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

Letter XX.

I have formerly censured the French for their extreme attachment to theatrical exhibitions, because I thought that they tended to render them vain and unnatural characters; but I must acknowledge, especially as women of the town never appear in the Parisian as at our theatres, that the little saving of the week is more usefully expended there every Sunday than in porter or brandy, to intoxicate or stupify the mind. The common people of France have a great superiority over that class in every other country on this very score. It is merely the sobriety of the Parisians which renders their fetes more interesting, their gaiety never becoming disgusting or dangerous, as is always the case when liquor circulates. Intoxication is the pleasure of savages, and of all those whose employments rather exhaust their animal spirits than exercise their faculties. Is not this, in fact, the vice, both in England and the northern states of Europe, which appears to be the greatest impediment to general improvement? Drinking is here the principal relaxation of the men, including smoking, but the women are very abstemious, though they have no public amusements as a substitute. I ought to except one theatre, which appears more than is necessary; for when I was there it was not half full, and neither the ladies nor actresses displayed much fancy in their dress.

The play was founded on the story of the “Mock Doctor;” and, from the gestures of the servants, who were the best actors, I should imagine contained some humour. The farce, termed ballet, was a kind of pantomime, the childish incidents of which were sufficient to show the state of the dramatic art in Denmark, and the gross taste of the audience. A magician, in the disguise of a tinker, enters a cottage where the women are all busy ironing, and rubs a dirty frying-pan against the linen. The women raise a hue-and-cry, and dance after him, rousing their husbands, who join in the dance, but get the start of them in the pursuit. The tinker, with the frying-pan for a shield, renders them immovable, and blacks their cheeks. Each laughs at the other, unconscious of his own appearance; meanwhile the women enter to enjoy the sport, “the rare fun,” with other incidents of the same species.

The singing was much on a par with the dancing, the one as destitute of grace as the other of expression; but the orchestra was well filled, the instrumental being far superior to the vocal music.

I have likewise visited the public library and museum, as well as the palace of Rosembourg. This palace, now deserted, displays a gloomy kind of grandeur throughout, for the silence of spacious apartments always makes itself to be felt; I at least feel it, and I listen for the sound of my footsteps as I have done at midnight to the ticking of the death-watch, encouraging a kind of fanciful superstition. Every object carried me back to past times, and impressed the manners of the age forcibly on my mind. In this point of view the preservation of old palaces and their tarnished furniture is useful, for they may be considered as historical documents.

The vacuum left by departed greatness was everywhere observable, whilst the battles and processions portrayed on the walls told you who had here excited revelry after retiring from slaughter, or dismissed pageantry in search of pleasure. It seemed a vast tomb full of the shadowy phantoms of those who had played or toiled their hour out and sunk behind the tapestry which celebrated the conquests of love or war. Could they be no more — to whom my imagination thus gave life? Could the thoughts, of which there remained so many vestiges, have vanished quite away? And these beings, composed of such noble materials of thinking and feeling, have they only melted into the elements to keep in motion the grand mass of life? It cannot be! — as easily could I believe that the large silver lions at the top of the banqueting room thought and reasoned. But avaunt! ye waking dreams! yet I cannot describe the curiosities to you.

There were cabinets full of baubles and gems, and swords which must have been wielded by giant’s hand. The coronation ornaments wait quietly here till wanted, and the wardrobe exhibits the vestments which formerly graced these shows. It is a pity they do not lend them to the actors, instead of allowing them to perish ingloriously.

I have not visited any other palace, excepting Hirsholm, the gardens of which are laid out with taste, and command the finest views the country affords. As they are in the modern and English style, I thought I was following the footsteps of Matilda, who wished to multiply around her the images of her beloved country. I was also gratified by the sight of a Norwegian landscape in miniature, which with great propriety makes a part of the Danish King’s garden. The cottage is well imitated, and the whole has a pleasing effect, particularly so to me who love Norway — its peaceful farms and spacious wilds.

The public library consists of a collection much larger than I expected to see; and it is well arranged. Of the value of the Icelandic manuscripts I could not form a judgment, though the alphabet of some of them amused me, by showing what immense labour men will submit to, in order to transmit their ideas to posterity. I have sometimes thought it a great misfortune for individuals to acquire a certain delicacy of sentiment, which often makes them weary of the common occurrences of life; yet it is this very delicacy of feeling and thinking which probably has produced most of the performances that have benefited mankind. It might with propriety, perhaps, be termed the malady of genius; the cause of that characteristic melancholy which “grows with its growth, and strengthens with its strength.”

There are some good pictures in the royal museum. Do not start, I am not going to trouble you with a dull catalogue, or stupid criticisms on masters to whom time has assigned their just niche in the temple of fame; had there been any by living artists of this country, I should have noticed them, as making a part of the sketches I am drawing of the present state of the place. The good pictures were mixed indiscriminately with the bad ones, in order to assort the frames. The same fault is conspicuous in the new splendid gallery forming at Paris; though it seems an obvious thought that a school for artists ought to be arranged in such a manner, as to show the progressive discoveries and improvements in the art.

A collection of the dresses, arms, and implements of the Laplanders attracted my attention, displaying that first species of ingenuity which is rather a proof of patient perseverance, than comprehension of mind. The specimens of natural history, and curiosities of art, were likewise huddled together without that scientific order which alone renders them useful; but this may partly have been occasioned by the hasty manner in which they were removed from the palace when in flames.

There are some respectable men of science here, but few literary characters, and fewer artists. They want encouragement, and will continue, I fear, from the present appearance of things, to languish unnoticed a long time; for neither the vanity of wealth, nor the enterprising spirit of commerce, has yet thrown a glance that way.

Besides, the Prince Royal, determined to be economical, almost descends to parsimony; and perhaps depresses his subjects, by labouring not to oppress them; for his intentions always seem to be good — yet nothing can give a more forcible idea of the dulness which eats away all activity of mind, than the insipid routine of a court, without magnificence or elegance.

The Prince, from what I can now collect, has very moderate abilities; yet is so well disposed, that Count Bernstorff finds him as tractable as he could wish; for I consider the Count as the real sovereign, scarcely behind the curtain; the Prince having none of that obstinate self-sufficiency of youth, so often the forerunner of decision of character. He and the Princess his wife, dine every day with the King, to save the expense of two tables. What a mummery it must be to treat as a king a being who has lost the majesty of man! But even Count Bernstorff’s morality submits to this standing imposition; and he avails himself of it sometimes, to soften a refusal of his own, by saying it is the WILL of the King, my master, when everybody knows that he has neither will nor memory. Much the same use is made of him as, I have observed, some termagant wives make of their husbands; they would dwell on the necessity of obeying their husbands, poor passive souls, who never were allowed TO WILL, when they wanted to conceal their own tyranny.

A story is told here of the King’s formerly making a dog counsellor of state, because when the dog, accustomed to eat at the royal table, snatched a piece of meat off an old officer’s plate, he reproved him jocosely, saying that he, monsieur le chien, had not the privilege of dining with his majesty, a privilege annexed to this distinction.

The burning of the palace was, in fact, a fortunate circumstance, as it afforded a pretext for reducing the establishment of the household, which was far too great for the revenue of the Crown. The Prince Royal, at present, runs into the opposite extreme; and the formality, if not the parsimony, of the court, seems to extend to all the other branches of society, which I had an opportunity of observing; though hospitality still characterises their intercourse with strangers.

But let me now stop; I may be a little partial, and view everything with the jaundiced eye of melancholy — for I am sad — and have cause.

God bless you!

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wollstonecraft/mary/w864l/letter20.html

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