2658. Robert Southey to John Rickman [fragment], 2[–16] October 1815

2658. Robert Southey to John Rickman [fragment], 2[–16] October 1815 ⁠* 

Brussels, Oct. 2. 1815.

My dear Rickman,

I wish you had been with me at Ghent, where the Beguines have their principal establishment. [1]  The Beguinage is a remarkable place, at one end of the city, and entirely enclosed. You enter through a gateway, where there is a statue of S. Elizabeth of Hungary, [2]  the patroness of the establishment. The space enclosed is, I should think, not less than the area of the whole town of Keswick or of Christ Church; and the Beguinage itself, unlike almshouse, college, village, or town: a collection of contiguous houses of different sizes, each with a small garden in front, and a high brick wall enclosing them all; over every door the name of some saint under whose protection the house is placed, but no opening through which anything can be seen. There are several streets thus built, with houses on both sides. There is a large church within the enclosure, a burying-ground, without any grave-stones; and a branch from one of the innumerable rivers with which Ghent is intersected, in which the washing of the community is performed from a large boat; and a large piece of ground, planted with trees, where the clothes are dried. One, who was the second person in the community, accosted us, showed us the interior, and gave us such explanation as we desired, for we had with us a lady who spoke French. It is curious that she knew nothing of the origin of her order, and could not even tell by whom it was founded; but I have purchased here the Life of S. Bega, from whom it derived its name, and in this book I expect to find the whole history. [3] 

There are about 6000 Beguines in Brabant and Flanders, to which countries they are confined; 620 were residents in the Beguinage. They were rich before the Revolution. [4]  Their lands were then taken from them, and they were obliged to lay aside the dress of the order; but this was only done in part, because they were supported by public opinion; and being of evident utility to all ranks, few were disposed to injure them. They receive the sick who come to them, and support and attend them as long as the illness requires. They are bound by no vow, and my informant assured me, with evident pride, that no instance of a Beguine leaving the establishment had ever been known. She herself had entered it after the death of her husband; and I suppose their numbers are generally, if not wholly, filled up by women who seek a retreat, or need an asylum from the world. The property which a Beguine brings with her reverts to her heir-at-law. At the Revolution, the church of the Beguinage was sold, as confiscated religious property. This sale was a mere trick, or, in English phrase, a job to accommodate some partisan of the ruling demagogues with ready money. Such a man bought it, and in the course of two or three weeks resold it to two sisters of the community for 300 Louis d’ors, and they made it over again to the order. There is a refectory, where they dine in common if they please, or, if they please, have dinner sent from thence to their own chambers. We went into three chambers, – small, furnished with little more than necessary comforts, but having all these, and remarkably clean. In one, a Beguine, who had been bed-ridden many years, was sitting up and knitting. We were taken into the chamber, because it amused her to see visitors. She was evidently pleased at seeing us, and remarkably cheerful. In another apartment, two sisters were spinning, one of eighty-five, the other of eighty-three years of age. In all this there is less information than I should have given you, if my tongue had not been the most antigallican in the world, and the Flemish French not very intelligible to my interpreter. The dress is convenient, but abominably ugly. I shall endeavour to get a doll equipped in it. The place itself I wish you could see; and, indeed, you would find a visit to Bruges and Ghent abundantly overpaid by the sight of those cities (famous as they are in history), and of a country, every inch of which is well husbanded.

Bruges is, without exception, the most striking place I ever visited, though it derives nothing from situation. It seems to have remained in the same state for above 200 years; nothing has been added, and hardly anything gone to decay. What ruin has occurred there, was the work of frantic revolutionists, who destroyed all the statues in the niches of the Stadtt House, [5]  and demolished an adjoining church, [6]  one of the finest in the town. The air of antiquity and perfect preservation is such, that it carries you back to the age of the Tudors or of Froissart; [7]  and the whole place is in keeping. The poorest inhabitants seem to be well lodged; and if the cultivation of the ground and the well-being of the people be the great objects of civilisation, I should almost conclude that no part of the world was so highly civilised as this. At Ghent there is more business, more inequality, a greater mixture of French manners, and the alloy of vice and misery in proportion. Brussels, in like manner, exceeds Ghent, and is, indeed, called a second Paris. The modern part of the city is perfectly Parisian; the older, and especially the great square, Flemish. …

We have seen the whole field of battle, or rather all the fields, and vestiges enough of the contest, though it is almost wonderful to observe how soon nature recovers from all her injuries. The fields are cultivated again, and wild flowers are in blossom upon some of the graves. The Scotchmen – ’those men without breeches’ [8]  – have the credit of the day at Waterloo.

