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

Letter VII.

Though the king of Denmark be an absolute monarch, yet the Norwegians appear to enjoy all the blessings of freedom. Norway may be termed a sister kingdom; but the people have no viceroy to lord it over them, and fatten his dependants with the fruit of their labour.

There are only two counts in the whole country who have estates, and exact some feudal observances from their tenantry. All the rest of the country is divided into small farms, which belong to the cultivator. It is true some few, appertaining to the Church, are let, but always on a lease for life, generally renewed in favour of the eldest son, who has this advantage as well as a right to a double portion of the property. But the value of the farm is estimated, and after his portion is assigned to him he must be answerable for the residue to the remaining part of the family.

Every farmer for ten years is obliged to attend annually about twelve days to learn the military exercise, but it is always at a small distance from his dwelling, and does not lead him into any new habits of life.

There are about six thousand regulars also in garrison at Christiania and Fredericshall, who are equally reserved, with the militia, for the defence of their own country. So that when the Prince Royal passed into Sweden in 1788, he was obliged to request, not command, them to accompany him on this expedition.

These corps are mostly composed of the sons of the cottagers, who being labourers on the farms, are allowed a few acres to cultivate for themselves. These men voluntarily enlist, but it is only for a limited period (six years), at the expiration of which they have the liberty of retiring. The pay is only twopence a day and bread; still, considering the cheapness of the country, it is more than sixpence in England.

The distribution of landed property into small farms produces a degree of equality which I have seldom seen elsewhere; and the rich being all merchants, who are obliged to divide their personal fortune amongst their children, the boys always receiving twice as much as the girls, property has met a chance of accumulating till overgrowing wealth destroys the balance of liberty.

You will be surprised to hear me talk of liberty; yet the Norwegians appear to me to be the most free community I have ever observed.

The mayor of each town or district, and the judges in the country, exercise an authority almost patriarchal. They can do much good, but little harm, — as every individual can appeal from their judgment; and as they may always be forced to give a reason for their conduct, it is generally regulated by prudence. “They have not time to learn to be tyrants,” said a gentleman to me, with whom I discussed the subject.

The farmers not fearing to be turned out of their farms, should they displease a man in power, and having no vote to be commanded at an election for a mock representative, are a manly race; for not being obliged to submit to any debasing tenure in order to live, or advance themselves in the world, they act with an independent spirit. I never yet have heard of anything like domineering or oppression, excepting such as has arisen from natural causes. The freedom the people enjoy may, perhaps, render them a little litigious, and subject them to the impositions of cunning practitioners of the law; but the authority of office is bounded, and the emoluments of it do not destroy its utility.

Last year a man who had abused his power was cashiered, on the representation of the people to the bailiff of the district.

There are four in Norway who might with propriety be termed sheriffs; and from their sentence an appeal, by either party, may be made to Copenhagen.

Near most of the towns are commons, on which the cows of all the inhabitants, indiscriminately, are allowed to graze. The poor, to whom a cow is necessary, are almost supported by it. Besides, to render living more easy, they all go out to fish in their own boats, and fish is their principal food.

The lower class of people in the towns are in general sailors; and the industrious have usually little ventures of their own that serve to render the winter comfortable.

With respect to the country at large, the importation is considerably in favour of Norway.

They are forbidden, at present, to export corn or rye on account of the advanced price.

The restriction which most resembles the painful subordination of Ireland, is that vessels, trading to the West Indies, are obliged to pass by their own ports, and unload their cargoes at Copenhagen, which they afterwards reship. The duty is indeed inconsiderable, but the navigation being dangerous, they run a double risk.

There is an excise on all articles of consumption brought to the towns; but the officers are not strict, and it would be reckoned invidious to enter a house to search, as in England.

The Norwegians appear to me a sensible, shrewd people, with little scientific knowledge, and still less taste for literature; but they are arriving at the epoch which precedes the introduction of the arts and sciences.

Most of the towns are seaports, and seaports are not favourable to improvement. The captains acquire a little superficial knowledge by travelling, which their indefatigable attention to the making of money prevents their digesting; and the fortune that they thus laboriously acquire is spent, as it usually is in towns of this description, in show and good living. They love their country, but have not much public spirit. Their exertions are, generally speaking, only for their families, which, I conceive, will always be the case, till politics, becoming a subject of discussion, enlarges the heart by opening the understanding. The French Revolution will have this effect. They sing, at present, with great glee, many Republican songs, and seem earnestly to wish that the republic may stand; yet they appear very much attached to their Prince Royal, and, as far as rumour can give an idea of a character, he appears to merit their attachment. When I am at Copenhagen, I shall be able to ascertain on what foundation their good opinion is built; at present I am only the echo of it.

In the year 1788 he travelled through Norway; and acts of mercy gave dignity to the parade, and interest to the joy his presence inspired. At this town he pardoned a girl condemned to die for murdering an illegitimate child, a crime seldom committed in this country. She is since married, and become the careful mother of a family. This might be given as an instance, that a desperate act is not always a proof of an incorrigible depravity of character, the only plausible excuse that has been brought forward to justify the infliction of capital punishments.

I will relate two or three other anecdotes to you, for the truth of which I will not vouch because the facts were not of sufficient consequence for me to take much pains to ascertain them; and, true or false, they evince that the people like to make a kind of mistress of their prince.

An officer, mortally wounded at the ill-advised battle of Quistram, desired to speak with the prince; and with his dying breath, earnestly recommended to his care a young woman of Christiania, to whom he was engaged. When the prince returned there, a ball was given by the chief inhabitants: he inquired whether this unfortunate girl was invited, and requested that she might, though of the second class. The girl came; she was pretty; and finding herself among her superiors, bashfully sat down as near the door as possible, nobody taking notice of her. Shortly after, the prince entering, immediately inquired for her, and asked her to dance, to the mortification of the rich dames. After it was over he handed her to the top of the room, and placing himself by her, spoke of the loss she had sustained, with tenderness, promising to provide for anyone she should marry, as the story goes. She is since married, and he has not forgotten his promise.

A little girl, during the same expedition, in Sweden, who informed him that the logs of a bridge were out underneath, was taken by his orders to Christiania, and put to school at his expense.

Before I retail other beneficial effects of his journey, it is necessary to inform you that the laws here are mild, and do not punish capitally for any crime but murder, which seldom occurs. Every other offence merely subjects the delinquent to imprisonment and labour in the castle, or rather arsenal at Christiania, and the fortress at Fredericshall. The first and second conviction produces a sentence for a limited number of years — two, three, five, or seven, proportioned to the atrocity of the crime. After the third he is whipped, branded in the forehead, and condemned to perpetual slavery. This is the ordinary course of justice. For some flagrant breaches of trust, or acts of wanton cruelty, criminals have been condemned to slavery for life time first the of conviction, but not frequently. The number of these slaves do not, I am informed, amount to more than a hundred, which is not considerable, compared with the population, upwards of eight hundred thousand. Should I pass through Christiania, on my return to Gothenburg, I shall probably have an opportunity of learning other particulars.

There is also a House of Correction at Christiania for trifling misdemeanours, where the women are confined to labour and imprisonment even for life. The state of the prisoners was represented to the prince, in consequence of which he visited the arsenal and House of Correction. The slaves at the arsenal were loaded with irons of a great weight; he ordered them to be lightened as much as possible.

The people in the House of Correction were commanded not to speak to him; but four women, condemned to remain there for life, got into the passage, and fell at his feet. He granted them a pardon; and inquiring respecting the treatment of the prisoners, he was informed that they were frequently whipped going in, and coming out, and for any fault, at the discretion of the inspectors. This custom he humanely abolished, though some of the principal inhabitants, whose situation in life had raised them above the temptation of stealing, were of opinion that these chastisements were necessary and wholesome.

In short, everything seems to announce that the prince really cherishes the laudable ambition of fulfilling the duties of his station. This ambition is cherished and directed by the Count Bernstorff, the Prime Minister of Denmark, who is universally celebrated for his abilities and virtue. The happiness of the people is a substantial eulogium; and, from all I can gather, the inhabitants of Denmark and Norway are the least oppressed people of Europe. The press is free. They translate any of the French publications of the day, deliver their opinion on the subject, and discuss those it leads to with great freedom, and without fearing to displease the Government.

On the subject of religion they are likewise becoming tolerant, at least, and perhaps have advanced a step further in free-thinking. One writer has ventured to deny the divinity of Jesus Christ, and to question the necessity or utility of the Christian system, without being considered universally as a monster, which would have been the case a few years ago. They have translated many German works on education; and though they have not adopted any of their plans, it has become a subject of discussion. There are some grammar and free schools; but, from what I hear, not very good ones. All the children learn to read, write, and cast accounts, for the purposes of common life. They have no university; and nothing that deserves the name of science is taught; nor do individuals, by pursuing any branch of knowledge, excite a degree of curiosity which is the forerunner of improvement. Knowledge is not absolutely necessary to enable a considerable portion of the community to live; and, till it is, I fear it never becomes general.

In this country, where minerals abound, there is not one collection; and, in all probability, I venture a conjecture, the want of mechanical and chemical knowledge renders the silver mines unproductive, for the quantity of silver obtained every year is not sufficient to defray the expenses. It has been urged that the employment of such a number of hands is very beneficial. But a positive loss is never to be done away; and the men, thus employed, would naturally find some other means of living, instead of being thus a dead weight on Government, or rather on the community from whom its revenue is drawn.

About three English miles from Tonsberg there is a salt work, belonging, like all their establishments, to Government, in which they employ above a hundred and fifty men, and maintain nearly five hundred people, who earn their living. The clear profit, an increasing one, amounts to two thousand pounds sterling. And as the eldest son of the inspector, an ingenious young man, has been sent by the Government to travel, and acquire some mathematical and chemical knowledge in Germany, it has a chance of being improved. He is the only person I have met with here who appears to have a scientific turn of mind. I do not mean to assert that I have not met with others who have a spirit of inquiry.

The salt-works at St. Ubes are basins in the sand, and the sun produces the evaporation, but here there is no beach. Besides, the heat of summer is so short-lived that it would be idle to contrive machines for such an inconsiderable portion of the year. They therefore always use fires; and the whole establishment appears to be regulated with judgment.

The situation is well chosen and beautiful. I do not find, from the observation of a person who has resided here for forty years, that the sea advances or recedes on this coast.

I have already remarked that little attention is paid to education, excepting reading, writing, and the rudiments of arithmetic; I ought to have added that a catechism is carefully taught, and the children obliged to read in the churches, before the congregation, to prove that they are not neglected.

Degrees, to enable any one to practise any profession, must be taken at Copenhagen; and the people of this country, having the good sense to perceive that men who are to live in a community should at least acquire the elements of their knowledge, and form their youthful attachments there, are seriously endeavouring to establish a university in Norway. And Tonsberg, as a central place in the best part of the country, had the most suffrages, for, experiencing the bad effects of a metropolis, they have determined not to have it in or near Christiania. Should such an establishment take place, it will promote inquiry throughout the country, and give a new face to society. Premiums have been offered, and prize questions written, which I am told have merit. The building college-halls, and other appendages of the seat of science, might enable Tonsberg to recover its pristine consequence, for it is one of the most ancient towns of Norway, and once contained nine churches. At present there are only two. One is a very old structure, and has a Gothic respectability about it, which scarcely amounts to grandeur, because, to render a Gothic pile grand, it must have a huge unwieldiness of appearance. The chapel of Windsor may be an exception to this rule; I mean before it was in its present nice, clean state. When I first saw it, the pillars within had acquired, by time, a sombre hue, which accorded with the architecture; and the gloom increased its dimensions to the eye by hiding its parts; but now it all bursts on the view at once, and the sublimity has vanished before the brush and broom; for it has been white-washed and scraped till it has become as bright and neat as the pots and pans in a notable house-wife’s kitchen — yes; the very spurs on the recumbent knights were deprived of their venerable rust, to give a striking proof that a love of order in trifles, and taste for proportion and arrangement, are very distinct. The glare of light thus introduced entirely destroys the sentiment these piles are calculated to inspire; so that, when I heard something like a jig from the organ-loft, I thought it an excellent hall for dancing or feasting. The measured pace of thought with which I had entered the cathedral changed into a trip; and I bounded on the terrace, to see the royal family, with a number of ridiculous images in my head that I shall not now recall.

The Norwegians are fond of music, and every little church has an organ. In the church I have mentioned there is an inscription importing that a king James VI. of Scotland and I. of England, who came with more than princely gallantry to escort his bride home — stood there, and heard divine service.

There is a little recess full of coffins, which contains bodies embalmed long since — so long, that there is not even a tradition to lead to a guess at their names.

A desire of preserving the body seems to have prevailed in most countries of the world, futile as it is to term it a preservation, when the noblest parts are immediately sacrificed merely to save the muscles, skin, and bone from rottenness. When I was shown these human petrifactions, I shrank back with disgust and horror. “Ashes to ashes!” thought I— “Dust to dust!” If this be not dissolution, it is something worse than natural decay — it is treason against humanity, thus to lift up the awful veil which would fain hide its weakness. The grandeur of the active principle is never more strongly felt than at such a sight, for nothing is so ugly as the human form when deprived of life, and thus dried into stone, merely to preserve the most disgusting image of death. The contemplation of noble ruins produces a melancholy that exalts the mind. We take a retrospect of the exertions of man, the fate of empires and their rulers, and marking the grand destruction of ages, it seems the necessary change of the leading to improvement. Our very soul expands, and we forget our littleness — how painfully brought to our recollection by such vain attempts to snatch from decay what is destined so soon to perish. Life, what art thou? Where goes this breath? — this I, so much alive? In what element will it mix, giving or receiving fresh energy? What will break the enchantment of animation? For worlds I would not see a form I loved — embalmed in my heart — thus sacrilegiously handled? Pugh! my stomach turns. Is this all the distinction of the rich in the grave? They had better quietly allow the scythe of equality to mow them down with the common mass, than struggle to become a monument of the instability of human greatness.

The teeth, nails, and skin were whole, without appearing black like the Egyptian mummies; and some silk, in which they had been wrapped, still preserved its colour — pink — with tolerable freshness.

I could not learn how long the bodies had been in this state, in which they bid fair to remain till the Day of Judgment, if there is to be such a day; and before that time, it will require some trouble to make them fit to appear in company with angels without disgracing humanity. God bless you! I feel a conviction that we have some perfectible principle in our present vestment, which will not be destroyed just as we begin to be sensible of improvement; and I care not what habit it next puts on, sure that it will be wisely formed to suit a higher state of existence. Thinking of death makes us tenderly cling to our affections; with more than usual tenderness I therefore assure you that I am yours, wishing that the temporary death of absence may not endure longer than is absolutely necessary.

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