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

Letter XXII.

I arrived at Corsoer the night after I quitted Copenhagen, purposing to take my passage across the Great Belt the next morning, though the weather was rather boisterous. It is about four-and-twenty miles but as both I and my little girl are never attacked by sea-sickness — though who can avoid ennui? — I enter a boat with the same indifference as I change horses; and as for danger, come when it may, I dread it not sufficiently to have any anticipating fears.

The road from Copenhagen was very good, through an open, flat country that had little to recommend it to notice excepting the cultivation, which gratified my heart more than my eye.

I took a barge with a German baron who was hastening back from a tour into Denmark, alarmed by the intelligence of the French having passed the Rhine. His conversation beguiled the time, and gave a sort of stimulus to my spirits, which had been growing more and more languid ever since my return to Gothenburg; you know why. I had often endeavoured to rouse myself to observation by reflecting that I was passing through scenes which I should probably never see again, and consequently ought not to omit observing. Still I fell into reveries, thinking, by way of excuse, that enlargement of mind and refined feelings are of little use but to barb the arrows of sorrow which waylay us everywhere, eluding the sagacity of wisdom and rendering principles unavailing, if considered as a breastwork to secure our own hearts.

Though we had not a direct wind, we were not detained more than three hours and a half on the water, just long enough to give us an appetite for our dinner.

We travelled the remainder of the day and the following night in company with the same party, the German gentleman whom I have mentioned, his friend, and servant. The meetings at the post-houses were pleasant to me, who usually heard nothing but strange tongues around me. Marguerite and the child often fell asleep, and when they were awake I might still reckon myself alone, as our train of thoughts had nothing in common. Marguerite, it is true, was much amused by the costume of the women, particularly by the pannier which adorned both their heads and tails, and with great glee recounted to me the stories she had treasured up for her family when once more within the barriers of dear Paris, not forgetting, with that arch, agreeable vanity peculiar to the French, which they exhibit whilst half ridiculing it, to remind me of the importance she should assume when she informed her friends of all her journeys by sea and land, showing the pieces of money she had collected, and stammering out a few foreign phrases, which she repeated in a true Parisian accent. Happy thoughtlessness! ay, and enviable harmless vanity, which thus produced a gaite du coeur worth all my philosophy!

The man I had hired at Copenhagen advised me to go round about twenty miles to avoid passing the Little Belt excepting by a ferry, as the wind was contrary. But the gentlemen overruled his arguments, which we were all very sorry for afterwards, when we found ourselves becalmed on the Little Belt ten hours, tacking about without ceasing, to gain the shore.

An oversight likewise made the passage appear much more tedious, nay, almost insupportable. When I went on board at the Great Belt, I had provided refreshments in case of detention, which remaining untouched I thought not then any such precaution necessary for the second passage, misled by the epithet of “little,” though I have since been informed that it is frequently the longest. This mistake occasioned much vexation; for the child, at last, began to cry so bitterly for bread, that fancy conjured up before me the wretched Ugolino, with his famished children; and I, literally speaking, enveloped myself in sympathetic horrors, augmented by every fear my babe shed, from which I could not escape till we landed, and a luncheon of bread and basin of milk routed the spectres of fancy.

I then supped with my companions, with whom I was soon after to part for ever — always a most melancholy death-like idea — a sort of separation of soul; for all the regret which follows those from whom fate separates us seems to be something torn from ourselves. These were strangers I remember; yet when there is any originality in a countenance, it takes its place in our memory, and we are sorry to lose an acquaintance the moment he begins to interest us, through picked up on the highway. There was, in fact, a degree of intelligence, and still more sensibility, in the features and conversation of one of the gentlemen, that made me regret the loss of his society during the rest of the journey; for he was compelled to travel post, by his desire to reach his estate before the arrival of the French.

This was a comfortable inn, as were several others I stopped at; but the heavy sandy roads were very fatiguing, after the fine ones we had lately skimmed over both in Sweden and Denmark. The country resembled the most open part of England — laid out for corn rather than grazing. It was pleasant, yet there was little in the prospects to awaken curiosity, by displaying the peculiar characteristics of a new country, which had so frequently stole me from myself in Norway. We often passed over large unenclosed tracts, not graced with trees, or at least very sparingly enlivened by them, and the half-formed roads seemed to demand the landmarks, set up in the waste, to prevent the traveller from straying far out of his way, and plodding through the wearisome sand.

