‘The happiest country in the world’: Mary Wollstonecraft in Denmark

by Cian Duffy

In 2013 and 2014, Denmark held the top spot in the annual World Happiness Reports compiled by the United Nations. It was beaten into third place in 2015 by Iceland and Switzerland, but a Carlsberg-sponsored advertisement in Copenhagen airport still welcomes you to ‘the world’s happiest nation’. No ‘probably’ in this case.

Denmark’s ranking has played an important part in the current British fascination with all things Danish, which began with the TV dramas Forbrydelsen and Borgen and carried on in a plethora of features and books about how and why you should live like a Dane. And, in the case of some dissenting voices searching for novelty, about how and why you shouldn’t.
Contemporary as it seems, however, the debate about Danish happiness is not all that new. In fact, it has an interesting prehistory in the eighteenth century and Romantic period.
In 1760, an apocryphal sequel to Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism (1759) – a satirical novel about a philosopher determined to see this world as ‘the best of all possible worlds’ – has the protagonist and his party settle in Denmark, where ‘everything is not too bad’. High praise indeed, in the context.

But the best-known British account of Denmark during the Romantic period was certainly Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), a book which Robert Southey said made him ‘fall in love with a cold climate & frost & snow, with a Northern moonlight’, and about which William Godwin, Wollstonecraft’s future husband, wrote ‘if ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book’.

Wollstonecraft, in Copenhagen, found herself exasperated by ‘men of business’ whom she describes as:

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.

 Wollstonecraft herself, it is fair to say, was not convinced by these dogmatic assertions nor particularly taken with either Denmark or the Danes. She arrived in Copenhagen shortly after the fire of June 1795, which had devastated a large portion of the city. But still she was ‘surprised not to see so much industry or taste as in Christiania [Oslo]’ and was less than fulsome in her appreciation of the architecture:

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 cultural life of the city she found similarly sparse. The ‘childish incidents’ of a play ‘were sufficient to shew the state of the dramatic art in Denmark, and the gross taste of the audience’. The ‘public library’ had ‘a collection much larger than I expected to see’; there were ‘some good pictures’ in the royal collection; and ‘some respectable men of science, but few literary characters and fewer artists. They want encouragement’. ‘Public spirit’ seems to her ‘to be hardly alive here’.

Domestic life fares little better in Wollstonecraft’s opinion. ‘Love’, she writes, ‘here seems to corrupt the morals, without polishing the manners’. Nor was it just those dogmatic, tyrannical ‘men of business’ who met with her disapproval: ‘as for the women’ she assures her reader, ‘they are simply notable house-wives; without accomplishments, or any of the charms that adorn more advanced social life’, a ‘total ignorance’ which ‘may enable them to save something in their kitchens; but it is far from rendering them better parents’.

Despite disavowing any attempt to ‘sketch a national character, but merely to note the present state of morals and manners’, she concludes that ‘a kind of indolence, respecting what does not concern them’ was typical of the population and that ‘from everything I have had an opportunity of observing, the Danes are the people who have made the fewest sacrifices to the graces’. At times she seems positively to go out of her way to find fault:

One of the best streets in Copenhagen is almost filled with hospitals, erected by the government; and, I am assured, as well regulated as institutions of this kind are in any country; but whether hospitals, or workhouses, are anywhere superintended with sufficient humanity, I have frequently had reason to doubt.

Even ‘the climate’, she says, is ‘very disagreeable’.
But despite all this, the self-content of those whom Wollstonecraft met was inescapable: ‘if happiness consist in opinion, they are the happiest people in the world; for I never saw any so well satisfied with their own situation’. And she herself could see that despite living under the most absolute monarchy in Europe:

the inhabitants of Norway [then a Danish possession] and Denmark are the least oppressed people of Europe. The press is free…without fearing to displease the government. On the subject of religion they are likewise becoming tolerant.

She notes with approval that ‘one writer has ventured to deny the divinity of Jesus Christ…without being considered universally a monster’.

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, National Portrait Gallery

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, National Portrait Gallery

The late eighteenth-century Denmark which Wollstonecraft describes seems to possess many of the characteristics often cited today in explanation of the country’s ‘happiness’: a highly-regulated society committed to the promotion of social democratic values, freedom of expression, and personal and political liberties. But how then might we explain the remarkable antipathy of the radical feminist Wollstonecraft?

In part, it was her mood. Wollstonecraft acknowledges that she ‘may be a little prejudiced, as I write from the impression of the moment’ or ‘a little partial, and view everything with the jaundiced eye of melancholy – for I am sad’. Wollstonecraft was ‘sad’ because she had gone to Scandinavia at the request of her former lover, the London-based American businessman Gilbert Imlay – accompanied by their one-year-old daughter Fanny. Wollstonecraft had attempted suicide earlier in 1795 following the breakdown of their relationship and Imlay clearly felt that travel might provide a healthy distraction. However, there was also a far more serious purpose to the journey. In 1980, Per Nyström, a former governor of Gothenburg, discovered documents which proved that Imlay had been attempting to smuggle silver from Revolutionary France through the British blockade of the North Sea: the ship had gone missing and he had sent Wollstonecraft with full legal authority to investigate the disappearance and, if possible, to recover the cargo.[1] By the time she reached Copenhagen, both the ship and a hoped-for reconciliation with Imlay had failed to materialise.

There are other, culturally-specific reasons for Wollstonecraft’s antipathy. Denmark at the end of the eighteenth century was a colonial nation and a political contestant of Britain through the League of Armed Neutrality with Sweden and Russia – an alliance which would culminate in the British attack on Copenhagen on 2 April 1801. Wollstonecraft was sympathetic to, and seemed partly to identify with, the fate of the ‘poor’ and ‘unfortunate’ queen Caroline Mathilde, sister of George III, who was exiled following the collapse of her marriage to Christian VII of Denmark and Norway: ‘thou hast haunted me ever since my arrival’. And then Wollstonecraft, like many contemporary travellers, was influenced by new, Romantic ideas about nature and natural communities and hence more disposed towards the wild scenes and peoples of northern Norway and Sweden than to the urbane citizens of Copenhagen, those ‘men of business’ who must only have reminded her of Imlay.

But there are further clues to Wollstonecraft’s antipathy to the Danes hidden away in her account of Copenhagen. She thought that ‘the Danes, in general, seem extremely averse to innovation’, that ‘wealth does not appear to be sought for, amongst the Danes, to obtain the elegant luxuries of life; for a want of taste is very conspicuous at Copenhagen’, and that ‘nothing can give a more forcible idea of the dullness which eats away all activity of mind, than the insipid routine of court, without magnificence or elegance’.
These observations, which (perhaps it needs to be said) Wollstonecraft intends as criticisms, evidently anticipate some of the reservations expressed by today’s British commentators on Danish society: the idea that the Danish social model is conformist, discouraging individual ambition or distinction – a set of values often said to be embodied in the concept of Janteloven. Perhaps then Wollstonecraft’s antipathy towards Denmark and the Danes stemmed in part simply from a failure to understand the Danish mindset, from a failure to see that precisely those attributes which she saw as shortcomings (an aversion to aspirational materialism and ostentatious displays of ‘elegance’ and ‘taste’) were then, as they are now, an important cultural foundation of ‘the happiest country in the world’.

[1] See Per Nyström, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Scandinavian Journey, Acts of the Royal Society of Arts and Letters of Gothenburg, Humaniora 17 (1980).

Cian Duffy
Cian Duffy is Professor of English literature at St. Mary’s University, Strawberry Hill, UK. He is currently writing a book about romanticism and romantic nationalism in Britain and Denmark.