Sixty Years a Queen

June 8 2012

I forget what historian said, in a memorable passage, that England after 1895 no longer, to him, felt like England: something febrile had come into the atmosphere.

Was it Élie Halévy?, who wrote at the beginning of the Epilogue of his History of the English People:

“I will conclude my [principal] narrative about the year 1895, that is to say, about the time when Gladstone disappeared from political life. Neither Chamberlain with his exploitations of the warlike passions of the democracy, nor Lloyd George, author of the budget of 1909, the Insurance Act of 1911 and the programme of land reform of 1912, were men of the Victorian age. The period between 1895 and 1914 does not belong to the British nineteenth century, as I understand it. It is at most the epilogue of that century, as it is the prologue of the century which opened with those four [fourteen, surely] years of tremendous upheaval, both military and social.”

Or am I half-remembering something more substantial in Halévy? Or in GM Young’s Portrait of an Age? Or in George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England? Dangerfield was writing more about the years immediately before 1914.

Halévy’s great book is called History of the English People in my Pelican edition, but is really History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century. It was published in France between 1913 and 1932 and in translation in England in 1931-32. The first volume – three in the Pelican series, perhaps it was divided in the French too – was on England in 1815. The second took the story to 1830 (an English date, too: accession of William IV, end of Wellington). The third to 1841 (second Peel ministry). The fourth, taking it to 1852, was never completed. The Epilogue on 1895-1914 is three more volumes in the Pelican series. I have never seen the intervening volumes in Pelicans.

The unfinished fourth volume was published in English in 1961 as Victorian Years, with a supplementary essay commissioned from RB McCallum to link it to the Epilogue. I own the six Pelicans (collectors’ pieces), published between 1937 and 1940.

Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee comes in the middle of that closing lustrum of the nineteenth century. Imperial events punctuate the years like gunshot reports.

Jameson Raid 1895-96, Transvaal Republic

Siege of Malakand 1897, North West Frontier Province

Fashoda Incident 1898, Sudan

Siege of Ladysmith 1899-1900, Natal

Siege of Mafeking 1899-1900, Transvaal Republic

None of them was a happy event or foregone conclusion, though this was the time of the greatest imperial ebullience. The scenes of hysterical celebration in England at the relief of Mafeking shocked many contemporary observers.

The first of these films is by RW Paul. It works better without the music. I’m not sure about the second. We have already seen Paul’s film of the 1903 Coronation Durbar in Delhi.

But the heady year 1897 produced Kipling’s Recessional, whose prescience is so remarkable that it hardly sinks in on one reading even today. (It is also a Hamlet, so full is it of quotations.)

“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!


Recessional was published in The Times on July 17 1897 and collected in The Five Nations (1903). The text here is from The Five Nations. Kipling had intended his Jubilee poem to be The White Man’s Burden, but that was published later (The Times, February 4 1899; Wikipedia says McClure’s magazine with no exact date; The Five Nations), when it was made to apply to American expansionism and given the subtitle The United States and the Philippine Islands. It, too, has its complexities.

Kipling, taking his whole achievement together, was surely one of the four fin-de-siècle English and Irish geniuses – with Elgar, Yeats and Chesterton. Wilde is a runner-up. Shaw, Wells and others are in the B list. Most of Elgar’s œuvre was a kind of recessional.

The musical hit of 1897, which reflected, perhaps helped to make, the public mood, was an Imperial March by the still little-known Edward Elgar. BBC Philharmonic, George Hurst.

Boult does it with a degree more urgency. It’s an Imperial summons, a pre-echo of the Pomp and Circumstance marches; there was also the Empire March of 1924 for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. The image is an unwrinkled Queen Victoria’s official Jubilee photograph.

The ninth symphony of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Master of the Queen’s Music (“Sir?, symphony?, Master of what?”) is dedicated to the Queen for this Jubilee and has its premiere tomorrow with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Vasily Petrenko. Then it will be heard in the Proms. PMD writes about it here. There are anti-imperial things in the work. He had told us that the Antarctic symphony would be his last. One hopes that he is not inviting the curse of the ninth.

