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

Letter XVII.

I was unwilling to leave Gothenburg without visiting Trolhaettae. I wished not only to see the cascade, but to observe the progress of the stupendous attempt to form a canal through the rocks, to the extent of an English mile and a half.

This work is carried on by a company, who employ daily nine hundred men; five years was the time mentioned in the proposals addressed to the public as necessary for the completion. A much more considerable sum than the plan requires has been subscribed, for which there is every reason to suppose the promoters will receive ample interest.

The Danes survey the progress of this work with a jealous eye, as it is principally undertaken to get clear of the Sound duty.

Arrived at Trolhaettae, I must own that the first view of the cascade disappointed me; and the sight of the works, as they advanced, though a grand proof of human industry, was not calculated to warm the fancy. I, however, wandered about; and at last coming to the conflux of the various cataracts rushing from different falls, struggling with the huge masses of rock, and rebounding from the profound cavities, I immediately retracted, acknowledging that it was indeed a grand object. A little island stood in the midst, covered with firs, which, by dividing the torrent, rendered it more picturesque; one half appearing to issue from a dark cavern, that fancy might easily imagine a vast fountain throwing up its waters from the very centre of the earth.

I gazed I know not how long, stunned with the noise, and growing giddy with only looking at the never-ceasing tumultuous motion, I listened, scarcely conscious where I was, when I observed a boy, half obscured by the sparkling foam, fishing under the impending rock on the other side. How he had descended I could not perceive; nothing like human footsteps appeared, and the horrific crags seemed to bid defiance even to the goat’s activity. It looked like an abode only fit for the eagle, though in its crevices some pines darted up their spiral heads; but they only grew near the cascade, everywhere else sterility itself reigned with dreary grandeur; for the huge grey massy rocks, which probably had been torn asunder by some dreadful convulsion of nature, had not even their first covering of a little cleaving moss. There were so many appearances to excite the idea of chaos, that, instead of admiring the canal and the works, great as they are termed, and little as they appear, I could not help regretting that such a noble scene had not been left in all its solitary sublimity. Amidst the awful roaring of the impetuous torrents, the noise of human instruments and the bustle of workmen, even the blowing up of the rocks when grand masses trembled in the darkened air, only resembled the insignificant sport of children.

One fall of water, partly made by art, when they were attempting to construct sluices, had an uncommonly grand effect; the water precipitated itself with immense velocity down a perpendicular, at least fifty or sixty yards, into a gulf, so concealed by the foam as to give full play to the fancy. There was a continual uproar. I stood on a rock to observe it, a kind of bridge formed by nature, nearly on a level with the commencement of the fall. After musing by it a long time I turned towards the other side, and saw a gentle stream stray calmly out. I should have concluded that it had no communication with the torrent had I not seen a huge log that fell headlong down the cascade steal peacefully into the purling stream.

I retired from these wild scenes with regret to a miserable inn, and next morning returned to Gothenburg, to prepare for my journey to Copenhagen.

I was sorry to leave Gothenburg without travelling farther into Sweden, yet I imagine I should only have seen a romantic country thinly inhabited, and these inhabitants struggling with poverty. The Norwegian peasantry, mostly independent, have a rough kind of frankness in their manner; but the Swedish, rendered more abject by misery, have a degree of politeness in their address which, though it may sometimes border on insincerity, is oftener the effect of a broken spirit, rather softened than degraded by wretchedness.

In Norway there are no notes in circulation of less value than a Swedish rix-dollar. A small silver coin, commonly not worth more than a penny, and never more than twopence, serves for change; but in Sweden they have notes as low as sixpence. I never saw any silver pieces there, and could not without difficulty, and giving a premium, obtain the value of a rix-dollar in a large copper coin to give away on the road to the poor who open the gates.

As another proof of the poverty of Sweden, I ought to mention that foreign merchants who have acquired a fortune there are obliged to deposit the sixth part when they leave the kingdom. This law, you may suppose, is frequently evaded.

In fact, the laws here, as well as in Norway, are so relaxed that they rather favour than restrain knavery.

Whilst I was at Gothenburg, a man who had been confined for breaking open his master’s desk and running away with five or six thousand rix-dollars, was only sentenced to forty days’ confinement on bread and water; and this slight punishment his relations rendered nugatory by supplying him with more savoury food.

The Swedes are in general attached to their families, yet a divorce may be obtained by either party on proving the infidelity of the other or acknowledging it themselves. The women do not often recur to this equal privilege, for they either retaliate on their husbands by following their own devices or sink into the merest domestic drudges, worn down by tyranny to servile submission. Do not term me severe if I add, that after youth is flown the husband becomes a sot, and the wife amuses herself by scolding her servants. In fact, what is to be expected in any country where taste and cultivation of mind do not supply the place of youthful beauty and animal spirits? Affection requires a firmer foundation than sympathy, and few people have a principle of action sufficiently stable to produce rectitude of feeling; for in spite of all the arguments I have heard to justify deviations from duty, I am persuaded that even the most spontaneous sensations are more under the direction of principle than weak people are willing to allow.

But adieu to moralising. I have been writing these last sheets at an inn in Elsineur, where I am waiting for horses; and as they are not yet ready, I will give you a short account of my journey from Gothenburg, for I set out the morning after I returned from Trolhaettae.

The country during the first day’s journey presented a most barren appearance, as rocky, yet not so picturesque as Norway, because on a diminutive scale. We stopped to sleep at a tolerable inn in Falckersberg, a decent little town.

The next day beeches and oaks began to grace the prospects, the sea every now and then appearing to give them dignity. I could not avoid observing also, that even in this part of Sweden, one of the most sterile, as I was informed, there was more ground under cultivation than in Norway. Plains of varied crops stretched out to a considerable extent, and sloped down to the shore, no longer terrific. And, as far as I could judge, from glancing my eye over the country as we drove along, agriculture was in a more advanced state, though in the habitations a greater appearance of poverty still remained. The cottages, indeed, often looked most uncomfortable, but never so miserable as those I had remarked on the road to Stromstad, and the towns were equal, if not superior, to many of the little towns in Wales, or some I have passed through in my way from Calais to Paris.

The inns as we advanced were not to be complained of, unless I had always thought of England. The people were civil, and much more moderate in their demands than the Norwegians, particularly to the westward, where they boldly charge for what you never had, and seem to consider you, as they do a wreck, if not as lawful prey, yet as a lucky chance, which they ought not to neglect to seize.

The prospect of Elsineur, as we passed the Sound, was pleasant. I gave three rix-dollars for my boat, including something to drink. I mention the sum, because they impose on strangers.

Adieu! till I arrive at Copenhagen.

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