days five and six (Dec 25 – 27, 1838)

Fanny Kemble's Journey

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Charleston, South Carolina

In walking about Charleston, I was forcibly reminded of some of the older country towns in England—of Southampton a little. The appearance of the city is highly picturesque, a word which can apply to none other of the American towns; and although the place is certainly pervaded with an air of decay, it is a genteel infirmity, as might be that of a distressed elderly gentlewoman. It has none of the smug mercantile primness of the Northern cities, but a look of state, as of quondam wealth and importance, a little gone down in the world, yet remembering still its former dignity. The Northern towns, compared with it, are as the spruce citizen rattling by the faded splendors of an old family coach in his newfangled chariot—they certainly have got on before it. Charleston has an air of eccentricity, too, and peculiarity, which formerly were not deemed unbecoming the wellborn and well-bred gentlewoman, which her gentility itself sanctioned and warranted—none of the vulgar dread of vulgar opinion, forcing those who are possessed by it to conform to a general standard of manners, unable to conceive one peculiar to itself—this "what-'ll-Mrs.-Grundy-say" devotion to conformity in small things and great, which pervades the American body-social from the matter of churchgoing to the trimming of women's petticoats—this dread of singularity, which has eaten up all individuality amongst them, and makes their population like so many moral and mental lithographs, and their houses like so many thousand hideous brick twins.

I believe I am getting excited; but the fact is, that being politically the most free people on earth, the Americans are socially the least so; and it seems as though, ever since that little affair of establishing their independence among nations, which they managed so successfully, every American mother's son of them has been doing his best to divest himself of his own private share of that great public blessing, liberty.

But to return to Charleston. It is in this respect a far more aristocratic (should I not say democratic?) city than any I have yet seen in America, inasmuch as every house seems built to the owner's particular taste; and in one street you seem to be in an old English town, and in another in some continental city of France or Italy. This variety is extremely pleasing to the eye; not less so is the intermixture of trees with the buildings, almost every house being adorned, and gracefully screened, by the beautiful foliage of evergreen shrubs. These, like ministering angels, cloak with nature's kindly ornaments the ruins and decays of the mansions they surround; and the latter, time-mellowed (I will not say stained, and a painter knows the difference), harmonize in their forms and coloring with the trees, in a manner most delightful to an eye that knows how to appreciate this species of beauty.

There are several public buildings of considerable architectural pretensions in Charleston, all of them apparently of some antiquity (for the New World), except a very large and handsome edifice which is not yet completed, and which, upon inquiry, we found was intended for a guardhouse. Its very extensive dimensions excited our surprise; but a man who was at work about it, and who answered our questions with a good deal of intelligence, informed us that it was by no means larger than the necessities of the city required; for that they not unfrequently had between fifty and sixty persons (colored and white) brought in by the patrol in one night.

"But," objected we, "the colored people are not allowed to go out without passes after nine o'clock."

"Yes," replied our informant, "but they will do it, nevertheless; and every night numbers are brought in who have been caught endeavoring to evade the patrol."

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This explained to me the meaning of a most ominous tolling of bells and beating of drums, which, on the first evening of my arrival in Charleston, made me almost fancy myself in one of the old fortified frontier towns of the Continent, where the tocsin is sounded, and the evening drum beaten, and the guard set as regularly every night as if an invasion were expected. In Charleston, however, it is not the dread of foreign invasion, but of domestic insurrection, which occasions these nightly precautions; and, for the first time since my residence in this free country, the curfew (now obsolete in mine, except in some remote districts, where the ringing of an old church bell at sunset is all that remains of the tyrannous custom) recalled the associations of early feudal times, and the oppressive insecurity of our Norman conquerors. But truly it seemed rather anomalous hereabouts, and nowadays; though, of course, it is very necessary where a large class of persons exists in the very bosom of a community whose interests are known to be at variance and incompatible with those of its other members. And no doubt these daily and nightly precautions are but trifling drawbacks upon the manifold blessings of slavery (for which, if you are stupid, and cannot conceive them, see the late Governor McDuffie's speeches); still I should prefer going to sleep without the apprehension of my servants' cutting my throat in my bed, even to having a guard provided to prevent their doing so. However, this peculiar prejudice of mine may spring from the fact of my having known many instances in which servants were the trusted and most trustworthy friends of their employers, and entertaining, besides, some odd notions of the reciprocal duties of all the members of families one towards the other.

The extreme emptiness which I observed in the streets, and absence of anything like bustle or business, is chiefly owing to the season, which the inhabitants of Charleston, with something akin to old English feeling, generally spend in hospitable festivity upon their estates; a goodly custom, at least in my mind. It is so rare for any of the wealthier people to remain in town at Christmas, that poor Miss [Butler], who had come on with us to pay a visit to some friends, was not a little relieved to find that they were (contrary to their custom) still in the city. I went to take my usual walk this morning, and found that the good citizens of Charleston were providing themselves with a most delightful promenade upon the river, a fine, broad, well-paved esplanade, of considerable length, open to the water on one side, and on the other overlooked by some very large and picturesque old houses, whose piazzas, arches, and sheltering evergreens reminded me of buildings in the vicinity of Naples. This delightful walk is not yet finished, and I fear, when it is, it will be little frequented; for the Southern women, by their own account, are miserable pedestrians, of which fact, indeed, I had one curious illustration today; for I received a visit from a young lady residing in the same street where we lodged, who came in her carriage a distance of less than a quarter of a mile, to call upon me.

It is impossible to conceive anything funnier, and at the same time more provokingly stupid, dirty, and inefficient, than the tribe of black-faced heathen divinities and classicalities who make believe to wait upon us here—the Dianas, Phyllises, Floras, C sars, etc., who stand grinning in wonderment and delight round our table, and whom I find it impossible, by exhortation or entreaty, to banish from the room, so great is their amusement and curiosity at my outlandish modes of proceeding. This morning, upon my entreating them not to persist in waiting upon us at breakfast, they burst into an ungovernable titter, and withdrawing from our immediate vicinity, kept poking their woolly heads and white grinders in at the door every five minutes, keeping it conveniently open for that purpose.

A fine large new hotel was among the buildings which the late fire at Charleston destroyed [Summer, 1838], and the house where we now are is the best at present in the city. It is kept by a very obliging and civil colored woman, who seems extremely desirous of accommodating us to our minds; but her servants (they are her slaves, in spite of her and their common complexion) would defy the orderly genius of the superintendent of the Astor House. Their laziness, their filthiness, their inconceivable stupidity, and unconquerable good humor, are enough to drive one stark-staring mad.

The sitting room we occupy is spacious, and not ill-furnished, and especially airy, having four windows and a door, none of which can or will shut. We are fortunately rid of that familiar fiend of the North, the anthracite coal, but do not enjoy the luxury of burning wood


 

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