523. Robert Southey to Thomas Southey, 8-9 May 1800

523. Robert Southey to Thomas Southey, 8–9 May 1800 ⁠* 

Lisbon. Thursday. May 8. 1800.

[Southey inserts a floor-plan of his residence in Lisbon]

This Tom is the plan of our house, the ground floor which belongs wholly to the servants, is exactly the same, & this is the plan of Portugueze building. 1 & 5 are the bed rooms – for seperate beds are necessary in this climate. by removing the folding doors 2 & 3 are made into one room, in length 18 of my feet, in breadth 6½ only. In the great room we dine & receive company. the house was built for two families & there is a kitchen on each floor. 1 was designed to serve that purpose & the fire place is marked in it. but it is a Portugueze fire<place> the hearth stone, 3 feet from the ground, so that the cook may stand at his work – for they know not the use of grates: an earthern pan furnishes a Portugueze kitchen. in this they stew every thing, or fry it in oil. Now for the ornamental part. our great room has four doors, two windows & two balconies. the walls are simply white limed. do not however suspect us of too plain an appearance. around the top & the middle of the walls runs a broad board painted like marble veined with blue. Each doors has a pilaster <wood> framing of green veined marble, with the base streaked red. purple marbled tiles go round the bottom. the cielings is a floor of wood, painted white & edged with flesh colour. the windowshutters & balcony doors are green. the other doors have yellow pannels in mahogany coloured frames. <the window frames mahogany coloured> our carpet is a zigzag [Southey inserts sketch of the pattern] thunder & lightning pattern of all the rainbow colours. the balconies have also glass doors. the huge stone which forms the standing place is rough as the paving by Northumberland house in the Strand, & enters some foot into the room, a notch is cut across it & a hole made thro, so that this serves as a sink to carry away what rain enters. The locks & latches are coarse beyond your conception. under every window frame <& round it> is a stone three inches broad, its surface rough from the stone cutters chissel. the window frames are fastened with screws broader than a halfcrown on their leads. the glass in every window is floored with bricks.

The garret is one room over all so propped up with crooked sticks that it would be difficult to lay a bed either length-breadth or athwart-ways. this propping is a fine specimen of Portuguese building. the ends of the poles are let into rude holes cut in the floor – & some that were not long enough for this, nor smooth enough to rest upon the ground, have another uncouth stick stuck under them – as we steady a table in England on an uneven floor. there are pigeon holes to admit light & air like a church tower <tower> – windows no bigger than church-pigeon holes – & three large windows thus [Southey inserts illustration] so contrived that if you open the shutters of the middle one, one of the sides must remain shut, & if you open the sides you fasten the middle. The roofing is like all other houses here – the tiles are shaped thus [Southey inserts U shaped sketch], they therefore lay on one row in that direction [Southey inserts illustration] – & then lest the rain should enter, cover it with a row reversed, [Southey inserts illustration]. thus doubly loading the roof.

The bedsteads instead of sacking have planks – a better thing as it does not harbour vermin. the woods here are exceedingly beautiful, they come from Brazil & are many of them handsomer than mahogany. <sets of specimens are often sold made like little books, & lettered each with its name.> The Portugueze perfume their houses by burning sugar or lavender – you frxx a whiff of this incense often surprizes me in the middle of a stink as I walk the streets.

The English when strangers here are so suspicious of the natives as to be very rash in misinterpreting them. A young man whom I knew, fired at the watch one night, when they accosted him. the ball passed thro the watchmans hat. he was seized & confined, & it required interest & money to excuse him, for what was inexcusable. My Uncle walking one night with a midshipman was stopt by persons bearing a young man who had been run thro the body by a Lieutenant. they had stopt him seeing his companions uniform, but knowing my Uncle suffered him to pass, after telling the circumstance. The Lieutenant was drunk. the young man was a gentleman who seeing him staggering about the streets, took him by the arm to lead him home. the Englishman did not understand what he said, & run him thro.

As yet we have not done received all our visits of ceremony. we are going the first night we are at liberty, to the Portugueze play. The court have shown a strange caprice about the opera. they permitted them to have a few female singers, & the proprietors of the opera sent to Italy for more & better ones. they came – no! they would not license any more – the present people women might act – but not the new comers. you must not expect me to give you any reason for this inconsistency – tis the sheer whim of authority. but an odd reason was assigned for permitting two who still act. one – because she is very religious. The other We x xx because she is Portugueze & of a certain age.

