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The Clumsiest People in Europe, or: Mrs Mortimer’s Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World by Mrs Mortimer (edited by Todd Pruzan)

16 December 2007

A bit of humour for this Sunday’s posting — not exactly social satire, unless you think that bad Victorian-era writing satirises itself. In this case, it might just qualify as such.

The Clumsiest People in Europe, or: Mrs Mortimer’s Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World by Mrs Mortimer (edited by Todd Pruzan)

The word ‘Victorian’ can be and is often used as something of a pejorative term, with the meaning ‘narrow-minded’ or ‘prudish’. It’s safe to say that there’s a good reason for doing so at times, especially in connection with clothing styles, moral instruction, or anything related to Oscar Wilde. Victorian cautionary tales for children are as grim and ghoulish as the more traditional fairy-tales, always reminding the young that death is an ever-present part of life and that wicked boys and girls are always punished severely (and good isn’t always rewarded in equal measure). So in that respect, it may not be so surprising that a Victorian children’s book that talks about the various peoples of the world would be long on criticism and short on pleasantness.

This is where Mrs Favell Lee Mortimer’s books come in: three books, to be precise, all written in the mid-nineteenth century. Each book purports to be a guide to the different countries of the world and the people who inhabit those countries (one book deals with Europe, one with Africa and Asia, and one with the Americas and Australia), and Mrs Mortimer manages to find some kind of fault with just about everything and everyone. Each description of a country comes complete with a slew of disapproving comments. Norway might be a beautiful country, with kind and good-hearted and honest people, but ‘The greatest fault of the Norwegians is drunkenness‘. Amsterdam is noteworthy mostly because ‘there is no city in which there is so much danger of being drowned, because it is full of canals‘. The Irish are (horror!) Roman Catholic, which is ‘a kind of Christian religion, but it is a very bad kind‘. When Greeks are unhappy, they are known to ‘scream like babies‘. Mrs Mortimer doesn’t even have many kind words for her own countrymen, though she does take pains to remind her young and impressionable readers of a very simple thing: ‘What country do you love best? Your own country. I know you do‘. Not surprising, considering her overwhelmingly negative opinions on the various bits of Europe that aren’t England proper.

The world outside of Europe is really far worse, though, in her eyes. Most of Africa can be written off as a land of ignorant savages, nasty cannibals, and Mohammedians who read a very wicked book that is made of evil stories and lies. Australia is full of convicts and colonists, of course. The people of Siam resemble the people of Burma, ‘but they are much worse-looking‘. The Chinese are elegant people, but are quite mad. In North America, Washington, DC, is ‘one of the most desolate cities in the world‘ — and most Americans keep slaves, which is an abominable sin. The list goes on and on, to the point where you almost can’t decide whether to laugh at her opinions or bang your head against a wall to get her prissy, disdainful tones out of your ears.

Why is this book worthy of a read-through, then? Well, for starters, Mrs Mortimer wrote the book without ever having left England and with only a limited knowledge of England itself. All of her opinions came from other works and from a mass of different sources — one look at her writings gives a hint as to how respectable Englishmen and Englishwomen of the day looked at other countries within the comforting blanket of the waxing British Empire. Her books went through several editions in her lifetime, and it’s safe to say that Mrs Mortimer’s bad-tempered guides to the Victorian world had a marked influence on young children’s first impressions of other lands and other people. Echoes of her sentiments appear even today in classical stereotypes of ‘foreigners’. Sometimes, it’s a good idea to go back and see where and how certain stereotypes have been reinforced over the years…and with Todd Pruzan’s careful editing of these mostly-forgotten children’s books, it’s possible to look at the world through a decidedly ‘Victorian’ lens.

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