The music at the Jubilee service in St Paul’s on Tuesday contained a sub-Ruttersque piece by Will Todd. Why? Vaughan Williams’s Old 100th was taken too slowly.


The 1897 Jubilee was the culmination of a rehabilitation of the monarchy which had been started by Disraeli during his second ministry (from 1874), if not during his first. The monarchy had become a marginal institution, hardly in the public consciousness, and in aristocratic terms was in any case irrelevant. It had a constitutional function, but there was no pomp. Victoria, in perpetual mourning, never appeared in public. (She disliked ceremony to the end of her life. She hardly dressed up for the Jubilee.) Republicanism was far stronger in England than it is now. Bagehot had defined constitutional monarchy in modern terms in The English Constitution in 1867, but he cannot have foreseen what was about to happen to it.

Disraeli saw that the new global empire which was taking shape, and the industrialised democracy at the centre of it, now semi-educated (Education Act 1870), with the yellow press round the corner, needed a new unifying institution. Victoria was susceptible to flattery and Disraeli set to work on her. (She liked outsiders: her German husband Prince Albert, her Scottish servant John Brown, her Jewish prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, her Indian servant Abdul Karim. Brown made romantic Scotland flesh for her, “the Munshi” romantic India.)

In 1876 Disraeli pushed through a Royal Titles Act to make her Empress of India. She was proclaimed at the Delhi Durbar of 1877. The title was available. It had been in abeyance since the deposition of the last Mughal Emperor, Bahadur II, in 1858. The Mughal dynasty had ruled over most of the subcontinent from the sixteenth century, but had used the title Badshah (whence Pādeshāh, considered in the West to be equivalent to Emperor) without geographic designation. During the Indian rebellion of 1857, the rebel sepoys had proclaimed Bahadur II as Badshah-i-Hind or Emperor of India.

The emotional hold Disraeli had over Victoria in this came from the fact that her eldest daughter, Victoria, had in 1858 married the future Friedrich III of Prussia. In 1871 his father, Wilhelm I, had become Kaiser or Emperor. So Victoria’s daughter was an empress in waiting. For the daughter to upstage the mother wouldn’t do. (She was not an empress for long, as it turned out. Friedrich inherited the title in 1888, but died of natural causes in the same Year of Three Emperors, to make way for Kaiser Bill.)

Jan Morris in a 1997 BBC television documentary about the 1897 Jubilee (Jonathan Stamp; David Cannadine a consultant), on iPlayer here until tomorrow: “Powders, gold, palm trees, strands […]. The whole image of India, then as now, had a romance to it, so for the British to feel that they were masters of this almost legendary, almost fictional, landscape on the other side of the earth was something that was very easy for an astute politician like Disraeli to exploit.”

The same elevation of monarchy to suit a modern, militaristic society occurred in Japan after the Meiji “restoration” of 1868, one of the many ways in which Japanese history has, at various times, strangely paralleled English. Here, too, the monarchy was brought out of abeyance, dusted down and given new ceremonies over which to preside.

Between 1876 and 1897, even as Britain’s relative industrial decline began, the image of Victoria as mother to a global family was perfected. (A youngish taxi driver in Dar es Salaam referred to the present Queen to me this year as “our mother”. How long can this go on?)

Her name was on the map from Victoria Falls to the city of Victoria in western Canada to the state of Victoria in Australia to Victoria on Hong Kong island. She never travelled in her Empire. India was the only part of it that lived somewhat in her imagination. (Her son visited India as Prince of Wales, just before she was made Empress.) But in 1897 the Empire came to London.

In 1877, 1903 and 1911, there were imperial durbars in Delhi. (George V attended the 1911 durbar. Edward VIII visited India as Prince of Wales. George VI, as far as I know, never did. Nor was there a durbar for him.) The last, judging from film of it, looks inflated to the point of vulgarity. Many (including Elgar and Chesterton) would find the Empire Exhibition of 1924 at Wembley, where the Duke of York struggled to make a speech, vulgar, though it wasn’t a royal event.

