Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark/Letter XVIII
The distance from Elsineur to Copenhagen is twenty-two miles; the road is very good, over a flat country diversified with wood, mostly beech, and decent mansions. There appeared to be a great quantity of corn land, and the soil looked much more fertile than it is in general so near the sea. The rising grounds, indeed, were very few, and around Copenhagen it is a perfect plain; of course has nothing to recommend it but cultivation, not decorations. If I say that the houses did not disgust me, I tell you all I remember of them, for I cannot recollect any pleasurable sensations they excited, or that any object, produced by nature or art, took me out of myself. The view of the city, as we drew near, was rather grand, but without any striking feature to interest the imagination, excepting the trees which shade the footpaths.
Just before I reached Copenhagen I saw a number of tents on a wide plain, and supposed that the rage for encampments had reached this city; but I soon discovered that they were the asylum of many of the poor families who had been driven out of their habitations by the late fire.
Entering soon after, I passed amongst the dust and rubbish it had left, affrighted by viewing the extent of the devastation, for at least a quarter of the city had been destroyed. There was little in the appearance of fallen bricks and stacks of chimneys to allure the imagination into soothing melancholy reveries; nothing to attract the eye of taste, but much to afflict the benevolent heart. The depredations of time have always something in them to employ the fancy, or lead to musing on subjects which, withdrawing the mind from objects of sense, seem to give it new dignity; but here I was treading on live ashes. The sufferers were still under the pressure of the misery occasioned by this dreadful conflagration. I could not take refuge in the thought: they suffered, but they are no more! a reflection I frequently summon to calm my mind when sympathy rises to anguish. I therefore desired the driver to hasten to the hotel recommended to me, that I might avert my eyes and snap the train of thinking which had sent me into all the corners of the city in search of houseless heads.
This morning I have been walking round the town, till I am weary of observing the ravages. I had often heard the Danes, even those who had seen Paris and London, speak of Copenhagen with rapture. Certainly I have seen it in a very disadvantageous light, some of the best streets having been burnt, and the whole place thrown into confusion. Still the utmost that can, or could ever, I believe, have been said in its praise, might be comprised in a few words. The streets are open, and many of the houses large; but I saw nothing to rouse the idea of elegance or grandeur, if I except the circus where the king and prince royal reside.
The palace, which was consumed about two years ago, must have been a handsome, spacious building; the stone-work is still standing, and a great number of the poor, during the late fire, took refuge in its ruins till they could find some other abode. Beds were thrown on the landing- places of the grand staircase, where whole families crept from the cold, and every little nook is boarded up as a retreat for some poor creatures deprived of their home. At present a roof may be sufficient to shelter them from the night air; but as the season advances, the extent of the calamity will be more severely felt, I fear, though the exertions on the part of Government are very considerable. Private charity has also, no doubt, done much to alleviate the misery which obtrudes itself at every turn; still, public spirit appears to me to be hardly alive here. Had it existed, the conflagration might have been smothered in the beginning, as it was at last, by tearing down several houses before the flames had reached them. To this the inhabitants would not consent; and the prince royal not having sufficient energy of character to know when he ought to be absolute, calmly let them pursue their own course, till the whole city seemed to be threatened with destruction. Adhering, with puerile scrupulosity, to the law which he has imposed on himself, of acting exactly right, he did wrong by idly lamenting whilst he marked the progress of a mischief that one decided step would have stopped. He was afterwards obliged to resort to violent measures; but then, who could blame him? And, to avoid censure, what sacrifices are not made by weak minds?
A gentleman who was a witness of the scene assured me, likewise, that if the people of property had taken half as much pains to extinguish the fire as to preserve their valuables and furniture, it would soon have been got under. But they who were not immediately in danger did not exert themselves sufficiently, till fear, like an electrical shock, roused all the inhabitants to a sense of the general evil. Even the fire- engines were out of order, though the burning of the palace ought to have admonished them of the necessity of keeping them in constant repair. But this kind of indolence respecting what does not immediately concern them seems to characterise the Danes. A sluggish concentration in themselves makes them so careful to preserve their property, that they will not venture on any enterprise to increase it in which there is a shadow of hazard.
