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England”;* the experiment is tried every day, and every day it is proved that money alone-money pur et simple – will not buy “London Society.” Money is kept down, and so to say cowed, by the predominant authority of a different power.
But it may be said that this is no gain; that worship for worship, the worship of money is as good as the worship of rank. Even granting that it were so, it is a great gain to society to have two idols : in the competition of idolatries, the true worship gets a chance. But it is not true that the reverence for rank - at least for hereditary rank — is as base as the reverence for money.
As the world has gone, manner has been half hereditary in certain castes, and manner is one of the fine arts: it is the style of society; it is in the daily spoken intercourse of human beings what the art of literary expression is in their occasional written intercourse. In reverencing wealth we reverence not a man, but an appendix to a man; in reverencing inherited nobility, we reverence the probable possession of a great faculty, - the faculty of bringing out what is in one. The unconscious grace of life may be in the middle classes, finely mannered persons are born everywhere; but it ought to be in the aristocracy, and a man must be born with a hitch in his nerves if he has not some of it. It is a physiological possession of the race, though it is sometimes wanting in the individual.
There is a third idolatry from which that of rank preserves us, and perhaps it is the worst of any, that of office. The basest deity is a subordinate employee, and yet just now in civilized governments it is the commonest; in France and all the best of the Continent it rules like a superstition. It is to no purpose that you prove that the pay of petty officials is smaller than mercantile pay; that their work is more monotonous than mercantile work; that their mind is less useful and their life more tame: they are still thought to be greater and better. They are decorés, – they have a little red on the left breast of their coat; and no argument will answer that. In England, by the odd course of our society, what a theorist would desire has in fact turned up: the great offices (whether permanent or parliamentary) which require mind now give social prestige, and almost only those. An Under-Secretary of State with £2,000 a year is a much greater man than the director of a finance company with £5,000, and the country saves the difference; but except in a few offices like the Treasury, which were once filled with aristocratic people, and have an odor of nobility at second hand, minor place is of no social use. A big grocer despises the exciseman; and — what in many countries would be thought impossible — the exciseman envies the grocer. Solid wealth tells where there is no artificial dignity given to petty public functions. A clerk in the public service is “nobody," and you could not make a common Englishman see why he should be anybody.
* “Occupies so humble a position." – Kinglake's “Eöthen,” Chap. vii.
But it must be owned that this turning of society into a political expedient has half spoiled it. A great part of the “best ” English people keep their mind in a state of decorous dullness. They maintain their dignity; they get obeyed; they are good and charitable to their dependents: but they have no notion of play of mind, no conception that the charm of society depends upon it. They think cleverness an antic, and have a constant though needless horror of being thought to have any of it. So much does this stiff dignity give the tone, that the few Englishmen capable of social brilliancy mostly secrete it: they reserve it for persons whom they can trust, and whom they know to be capable of appreciating its nuances. But a good government is well worth a great deal of social dullness. The dignified torpor of English society is inevitable if we give precedence not to the cleverest classes but to the oldest classes, and we have seen how useful that is.
The social prestige of the aristocracy is, as every one knows, immensely less than it was a hundred years or even fifty years since. Two great movements — the two greatest of modern society - have been unfavorable to it. The rise of industrial wealth in countless forms has brought in a competitor which has generally more mind, and which would be supreme were it not for awkwardness and intellectual gêne. Every day our companies, our railways, our debentures, and our shares tend more and more to multiply these surroundings of the aristocracy, and in time they will hide it. And while this undergrowth has come up, the aristocracy have come down: they have less means of standing out than they used to have. Their power is in their theatrical exhibition, in their state; but society is every day becoming less stately. As our great satirist has observed, “The last Duke of St. David's used to cover the north road with his carriages; landladies and waiters bowed before him : the present Duke sneaks away from a railway station, smoking a cigar, in a brougham.” The aristocracy cannot lead the old life if they would: they are ruled by a stronger power. They suffer from the tendency of all modern society to raise the average, and to lower — comparatively and perhaps absolutely to lower—the summit. As the picturesqueness, the featureliness of society diminishes, aristocracy loses the single instrument of its peculiar power.
If we remember the great reverence which used to be paid to nobility as such, we shall be surprised that the House of Lords, as an assembly, has always been inferior; that it was always just as now, not the first but the second of our assemblies. I am not, of course, now speaking of the Middle Ages; I am not dealing with the embryo or the infant form of our Constitution, I am only speaking of its adult form. Take the times of Sir R. Walpole. He was Prime Minister because he managed the House of Commons; he was turned out because he was beaten on an election petition in that House; he ruled Ensland because he ruled that House. Yet the nobility were then the governing power in England. In many districts the word of some lord was law: the “ wicked Lord Lowther,” as he was called, left a name of terror in Westmoreland during the memory of men now living. A great part of the borough members and a great part of the county members were their nominees; an obedient, unquestioning deference was paid them. As individuals the peers were the greatest people; as a House the collected peers were but the second House.
Several causes contributed to create this anomaly, but the main cause was a natural one: the House of Peers has never been a House where the most important peers were most important. It could not be so: the qualities which fit a man for marked eminence in a deliberative assembly are not hereditary, and are not coupled with great estates. In the nation, in the provinces, in his own province, a Duke of Devonshire or a Duke of Bedford was a much greater man than Lord Thurlow: they had great estates, many boroughs, innumerable retainers, followings like a court; Lord Thurlow had no boroughs, no retainers, — he lived on his salary. Till the House of Lords met, the dukes were not only the greatest but immeasurably the greatest; but as soon as the House met, Lord Thurlow became the greatest: he could speak, and the others could not speak; he could transact business in half an hour which they could not have transacted in a day, or could not have transacted at all. When some foolish peer, who disliked his domination, sneered at his birth, he had words to meet the case: he said it was better for any one to owe his place to his own exertions than to owe it to descent, to being the “accident of an accident." But such a House as this could not be pleasant to great noblemen: they could not like to be second in their own assembly (and yet that was their position from
age to age) to a lawyer who was of yesterday, whom everybody could remember without briefs, who had talked for “hire,” who had “hungered after six-andeightpence.” Great peers did not gain glory from the House; on the contrary, they lost glory when they were in the House. They devised two expedients to get out of this difficulty: they invented proxies which enabled them to vote without being present, without being offended by vigor and invective, without being vexed by ridicule, without leaving the rural mansion or the town palace where they were demigods; and what was more effectual still, they used their influence in the House of Commons instead of the House of Lords, – in that indirect manner a rural potentate who half returned two county members and wholly returned two borough members, who perhaps gave seats to members of the Government, who possibly seated the leader of the Opposition, became a much greater man than by sitting on his own bench, in his own House, hearing a chancellor talk. The House of Lords was a second-rate force even when the peers were a first-rate force, because the greatest peers -- those who had the greatest social importancedid not care for their own House or like it, but gained great part of their political power by a hidden but potent influence in the competing House.
When we cease to look at the House of Lords under its dignified aspect, and come to regard it under its strictly useful aspect, we find the literary theory of the English Constitution wholly wrong, as usual. This theory says that the House of Lords is a co-ordinate estate of the realm, of equal rank with the House of Commons; that it is the aristocratic branch just as the Commons is the popular branch, and that by the principle of our Constitution the aristocratic branch has equal authority with the popular branch. So utterly false is this doctrine, that it is a remarkable peculiarity, a capital excellence of the British Constitution, that it contains a sort of