Letter 13


People :

Author : Mary Wollstonecraft

Text :

I left Tonsberg yesterday, the 22nd of August.  It is only twelve or thirteen English miles to Moss, through a country less wild than any tract I had hitherto passed over in Norway.  It was often beautiful, but seldom afforded those grand views which fill rather than soothe the mind.

We glided along the meadows and through the woods, with sunbeams playing around us; and, though no castles adorned the prospects, a greater number of comfortable farms met my eyes during this ride than I have ever seen, in the same space, even in the most cultivated part of England; and the very appearance of the cottages of the laborers sprinkled amid them excluded all those gloomy ideas inspired by the contemplation of poverty.

The hay was still bringing in, for one harvest in Norway treads on the heels of the other.  The woods were more variegated, interspersed with shrubs.  We no longer passed through forests of vast pines stretching along with savage magnificence.  Forests that only exhibited the slow decay of time or the devastation produced by warring elements.  No; oaks, ashes, beech, and all the light and graceful tenants of our woods here sported luxuriantly.  I had not observed many oaks before, for the greater part of the oak-planks, I am informed, come from the westward.

In France the farmers generally live in villages, which is a great disadvantage to the country; but the Norwegian farmers, always owning their farms or being tenants for life, reside in the midst of them, allowing some laborers a dwelling rent free, who have a little land appertaining to the cottage, not only for a garden, but for crops of different kinds, such as rye, oats, buck-wheat, hemp, flax, beans, potatoes, and hay, which are sown in strips about it, reminding a stranger of the first attempts at culture, when every family was obliged to be an independent community.

These cottagers work at a certain price (tenpence per day) for the farmers on whose ground they live, and they have spare time enough to cultivate their own land and lay in a store of fish for the winter.  The wives and daughters spin and the husbands and sons weave, so that they may fairly be reckoned independent, having also a little money in hand to buy coffee, brandy and some other superfluities.

The only thing I disliked was the military service, which trammels them more than I at first imagined.  It is true that the militia is only called out once a year, yet in case of war they have no alternative but must abandon their families.  Even the manufacturers are not exempted, though the miners are, in order to encourage undertakings which require a capital at the commencement.  And, what appears more tyrannical, the inhabitants of certain districts are appointed for the land, others for the sea service.  Consequently, a peasant, born a soldier, is not permitted to follow his inclination should it lead him to go to sea, a natural desire near so many seaports.

In these regulations the arbitrary government—the King of Denmark being the most absolute monarch in Europe—appears, which in other respects seeks to hide itself in a lenity that almost renders the laws nullities.  If any alteration of old customs is thought of, the opinion of the old country is required and maturely considered.  I have several times had occasion to observe that, fearing to appear tyrannical, laws are allowed to become obsolete which ought to be put in force or better substituted in their stead; for this mistaken moderation, which borders on timidity, favors the least respectable part of the people.

I saw on my way not only good parsonage houses, but comfortable dwellings, with glebe land for the clerk, always a consequential man in every country, a being proud of a little smattering of learning, to use the appropriate epithet, and vain of the stiff good-breeding reflected from the vicar, though the servility practiced in his company gives it a peculiar cast.

The widow of the clergyman is allowed to receive the benefit of the living for a twelvemonth after the death of the incumbent.

Arriving at the ferry (the passage over to Moss is about six or eight English miles) I saw the most level shore I had yet seen in Norway.  The appearance of the circumjacent country had been preparing me for the change of scene which was to greet me when I reached the coast.  For the grand features of nature had been dwindling into prettiness as I advanced; yet the rocks, on a smaller scale, were finely wooded to the water’s edge.  Little art appeared, yet sublimity everywhere gave place to elegance.  The road had often assumed the appearance of a graveled one, made in pleasure-grounds; whilst the trees excited only an idea of embellishment.  Meadows, like lawns, in an endless variety, displayed the careless graces of nature; and the ripening corn gave a richness to the landscape analogous with the other objects.

