Pre-Raphaelite Perspectives for the Jubilee Weekend Morris and Swinburne on Queen Victoria's Jubilee
The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee is dominating the weekend news in Britain, and no doubt in the United States as well, where there is an insatiable appetite for the British Royal Family and its doings.
Of course we twenty-first century citizens are not the only people to have witnessed lavish celebrations to commemorate a long-standing British monarch. George III was the first to have his Golden Jubilee commemorated in 1809, but Queen Victoria saw Golden and Diamond Jubilee celebrations. Her reign (1837 – 1901) is still the longest in the history of Great Britain, though admittedly Elizabeth II is catching up fast.
Victoria, whose portrait hung in the family home when the Rossettis were children, was on the throne long before and long after the Pre-Raphaelite movement. During her reign, the Crown awarded a baronetcy to John Everett Millais (1885) and Edward Burne-Jones (1894). Though Burne-Jones said of his honor, ‘I half like it and half don’t care tuppence’, the half that liked it won the day. He accepted the baronetcy, despite his own reservations, and those of his wife Georgiana and fellow-artists George Frederick Watts (who twice turned down a baronetcy) and William Morris.
What might the Pre-Raphaelites have made of the present Queen’s Diamond Jubilee? Would they have celebrated it along with everyone else or would they have critiqued it? To examine this question, we can look at two very different reactions to the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1887.
Poet Algernon Charles Swinburne commemorated the occasion in his poem, ‘The Commonweal’ which makes it pretty clear that he was a fan of Queen Victoria. This is somewhat surprising, as it is hard to think of a person more opposed to what we think of as ‘Victorian’ norms and beliefs. Swinburne, after all, rose to fame when his first book of Poems (1866) was withdrawn by his publisher after a critical protest at its explicit material, which included subjects such as sado-masochism and necrophilia. But his feelings about his monarch were made of more conventional stuff. On the occasion of her Golden Jubilee he praised his ‘blameless queen’:
And now that fifty years are flown
Since in a maiden’s hand the sign
Of empire that no seas confine
First as a star to seaward shone,
We see their record shine.
Running to a celebratory 50 stanzas, the Golden Jubilee poem concluded:
With just and sacred jubilation
Let earth sound answer to the sea
For witness, blown on winds as free,
How England, how her crowning nation,
Acclaims this jubilee.
William Morris, on the other hand, saw Victoria’s Golden Jubilee as an opportunity for socialist critique. He wrote an article about the occasion for Socialist League monthly paper, The Commonweal. Though it shares a title with Swinburne’s Jubilee poem, The Commonweal’s sentiments toward that event couldn’t be more different.
In an article entitled ‘An Old Supersition, a New Disgrace’ Morris refers to the Jubilee celebrations as a ‘monstrous stupidity’, reminding readers that ‘we must not after all forget what the hideous, revolting, and vulgar tomfoolery in question really means nowadays, or how truly its hideousness and vulgarity of upholstery symbolizes the innate spirit which has forced the skinny twaddle on a nation that is in the habit of boasting (how vainly) of its practicality.’
He goes on to condemn ‘the idiotic court ceremony of the week’, pointing out that its ‘central figure’ represented not the ‘extinct superstitions’ of ‘the feudal hierarchy’ or the ‘divine-right-of-kings’, but ‘commercial realities’, ‘the Privilege of Capital’ and ‘the anti-social spirit’. The festivities were for the benefit of ‘the holiday-makers, the upholsterers, fire-work makers, gas-fitters’ who would ‘gain some temporary advantage from the Royal (but shabby) Jubilee Circus …’.
He concludes with the hope that the Queen’s Jubilee will disgust the complacent populace, inspiring it with a revolutionary fervour. He predicts that ‘when people wake up, as on the morrow of a disgraceful orgie,’ they will have to face the reality of a life spent in ‘wearisome struggle for riches, for place … for bare subsistence’ in ‘a society now at last showing its rottenness openly.’
Both Swinburne’s and Morris’s perspectives on Victoria’s Golden Jubilee cannot help but strike a chord today as the the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II gets underway in ‘Austerity Britain’. On the one hand, isn’t there, as Swinburne argues, good reason to celebrate ‘a stormless jubilee’ lead by ‘a blameless queen’? Perhaps we should look on this long weekend as a chance to have a well-deserved break from grim austerity. Or, as Morris would have it, should this ‘vulgar Royal Upholstery procession’ be ‘consigned to its due dust-heap’?
I think I’ll have browse on the official Royal Collection Shop website while I give these questions the serious consideration they deserve. After all, the limited edition Jubilee teddy bear (£19.99) and chess set (£300) have sold out, but it looks like the tea-towel is still available. At £8.95 it’s a bargain, and as the tea towel itself says, Honi soit qui mal y pense.