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

Letter XI.

I left Portoer, the little haven I mentioned, soon after I finished my last letter. The sea was rough, and I perceived that our pilot was right not to venture farther during a hazy night. We had agreed to pay four dollars for a boat from Helgeraac. I mention the sum, because they would demand twice as much from a stranger. I was obliged to pay fifteen for the one I hired at Stromstad. When we were ready to set out, our boatman offered to return a dollar and let us go in one of the boats of the place, the pilot who lived there being better acquainted with the coast. He only demanded a dollar and a half, which was reasonable. I found him a civil and rather intelligent man; he was in the American service several years, during the Revolution.

I soon perceived that an experienced mariner was necessary to guide us, for we were continually obliged to tack about, to avoid the rocks, which, scarcely reaching to the surface of the water, could only be discovered by the breaking of the waves over them.

The view of this wild coast, as we sailed along it, afforded me a continual subject for meditation. I anticipated the future improvement of the world, and observed how much man has still to do to obtain of the earth all it could yield. I even carried my speculations so far as to advance a million or two of years to the moment when the earth would perhaps be so perfectly cultivated, and so completely peopled, as to render it necessary to inhabit every spot — yes, these bleak shores. Imagination went still farther, and pictured the state of man when the earth could no longer support him. Whither was he to flee from universal famine? Do not smile; I really became distressed for these fellow creatures yet unborn. The images fastened on me, and the world appeared a vast prison. I was soon to be in a smaller one — for no other name can I give to Rusoer. It would be difficult to form an idea of the place, if you have never seen one of these rocky coasts.

We were a considerable time entering amongst the islands, before we saw about two hundred houses crowded together under a very high rock — still higher appearing above. Talk not of Bastilles! To be born here was to be bastilled by nature — shut out from all that opens the understanding, or enlarges the heart. Huddled one behind another, not more than a quarter of the dwellings even had a prospect of the sea. A few planks formed passages from house to house, which you must often scale, mounting steps like a ladder to enter.

The only road across the rocks leads to a habitation sterile enough, you may suppose, when I tell you that the little earth on the adjacent ones was carried there by the late inhabitant. A path, almost impracticable for a horse, goes on to Arendall, still further to the westward.

I inquired for a walk, and, mounting near two hundred steps made round a rock, walked up and down for about a hundred yards viewing the sea, to which I quickly descended by steps that cheated the declivity. The ocean and these tremendous bulwarks enclosed me on every side. I felt the confinement, and wished for wings to reach still loftier cliffs, whose slippery sides no foot was so hardy as to tread. Yet what was it to see? — only a boundless waste of water — not a glimpse of smiling nature — not a patch of lively green to relieve the aching sight, or vary the objects of meditation.

I felt my breath oppressed, though nothing could be clearer than the atmosphere. Wandering there alone, I found the solitude desirable; my mind was stored with ideas, which this new scene associated with astonishing rapidity. But I shuddered at the thought of receiving existence, and remaining here, in the solitude of ignorance, till forced to leave a world of which I had seen so little, for the character of the inhabitants is as uncultivated, if not as picturesquely wild, as their abode.

Having no employment but traffic, of which a contraband trade makes the basis of their profit, the coarsest feelings of honesty are quickly blunted. You may suppose that I speak in general terms; and that, with all the disadvantages of nature and circumstances, there are still some respectable exceptions, the more praiseworthy, as tricking is a very contagious mental disease, that dries up all the generous juices of the heart. Nothing genial, in fact, appears around this place, or within the circle of its rocks. And, now I recollect, it seems to me that the most genial and humane characters I have met with in life were most alive to the sentiments inspired by tranquil country scenes. What, indeed, is to humanise these beings, who rest shut up (for they seldom even open their windows), smoking, drinking brandy, and driving bargains? I have been almost stifled by these smokers. They begin in the morning, and are rarely without their pipe till they go to bed. Nothing can be more disgusting than the rooms and men towards the evening — breath, teeth, clothes, and furniture, all are spoilt. It is well that the women are not very delicate, or they would only love their husbands because they were their husbands. Perhaps, you may add, that the remark need not be confined to so small a part of the world; and, entre nous, I am of the same opinion. You must not term this innuendo saucy, for it does not come home.