But on the whole, royal ceremonies have avoided inflation. George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935 was a high point for the monarchy, and the king, rather than aggrandising himself, was famously humbled by it. Anyone looking at the 2012 Jubilee celebrations, whatever their views on the monarchy, would have to agree that Britain has a talent for this sort of thing, a sureness of touch which we hardly, any longer, show in anything else. Where does it come from? I suppose partly from a memory of medieval pageantry, partly from experience in constitutional ceremonies and ceremonies necessary in the running of an empire. I am sure that some of it comes from Mughal India, with its pomp and its processions, its colours and its swaying elephants. The British must have learned something from this. I don’t know whether Cannadine makes this point in his Ornamentalism. The point of that book, according to the Amazon blurb, was to show how “the British Empire was based on a conscious effort to export a model of class hierarchy and status from home out to overseas possessions. The Indian Raj and the tropics of Africa were run as though they were the ornate stately homes or broad-acred landed estates of southern England.” (“Ornate”!) An influence, in other words, in the opposite direction.

Simon Schama in the generally feeble BBC television coverage: “We must remember how extraordinary it is that the problems of Empire morphed into the genuine community of affection of the Commonwealth.” The Jubilee was not merely a British event. London this week was full of Commonwealth representatives, and doubtless some Gurkhas. London in 1897 was full of loyal, foreign Imperial regiments. Some of those soldiers must have died subsequently in France, Mesopotamia and elsewhere. But to one blogger, James Bridle, the present Jubilee is “false memory”.

In my early childhood I saw imperial flag-lowerings on television. Churchill’s funeral. Remembrance Sunday ceremonies in Whitehall. Images of endings. More recently, we have seen weddings and jubilees. Another funeral in 1997. An unhealthy amount of attention has been given to some of this.

It’s moving to hear old people in the film remembering their youthful pride in the Empire. The exhilaration of 1897 has proven hard to shake off. Many in Britain are still living, in some degree, under the spell of that year. In the last night of the Proms we have (to quote the film) “an echo of that distant euphoria”. After many soccer matches, we have an echo of Mafeking night.

Within a couple of years of 1897, the Second Boer War had begun, whose difficulties were a shock to the British, as those of the Vietnam war were to be to the Americans. They learned new, inhumane techniques of warfare, as the Americans did in Vietnam. Jan Morris in the film (how nice it always is to listen to her):

“Almost at once, looking back on it, it began to crumble […]. Almost at once this vast and marvellous illusion turned out to be an illusion after all. Almost immediately the Boer War happened and there was the humiliation of the Empire, which it never quite got over. And after that, of course, came the much worse tragedies, the First World War, which perhaps made the British feel that they weren’t the masters of their fate, as they had fondly thought they would always be, and that things were not so certain, nothing was quite so bold and straight and square as the crowds watching the Diamond Jubilee going by had thought they were.”

Queen Victoria with Indian servants, Windsor Castle, 1895

8 Responses to “Sixty Years a Queen”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    The subtitle of The White Man’s Burden referring to the Philippines (and hence the Spanish-American War) may have appeared in the version in The Times or McClure’s. It was not used in the first edition of The Five Nations.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    Perhaps Conrad qualifies as a fifth genius.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    That the British monarchy escaped serious streamlining in the second half of the twentieth century was due to, as much as anything, the prestige of the Queen Mother. To use old-fashioned historiographical language, her extravagance has been inherited by her grandson-protégé, the future king; there was no sign of it in her husband or elder daughter. Her prestige came from two astute moves during the war: not leaving Buckingham Palace during the Blitz and visiting a couple of bomb sites.

    Travel has not changed significantly. Royal tours are still conducted as if an Empire existed.

  4. davidderrick Says:

    Symptoms of lack of imperial confidence: Chamberlain and Imperial protectionism, Lloyd George’s People’s Budget.

  5. davidderrick Says:

    Elgar’s 1897 and 1924 marches form, in a way, historical bookends. The public mood of 1897 was exuberant, but there was something strained about the Imperial fanfares of 1924. Not that the Elgar shows it.

    1897: apogee of Imperial confidence. 1997: final retreat (departure from Hong Kong).

  6. […] invented modern Conservatism and revived the previously-moribund monarchy. Primrose Day was associated with the Primrose League, formed in 1883 to take Conservative […]

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