The heaths were dreary, and had none of the wild charms of those of Sweden and Norway to cheat time; neither the terrific rocks, nor smiling herbage grateful to the sight and scented from afar, made us forget their length. Still the country appeared much more populous, and the towns, if not the farmhouses, were superior to those of Norway. I even thought that the inhabitants of the former had more intelligence — at least, I am sure they had more vivacity in their countenances than I had seen during my northern tour: their senses seemed awake to business and pleasure. I was therefore gratified by hearing once more the busy hum of industrious men in the day, and the exhilarating sounds of joy in the evening; for, as the weather was still fine, the women and children were amusing themselves at their doors, or walking under the trees, which in many places were planted in the streets; and as most of the towns of any note were situated on little bays or branches of the Baltic, their appearance as we approached was often very picturesque, and, when we entered, displayed the comfort and cleanliness of easy, if not the elegance of opulent, circumstances. But the cheerfulness of the people in the streets was particularly grateful to me, after having been depressed by the deathlike silence of those of Denmark, where every house made me think of a tomb. The dress of the peasantry is suited to the climate; in short, none of that poverty and dirt appeared, at the sight of which the heart sickens.

As I only stopped to change horses, take refreshment, and sleep, I had not an opportunity of knowing more of the country than conclusions which the information gathered by my eyes enabled me to draw, and that was sufficient to convince me that I should much rather have lived in some of the towns I now pass through than in any I had seen in Sweden or Denmark. The people struck me as having arrived at that period when the faculties will unfold themselves; in short; they look alive to improvement, neither congealed by indolence, nor bent down by wretchedness to servility.

From the previous impression — I scarcely can trace whence I received it — I was agreeably surprised to perceive such an appearance of comfort in this part of Germany. I had formed a conception of the tyranny of the petty potentates that had thrown a gloomy veil over the face of the whole country in my imagination, that cleared away like the darkness of night before the sun as I saw the reality. I should probably have discovered much lurking misery, the consequence of ignorant oppression, no doubt, had I had time to inquire into particulars; but it did not stalk abroad and infect the surface over which my eye glanced. Yes, I am persuaded that a considerable degree of general knowledge pervades this country, for it is only from the exercise of the mind that the body acquires the activity from which I drew these inferences. Indeed, the King of Denmark’s German dominions — Holstein — appeared to me far superior to any other part of his kingdom which had fallen under my view; and the robust rustics to have their muscles braced, instead of the, as it were, lounge of the Danish peasantry.

Arriving at Sleswick, the residence of Prince Charles of Hesse–Cassel, the sight of the soldiers recalled all the unpleasing ideas of German despotism, which imperceptibly vanished as I advanced into the country. I viewed, with a mixture of pity and horror, these beings training to be sold to slaughter, or be slaughtered, and fell into reflections on an old opinion of mine, that it is the preservation of the species, not of individuals, which appears to be the design of the Deity throughout the whole of Nature. Blossoms come forth only to be blighted; fish lay their spawn where it will be devoured; and what a large portion of the human race are born merely to be swept prematurely away! Does not this waste of budding life emphatically assert that it is not men, but Man, whose preservation is so necessary to the completion of the grand plan of the universe? Children peep into existence, suffer, and die; men play like moths about a candle, and sink into the flame; war, and “the thousand ills which flesh is heir to,” mow them down in shoals; whilst the more cruel prejudices of society palsy existence, introducing not less sure though slower decay.

The castle was heavy and gloomy, yet the grounds about it were laid out with some taste; a walk, winding under the shade of lofty trees, led to a regularly built and animated town.

I crossed the drawbridge, and entered to see this shell of a court in miniature, mounting ponderous stairs — it would be a solecism to say a flight — up which a regiment of men might have marched, shouldering their firelocks to exercise in vast galleries, where all the generations of the Princes of Hesse–Cassel might have been mustered rank and file, though not the phantoms of all the wretched they had bartered to support their state, unless these airy substances could shrink and expand, like Milton’s devils, to suit the occasion.

The sight of the presence-chamber, and of the canopy to shade the fauteuil which aped a throne, made me smile. All the world is a stage, thought I; and few are there in it who do not play the part they have learnt by rote; and those who do not, seem marks set up to be pelted at by fortune, or rather as sign-posts which point out the road to others, whilst forced to stand still themselves amidst the mud and dust.

Waiting for our horses, we were amused by observing the dress of the women, which was very grotesque and unwieldy. The false notion of beauty which prevails here as well as in Denmark, I should think very inconvenient in summer, as it consists in giving a rotundity to a certain part of the body, not the most slim, when Nature has done her part. This Dutch prejudice often leads them to toil under the weight of some ten or a dozen petticoats, which, with an enormous basket, literally speaking, as a bonnet, or a straw hat of dimensions equally gigantic, almost completely conceal the human form as well as face divine, often worth showing; still they looked clean, and tripped along, as it were, before the wind, with a weight of tackle that I could scarcely have lifted. Many of the country girls I met appeared to me pretty — that is, to have fine complexions, sparkling eyes, and a kind of arch, hoyden playfulness which distinguishes the village coquette. The swains, in their Sunday trim, attended some of these fair ones in a more slouching pace, though their dress was not so cumbersome. The women seem to take the lead in polishing the manners everywhere, this being the only way to better their condition.