Never was a southern sky more beautiful, nor more soft its gales.  Indeed, I am led to conclude that the sweetest summer in the world is the northern one, the vegetation being quick and luxuriant the moment the earth is loosened from its icy fetters and the bound streams regain their wonted activity.  The balance of happiness with respect to climate may be more equal than I at first imagined; for the inhabitants describe with warmth the pleasures of a winter at the thoughts of which I shudder.  Not only their parties of pleasure but of business are reserved for this season, when they travel with astonishing rapidity the most direct way, skimming over hedge and ditch.

On entering Moss I was struck by the animation which seemed to result from industry.  The richest of the inhabitants keep shops, resembling in their manners and even the arrangement of their houses the tradespeople of Yorkshire; with an air of more independence, or rather consequence, from feeling themselves the first people in the place.  I had not time to see the iron-works, belonging to Mr. Anker, of Christiania, a man of fortune and enterprise; and I was not very anxious to see them after having viewed those at Laurvig.

Here I met with an intelligent literary man, who was anxious to gather information from me relative to the past and present situation of France.  The newspapers printed at Copenhagen, as well as those in England, give the most exaggerated accounts of their atrocities and distresses, but the former without any apparent comments or inferences.  Still the Norwegians, though more connected with the English, speaking their language and copying their manners, wish well to the Republican cause, and follow with the most lively interest the successes of the French arms.  So determined were they, in fact, to excuse everything, disgracing the struggle of freedom, by admitting the tyrant’s plea, necessity, that I could hardly persuade them that Robespierre was a monster.

The discussion of this subject is not so general as in England, being confined to the few, the clergy and physicians, with a small portion of people who have a literary turn and leisure; the greater part of the inhabitants having a variety of occupations, being owners of ships, shopkeepers, and farmers, have employment enough at home.  And their ambition to become rich may tend to cultivate the common sense which characterizes and narrows both their hearts and views, confirming the former to their families, taking the handmaids of it into the circle of pleasure, if not of interest, and the latter to the inspection of their workmen, including the noble science of bargain-making—that is, getting everything at the cheapest, and selling it at the dearest rate.  I am now more than ever convinced that it is an intercourse with men of science and artists which not only diffuses taste, but gives that freedom to the understanding without which I have seldom met with much benevolence of character on a large scale.

Besides, though you do not hear of much pilfering and stealing in Norway, yet they will, with a quiet conscience, buy things at a price which must convince them they were stolen.  I had an opportunity of knowing that two or three reputable people had purchased some articles of vagrants, who were detected.  How much of the virtue which appears in the world is put on for the world?  And how little dictated by self-respect?—so little, that I am ready to repeat the old question, and ask, Where is truth, or rather principle, to be found?  These are, perhaps, the vaporings of a heart ill at ease—the effusions of a sensibility wounded almost to madness.  But enough of this; we will discuss the subject in another state of existence, where truth and justice will reign.  How cruel are the injuries which make us quarrel with human nature!  At present black melancholy hovers round my footsteps; and sorrow sheds a mildew over all the future prospects, which hope no longer gilds.

A rainy morning prevented my enjoying the pleasure the view of a picturesque country would have afforded me; for though this road passed through a country a greater extent of which was under cultivation than I had usually seen here, it nevertheless retained all the wild charms of Norway.  Rocks still enclosed the valleys, the great sides of which enlivened their verdure.  Lakes appeared like branches of the sea, and branches of the sea assumed the appearance of tranquil lakes; whilst streamlets prattled among the pebbles and the broken mass of stone which had rolled into them, giving fantastic turns to the trees, the roots of which they bared.

It is not, in fact, surprising that the pine should be often undermined; it shoots its fibers in such a horizontal direction, merely on the surface of the earth, requiring only enough to cover those that cling to the crags.  Nothing proves to me so clearly that it is the air which principally nourishes trees and plants as the flourishing appearance of these pines.  The firs, demanding a deeper soil, are seldom seen in equal health, or so numerous on the barren cliffs.  They take shelter in the crevices, or where, after some revolving ages, the pines have prepared them a footing.