The result of what I have collected is an opinion that the present settlement of these countries is not likely to be durable. [9]  The people feel at present pretty much as a bird who is rescued from the claw of one eagle by the beak of another. The Rhine is regarded as a proper boundary for Prussia; and it is as little desired that she should pass that river as that France should reach it. There is a spirit of independence here, which has been outraged, but from which much good might arise if it were conciliated. This, I am inclined to think, would be best done by forming a wide confederacy, leaving to each of the confederates its own territory, laws, &c.; and this might be extended from the frontiers of France to the Hanseatic cities. One thing I am certain, that such arrangements would satisfy everybody, except those sovereigns who would lose by it. I am aware how short a time I have been in the country, and how liable men, under such circumstances, are to be deceived; but I have taken the utmost pains to acquire all the knowledge within my reach, and have been singularly fortunate in the means which have fallen in my way. The merest accident brought me acquainted with a Liegois, [10]  a great manufacturer, &c., and I have not found that men talk to me with the less confidence because I am not a freemason

We turn our face homeward to-morrow, by way of Maestricht and Louvaine to Brussels. The delay here will possibly oblige us to give up Antwerp. However, on the whole, I have every reason to be pleased with the journey. No month of my life was ever better employed. God bless you!



* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850)
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 127–132 [dated 2 October 1815].
Dating note: the published letter is dated ‘Oct. 2. 1815’, but Southey says in his letter to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 3 October 1815, Letter 2659, that he had only ‘begun’ to write to Rickman. In the final paragraph, Southey states he will leave for Maestricht ‘to-morrow’ and he began this journey on 17 October 1815. BACK

[1] The beguines were medieval communities of lay women in the Low Countries. Rickman was interested in them as models for his proposed communities of poor single women who would live and work together. BACK

[2] St Elizabeth of Hungary (1207–1231), famed for giving up the trappings of royal life, relinquishing her wealth to the poor, and founding hospitals. The beguinage church in Ghent was dedicated to her. BACK

[3] Saint Begga (615–693) was the reputed founder of the Beguines. Southey had bought Josephus Gedolphus a Ryckel (fl. 1630s), Vita S. Beggae Ducissae Brabantiae, Begginarum et Beggardorum Fundatricis (1631); no. 2580 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[4] i.e. the French Revolution. French troops invaded the Austrian Netherlands in 1792, and again in 1794, and incorporated the territory into France. BACK

[5] Bruges Town Hall, which dates from 1376. The outside of the building has niches for 49 statues of Biblical figures and Counts of Flanders. All were destroyed in 1792. BACK

[6] St Donatius Church, destroyed in 1799. BACK

[7] The Tudor dynasty ruled England 1485–1603, a little after the life of chronicler Jean Froissart (c.1337-c.1405). BACK

[8] i.e. the kilt worn by Highland regiments in the British army. Highland regiments at Waterloo included the 42nd (Royal Highland) Foot Regiment, 71st (Highland) Regiment of Foot, 73rd (Perthshire) Regiment of Foot and the 92nd (Gordon Highlanders) Foot Regiment. BACK

[9] The Kingdom of the Netherlands had been created by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 out of the old Dutch Republic, the Austrian Netherlands and the Prince-Bishopric of Liege. It was beset by regional tensions and the southern half broke away in 1830 to become Belgium. BACK

[10] Francois-Joseph Ouwerx (dates unknown) of Huys, a manufacturer of soap. His father-in-law was Nicolas Delloye (dates unknown), a tin manufacturer. BACK

Places mentioned

Christ Church (mentioned 1 time)
Keswick (mentioned 1 time)