Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXV.: TWO MONTHS' HOLIDAY. 1853. Æt. 33. - An Autobiography, vol. 1
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CHAPTER XXV.: TWO MONTHS’ HOLIDAY. 1853. Æt. 33. - Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, vol. 1 
An Autobiography by Herbert Spencer. Illustrated in Two Volumes. Vol. I (New York: D. Appleton and Company 1904).
Part of: An Autobiography
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TWO MONTHS’ HOLIDAY.
Except for ten days at Christmas 1851—2, I had not been absent from London more than four days at a time since the autumn of 1848: a period of nearly five years. Naturally, therefore, as the close of my engagement approached, plans were laid for utilizing my freedom by visits and tours.
During the spring it had been arranged that I should spend a fortnight with the Potters immediately after my release. They had just migrated to a new residence near Stonehouse, named Standish House, owned by Lord Sherborne, and at one time inhabited by him. It stands on the flank of the Cotswold Hills, facing the west. Behind, separated from the grounds by a ha-ha, a large park-like field running up the side of the hill, is bounded by an amphitheatre of beech trees. In front lies a broad valley, on the far side of which, some ten miles off, is to be seen, when the tide is up, the silver streak of the Severn estuary. Beyond this lie high lands: on the right, in the dim distance, the Malvern Hills; far away to the left the hills of South Wales; and in front the Forest of Dean, over which gorgeous sunsets are often to be witnessed.
I have thus briefly described the surroundings of Standish House because, during the succeeding thirty years—in spring, summer, autumn, winter—very many happy times were passed under its hospitable roof. During this first visit there was the added charm of novelty. A walk up through the beech woods to the top of the high ground behind, brought into view the Vale of Stroud, with, to me, its bitter-sweet memories; and, running out of it in various directions, branch valleys, with here and there a village nestling in a fold of the hills. Then there was Beacon Hill, a spur of the Cotswolds; and the adjacent picturesque region known as Standish Park. Now first explored, these, and many other neighbouring scenes at that time unvisited, were in after years places for pleasant excursions: mostly walking, sometimes driving, and rarely riding.
Of course indoors our lighter conversations were interspersed with discussions. Probably on this occasion, as on many occasions, there cropped up what was becoming more and more dominant in my thoughts—the development of hypothesis. It was at that time rare to find anyone who entertained it; and my friends habitually met the expression of my belief with a tolerant smile.
On returning to town towards the close of July, a few days were occupied in preparations for a tour in Switzerland. During the spring I had agreed with Lott that we should visit in company. “I will go to heaven with you,” he wrote in one of his letters: so expressing his passionate love of scenery. When the time fixed for our departure came, he was detained by business; and, finding after some days that the detention would be considerable, I, anxious to get away, partly on grounds of health, decided to start in advance and await him at Zurich.
Why give any account of our journey? All who have not been in Switzerland have read about it; and only special genius for description, or else an endowment of humour great enough to evolve amusement out of familiar things, would be an adequate excuse for the narrative. I will limit myself to the briefest outline.
My first acquaintance with the Continent was made at Antwerp; whence, having just time to see the cathedral and Ruben’s picture, I departed for Aix-la-Chapelle. Early next day to Cologne; and, after an hour or two spent chiefly in its then unfinished cathedral, by steamer to Coblentz. On to Maintz and Frankfort next day; feeling a good deal disappointed with the picturesque part of the Rhine. Two nights and a day at Frankfort were made miserable by my first attack of tooth-ache, after an immunity of thirty-three years. Thence to Basle; and thence, after a day, to Zurich. Here I spent a week or so; and then, when the time for my friend’s arrival had been exceeded by some days, I got impatient, and left a letter for him at the post-office telling him that he would find me at the top of the Righi. Two days’ walk brought me there; and he joined me within a few hours of my arrival. The successive journeys of our subsequent days ran thus:—Along the Lake of Lucerne to Fluelin and Amsteg; to Andermatt and Hospenthal; the Furca Pass and up to Furca-horn; over the Rhone Glacier, up the Grimsel Pass, and down to the Handeck Falls; to Meyringen; over by Rosenlaui to Grindelwald; up the Faulhorn; down again, and up the Wengern Alp; to Lauterbrunnen and Interlaken; a day’s rest; by steamer to Thun, and by carriage to Frutigen; over the Gemmi to the baths of Leuk; by carriage to Visp and on foot to Stalden and Nicolai; to Zermatt; a day on the Gorner glacier; up the Riffelberg and Gorner Grat and down; back to Nicolai; back to Visp. Here ended our pedestrian tour. A diligence took us to Vevay and to Basle; the railway thence to Mannheim; steamer down the Rhine to Cologne; railway to Brussels; where my friend left me, and where I spent a few days before returning to London.
I suppose I must say something about the impressions our tour left. My first remark is that we committed the usual error. With an insatiable appetite for scenery and a definitely limited holiday, my friend Lott was constantly a spur; and instead of seeing a moderate amount and seeing it well, we saw a great deal hurriedly.
But what were my impressions? Two unlike answers would seem to be given by two extracts from letters, either of which is misleading if taken by itself. The first is from one written to my father after my return.
“I was much disappointed from the absence of fine colouring. Grey and green and brown are the prevailing tints. In consequence of the clearness of the air there is very little atmospheric effect, and a general absence of those various tones which this gives. In this respect Switzerland is far inferior to Scotland. I remember Jackson expressing the opinion that for pictorial effect Scotland was far preferable; and I quite agree with him.”
The other is from a letter to my uncle William, hurriedly written in pencil, and dated “Top of the Faulhorn, 8000 and odd feet above the sea, 22 Aug. 1853.” This, though it avows no impression, indicates one.
“Here I sit surrounded by a vast panorama of mountains and lakes—on one side the comparatively fertile, inhabited part of Switzerland, on the other the peaks of the high Alps, varying from 10 to 15 thousand feet high, covered with snow and hourly sending down avalanches which send a peal of thunder across the valley seven to ten miles wide, lying between us and these giants of the Alps. From my bedroom window I see at one view the Wetterhorn, the Schrekhorn, the Finsteraarhorn, and the Jungfrau. The nearest is seven miles off, the furthest thirteen; yet so clear is the air and so vast are the heights that they all of them look within two miles.”
The reconciliation between the different feelings implied by these different extracts, is furnished by a sentence which precedes the first of them.
“On the whole, though Switzerland fully equalled my anticipations in respect of its grandeur, it did not do so in respect of its beauty.”
Beauty is deficient both because there is a lack of the warmer and brighter colours and because the forms do not compose well—the lines do not combine picturesquely. But this deficiency of beauty leaves the grandeur undiminished. After a time during which is acquired some power of interpreting the impressions made on the senses, unfamiliar with scenes of such vastness, there all at once comes a revelation; as when, while looking from the smaller mountains on one side of a valley at the great ones on the other, which, instead of dwindling as we have ascended seem to have grown, a cloud comes drifting across their faces and over it their peaks suddenly rise to a height far above that which they previously seemed to have. “Nature is the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance,” says Emerson; and there are few places in which the truth of the saying is more vividly felt than in presence of one of these immense snow-crowned masses which now and again makes the valleys reverberate by its avalanches.
The often-quoted remark of Kant that two things excited his awe—the starry heavens and the conscience of man—is not one which I should make of myself. In me the sentiment has been more especially produced by three things—the sea, a great mountain, and fine music in a cathedral. Of these the first has, from familiarity I suppose, lost much of the effect it originally had, but not the others.
To this brief indication of the mental impressions left by the tour, there has to be added something concerning the physical effects apparently produced by it.
Years before, I had read Andrew Combe’s work The Principles of Physiology applied to the preservation of Health, and had duly accepted the warning given by him against excessive exertion on the part of those who, having previously led sedentary lives, attempt feats of walking and climbing. Yet, aware as I was of the possible mischiefs, I transgressed: not, however, as it seems, without excuse. In the above-named letter written on the Faulhorn, after urging my uncle to see Switzerland, I went on to say—
“There is however great temptation to do too much. The difficulty of getting tolerable accommodation save at certain places, often induces one to go too far, and spite of the feats which the Swiss air enables every one to do, Lott and I overdid ourselves a few days ago, in spite of my previously made resolution to avoid any excess of exertion. However we shall be more resolute in future.”
Of three excesses in walking which I recall (the last being subsequent to the date of the above-named letter, notwithstanding the resolution expressed in it) two were caused by misleading statements contained in Murray’s Guide. This led us to arrange for stopping at places which, when we saw them, we instantly decided to avoid at the cost of two or three hours’ more walking along rough roads and in partial darkness: previous experience having proved that nights made sleepless by fleas were the alternatives.
These details I set down as introductory to the statement that within a few days of my return to London, there began signs of enfeebled action of the heart. There was no mental cause. As said in a letter to my father, while in Switzerland “I cultivated stupidity assiduously and successfully;” and after my return it was some weeks before I got seriously to work.
Two distinguished physiologists have at different times assured me that the heart cannot be overtaxed; but, authoritative though their opinions are, I have found acceptance of them difficult. Among reasons for scepticism are these:—First, the improbability that there are no foundations for the many assertions that extreme exertion, as in rowing matches, sometimes leaves behind a long prostration. Second, there is the unquestionable fact that during states of debility the heart is easily overtaxed: the implication being that if, during an abnormal state, its limit of power may be exceeded, it may be exceeded during a normal state. Third, the truth that other organs have limits to their powers which cannot be over-passed without damage—damage sometimes ending in atrophy—seems scarcely likely to fail in the case of one organ alone. Fourth, such an exception does not seem reconcilable with the hypothesis of evolution; for how, by either natural selection or by direct adaptation, can any organ have acquired a never-used surplus of strength?
Be the interpretation what it may, however, here is a fact, that immediately after my return from Switzerland, there commenced cardiac disturbances which never afterwards entirely ceased; and which doubtless prepared the way for the more serious derangements of health subsequently established.
The record of my doings at this period will be incomplete if I do not mention a visit paid into Suffolk.
One of the places at which my uncle had, in 1852 I think, discharged for a time the duties of the absent clergyman, was Halesworth; and among those who were drawn from neighbouring places by the accounts of his preaching, was Mrs. Trevanion, one of the daughters of Sir Francis Burdett of political celebrity. A friendship with my uncle resulted, which was renewed during Mrs. Trevanion’s sojourns in London. I suppose it was on one of my Sunday evening visits to him at Notting Hill that I first met her; though I cannot recall the occasion.
From my aunt it doubtless was that she heard of my religious opinions, and thereupon became concerned about my state and anxious for my conversion. She was an admirer of Dr. Cumming, one of the popular preachers of that day, and begged that I would accompany her to hear him. There was no escape for me: I had to yield. It is scarcely needful to say that none of the hoped-for effect was produced. While it raises a smile, there is something pathetic in the confidence with which those who have never inquired, think that those who have inquired and rejected, need but to hear once more the old beliefs duly emphasized to be convinced.
During the spring or early summer, it was arranged that after my return from Switzerland I should spend a fortnight with Mrs. Trevanion at her residence in Suffolk—Earl Soham Lodge, near Woodbridge. After nearly a month in London I left it to make the promised visit. The following extracts from a letter to my father, written from Earl Soham on October 8, I quote chiefly because of the indications they give of engagements and intentions.
“The house is built on the ruins of an old castle and is surrounded by the moat that once guarded it. Part of the old walls of the moat still remain; so that it is sufficiently picturesque.
“Mrs. Trevanion had expected other visitors but has been disappointed; so I am here alone. I fear it will be rather dull. However, I have a good deal of writing to do; and having a comfortable sitting room with fire put at my disposal, I shall devote myself to work, and pass the time in that way.
“I have agreed to write an article on ‘Manners and Fashion’ for the Westminster. They wish me to get it ready in time for the January No. in case they should want it; which however they are not sure of doing. Having this and the ‘Method in Education’ to finish by the middle of December, I shall have plenty to do. * * *
“I am going to give notice shortly to read a paper at the next British Association on the ‘Law of Organic Symmetry.’ I was speaking to Professor Forbes about it a few days ago, and he was advising me to fix on the first day of meeting, and says that he will see that it has a good place on the list.”
My visit to Earl Soham I brought to a close as soon as I could, finding it, as I anticipated, very dull. Being nearly twenty years my senior, and having comparatively few subjects of interest in common with me, my amiable hostess did not prove an enlivening companion; and I had not liveliness enough for two. In various ways Mrs. Trevanion resembled her younger sister Lady Burdett-Coutts. In the one there was, as in the other there is, a union between interest in human welfare at large and interest in the welfares of those around, prompting frequent acts of kindness and attention. This is a trait much to be admired; for general philanthropy is often not accompanied by philanthropy in detail.
On the 17th of October I was back in London, and leaving it next day, I spent a week with the Brays at Coventry; whence I departed in time to reach home towards the close of the month.