Approaching, or rather descending, to Christiania, though the weather continued a little cloudy, my eyes were charmed with the view of an extensive undulated valley, stretching out under the shelter of a noble amphitheater of pine-covered mountains.  Farm houses scattered about animated, nay, graced a scene which still retained so much of its native wildness, that the art which appeared seemed so necessary, it was scarcely perceived.  Cattle were grazing in the shaven meadows; and the lively green on their swelling sides contrasted with the ripening corn and rye.  The corn that grew on the slopes had not, indeed, the laughing luxuriance of plenty, which I have seen in more genial climes.  A fresh breeze swept across the grain, parting its slender stalks, but the wheat did not wave its head with its wonted careless dignity, as if nature had crowned it the king of plants.

The view, immediately on the left, as we drove down the mountain, was almost spoiled by the depredations committed on the rocks to make alum.  I do not know the process.  I only saw that the rocks looked red after they had been burnt, and regretted that the operation should leave a quantity of rubbish to introduce an image of human industry in the shape of destruction.  The situation of Christiania is certainly uncommonly fine, and I never saw a bay that so forcibly gave me an idea of a place of safety from the storms of the ocean; all the surrounding objects were beautiful and even grand.  But neither the rocky mountains, nor the woods that graced them, could be compared with the sublime prospects I had seen to the westward; and as for the hills, “capped with eternal snow,” Mr. Coxe’s description led me to look for them, but they had flown, for I looked vainly around for this noble background.

A few months ago the people of Christiania rose, exasperated by the scarcity and consequent high price of grain.  The immediate cause was the shipping of some, said to be for Moss, but which they suspected was only a pretext to send it out of the country, and I am not sure that they were wrong in their conjecture.  Such are the tricks of trade.  They threw stones at Mr. Anker, the owner of it, as he rode out of town to escape from their fury; they assembled about his house, and the people demanded afterwards, with so much impetuosity, the liberty of those who were taken up in consequence of the tumult, that the Grand Bailiff thought it prudent to release them without further altercation.

You may think me too severe on commerce, but from the manner it is at present carried on little can be advanced in favor of a pursuit that wears out the most sacred principles of humanity and rectitude.  What is speculation but a species of gambling, I might have said fraud, in which address generally gains the prize?  I was led into these reflections when I heard of some tricks practiced by merchants, miscalled reputable, and certainly men of property, during the present war, in which common honesty was violated: damaged goods and provision having been shipped for the express purpose of falling into the hands of the English, who had pledged themselves to reimburse neutral nations for the cargoes they seized; cannon also, sent back as unfit for service, have been shipped as a good speculation, the captain receiving orders to cruise about till he fell in with an English frigate.  Many individuals I believe have suffered by the seizures of their vessels; still I am persuaded that the English Government has been very much imposed upon in the charges made by merchants who contrived to get their ships taken.  This censure is not confined to the Danes.  Adieu, for the present, I must take advantage of a moment of fine weather to walk out and see the town.

At Christiania I met with that polite reception, which rather characterizes the progress of manners in the world, than of any particular portion of it.  The first evening of my arrival I supped with some of the most fashionable people of the place, and almost imagined myself in a circle of English ladies, so much did they resemble them in manners, dress, and even in beauty; for the fairest of my countrywomen would not have been sorry to rank with the Grand Bailiff’s lady.  There were several pretty girls present, but she outshone them all, and, what interested me still more, I could not avoid observing that in acquiring the easy politeness which distinguishes people of quality, she had preserved her Norwegian simplicity.  There was, in fact, a graceful timidity in her address, inexpressibly charming.  This surprised me a little, because her husband was quite a Frenchman of the ancien régime, or rather a courtier, the same kind of animal in every country.

Here I saw the cloven foot of despotism.  I boasted to you that they had no viceroy in Norway, but these Grand Bailiffs, particularly the superior one, who resides at Christiania, are political monsters of the same species.  Needy sycophants are provided for by their relations and connections at Copenhagen as at other courts.  And though the Norwegians are not in the abject state of the Irish, yet this secondhand government is still felt by their being deprived of several natural advantages to benefit the domineering state.

