2999. Robert Southey to Edith Southey, 28 May 1817

2999. Robert Southey to Edith Southey, 28 May 1817⁠* 

Neufchatel. Wednesday. 28 May. 1817.

My dear Edith

Yesterday we entered Switzerland, & reached this place after a weeks journey from Paris without let, hindrance accident, or inconvenience of any kind.

We left Paris at six o clock on the Tuesday Wednesday, not having been able to see the Thulleries on Tuesday as we had proposed. Tuesday therefore we dined with Kenyon, whose wife [1]  is not a prepossessing personage. I shall hurry over our route, not to repeat here what is minutely related in my journal. Tuesday <Wednesday> to Fontainbleau, Tuesday Thursday to Joigny Friday to Rouering, Saturday to Dijon, Sunday to Besançon, Monday to Pontarlier & Tuesday to this city, – where we have opened our portmanteaus, consigned our unclean wardrobe to the Blanchisseuses, are taking a days rest. The season is unusually backward & cold. On the way to Paris we found the country in great want of rain, & since we left Paris it has been equally in want of sunshine, yet our weather has been so far favourable that we have lost nothing in consequence of the occasional showers. Here there is not the appearance of a leaf upon the vines; in other respects the country is in full beauty, the trees having their richest verdure. Tomorrow we go to Yverdon & see Pestalozzi. [2]  Friday to Lausanne where I shall find Mr S. Canning [3]  the Embassador to whom I have a letter from Sir T. Ackland, & near Lausanne is Miss Bigg with her sister Mrs Awdrey [4]  & her family, – your acquaintance Alethea for whom you may remember Marquis Bruin paid you the xxxx compliment of mistaking you. I shall be glad to meet her at this distance from England. – In the police book here, I find the names of General Peachy, Sotheby, [5] Sir T Ackland, – & only a fortnight before us, Haygarth. [6]  From Lausanne to Geneva & thence by Chamberry & the Mount Cenis [7]  pass into Italy. Probably my next letter will be from Turin, – we return by the Simplon [8]  to Geneva where I shall expect to find a letter from you, you will well know how anxiously.

It is with the greatest difficulty that I find time to keep a journal. We rise at five, & have travelled from ten to twelve hours every day, going about twenty miles before breakfast. Hunger would hardly permit us to do any thing in the way of writing before dinner, if there were not always something to see while dinner is preparing; – & after dinner it requires an effort of heroic virtue to resist the pleasures of wine & conversation, & it becomes almost impossible upon taking the pen in hand to resist sleep. This morning we lay in bed till seven, that we might have the full enjoyment of a whole holyday. I remember at Westminster this was the chief gratification which a whole holyday or a Sunday afforded, was that of lying abed till breakfast was ready at nine o clock.

Our windows are within a stones throw of the Lake, & we see the Alps across it. The Lake is like a sea in its colour, its waves, & its voice, – of which we are of course within hearing. The Alps of which we have the whole extent in view, cannot be less than fifty miles distant in the nearest point, directly across the Lake, & Mont Blanc, which is at the extremity on the right, about fourscore. If our horizon at Keswick were wide enough I could sometimes show you the Alps in the clouds. They have precisely the appearance of white cumulated clouds at the verge of the sky, resting upon the earth, & silvered with sunshine; & from such clouds they are only to be distinguished by their definite outline & permanent forms. It is idle to compare this country with our own, – or rather it would be worse than idle to form any comparison for the purpose of depreciating either. Part of our yesterdays journey was so like Cumberland, that I could have fancied myself within an hours walk of home; & this forced upon me such a sense of time, distance & separation, that the tears were more than once ready to break loose. The mountains through which we passed from Pontarlier to this place, rise behind the town, & in that direction the view, as for xx <to its> natural objects might be English. A huge harbour, or still better an arm of the sea, with such a sky as I have described will give you a full idea of the rest.

We hear dismal stories of famine & distress, – but the scene continually recedes as we approach it, nor have we seen any indication of it whatever. From all that I can collect, the bad harvest of last year has acted here as it does in England & must every where, it presses severely upon that class of persons who stood in need of economy before, & who with economy had a little to spare for others. There are plenty of beggars throughout France, & much squalid poverty, but the children of the peasantry are as hale, & apparently as well fed, as far as all appearances of flesh & blood may be trusted, as those in our own country. – What I have seen of France, – about 500 miles, from Calais to Pontarlier, is on the whole, less xx interesting than an equal distance in G Britain would appear to a foreign traveller, I mean that he would meet with a country more generally beautiful, finer parts, & better towns. But there have been very fine parts upon this journey, with a character & beauty of their own. In Switzerland every step must be interesting, & go in what direction you will, it is impossible to go wrong.

Nothing surprised me more in France than that there should be no middleaged women among the peasantry; they appear to pass at once from youth to hagged old age, & it is no exaggeration to say that they look like so many living & moving mummies. Fond as they are of finery in youth & xxxxx xxx for they are then tricked out in all the colours of the rainbow, in old age their dress is as wretched & squalid as their appearance. I see nothing among them of the gaiety of which we have heard so much in former times. Not a single party have we seen dancing throughout the whole journey, – the weather indeed has been unusually cold, but certainly not such as would check the propensities of a light-heeled generation, if they xxx were as fond of a dance as their light hearted progenitors. I must say to their credit that we have uniformly met with civility, – not the slightest insult or incivility of any kind has been offered to us, & if some extortion has been practised rather generally at the Hotels, it is no more than what is done every where, & perhaps more in England than any where else.

But I must conclude. It is now three o clock & I have been closely employed since breakfast in bringing up my journal & in writing only this letter, – which however you must remember in any common handwriting would make two or three respectable epistles. My wolf is in great force & devours every thing which is set before him. Nash performs tolerably well, & as for Senhouse he eats five eggs at breakfast.

God bless you give my love to all.




* Address: Angleterre/ To/ Mrs Southey/ Keswick/ Cumberland
Stamped: [illegible]/ ONPARLIER; SS; PP
Postmarks: FPO/ JU 7/ 1817; [partial] JU/ 7
MS: British Library, Add MS 47888. ALS; 3p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 264–267 [in part]. BACK

[1] Susan Kenyon (d. 1818), Kenyon’s first wife, who died in Naples during their prolonged continental tour. BACK

[2] The Swiss educational reformer, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827). The ‘Pestalozzi Method’ argued that children should learn through activity and through things, rather than words. As part of this, children should be free to pursue their own interests and draw their own conclusions. BACK

[3] Stratford Canning, 1st Viscount Stratford de Redcliffe (1786–1880; DNB), diplomat. At this time he was Envoy Extraordinary and Minister-Plenipotentiary to Switzerland 1814–1820. BACK

[4] The Awdry family were John Awdry (1766–1844), solicitor in Reybridge and his wife Jane, née Bigg-Wither (1770–1845), sister of Herbert Hill’s wife, Catherine. ‘Miss Bigg’ was a third, unmarried sister, Alethea Bigg (1777–1847). Southey visited them at Echichens on 1–3 June and 29 June-3 July. BACK

[5] William Sotheby (1757–1833; DNB), poet and translator. BACK

[6] William Haygarth (1784–1825), poet and travel writer, son of the physician, John Haygarth (1740–1827; DNB). BACK

[7] A mountain pass between France and Italy, the traversal of which had been eased by a road constructed between 1803 and 1810. BACK

[8] The Simplon pass, in the Swiss Alps, between Brig and Domodossola in Italy. BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)