Considering Copenhagen as the capital of Denmark and Norway, I was surprised not to see so much industry or taste as in Christiania. Indeed, from everything I have had an opportunity of observing, the Danes are the people who have made the fewest sacrifices to the graces.
The men of business are domestic tyrants, coldly immersed in their own affairs, and so ignorant of the state of other countries, that they dogmatically assert that Denmark is the happiest country in the world; the Prince Royal the best of all possible princes; and Count Bernstorff the wisest of ministers.
As for the women, they are simply notable housewives; without accomplishments or any of the charms that adorn more advanced social life. This total ignorance may enable them to save something in their kitchens, but it is far from rendering them better parents. On the contrary, the children are spoiled, as they usually are when left to the care of weak, indulgent mothers, who having no principle of action to regulate their feelings, become the slaves of infants, enfeebling both body and mind by false tenderness.
I am, perhaps, a little prejudiced, as I write from the impression of the moment; for I have been tormented to-day by the presence of unruly children, and made angry by some invectives thrown out against the maternal character of the unfortunate Matilda. She was censured, with the most cruel insinuation, for her management of her son, though, from what I could gather, she gave proofs of good sense as well as tenderness in her attention to him. She used to bathe him herself every morning; insisted on his being loosely clad; and would not permit his attendants to injure his digestion by humouring his appetite. She was equally careful to prevent his acquiring haughty airs, and playing the tyrant in leading-strings. The Queen Dowager would not permit her to suckle him; but the next child being a daughter, and not the Heir-Apparent of the Crown, less opposition was made to her discharging the duty of a mother.
Poor Matilda! thou hast haunted me ever since may arrival; and the view I have had of the manners of the country, exciting my sympathy, has increased my respect for thy memory.
I am now fully convinced that she was the victim of the party she displaced, who would have overlooked or encouraged her attachment, had not her lover, aiming at being useful, attempted to overturn some established abuses before the people, ripe for the change, had sufficient spirit to support him when struggling in their behalf. Such indeed was the asperity sharpened against her that I have heard her, even after so many years have elapsed, charged with licentiousness, not only for endeavouring to render the public amusements more elegant, but for her very charities, because she erected, amongst other institutions, a hospital to receive foundlings. Disgusted with many customs which pass for virtues, though they are nothing more than observances of forms, often at the expense of truth, she probably ran into an error common to innovators, in wishing to do immediately what can only be done by time.
Many very cogent reasons have been urged by her friends to prove that her affection for Struensee was never carried to the length alleged against her by those who feared her influence. Be that as it may she certainly was no a woman of gallantry, and if she had an attachment for him it did not disgrace her heart or understanding, the king being a notorious debauchee and an idiot into the bargain. As the king's conduct had always been directed by some favourite, they also endeavoured to govern him, from a principle of self-preservation as well as a laudable ambition; but, not aware of the prejudices they had to encounter, the system they adopted displayed more benevolence of heart than soundness of judgment. As to the charge, still believed, of their giving the King drugs to injure his faculties, it is too absurd to be refuted. Their oppressors had better have accused them of dabbling in the black art, for the potent spell still keeps his wits in bondage.
I cannot describe to you the effect it had on me to see this puppet of a monarch moved by the strings which Count Bernstorff holds fast; sit, with vacant eye, erect, receiving the homage of courtiers who mock him with a show of respect. He is, in fact, merely a machine of state, to subscribe the name of a king to the acts of the Government, which, to avoid danger, have no value unless countersigned by the Prince Royal; for he is allowed to be absolutely aim idiot, excepting that now and then an observation or trick escapes him, which looks more like madness than imbecility.
What a farce is life. This effigy of majesty is allowed to burn down to the socket, whilst the hapless Matilda was hurried into an untimely grave.
"As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport."