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

Letter XXIV.

My lodgings at Altona are tolerably comfortable, though not in any proportion to the price I pay; but, owing to the present circumstances, all the necessaries of life are here extravagantly dear. Considering it as a temporary residence, the chief inconvenience of which I am inclined to complain is the rough streets that must be passed before Marguerite and the child can reach a level road.

The views of the Elbe in the vicinity of the town are pleasant, particularly as the prospects here afford so little variety. I attempted to descend, and walk close to the water’s edge; but there was no path; and the smell of glue, hanging to dry, an extensive manufactory of which is carried on close to the beach, I found extremely disagreeable. But to commerce everything must give way; profit and profit are the only speculations — “double — double, toil and trouble.” I have seldom entered a shady walk without being soon obliged to turn aside to make room for the rope-makers; and the only tree I have seen, that appeared to be planted by the hand of taste, is in the churchyard, to shade the tomb of the poet Klopstock’s wife.

Most of the merchants have country houses to retire to during the summer; and many of them are situated on the banks of the Elbe, where they have the pleasure of seeing the packet-boats arrive — the periods of most consequence to divide their week.

The moving picture, consisting of large vessels and small craft, which are continually changing their position with the tide, renders this noble river, the vital stream of Hamburg, very interesting; and the windings have sometimes a very fine effect, two or three turns being visible at once, intersecting the flat meadows; a sudden bend often increasing the magnitude of the river; and the silvery expanse, scarcely gliding, though bearing on its bosom so much treasure, looks for a moment like a tranquil lake.

Nothing can be stronger than the contrast which this flat country and strand afford, compared with the mountains and rocky coast I have lately dwelt so much among. In fancy I return to a favourite spot, where I seemed to have retired from man and wretchedness; but the din of trade drags me back to all the care I left behind, when lost in sublime emotions. Rocks aspiring towards the heavens, and, as it were, shutting out sorrow, surrounded me, whilst peace appeared to steal along the lake to calm my bosom, modulating the wind that agitated the neighbouring poplars. Now I hear only an account of the tricks of trade, or listen to the distressful tale of some victim of ambition.

The hospitality of Hamburg is confined to Sunday invitations to the country houses I have mentioned, when dish after dish smokes upon the board, and the conversation ever flowing in the muddy channel of business, it is not easy to obtain any appropriate information. Had I intended to remain here some time, or had my mind been more alive to general inquiries, I should have endeavoured to have been introduced to some characters not so entirely immersed in commercial affairs, though in this whirlpool of gain it is not very easy to find any but the wretched or supercilious emigrants, who are not engaged in pursuits which, in my eyes, appear as dishonourable as gambling. The interests of nations are bartered by speculating merchants. My God! with what sang froid artful trains of corruption bring lucrative commissions into particular hands, disregarding the relative situation of different countries, and can much common honesty be expected in the discharge of trusts obtained by fraud? But this entre nous.

During my present journey, and whilst residing in France, I have had an opportunity of peeping behind the scenes of what are vulgarly termed great affairs, only to discover the mean machinery which has directed many transactions of moment. The sword has been merciful, compared with the depredations made on human life by contractors and by the swarm of locusts who have battened on the pestilence they spread abroad. These men, like the owners of negro ships, never smell on their money the blood by which it has been gained, but sleep quietly in their beds, terming such occupations lawful callings; yet the lightning marks not their roofs to thunder conviction on them “and to justify the ways of God to man.”

Why should I weep for myself? “Take, O world! thy much indebted tear!” Adieu!

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