A Short History of Social Life in England/Chapter 28

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Circa 1885—1906


"And in to-day already walks to-morrow."—Coleridge.

A VERY slight and necessarily inadequate sketch must cover the period which brings the story of Social Life in England up to the present time. Pre-eminently among all others, this has been an age of transition, and it is well-nigh impossible to attempt a description of it, so rapidly, so breathlessly is it changing from day to day. "It changes, it must change, it ought to change with the broadening wants and requirements of a growing country, and with the gradual illumination of the public conscience."[1] Indeed, the words of Macaulay never rang more true than they do to-day when he affirms: "A point which yesterday was invisible is its goal to-day and will be its starting-point to-morrow."

Amid the tumult and rush of modern social life two factors seem predominant—the rise of the Democracy to power, the large part played by the people for the first time in the history of our land, and the acceleration of speed—the ever-growing rapidity of transit.

With regard to the first movement, which has already been traced step by step through the ages that are past, compulsory attendance at school, insisted on in 1870, and free education bestowed upon the nation in 1891, have contributed to important developments. The nation had at last realised that the children of to-day represented the England of to-morrow, and that their claims were predominant. The establishment of polytechnics, where lads fresh from school and already at work in the world could improve themselves, the improvements taking place in secondary education and evening schools, the facilities for scholarships to enable a promising child to pass from the free school to the highest honours and privileges of the Universities—these have been powerful forces in the Democratic movement. "It is your duty to educate yourselves as far as lies in your power," said one[2] who realised the possibilities of this social revolution. "Your liberty, your rights, your emancipation from every injustice in your social position, the task which each of you is bound to fulfil on earth—all these depend upon the degree of education you are able to attain. Without education you are incapable of rightly choosing between good and evil; you cannot acquire a true knowledge of your rights; you cannot attain that participation in political life without which your complete social emancipation is impossible." The door of learning once unlocked, there were plenty of keen, poor scholars eager to make their way upwards, to earn a living by their brains rather than by their hands. They forced the doors of the professions which had been jealously guarded throughout the ages; they climbed the social ladder as it had never been climbed before; they rose "from corduroy to broadcloth, from workshop to counter, from shop to office, from trade to profession, from the bedroom over the shop to the country villa."

These are common enough transitions to-day. Not only toil and industry, perseverance and the acquirement of knowledge, but the accumulation of money has helped the sons of to-day to rise to positions hitherto undreamt of in a country of slowly dying feudalism and haunting tradition. The possession of wealth can force position and power, gaining for a man of obscure origin the entrance to that sphere of society where he would be, for there is no committee of ladies of quality to bar his entrance to an exclusive society as prevailed at Almack's a hundred years ago. A modern Englishman of any birth, class, or occupation can represent his fellows in the House of Commons and rise to the House of Lords, he can have a seat in the Cabinet and attend the highest social functions in the land. There is hardly a local committee throughout the country without its working man representative; on borough council and county council he sits side by side with the local grocer, the lord of the manor, or the hereditary peer. They are elected by the same community, they speak on the same subjects, they vote on the same amendments. At home they read the same newspapers, the same books are within their reach, they dress in the same clothes, they play the same games, they eat the same food. Never was any social revolution more silent, more swift and resistless. Everywhere the old order of things is slipping away, everywhere the new and unexpected is asserting itself. Perhaps one of the greatest modem developments is that which has taken place in regard to the position of woman in England. The steps whereby she obtained her "emancipation" have already been noted. Today society is still somewhat bewildered over her new status. Due to a series of uncontrollable circumstances, she has found herself independent, and often forced to support herself by finding labour in the overcrowded markets of our great cities. Emigration has not yet appealed to the women of England as it has to her sons, hence the extraordinary numerical inequality of the sexes at home. But in physique and general happiness the girl of the present is an infinitely happier being than her predecessor of some fifty years ago. She is better fed, better educated, better developed, and altogether better fitted for the great struggle of existence wheresoever it may lead her. Athletics, indeed, are common to all in these days. Their popularity has increased with astounding rapidity during the last decade, and in the absence of military training for purposes of national defence common to other nations, athletics are a necessary development for the physique of our rising manhood. Never was the desire for amusement stronger than it is now. The exchange of agriculture for that of factory life, the rush and competition of business instead of the quiet monotony of the country, forcing the rural population into England's large towns, those "vast hives of toil," where "labour crowds in hopeless misery"—these conditions have done much to depress and sadden modern life. The age has been called one of "growing and inevitable sadness." Gone are the gay-coloured garments of medieval England, gone the merry manners of Elizabeth's light-hearted subjects, gone the boisterous jokes of the century that is past. And in place of this there is a dim yearning for amusement, a restless love of excitement, a desire to drown depression and stifle worry. Men, women, and even children, flock to places of cheap amusement for recreation which endeavour to supply the pathetic demand, thereby deteriorating public taste without satisfying morbid discontent. It is the same with cheap literature. Though the world's masterpieces are within the reach of all, the cry is for something sensational, adventurous, or romantic. Athletics, then, form a healthful antidote, and the facility introduced by the bicycle has added happiness and health to all classes of the community. This age has seen

"New men who in the flying of a wheel
  Cry down the past."

