All in all, it was a virile and fruitful England. There were many weak spots in the picture, as in every picture true to life: the yeomanry disappearing, the proletariat enslaved, drink and gambling ruining fortunes and breaking up homes; government frankly a class privilege, and law made by a few men for other men and all women. And yet amid these faults and crimes science was developing, philosophy was ruminating, Constable was revealing English landscapes, Turner was chaining the sun and stilling the storm, and Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron and Shelley were giving England a feast of poetry unequaled anywhere since the first Elizabeth. Under all the turbulence there lay a saving order and stability that allowed many freedoms —more than in any other European state except in France, where excessive freedom had committed suicide. There was freedom of movement and travel except in war, freedom of worship this side of blasphemy, freedom of the press this side of treason, freedom of opinion this side of advocating a violent revolution which would, by all precedents, involve a decade or more of bewildering lawlessness and insecurity.
It was not a highly educated public opinion; it often expressed Mrs. Gump, and upheld outworn taboos; but it had the courage to boo a degenerate prince and applaud his cruelly discarded wife.66 It expressed itself also in a hundred associations and societies dedicated to education, science, philosophy, and reform. On critical issues it expressed itself in public assemblies and exercised the right of petition guaranteed by English law; and when it felt too heavily the hand of an oligarchic state it took to resistance as the final stand of patient Englishmen; more than once a healthy riot ran through the countryside and city streets.
The government was an aristocracy, but it was at least polite; it transmitted manners, checked fads, and maintained standards of taste against barbarism in art and superstition in belief; it supported several good causes, and kept its great poets from starvation. There was an occasionally insane King, but his claws had been cut, he had become helplessly lovable, and he served as a symbol of national unity, a focus of national fervor and pride; there seemed no sense in killing a million people to depose so useful a master of ceremonies. After a bow or two an Englishman might follow his own mood, go his own way, provided he did not insist upon the equal rights of bootblacks and baronets to make the laws of the land. “In England,” Mme. de Staël noted, “originality is allowed to individuals, so well regulated is the mass”;67 it was the superimposed order that allowed the burgeoning of freedom.
Let us see this combination at work in art, science, philosophy, literature, and statesmanship. Only then will the picture of English life, A.D. 1800, be, within our limits, just and complete.