- Historic Sites
Is it really true that the more things change, the more they stay the same? Once upon a time, before the bureaucratic society, before modern war and technology, there was a very different world, and not so long ago. Let us revisit, picking at random, the year
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
Will there be a revolution? Conscience asks, but history shakes her head. Elsewhere, yes, but here they will have, ten years hence, another reform bill, and another, and another, till the lodger has his vote, and the workhouse is closed, and the poor little sweep is snatched from his nightmare and sent free to school. For England chooses the Dickens ending, not the one composed by Marx. And over it all, full sixty-three years, incredible span, presides the tiny, proper figure of the woman who lends the age her name.
Victoria at this moment is a plump, nice-looking matron of thirty-eight, less than five feet tall. Young by our standards, she is middle-aged by her own and those of her times. She is a strong-minded but emphatically antifeminist woman who loves her husband with a touching devotion quite untypical of royalty. In a gruff way, he returns it, and they have just had their ninth and last child, Princess Beatrice. Despairing of ever getting Parliament to do it, she has this year appointed her husband, Albert, to the official title of Prince Consort, raising his precedence enormously in the royal society of Europe, from an insignificant Prince of Coburg to the first prince of England. At last he outranks his own sons and no longer runs the risk of sitting so far down the table at royal dinners on the Continent as to be out of range of his wife’s remarks and admonitions.
There is joy, and just a twinge of wistful parental sorrow in the family. The eldest daughter, Albert’s favorite, pretty Princess Victoria Mary, seventeen, is soon to marry the Prince of Prussia. The families, of course, have arranged it, but there is charm to the tale. Two years before, after diplomatic consultation, the young Prince was invited to Balmoral in Scotland, exposed to his target, and given a week to propose on his own—although it was not put so bluntly to him. And so one afternoon he took her walking up the rugged slopes of Craig-na-Ben, ablaze with purple heather. There Frederick William (later to be briefly German Kaiser and father of the Kaiser of World War I) found a sprig of pure white heather, which he gallantly presented. It brought good luck, he reminded her, and would she make the prophecy come true by becoming his wife? Yes, said the shy little princess. She was almost fifteen.
This was how the age liked its romance, and its royalty. What models of propriety, what fine examples, this new English royalty! What a pleasant change from the long madness of George III, from that sodden if brilliant scoundrel, the late unlamented George IV! How unlike the Continent!
The continent of Europe, this year of 1857, still languishes in the long, reactionary shadows of the Congress of Vienna, which forty-two years before, after the fall of Napoleon, sought to revive and restore for all time the world he had destroyed. Absolutism rests heavily upon it, like a case of chronic indigestion, an absolutism made bearable, to be sure, by its hopeless inefficiency. And as a natural consequence, there is a ferment underneath—hotheads like Mazzini and Garibaldi plotting the unification of Italy; German students smarting under the collapse of the hopeful revolutions of 1848. Even in Russia, the most backward of all the states of Europe, land of pogroms and secret police, where more than twenty million serfs live in grinding poverty and may be bought and sold like cattle, there is a new young Czar, well-intentioned Alexander II, who actually plans to free them and begin reforming his country.
Over the heart of central Europe sprawls the rickety, formless Austro-Hungarian empire, a patchwork of nationalities and pretensions inherited from the Middle Ages. A false glitter illuminates the France of Napoleon III; Spain and Portugal, their great days past, are sunk in apathy. Far to the East, astride the Straits and exerting a shadowy authority around the crescent of the Middle East and Egypt, lies the domain of the Sultan of Turkey, the Sublime Porte, whose power remains only because no one can agree on who should be permitted to take it from him.
Descriptions of these continental courts seem today compounded of the sheerest fantasy. In Spain the Queen’s stillborn child, who from a practical point of view has never lived at all, lies in state on a high catafalque, surrounded by halberdiers and visited by all the grandees of the kingdom. On its pathetic breast is the broad blue ribbon of the Order of Carlos III, on its discolored face, alas, no sign of the undertaker’s art. The child’s mother is plump, stupid, and not much to look at; yet Isabella is a mental giant beside her consort, who has a falsetto voice and no chin; this royal nonentity has brought his idiot brother to live with them. It must be embarrassing at balls—she loves them, fat as she is, and gives them all the time—to have the King’s brother darting around the edges of the party on all fours, his dearest pleasure, removing the tacks from the carpets with his teeth.