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

Letter XXIII.

I might have spared myself the disagreeable feelings I experienced the first night of my arrival at Hamburg, leaving the open air to be shut up in noise and dirt, had I gone immediately to Altona, where a lodging had been prepared for me by a gentleman from whom I received many civilities during my journey. I wished to have travelled in company with him from Copenhagen, because I found him intelligent and friendly, but business obliged him to hurry forward, and I wrote to him on the subject of accommodations as soon as I was informed of the difficulties I might have to encounter to house myself and brat.

It is but a short and pleasant walk from Hamburg to Altona, under the shade of several rows of trees, and this walk is the more agreeable after quitting the rough pavement of either place.

Hamburg is an ill, close-built town, swarming with inhabitants, and, from what I could learn, like all the other free towns, governed in a manner which bears hard on the poor, whilst narrowing the minds of the rich; the character of the man is lost in the Hamburger. Always afraid of the encroachments of their Danish neighbours, that is, anxiously apprehensive of their sharing the golden harvest of commerce with them, or taking a little of the trade off their hands — though they have more than they know what to do with — they are ever on the watch, till their very eyes lose all expression, excepting the prying glance of suspicion.

The gates of Hamburg are shut at seven in the winter and nine in the summer, lest some strangers, who come to traffic in Hamburg, should prefer living, and consequently — so exactly do they calculate — spend their money out of the walls of the Hamburger’s world. Immense fortunes have been acquired by the per-cents. arising from commissions nominally only two and a half, but mounted to eight or ten at least by the secret manoeuvres of trade, not to include the advantage of purchasing goods wholesale in common with contractors, and that of having so much money left in their hands, not to play with, I can assure you. Mushroom fortunes have started up during the war; the men, indeed, seem of the species of the fungus, and the insolent vulgarity which a sudden influx of wealth usually produces in common minds is here very conspicuous, which contrasts with the distresses of many of the emigrants, “fallen, fallen from their high estate,” such are the ups and downs of fortune’s wheel. Many emigrants have met, with fortitude, such a total change of circumstances as scarcely can be paralleled, retiring from a palace to an obscure lodging with dignity; but the greater number glide about, the ghosts of greatness, with the Croix de St. Louis ostentatiously displayed, determined to hope, “though heaven and earth their wishes crossed.” Still good breeding points out the gentleman, and sentiments of honour and delicacy appear the offspring of greatness of soul when compared with the grovelling views of the sordid accumulators of cent. per cent.

Situation seems to be the mould in which men’s characters are formed: so much so, inferring from what I have lately seen, that I mean not to be severe when I add — previously asking why priests are in general cunning and statesmen false? — that men entirely devoted to commerce never acquire or lose all taste and greatness of mind. An ostentatious display of wealth without elegance, and a greedy enjoyment of pleasure without sentiment, embrutes them till they term all virtue of an heroic cast, romantic attempts at something above our nature, and anxiety about the welfare of others, a search after misery in which we have no concern. But you will say that I am growing bitter, perhaps personal. Ah! shall I whisper to you, that you yourself are strangely altered since you have entered deeply into commerce — more than you are aware of; never allowing yourself to reflect, and keeping your mind, or rather passions, in a continual state of agitation? Nature has given you talents which lie dormant, or are wasted in ignoble pursuits. You will rouse yourself and shake off the vile dust that obscures you, or my understanding, as well as my heart, deceives me egregiously — only tell me when. But to go farther afield.

Madame la Fayette left Altona the day I arrived, to endeavour, at Vienna, to obtain the enlargement of her husband, or permission to share his prison. She lived in a lodging up two pairs of stairs, without a servant, her two daughters cheerfully assisting; choosing, as well as herself, to descend to anything before unnecessary obligations. During her prosperity, and consequent idleness, she did not, I am told, enjoy a good state of health, having a train of nervous complaints, which, though they have not a name, unless the significant word ennui be borrowed, had an existence in the higher French circles; but adversity and virtuous exertions put these ills to flight, and dispossessed her of a devil who deserves the appellation of legion.

Madame Genus also resided at Altona some time, under an assumed name, with many other sufferers of less note though higher rank. It is, in fact, scarcely possible to stir out without meeting interesting countenances, every lineament of which tells you that they have seen better days.

At Hamburg, I was informed, a duke had entered into partnership with his cook, who becoming a traiteur, they were both comfortably supported by the profit arising from his industry. Many noble instances of the attachment of servants to their unfortunate masters have come to my knowledge, both here and in France, and touched my heart, the greatest delight of which is to discover human virtue.

At Altona, a president of one of the ci-devant parliaments keeps an ordinary, in the French style; and his wife with cheerful dignity submits to her fate, though she is arrived at an age when people seldom relinquish their prejudices. A girl who waits there brought a dozen double louis d’or concealed in her clothes, at the risk of her life, from France, which she preserves lest sickness or any other distress should overtake her mistress, “who,” she observed, “was not accustomed to hardships.” This house was particularly recommended to me by an acquaintance of yours, the author of the “American Farmer’s Letters.” I generally dine in company with him: and the gentleman whom I have already mentioned is often diverted by our declamations against commerce, when we compare notes respecting the characteristics of the Hamburgers. “Why, madam,” said he to me one day, “you will not meet with a man who has any calf to his leg; body and soul, muscles and heart, are equally shrivelled up by a thirst of gain. There is nothing generous even in their youthful passions; profit is their only stimulus, and calculations the sole employment of their faculties, unless we except some gross animal gratifications which, snatched at spare moments, tend still more to debase the character, because, though touched by his tricking wand, they have all the arts, without the wit, of the wing-footed god.”

Perhaps you may also think us too severe; but I must add that the more I saw of the manners of Hamburg, the more was I confirmed in my opinion relative to the baleful effect of extensive speculations on the moral character. Men are strange machines; and their whole system of morality is in general held together by one grand principle which loses its force the moment they allow themselves to break with impunity over the bounds which secured their self-respect. A man ceases to love humanity, and then individuals, as he advances in the chase after wealth; as one clashes with his interest, the other with his pleasures: to business, as it is termed, everything must give way; nay, is sacrificed, and all the endearing charities of citizen, husband, father, brother, become empty names. But — but what? Why, to snap the chain of thought, I must say farewell. Cassandra was not the only prophetess whose warning voice has been disregarded. How much easier it is to meet with love in the world than affection!

Yours sincerely.

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