Friday, September 12, 2003

A Darkling Mirror
So I'm sitting in the library killing time until my photography class starts (more about that some other time) and I'm looking through a stack of books left in a carrel. Someone, it seems, is doing heavy research into social and economic conditions in Great Britain during the Napoleonic Wars.

One of them, Our Tempestuous Day, by Carolly Erickson, is more story than history, although seemingly scrupulously researched and end-noted. I find myself drawn into one of the most interesting cast of characters I've ever encountered: the grossly sensual, hysterical, and debt-ridden Prince and Princess of Wales; the evangelical reformers Hannah Moore and William Wilberforce (M.P.), the great poet and lousy human being Lord Byron; six-year-old John Hawley; the radical orator Henry Hunt; the sailor John Cashman; and, of course, the coldly brilliant Wellington.

Somewhere between the Carlton House victory celebrations and the Peterloo massacre, I start to get a glimmer of something.

A country in the midst of war, with an obscenely wealthy and spendthrift upper class, a middle class in recession, and a working class sinking deeply into poverty. A conservative government with an unsteady figurehead and plagued by internecine feuds; an evangelical religious movement gaining ground; a foundering economy; and this:

The liveliness and confusion of these meetings, and the factionalism they revealed, did not dilute their central focus, which was to promote fundamental electoral and governmental change. On this the advocates of reform reached a general consensus...old laws would be changed and new ones enacted that would put an end to unemployment and burdesome taxation, while lowering the debt and controlling the extravagance of the Regent and his courtiers. This, broadly speaking, was the radicals' program. (Though some on the far left advocated more exteme changes, they were a tiny minority)...

To the serious minded, radicalism was the political dimension of the deadly canker pervading society; radicalism combined moral benightedness with godless effrontery, and it was the sacred duty of pious men to oppose it. Pitt Clubs, raking their name from the conservative war leader William Pitt...took the view that the radicals were the dupes of hotheaded demagogues and irresponsible, if not treasonous, journalists. There were no true grounds for popular agitation, the conservatives argued; traditional values and England's traditional political order were sound, but the confusion and excitement of the times had temporarily thrown people judgment into disarray.

And they perceived an even greater danger: the danger that the consensual foundation of government, cemented by deference to authority, might break down. Most of the English were patriots, but they no longer expressed their patriotism through unquestioning subservience to the king and his might gladly risk their lives in England's defense, as John Cashman had, but they would not cooperate with the government in policies, which, in their eyes, prolonged their postwar miseries.

How did it all end? Well, in May of 1819, Alexandrina Victoria was born in Kensington Palace, London, the only daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent, fourth in line to the throne. By the time she was crowned, the evangelical moralists had won, as had the political conservatives. Victoria's reign was one of unbridled capitalism and imperialism, as well as moral and religious hypocrisy. Not to mention one of the worst times EVER to be female.

One the one hand, I'm comforted to see that the human race has passed this way before and managed to survive; on the other hand....are we ready for another Victorian age?

I'm joking, I'm joking....I think...

Thursday, September 11, 2003