and presents, like a kind of unnecessary newspaper, at carriage-windows, should pass into the Limbo of charity-boys’ Christmas Pieces? We ought, however, to ask pardon of those obsolete works of art, for comparing them with Mayors’ Addresses—for the Christmas-piece, awkward as it might have been in execution, was, at least in intention, a remembrance of the Life of Christ. But what can be said for the Addresses? As a form of welcome to the Queen, they are utterly superfluous; the sound substance of the welcome having been administered in the best of all ways beforehand by the cheering voices of the people. Must we look at the Addresses as specimens of composition? If we do, we find them to be a species of literary hunting-field, in which every substantive is a terrified stag, run down by a pack of yelping tautological adjectives. For the sake of the mayor—a man and a brother; a human being who has surely done us no serious harm—for the sake of the mayor, who comes up innocently to her Majesty’s carriage window, the unconscious bearer of a document which accredits him as a mauler of her Majesty’s English, suppress the further production of Municipal Addresses! Don’t we know that her Majesty’ laughs at the Mayor, and that everybody laughs at the Mayor—except, of course, his own family. When the Mayor is a sensible fellow, he even laughs at himself in his official sleeve. But how hard, how unjust, how utterly indefensible, when a man has a sense of the ridiculous, to condemn him cruelly to exercise it on himself!
Even the Railways have caught the contagion. It was only the other day that the Peterborough Refreshment Room, on the Great Northern, hearing of the Queen’s approach, suddenly became ashamed of being a Refreshment Room, and tried in the most miserable manner, to be a Drawing Room, or a Boudoir, or—Heaven only knows what! So frightfully did it blink all over with mirrors; so madly did it blister itself with tinsel; that no apartment in the least like it was ever yet known to mortals; unless we dignify an inferior class of doll’s house or a bad bon-bon box with the style. and title of an apartment. Is there anything treasonable in the act of calming the uproarious appetites of her Majesty’s subjects? Is it part of our duty to our sovereign to conceal from her that such things exist in England as penny buns and pork-pies? Why could not the terrified refreshment room have been soothed and comforted and encouraged to speak for itself? If it had said, “Please your Majesty, I am the humble servant of your Majesty’s hungry subjects; and, as such, I respectfully present myself for inspection in my own useful work-a-day character”—if it had said that, where would have been the harm?
We know that the shareholders spent money, on this occasion, and have spent it, on many other occasions, with the idea of pleasing the Queen. But, have they sufficiently considered whether an expensive transmogrification of a refreshment room does give her pleasure? Can any man who has looked at the apartments (at Windsor Castle and elsewhere) in which the Queen lives, suppose that the sight of those tawdry nondescript trumpery four walls at Peterborough really produced an agreeable impression on her, or really reminded her in the remotest degree of anything connected with her own or any other royal residence? We suggest that question to the shareholders for future consideration; and we put it to them, whether this wasteful expenditure on temporary gew-gaws, on the one side, and the riotous annual upbraidings of the directors, on the other, can be expected to look quite as sound as might be wished, in the eyes of that portion of the public which sees and thinks, in these matters, for itself? Are we even quite sure that the Queen—who sees newspapers as well as transmogrified refreshment rooms—does not privately make some such unfavourable comparison.
But let us leave examples, and put the question, for the last time, on the broadest and most general grounds. We say, and say truly, that the Queen lives in the hearts of her people. But looking to external signs and tokens as exhibited by local authorities, we should see so little difference between a municipal reception of Queen Victoria and a municipal reception of Napoleon the Third, that we should be puzzled—judging only by the official proceedings in each case—to know which of the two was the free ruler. There is, perhaps, a more perfect uniformity of folly in the decorations on the other side of the Channel; for, when the potent monarch on that throne wants his triumphal arches, illumination lamps, profile statues pretending to be solid, and other second-rate theatrical preparations, he sends down his gracious orders for so many gross of them, and they are turned out accordingly. But, otherwise, a French mayor’s or a French railway director’s way of receiving Louis Napoleon and an English mayor’s or English railway director’s way of receiving Queen Victoria, are far too much alike. On this ground only, if there were no other, it is certainly desirable to alter our loyal demonstrations for the better on the British side of the Straits of Dover. The next time the intelligent foreigner meets her Majesty on her travels, let him be able to say, “They manage these matters differently in England.” And let the New Reform Bill, if it be in want of a sensible social clause to fill up with, condescend to take a hint from these pages, and introduce among its provisions some such startling legislative novelty as this:
And Be It Enacted, That the good Sense of the Country shall in future confidently trust to the good Sense of the Queen; and that no Cloud of Mayors, Upholsterers, Scene-Painters, or the like, shall henceforth be permitted to interpose between the next Meeting of the Sovereign in her natural Character, and of the People and all that belongs to them, in their natural Characters.
First published Household Words 9 October 1858 XVIII 385-387
This piece is recorded in the Household Words Office Book as by Collins and Dickens. It seems to have been written by Collins based on an idea by Dickens. On 24 September Dickens wrote to the HW subeditor "I enclose a few hasty notes about the Queen idea" (Pilgrim VIII 668) and the Office Book entry indicates that Dickens played a part in its final version too.
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