Letters written during a short residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, by Mary Wollstonecraft

Letter X.

I have once more, my friend, taken flight, for I left Tonsberg yesterday, but with an intention of returning in my way back to Sweden.

The road to Laurvig is very fine, and the country the best cultivated in Norway. I never before admired the beech tree, and when I met stragglers here they pleased me still less. Long and lank, they would have forced me to allow that the line of beauty requires some curves, if the stately pine, standing near, erect, throwing her vast arms around, had not looked beautiful in opposition to such narrow rules.

In these respects my very reason obliges me to permit my feelings to be my criterion. Whatever excites emotion has charms for me, though I insist that the cultivation of the mind by warming, nay, almost creating the imagination, produces taste and an immense variety of sensations and emotions, partaking of the exquisite pleasure inspired by beauty and sublimity. As I know of no end to them, the word infinite, so often misapplied, might on this occasion be introduced with something like propriety.

But I have rambled away again. I intended to have remarked to you the effect produced by a grove of towering beech, the airy lightness of their foliage admitting a degree of sunshine, which, giving a transparency to the leaves, exhibited an appearance of freshness and elegance that I had never before remarked. I thought of descriptions of Italian scenery. But these evanescent graces seemed the effect of enchantment; and I imperceptibly breathed softly, lest I should destroy what was real, yet looked so like the creation of fancy. Dryden’s fable of the flower and the leaf was not a more poetical reverie.

Adieu, however, to fancy, and to all the sentiments which ennoble our nature. I arrived at Laurvig, and found myself in the midst of a group of lawyers of different descriptions. My head turned round, my heart grew sick, as I regarded visages deformed by vice, and listened to accounts of chicanery that was continually embroiling the ignorant. These locusts will probably diminish as the people become more enlightened. In this period of social life the commonalty are always cunningly attentive to their own interest; but their faculties, confined to a few objects, are so narrowed, that they cannot discover it in the general good. The profession of the law renders a set of men still shrewder and more selfish than the rest; and it is these men, whose wits have been sharpened by knavery, who here undermine morality, confounding right and wrong.

The Count of Bernstorff, who really appears to me, from all I can gather, to have the good of the people at heart, aware of this, has lately sent to the mayor of each district to name, according to the size of the place, four or six of the best-informed inhabitants, not men of the law, out of which the citizens were to elect two, who are to be termed mediators. Their office is to endeavour to prevent litigious suits, and conciliate differences. And no suit is to be commenced before the parties have discussed the dispute at their weekly meeting. If a reconciliation should, in consequence, take place, it is to be registered, and the parties are not allowed to retract.

By these means ignorant people will be prevented from applying for advice to men who may justly be termed stirrers-up of strife. They have for a long time, to use a significant vulgarism, set the people by the ears, and live by the spoil they caught up in the scramble. There is some reason to hope that this regulation will diminish their number, and restrain their mischievous activity. But till trials by jury are established, little justice can be expected in Norway. Judges who cannot be bribed are often timid, and afraid of offending bold knaves, lest they should raise a set of hornets about themselves. The fear of censure undermines all energy of character; and, labouring to be prudent, they lose sight of rectitude. Besides, nothing is left to their conscience, or sagacity; they must be governed by evidence, though internally convinced that it is false.

There is a considerable iron manufactory at Laurvig for coarse work, and a lake near the town supplies the water necessary for working several mills belonging to it.

This establishment belongs to the Count of Laurvig. Without a fortune and influence equal to his, such a work could not have been set afloat; personal fortunes are not yet sufficient to support such undertakings. Nevertheless the inhabitants of the town speak of the size of his estate as an evil, because it obstructs commerce. The occupiers of small farms are obliged to bring their wood to the neighbouring seaports to be shipped; but he, wishing to increase the value of his, will not allow it to be thus gradually cut down, which turns the trade into another channel. Added to this, nature is against them, the bay being open and insecure. I could not help smiling when I was informed that in a hard gale a vessel had been wrecked in the main street. When there are such a number of excellent harbours on the coast, it is a pity that accident has made one of the largest towns grow up on a bad one.

The father of the present count was a distant relation of the family; he resided constantly in Denmark, and his son follows his example. They have not been in possession of the estate many years; and their predecessor lived near the town, introducing a degree of profligacy of manners which has been ruinous to the inhabitants in every respect, their fortunes not being equal to the prevailing extravagance.

What little I have seen of the manners of the people does not please me so well as those of Tonsberg. I am forewarned that I shall find them still more cunning and fraudulent as I advance towards the westward, in proportion as traffic takes place of agriculture, for their towns are built on naked rocks, the streets are narrow bridges, and the inhabitants are all seafaring men, or owners of ships, who keep shops.

The inn I was at in Laurvig this journey was not the same that I was at before. It is a good one — the people civil, and the accommodations decent. They seem to be better provided in Sweden; but in justice I ought to add that they charge more extravagantly. My bill at Tonsberg was also much higher than I had paid in Sweden, and much higher than it ought to have been where provision is so cheap. Indeed, they seem to consider foreigners as strangers whom they shall never see again, and may fairly pluck. And the inhabitants of the western coast, isolated, as it were, regard those of the east almost as strangers. Each town in that quarter seems to be a great family, suspicious of every other, allowing none to cheat them but themselves; and, right or wrong, they support one another in the face of justice.

On this journey I was fortunate enough to have one companion with more enlarged views than the generality of his countrymen, who spoke English tolerably.

