Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Nineteen

“Lord John Russell,” pages 117-121

Bertie’s granddad was born in 1792, as the French monarchy fell. As an MP, John Russell opposed using military force to counter Napoleon’s post-Elba activity, but his views did not carry the day. The political battle that John did win was the Reform Act of 1832, which moved Britain on a course towards full democracy. Bertie finds his granddad’s subsequent stints as Prime Minister to be less momentous. “In his later years he was only moderately liberal, except in one respect, and that was his hatred of religious disabilities [p. 118].” Bertie recalls a gathering shortly before his grandfather’s death (and hence, some 78 years prior to the publication of Portraits From Memory!) to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of John Russell’s first major political victory, winning the repeal of the religious test for office holders and MPs. Bertie traces his own commitment to civil and religious liberties to such events.

“In public life he [Bertie’s granddad] was often accused of coldness, but at home he was warm and affectionate and kindly in the highest degree [p. 119].” He could deliver speeches in French, Italian, and Spanish; he loved Don Quixote, and was honored by the Italians for his efforts on behalf of Italian unity. His passion for liberty drew from classical, not contemporary sources; it was the same romantic spirit that impelled Byron’s fight for Greek independence. He was nourished on literature and poetry, and eschewed the cold economic realism now in fashion. Edmund Cartwright, the inventor of the power loom, tutored John Russell when he was growing up, but Bertie’s granddad didn’t even know that Cartwright had created one of the chief machines for spurring the Industrial Revolution; rather, he admired Cartwright “for his elegant Latinity and for the elevation of his moral sentiments, as well as for the fact that he was the brother of a famous radical agitator [p. 120].” 

Democracy was a goal for John Russell, but he was content to move there gradually, and tacitly believed that aristocratic Whig families like his would chart the course.

Bertie lived with John Russell in Pembroke Lodge. Many famous personages and foreign diplomats came through its doors; Bertie met Queen Victoria there. “Every corner of the house was associated with some nineteenth-century event or institution which now seems as remotely historical as the dodo [p. 121].” All has changed, despite the conviction then held at Pembroke Lodge that the only change the world would see would be the gradual spread of British-style government. Bertie’s granddad would be shocked to learn of the disasters that the world fell into. How quickly longstanding political states and traditions, no longer appropriate for their times, can be swept off the stage! Such revolutions can be disheartening, but they are full of promise for creative thinkers.

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