On Sunday a princess was christened. [1]  in the evening the guns fired – a signal for all persons to illuminate. it was a pleasing sight from our window, the town all starred – & the moving lights of the shipping. at ten a second discharge gave notice that we might put out our candles. But the river seen by moonlight from hence is a far finer spectacle than art can make. it lies like a plain of light under the heaven – the trees & houses, now forming a dark & distinct foreground, & now undistinguishable in shades, as the moon moves on her way <Almada stretching its black isthmus into the waters, that shine like midnight snow.>. we [MS torn] enough when it blows, to see the rush of foam behind the boats. – A magnificent equipage passed our window on Monday. it was a nobleman, either going to be married, or to court. [MS obscured] carriage was drawn by four horses, each covered with a white netting & crested with white plumes. they were very restive – indeed but half broke in. I had seen them breaking them in before, & on these occasions they always fill the carriage with servants to make it heavy – so that their necks also run a chance of being broken in. it was like the pomp of romance. – They bury in covered buildings that adjoin the church. the graves are built in divisions – like a tanners pits. you may perhaps remember such at Bristol, at St Pauls, [2]  which I saw building. quick lime is thrown in with every body which of course is soon consumed. still the bones accumulate, & occasionally these places are cleaned out. burying is every where miserably managed. that superstition should once induce the desire to be interred in consecrated ground was natural. the Church being Gods fort, the Devil would not come immediately under its bell-guns, the sound of a church bell being more formidable to Beelzebub than cannon-balls to sailors. but now, when that folly is extinct, that the dead should all be huddled together in xxx nar[MS obscured] places, of which all the soil is human matter, where they must taint the a[MS obscured] must be disturbed – in all probability are half rotten – this is a beastly adherence to custom which disgraces an enlightened country. – They have a singular mode of fishing at Costa, a sort of wigwam village in the sands south of the bar. the gang of fishermen to each net is about fifty all paid & fed by the Captain regularly, not according to their success. half hold one end of a rope – the other is carried off in the boat. the rope is about half a mile in leng[MS obscured by binding] the net in the middle. a high surf breaks on the shore. the men there thrust off the boat, themselves breast deep & stooping under every wave that meets them. the others row round to shore, & then they all haul in. – this place is about nine miles only from Lisbon, yet criminals run away there & are safe. sometimes a Magistrate goes down, but they always know that he is coming & away to the woods for the day. it is common to go there from town & dine upon the sands. the people are civil & inoffensive, indeed generally so over Portugal except among the boatmen, who have enough intercourse with foreigners to catch all their vices.

Lord Somerville [3]  went by the last packet. I did not see him – he would have called one evening but my Uncle knowing him pressed for time beg[MS obscured by binding] him to waive the ceremony. I have been very industrious & continue so. rise early, & never waste a minute – if I am at home without visitors – from book to book – & change is more relief than idleness. the American Minister [4]  called on me after supper on Tuesday. this was somewhat familiar – & I apprehend was meant as civility. Ediths love. God bless you.


Friday. May 9. 1800.


* Address: [in another hand] To/ Lieutenant Thomas Southey./ HMS. Bellona./ Plymouth Dock./ or elsewhere./ Single
Stamped: LISBON
Endorsement: 2d
MS: British Library, Add MS 30927. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), II, pp. 65–68 [in part]. BACK

[1] Princess Maria Francisca de Assis (1800–1834), fourth child of John VI (1767–1826; King of Portugal 1816–1826). BACK

[2] St Pauls Church, Portland Square, Bristol; constructed between 1789 and 1794. BACK

[3] John Southey Somerville, 15th Lord Somerville (1765–1819; DNB), agriculturist and distant relative of Southey. BACK

[4] William Loughton Smith (1758–1812), resident Minister of the USA in Lisbon 1798–1801. BACK

People mentioned

Hill, Herbert (c. 1749–1828) (mentioned 3 times)
Fricker, Edith (1774–1837) (mentioned 1 time)