The Grand Bailiffs are mostly noblemen from Copenhagen, who act as men of common minds will always act in such situations—aping a degree of courtly parade which clashes with the independent character of a magistrate.  Besides, they have a degree of power over the country judges, which some of them, who exercise a jurisdiction truly patriarchal most painfully feel.  I can scarcely say why, my friend, but in this city thoughtfulness seemed to be sliding into melancholy or rather dullness.  The fire of fancy, which had been kept alive in the country, was almost extinguished by reflections on the ills that harass such a large portion of mankind.  I felt like a bird fluttering on the ground unable to mount, yet unwilling to crawl tranquilly like a reptile, whilst still conscious it had wings.

I walked out, for the open air is always my remedy when an aching head proceeds from an oppressed heart.  Chance directed my steps towards the fortress, and the sight of the slaves, working with chains on their legs, only served to embitter me still more against the regulations of society, which treated knaves in such a different manner, especially as there was a degree of energy in some of their countenances which unavoidably excited my attention, and almost created respect.

I wished to have seen, through an iron grate, the face of a man who has been confined six years for having induced the farmers to revolt against some impositions of the Government.  I could not obtain a clear account of the affair, yet, as the complaint was against some farmers of taxes, I am inclined to believe that it was not totally without foundation.  He must have possessed some eloquence, or have had truth on his side; for the farmers rose by hundreds to support him, and were very much exasperated at his imprisonment, which will probably last for life, though he has sent several very spirited remonstrances to the upper court, which makes the judges so averse to giving a sentence which may be caviled at, that they take advantage of the glorious uncertainty of the law, to protract a decision which is only to be regulated by reasons of state.

The greater number of the slaves I saw here were not confined for life.  Their labor is not hard; and they work in the open air, which prevents their constitutions from suffering by imprisonment.  Still, as they are allowed to associate together, and boast of their dexterity, not only to each other but to the soldiers around them, in the garrison; they commonly, it is natural to conclude, go out more confirmed and more expert knaves than when they entered.

It is not necessary to trace the origin of the association of ideas which led me to think that the stars and gold keys, which surrounded me the evening before, disgraced the wearers as much as the fetters I was viewing—perhaps more.  I even began to investigate the reason, which led me to suspect that the former produced the latter.

The Norwegians are extravagantly fond of courtly distinction, and of titles, though they have no immunities annexed to them, and are easily purchased.  The proprietors of mines have many privileges: they are almost exempt from taxes, and the peasantry born on their estates, as well as those on the counts’, are not born soldiers or sailors.

One distinction, or rather trophy of nobility, which I might have occurred to the Hottentots, amused me; it was a bunch of hog’s bristles placed on the horses’ heads, surmounting that part of the harness to which a round piece of brass often dangles, fatiguing the eye with its idle motion.

From the fortress I returned to my lodging, and quickly was taken out of town to be shown a pretty villa, and English garden.  To a Norwegian both might have been objects of curiosity; and of use, by exciting to the comparison which leads to improvement.  But whilst I gazed, I was employed in restoring the place to nature, or taste, by giving it the character of the surrounding scene.  Serpentine walks, and flowering-shrubs, looked trifling in a grand recess of the rooks, shaded by towering pines.  Groves of smaller trees might have been sheltered under them, which would have melted into the landscape, displaying only the art which ought to point out the vicinity of a human abode, furnished with some elegance.  But few people have sufficient taste to discern, that the art of embellishing consists in interesting, not in astonishing.

Christiania is certainly very pleasantly situated, and the environs I passed through, during this ride, afforded many fine and cultivated prospects; but, excepting the first view approaching to it, rarely present any combination of objects so strikingly new, or picturesque, as to command remembrance.  Adieu!

From : Gutenberg.org.

Chronology :

November 30, 1795 : Letter 13 -- Publication.
December 19, 2021 : Letter 13 -- Added.

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