If I had not determined to write I should have found my confinement here, even for three or four days, tedious. I have no books; and to pace up and down a small room, looking at tiles overhung by rocks, soon becomes wearisome. I cannot mount two hundred steps to walk a hundred yards many times in the day. Besides, the rocks, retaining the heat of the sun, are intolerably warm. I am, nevertheless, very well; for though there is a shrewdness in the character of these people, depraved by a sordid love of money which repels me, still the comparisons they force me to make keep my heart calm by exercising my understanding.

Everywhere wealth commands too much respect, but here almost exclusively; and it is the only object pursued, not through brake and briar, but over rocks and waves; yet of what use would riches be to me, I have sometimes asked myself, were I confined to live in such in a spot? I could only relieve a few distressed objects, perhaps render them idle, and all the rest of life would be a blank.

My present journey has given fresh force to my opinion that no place is so disagreeable and unimproving as a country town. I should like to divide my time between the town and country; in a lone house, with the business of farming and planting, where my mind would gain strength by solitary musing, and in a metropolis to rub off the rust of thought, and polish the taste which the contemplation of nature had rendered just. Thus do we wish as we float down the stream of life, whilst chance does more to gratify a desire of knowledge than our best laid plans. A degree of exertion, produced by some want, more or less painful, is probably the price we must all pay for knowledge. How few authors or artists have arrived at eminence who have not lived by their employment?

I was interrupted yesterday by business, and was prevailed upon to dine with the English vice-consul. His house being open to the sea, I was more at large; and the hospitality of the table pleased me, though the bottle was rather too freely pushed about. Their manner of entertaining was such as I have frequently remarked when I have been thrown in the way of people without education, who have more money than wit — that is, than they know what to do with. The women were unaffected, but had not the natural grace which was often conspicuous at Tonsberg. There was even a striking difference in their dress, these having loaded themselves with finery in the style of the sailors’ girls of Hull or Portsmouth. Taste has not yet taught them to make any but an ostentatious display of wealth. Yet I could perceive even here the first steps of the improvement which I am persuaded will make a very obvious progress in the course of half a century, and it ought not to be sooner, to keep pace with the cultivation of the earth. Improving manners will introduce finer moral feelings. They begin to read translations of some of the most useful German productions lately published, and one of our party sung a song ridiculing the powers coalesced against France, and the company drank confusion to those who had dismembered Poland.

The evening was extremely calm and beautiful. Not being able to walk, I requested a boat as the only means of enjoying free air.

The view of the town was now extremely fine. A huge rocky mountain stood up behind it, and a vast cliff stretched on each side, forming a semicircle. In a recess of the rocks was a clump of pines, amongst which a steeple rose picturesquely beautiful.

The churchyard is almost the only verdant spot in the place. Here, indeed, friendship extends beyond the grave, and to grant a sod of earth is to accord a favour. I should rather choose, did it admit of a choice, to sleep in some of the caves of the rocks, for I am become better reconciled to them since I climbed their craggy sides last night, listening to the finest echoes I ever heard. We had a French horn with us, and there was an enchanting wildness in the dying away of the reverberation that quickly transported me to Shakespeare’s magic island. Spirits unseen seemed to walk abroad, and flit from cliff to cliff to soothe my soul to peace.

I reluctantly returned to supper, to be shut up in a warm room, only to view the vast shadows of the rocks extending on the slumbering waves. I stood at the window some time before a buzz filled the drawing-room, and now and then the dashing of a solitary oar rendered the scene still more solemn.

Before I came here I could scarcely have imagined that a simple object (rocks) could have admitted of so many interesting combinations, always grand and often sublime. Good night! God bless you!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wollstonecraft/mary/w864l/letter11.html

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