Letter 14


People :

Author : Mary Wollstonecraft

Text :

Christiania is a clean, neat city; but it has none of the graces of architecture, which ought to keep pace with the refining manners of a people—or the outside of the house will disgrace the inside, giving the beholder an idea of overgrown wealth devoid of taste.  Large square wooden houses offend the eye, displaying more than Gothic barbarism.  Huge Gothic piles, indeed, exhibit a characteristic sublimity, and a wildness of fancy peculiar to the period when they were erected; but size, without grandeur or elegance, has an emphatical stamp of meanness, of poverty of conception, which only a commercial spirit could give.

The same thought has struck me, when I have entered the meeting-house of my respected friend, Dr. Price.  I am surprised that the dissenters, who have not laid aside all the pomps and vanities of life, should imagine a noble pillar, or arch, unhallowed.  Whilst men have senses, whatever soothes them lends wings to devotion; else why do the beauties of nature, where all that charm them are spread around with a lavish hand, force even the sorrowing heart to acknowledge that existence is a blessing? and this acknowledgment is the most sublime homage we can pay to the Deity.

The argument of convenience is absurd.  Who would labor for wealth, if it were to procure nothing but conveniences.  If we wish to render mankind moral from principle, we must, I am persuaded, give a greater scope to the enjoyments of the senses by blending taste with them.  This has frequently occurred to me since I have been in the north, and observed that there sanguine characters always take refuge in drunkenness after the fire of youth is spent.

But I have flown from Norway.  To go back to the wooden houses; farms constructed with logs, and even little villages, here erected in the same simple manner, have appeared to me very picturesque.  In the more remote parts I had been particularly pleased with many cottages situated close to a brook, or bordering on a lake, with the whole farm contiguous.  As the family increases, a little more land is cultivated; thus the country is obviously enriched by population.  Formerly the farmers might more justly have been termed woodcutters.  But now they find it necessary to spare the woods a little, and this change will be universally beneficial; for whilst they lived entirely by selling the trees they felled, they did not pay sufficient attention to husbandry; consequently, advanced very slowly in agricultural knowledge.  Necessity will in future more and more spur them on; for the ground, cleared of wood, must be cultivated, or the farm loses its value; there is no waiting for food till another generation of pines be grown to maturity.

The people of property are very careful of their timber; and, rambling through a forest near Tonsberg, belonging to the Count, I have stopped to admire the appearance of some of the cottages inhabited by a woodman’s family—a man employed to cut down the wood necessary for the household and the estate.  A little lawn was cleared, on which several lofty trees were left which nature had grouped, whilst the encircling firs sported with wild grace.  The dwelling was sheltered by the forest, noble pines spreading their branches over the roof; and before the door a cow, goat, nag, and children, seemed equally content with their lot; and if contentment be all we can attain, it is, perhaps, best secured by ignorance.

As I have been most delighted with the country parts of Norway, I was sorry to leave Christiania without going farther to the north, though the advancing season admonished me to depart, as well as the calls of business and affection.

June and July are the months to make a tour through Norway; for then the evenings and nights are the finest I have ever seen; but towards the middle or latter end of August the clouds begin to gather, and summer disappears almost before it has ripened the fruit of autumn—even, as it were, slips from your embraces, whilst the satisfied senses seem to rest in enjoyment.

You will ask, perhaps, why I wished to go farther northward.  Why? not only because the country, from all I can gather, is most romantic, abounding in forests and lakes, and the air pure, but I have heard much of the intelligence of the inhabitants, substantial farmers, who have none of that cunning to contaminate their simplicity, which displeased me so much in the conduct of the people on the sea coast.  A man who has been detected in any dishonest act can no longer live among them.  He is universally shunned, and shame becomes the severest punishment.

Such a contempt have they, in fact, for every species of fraud, that they will not allow the people on the western coast to be their countrymen; so much do they despise the arts for which those traders who live on the rocks are notorious.

The description I received of them carried me back to the fables of the golden age: independence and virtue; affluence without vice; cultivation of mind, without depravity of heart; with “ever smiling Liberty;” the nymph of the mountain.  I want faith!

My imagination hurries me forward to seek an asylum in such a retreat from all the disappointments I am threatened with; but reason drags me back, whispering that the world is still the world, and man the same compound of weakness and folly, who must occasionally excite love and disgust, admiration and contempt.  But this description, though it seems to have been sketched by a fairy pencil, was given me by a man of sound understanding, whose fancy seldom appears to run away with him.

A law in Norway, termed the odels right, has lately been modified, and probably will be abolished as an impediment to commerce.  The heir of an estate had the power of re-purchasing it at the original purchase money, making allowance for such improvements as were absolutely necessary, during the space of twenty years.  At present ten is the term allowed for afterthought; and when the regulation was made, all the men of abilities were invited to give their opinion whether it were better to abrogate or modify it.  It is certainly a convenient and safe way of mortgaging land; yet the most rational men whom I conversed with on the subject seemed convinced that the right was more injurious than beneficial to society; still if it contribute to keep the farms in the farmers’ own hands, I should be sorry to hear that it were abolished.

The aristocracy in Norway, if we keep clear of Christiania, is far from being formidable; and it will require a long the to enable the merchants to attain a sufficient moneyed interest to induce them to reinforce the upper class at the expense of the yeomanry, with whom they are usually connected.

England and America owe their liberty to commerce, which created new species of power to undermine the feudal system.  But let them beware of the consequence; the tyranny of wealth is still more galling and debasing than that of rank.

Farewell!  I must prepare for my departure.

From : Gutenberg.org.

Chronology :

November 30, 1795 : Letter 14 -- Publication.

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