Tuesday, 17 February 2009

A Progress

In the very last year of her life; when her legs would not walk and her eyes would not see; when news from the front was bewilderingly bad and even triumph seemed protracted and bloody; when her eldest daughter, Empress of Germany, wrote of all but her own fatal illness; and her eldest son, Prince of Wales, was not ripe for the throne despite bearded and bald middle age; when children and grandchildren were dying before her: Victoria resolved to retrench. It was not forced upon her; the day's government, prematurely nostalgic for her dignified rule and somewhat wary of Edward's succession, had grown indulgent. But the country was broken by war with the Boers, in money and in spirit. And the queen would partake of the cost.

But here arose a great disparity between the plethora of expenses incurred by a state that would not relinquish its monarchy - expenses reluctantly borne because so often the price of uncecessary flourish - and the range of tiny outgoings that, by virtue of their nearness to the queen whose vista contracted with age, occurred as occasions for the proper self-mortification. Her bed, she declared, would not yet be mended; and the selection of bread on her table at breakfast would be taken to serious review. Her bed and her bread: small change for an empire, no help to the war; but the greatest sacrifices conceived by a queen, aged, infirm, and so born to her station that its great and costly indulgences came not before her to question, perhaps because even they, at their surface, produced kinds of discomfort.

Her bed and her bread: privation came to her as it came to the many; for the Queen goes a-progress through the lives of her people.

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