I was informed that we might still advance a mile and a quarter in our cabrioles; afterwards there was no choice, but of a single horse and wretched path, or a boat, the usual mode of travelling.

We therefore sent our baggage forward in the boat, and followed rather slowly, for the road was rocky and sandy. We passed, however, through several beech groves, which still delighted me by the freshness of their light green foliage, and the elegance of their assemblage, forming retreats to veil without obscuring the sun.

I was surprised, at approaching the water, to find a little cluster of houses pleasantly situated, and an excellent inn. I could have wished to have remained there all night; but as the wind was fair, and the evening fine, I was afraid to trust to the wind — the uncertain wind of tomorrow. We therefore left Helgeraac immediately with the declining sun.

Though we were in the open sea, we sailed more amongst the rocks and islands than in my passage from Stromstad; and they often forced very picturesque combinations. Few of the high ridges were entirely bare; the seeds of some pines or firs had been wafted by the winds or waves, and they stood to brave the elements.

Sitting, then, in a little boat on the ocean, amidst strangers, with sorrow and care pressing hard on me — buffeting me about from clime to clime — I felt

“Like the lone shrub at random cast, That sighs and trembles at each blast!”

On some of the largest rocks there were actually groves, the retreat of foxes and hares, which, I suppose, had tripped over the ice during the winter, without thinking to regain the main land before the thaw.

Several of the islands were inhabited by pilots; and the Norwegian pilots are allowed to be the best in the world — perfectly acquainted with their coast, and ever at hand to observe the first signal or sail. They pay a small tax to the king and to the regulating officer, and enjoy the fruit of their indefatigable industry.

One of the islands, called Virgin Land, is a flat, with some depth of earth, extending for half a Norwegian mile, with three farms on it, tolerably well cultivated.

On some of the bare rocks I saw straggling houses; they rose above the denomination of huts inhabited by fishermen. My companions assured me that they were very comfortable dwellings, and that they have not only the necessaries, but even what might be reckoned the superfluities of life. It was too late for me to go on shore, if you will allow me to give that name to shivering rocks, to ascertain the fact.

But rain coming on, and the night growing dark, the pilot declared that it would be dangerous for us to attempt to go to the place of our destination — East Rusoer — a Norwegian mile and a half further; and we determined to stop for the night at a little haven, some half dozen houses scattered under the curve of a rock. Though it became darker and darker, our pilot avoided the blind rocks with great dexterity.

It was about ten o’clock when we arrived, and the old hostess quickly prepared me a comfortable bed — a little too soft or so, but I was weary; and opening the window to admit the sweetest of breezes to fan me to sleep, I sunk into the most luxurious rest: it was more than refreshing. The hospitable sprites of the grots surely hovered round my pillow; and, if I awoke, it was to listen to the melodious whispering of the wind amongst them, or to feel the mild breath of morn. Light slumbers produced dreams, where Paradise was before me. My little cherub was again hiding her face in my bosom. I heard her sweet cooing beat on my heart from the cliffs, and saw her tiny footsteps on the sands. New-born hopes seemed, like the rainbow, to appear in the clouds of sorrow, faint, yet sufficient to amuse away despair.

Some refreshing but heavy showers have detained us; and here I am writing quite alone — something more than gay, for which I want a name.

I could almost fancy myself in Nootka Sound, or on some of the islands on the north-west coast of America. We entered by a narrow pass through the rocks, which from this abode appear more romantic than you can well imagine; and seal-skins hanging at the door to dry add to the illusion.

It is indeed a corner of the world, but you would be surprised to see the cleanliness and comfort of the dwelling. The shelves are not only shining with pewter and queen’s ware, but some articles in silver, more ponderous, it is true, than elegant. The linen is good, as well as white. All the females spin, and there is a loom in the kitchen. A sort of individual taste appeared in the arrangement of the furniture (this is not the place for imitation) and a kindness in their desire to oblige. How superior to the apish politeness of the towns! where the people, affecting to be well bred, fatigue with their endless ceremony.

The mistress is a widow, her daughter is married to a pilot, and has three cows. They have a little patch of land at about the distance of two English miles, where they make hay for the winter, which they bring home in a boat. They live here very cheap, getting money from the vessels which stress of weather, or other causes, bring into their harbour. I suspect, by their furniture, that they smuggle a little. I can now credit the account of the other houses, which I last night thought exaggerated.

I have been conversing with one of my companions respecting the laws and regulations of Norway. He is a man within great portion of common sense and heart — yes, a warm heart. This is not the first time I have remarked heart without sentiment; they are distinct. The former depends on the rectitude of the feelings, on truth of sympathy; these characters have more tenderness than passion; the latter has a higher source — call it imagination, genius, or what you will, it is something very different. I have been laughing with these simple worthy folk — to give you one of my half-score Danish words — and letting as much of my heart flow out in sympathy as they can take. Adieu! I must trip up the rocks. The rain is ever. Let me catch pleasure on the wing — I may be melancholy tomorrow. Now all my nerves keep time with the melody of nature. Ah! let me be happy whilst I can. The tear starts as I think of it. I must flee from thought, and find refuge from sorrow in a strong imagination — the only solace for a feeling heart. Phantoms of bliss! ideal forms of excellence! again enclose me in your magic circle, and wipe clear from my remembrance the disappointments that reader the sympathy painful, which experience rather increases than damps, by giving the indulgence of feeling the sanction of reason.

Once more farewell!

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30