Extract from Ellen W. Randolph Coolidge’s London Travel Diary

yesterday was a busy day with me. In the morning Mr C. & myself received a note from Mr Stevenson and two cards of admittance to the House of Lords. The Queen was to go in state to open Parliament and the ceremonies were expected to be brilliant and imposing. They would be very curious & interesting to persons, like ourselves, who had never witnessed any thing of the kind before. There was a great demand for tickets and difficulty in obtaining them. Mrs Stevenson anxious that I should see the shew, had requested Mr Stevenson to write to Lord Willoughby for them. This he had accordingly done and they had been sent only on the morning of the day; rather late for my convenience as I had made no preparation for going and it was necessary to go in very full dress. I hesitated between my desire to be present at such a scene, and alarm at the thought of so much hurry and trouble. Curiosity prevailed. Then it was such a privilege to go! I knew that Mrs M. was dying for a ticket which she could not obtain. Miss B. wrote me a note of congratulation on my good fortune. Mr D. & Miss S. desired exceedingly to be present but the thing was impossible. How could I resist the temptation of seeing what so many persons desired in vain to see. So that roused from the torpor of indolence which so often makes me feel that “le jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle,” I exerted myself to be dressed. Bare arms, bare neck, a black satin dress made by Mrs Murray and trailing gloriously upon the ground; my hair arranged by Mrs Stevenson’s maid with her lady’s plumes (five tall ostrich feathers) and pearls, a feronnière with a diamond frontlet, and a necklace with a diamond clasp; wrapped in an elegant white Indian shawl of my own, my looking-glass assured me that I was presentable even in the House of Lords. Mr Coolidge and myself entered our carriage at a quarter past twelve. Long, however, before we reached our destination we were forced to take our place in a line of carriages, of formidable length before us and which was constantly lengthening in the rear. Carriage after carriage of those in front, deposited it’s occupants, and slowly, surely our own drew up to fill each vacant space as it occurred. There was no hurry, no confusion, the street on both sides bordered with police-[. . .] men who kept all things and persons in exact order. Thousands of spectators were assembled but every thing was conducted peacefully and properly. Presently our carriage stopped before the door of the House of Lords. We entered together, and after traversing some passage and stair-ways, we passed through the Royal Gallery to the door of the “Salle de Spectacle.” Here we were compelled to part. Mr Coolidge’s ticket was for the Royal Gallery, Morning dress, and carried him no farther. I entered the Hall alone but with no feeling of embarrassment. I was a stranger—no one was watching for or looking at me. There was no one to whom my good or ill appearance was a matter of the smallest moment. There were no eyes sharpened by friendship or malice to note whether my entrée were graceful or awkward. Those who looked at all looked with utter indifference. They were thinking only of themselves, their friends or their enemies. The coat of darkness worn by Jack the Giant Killer, had it covered my satin, cashmere and pearls, could scarce have made my ‘incognita’ more complete. The man in waiting by whatever name he may be known, performed his mechanical duty. He looked at my ticket which was for the Strangers’ Gallery, informed me that all there was full, but that he could find me standing room in a window in the body of the House. Standing room for one who can no more stand than an empty sack!—Who sinks into a seat as if volition were out of the question, and the law of gravity the only moving power! Standing room were words of direful import to ears like mine, but I determined to trust to chance, and took my place accordingly, in the recess of a window, behind a row of ladies seated comfortably on a cushioned form. Chance did not stand my friend, and it was to Courtesy that I was indebted for a place on that very cushioned form, the ladies pressing more closely together and inviting me to be seated among them. Gratefully I accepted the offer and found a commodious resting place, rather farther than I liked from the throne and the door of entrance, but far better than, coming so late, I had any right to expect. I believe I was the last lady under the rank of a peeress, who obtained a seat at all. It was now past one—the Queen not expected until two, and I had time to look round and observe. The room was full or filling fast. There were Peers in their robes of scarlet, gold and ermine; Peeresses in velvet, satin, plumes & diamonds; Judges in flowing wigs; Ambassadors of various nations in various rich dresses with stars, ribbons and orders innumerable; ladies not “milédis” with tickets of admission, dressed some tastefully, others in bad taste; looking, some, like ladies of Nature’s making, and others as if they could be made ladies by no process of Fortune.