If it has been the rich man's hobby, it has been the poor man's carriage—it has taken him from the crowded slum to the fresh air of the country, it has enabled him to live far from his work and rear his children among more possible surroundings. Indeed, rapid transit is a necessity of modern city life, and never was it growing more rapid than it is to-day, thanks to the wonderful discoveries in the application of electricity, which has bidden fair to revolutionise modern society.

It was one December evening in 1858 that the first electric light flashed over the troubled sea from the South Foreland Lighthouse, but private houses were not lit with it till 1878, when the introduction of the incandescent lamp made it possible. The advance of this huge force has been strong and steady, and year by year we have been compelled to acknowledge its irresistible power. The motor force of electricity has persistently compelled attention, and a road speed hitherto undreamt of has been attained. Electric railways, with no smell and no smoke, have replaced the old steam engine, and motors, though still far from perfect, are designed to run at a high speed, though the arguments used against their noise, vibration and smell are precisely the same as those which were used in the days of the early railways. This tremendous acceleration in speed must in course of time effect a redistribution in the population of the overcrowded cities: the working man can make his home in yet purer air, the merchant and professional man can live on the coast, and the desolate land may once more ring with life and bustle. Only within the last few years has the telephone—that union of two great forces, sound and electricity—been making its way in England. In America it is already largely used but the old country moves more slowly in these latter days and leaves the younger nations to go "full steam ahead." As with the telephone, still run by private enterprise, so it is with wireless telegraphy, which is bridging over the human silence of the great waters, independent of storm or wind, truly one of the most wonderful developments of a wonderful age.

And still at the beginning of the twentieth century we await the air ship. It is now over sixty years since Tennyson prophesied its success:

"Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails.
  Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;
  Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain'd a ghastly dew
  From the nations' airy navies grappling in the central blue."

The fulfilment will surely come, and that before very long now. But this age of transition and experiment has also been called an age of materialism. It has been stated again and again that commercial prosperity has raised England to a perilous height, and that with the wealth, luxury, and worldly ambitions that have come in its train, Englishmen have lost that faith to which their ancestors owed so much of their content and happiness; that commercial immorality has taken the place of the integrity that of old characterised our commerce and raised our English merchants once and for ever above those on the Continent; that the unceasing and selfish desire for money has blinded the eyes of our fellow-countrymen to their duties as members of the greatest Empire the world has ever seen; that patriotism, which prompted men of old to lay down their lives, is a dead-letter to-day.

Perhaps this is hardly a question for the student of social life in England, especially in a sketch that deals only with material progress, as far as it can be treated apart from the influence of religion, literature, and art, with which it is inextricably mingled. But it would be inconsistent with the English character, as briefly noted in these pages, to end with a note of pessimism. Similar crises have occurred in our social history before, if in a lesser degree, and Englishmen have ever weathered the storm, even as their Anglo-Saxon ancestors had done before them. And even now, in spite of the accusations of luxury, of commercial immorality and of want of ready patriotism, there are gleams of something higher, signs of a larger humanity than ever before, and of a more perfect brotherhood.

"When each of you," said Lamennais, "loving all men as brothers, shall reciprocally act like brothers; when each of you, seeking his own well-being in the well-being of all, shall identify his own life with the life of all, and his own interest with the interest of all; when each shall be ever ready to sacrifice himself for all the members of the Common Family, equally ready to sacrifice themselves for him, most of the evils which now weigh upon the human race will disappear, as the gathering vapours of the horizon on the rising of the sun."

Dimly by the light of past ages, men think they can discern a nation

"Made free by love, a mighty brotherhood
  Linked by a jealous interchange of Good."

Much has already been accomplished, but much remains, "There is no such thing as finality." Nerved, strengthened, encouraged by those who have created the present from the past, in the spirit of those fearless, ever-hopeful ancestors who braved the unknown seas and greeted England with a cheer, let their descendants face the future—

"Push off and, sitting well in order, smite
  The sounding furrows."