From what I have seen throughout my journey, I do not think the situation of the poor in England is much, if at all, superior to that of the same class in different parts of the world; and in Ireland I am sure it is much inferior. I allude to the former state of England; for at present the accumulation of national wealth only increases the cares of the poor, and hardens the hearts of the rich, in spite of the highly extolled rage for almsgiving.

You know that I have always been an enemy to what is termed charity, because timid bigots, endeavouring thus to cover their sins, do violence to justice, till, acting the demigod, they forget that they are men. And there are others who do not even think of laying up a treasure in heaven, whose benevolence is merely tyranny in disguise; they assist the most worthless, because the most servile, and term them helpless only in proportion to their fawning.

After leaving Sleswick, we passed through several pretty towns; Itzchol particularly pleased me; and the country, still wearing the same aspect, was improved by the appearance of more trees and enclosures. But what gratified me most was the population. I was weary of travelling four or five hours, never meeting a carriage, and scarcely a peasant; and then to stop at such wretched huts as I had seen in Sweden was surely sufficient to chill any heart awake to sympathy, and throw a gloom over my favourite subject of contemplation, the future improvement of the world.

The farmhouses, likewise, with the huge stables, into which we drove whilst the horses were putting to or baiting, were very clean and commodious. The rooms, with a door into this hall-like stable and storehouse in one, were decent; and there was a compactness in the appearance of the whole family lying thus snugly together under the same roof that carried my fancy back to the primitive times, which probably never existed with such a golden lustre as the animated imagination lends when only able to seize the prominent features.

At one of them, a pretty young woman, with languishing eyes of celestial blue, conducted us into a very neat parlour, and observing how loosely and lightly my little girl was clad, began to pity her in the sweetest accents, regardless of the rosy down of health on her cheeks. This same damsel was dressed — it was Sunday — with taste and even coquetry, in a cotton jacket, ornamented with knots of blue ribbon, fancifully disposed to give life to her fine complexion. I loitered a little to admire her, for every gesture was graceful; and, amidst the other villagers, she looked like a garden lily suddenly rearing its head amongst grain and corn-flowers. As the house was small, I gave her a piece of money rather larger than it was my custom to give to the female waiters — for I could not prevail on her to sit down — which she received with a smile; yet took care to give it, in my presence, to a girl who had brought the child a slice of bread; by which I perceived that she was the mistress or daughter of the house, and without doubt the belle of the village. There was, in short, an appearance of cheerful industry, and of that degree of comfort which shut out misery, in all the little hamlets as I approached Hamburg, which agreeably surprised me.

The short jackets which the women wear here, as well as in France, are not only more becoming to the person, but much better calculated for women who have rustic or household employments than the long gowns worn in England, dangling in the dirt.

All the inns on the road were better than I expected, though the softness of the beds still harassed me, and prevented my finding the rest I was frequently in want of, to enable me to bear the fatigue of the next day. The charges were moderate, and the people very civil, with a certain honest hilarity and independent spirit in their manner, which almost made me forget that they were innkeepers, a set of men — waiters, hostesses, chambermaids, &c., down to the ostler, whose cunning servility in England I think particularly disgusting.

The prospect of Hamburg at a distance, as well as the fine road shaded with trees, led me to expect to see a much pleasanter city than I found.

I was aware of the difficulty of obtaining lodgings, even at the inns, on account of the concourse of strangers at present resorting to such a centrical situation, and determined to go to Altona the next day to seek for an abode, wanting now only rest. But even for a single night we were sent from house to house, and found at last a vacant room to sleep in, which I should have turned from with disgust had there been a choice.

I scarcely know anything that produces more disagreeable sensations, I mean to speak of the passing cares, the recollection of which afterwards enlivens our enjoyments, than those excited by little disasters of this kind. After a long journey, with our eyes directed to some particular spot, to arrive and find nothing as it should be is vexatious, and sinks the agitated spirits. But I, who received the cruellest of disappointments last spring in returning to my home, term such as these emphatically passing cares. Know you of what materials some hearts are made? I play the child, and weep at the recollection — for the grief is still fresh that stunned as well as wounded me — yet never did drops of anguish like these bedew the cheeks of infantine innocence — and why should they mine, that never was stained by a blush of guilt? Innocent and credulous as a child, why have I not the same happy thoughtlessness? Adieu!

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