In about an hour and a half the firing of cannon and the “fanfare” of trumpets announced the arrival of the Queen. Her Majesty having passed through the Royal Gallery, in full sight of the ticket holders, entered the Hall. She wore her full robes of state with the crown on her head, and was preceded, accompanied or followed, by members of the Royal Family, great officers of state, Ladies in waiting, military men, mace-bearers &c &c. Such a gorgeous display of diamonds, gold, scarlet, purple, stars, crosses, ribands, plumes, velvet & ermine of course I had never witnessed. The Queen having seated herself upon the throne, with Lord Melville on one side, bearing the sword of state, and Lord Shaftesbury on the other with the cap of maintenance, remained for a few moments quiet & calm and apparently as much at her ease as if in her own chamber. In the mean while the “Gentlemen of the House of Commons” having been summoned, made their entry by a side door, into a place partitioned off for them, a sort of pen, at the other end of the Hall and opposite the throne. They came in awkwardly, stumbling & almost tumbling over each other, very much as sheep do when driven for the night into their fold. Some little time elapsed before order could become the order of the day, but silence at length prevailed until broken by the silver tones of the young Queen. She read her “speech from the throne,” the string of commonplaces prepared for the occasion, and which, I presume, was all sufficient for what the purpose it was meant to serve, heads of chapters for future development in parliamentary debate, a cautious text for long commentaries. The Queen’s reading was remarkably correct and exact. Her voice clear, well sustained and never faltering nor failing for an instant. Her articulation distinct, her manner calm, self-possessed and dignified. She emphasized her words and sentences enough to give them their full meaning and their relations to each other, but in no instance so as to bring some subjects into bolder relief and throw others comparatively into the shade. She gave nothing to the speech, by accent, tone or manner, which it did not inherently possess, treating as I have said the matters which it discussed with strict impartiality, and the absence of all preference for one over the other. This no doubt was just as it should be, and the Queen had probably repeated her lesson in private more than once before committing it to the public ear. The ceremony over Her Majesty rose slowly and composedly and retired from the Hall, speaking as she passed, I think to the Duke of Cambridge. Her manner, movements and carriage were all worthy of her position, but her want of height is a misfortune in a Queen. She is altogether too short for Royalty. When she entered the Hall with her large and somewhat clumsy crown, which upon that little head and above that childish face, is singularly unbecoming, it seemed [. . .] out of proportion with her petite figure; the white plumes of the ladies in attendance waved high above the symbol of power and royalty, which in itself produced an effect not unlike that of the bearskin cap worn by a dragoon. Were the Queen six inches taller the moral effect of her presence would be altogether greater. How willingly would I give her Majesty the six inches in which she is deficient; thus raising her to “a just stature,” and bringing me down no lower than my pretensions.

The Queen gone, the crowd was long in dispersing, and even when the Hall and Royal Gallery were cleared, the stairs and entries were filled with persons waiting for their carriages to draw up to the door. Name after name was shouted out as each successive carriage stopped the way. Each one in their turn—no confusion, no disorder, and after a reasonable delay I found myself safe on my way home again.

I know not why, but the scene I had so recently witnessed seemed to me to have no more character of reality than had I seen it on the stage. It was a shew, a theatrical pageant, not a sober and serious ceremony by which a great people ushered in their national councils—those deliberations and debates which almost decide the fate of the world. That young girl with a crown on her head, that sword of state and cap of maintenance, those gowns and wigs, all that scarlet and gold, did they belong to the realm of fact & not of fiction?—Perhaps to feel as one should feel on such an occasions, it is necessary to have been born and brought up where they are of frequent occurrence and associated with ideas of reality, of power and of dignity. An American coming from a land so matter-of-fact as ours, where so little is given to the imagination or senses, finds it difficult to regard this pageantry except as a mere shew—just as a protestant regards the ceremonies of the Roman Catholic religion. I am by no means sure that we have not made a great mistake in simplifying and vulgarizing the forms of our Government too much. We have destroyed too entirely the “prestige” which is so often the foundation of respect.

Another circumstance prevented my receiving a full impression from the glories of the day. The great glories were wanting. The distinguished men whom I hoped to see were were absent. The Duke of Wellington kept away—Lord Brougham staid growling in his own kennel. To be sure My Lord Viscount Melbourne was present—“Gros et gras, le teint frais et la bouche vermeille—Le pauvre homme.”—and the Royal Duke of Cambridge with the paunch if not the wit of Falstaff, was making himself agreeable to the ladies.—Another drawback to my complete [. . .] satisfaction was the somewhat soiled finery of the ladies. In spite of the brilliant general effect, when you came to examine a little closely you became aware that many plumes were soiled, and that the blonde and silk looked somewhat dingy, as if with the smoke & wear & tear of the last season. There were diamonds however and fine ones, and in one instance at least, they glittered on the person of a woman who though a peeress, should not have insulted by her impure presence the ceremonial state of a Maiden Queen. She occupied a conspicuous position in the ranks of the noble ladies, but I was afterwards told, that her life had been an infamous one. She was present in right of a coronet which an Earl had not been ashamed to bind on her dishonoured brow. Aristocracy of England—ancient & time-hallowed institution, take care what you do, for the times are dangerous, and the spirits of cavil and of doubt are walking widely abroad!

Apropos to faded finery the robes of the Peers were in many cases somewhat the worse for wear, the scarlet passé, the gold tarnished, and the ermine no longer spotless. But this I am told is all as it should be. It is somewhat a point of pride with the Lords that their robes should be shabby. It shews that their titles are not of new creation. The robe is a sort of cloak or loose gown thrown over the shoulders, and capable I should think of being gracefully worn, but the Peers manage it awkwardly, dragging it up, or letting it trail on the ground, twitching it now to one side, now to the other, in great apparent disrespect for so honorable a garment.

Wednesday. 6. February.

I went to a small party at Mrs Morrison’s where I met Sir Francis & Lady Chauntrey. He is a fat apoplectic looking man, stout & corpulent, but with a fine bald head. She feeble in health and uninteresting, as is often the case with the wives of distinguished men. Perhaps she might improve upon acquaintance, but she seems now somewhat puffed up in spirit by her husband’s honours. He is a self-made man and a man cannot be expected to make himself and his wife too. They have no children and I have heard an amusing story bearing upon this fact. His next heirs are some country relations who are proud to pay him an occasional visit in town where he lives in a good house, in good style, having made a fortune as well as a name and a title for himself. Once on a time then, the country relations came, the parents bringing their children to visit Sir Francis and Lady Chauntrey. One of the little ones, “un enfant terrible,” after surveying all the wonders of the drawing room, the carpets, curtains, mirrors, french clock, vases, candelabra &c &c, being particularly struck with some articles more shewy than the rest, exclaimed, with childish greediness and in a loud voice—“Mother are these fine things all to belong to us?” The consternation of the mother at this indiscreet allusion to her expectations, may well be imagined.

MS (MHi: Ellen Wayles Randolph Coolidge Diary, Ms N-1027); in Coolidge’s hand. Published in Thomas Jefferson’s Granddaughter in Queen Victoria’s England: The Travel Diary of Ellen Wayles Coolidge, 1838–1839, Ann Lucas Birle and Lisa A. Francavilla, eds. (2011), 212–19.

cards of admittance were required for strangers who wished to attend the opening of parliament. le jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle: “the play is not worth the candle.” feronnière: a chain worn as an ornament encircling the head with a jewel at the center (OED). The bearer of the sword of state was actually William Lamb, 2nd viscount Melbourne (London Gazette, 8 Feb. 1839). gros et gras . . . le pauvre homme: “big and bold, fresh complexion and rosy mouth—poor man,” is from Molière’s Tartuffe, Act 1, Scene 4.