Monday, January 25, 2010

Mrs. Mortimer's Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World

One of the first gems I unearthed for my Victorian reading challenge was The Clumsiest People in Europe, or: Mrs. Mortimer's Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World, edited and with an Introduction by Todd Pruzan. Apparently, Todd Pruzan found a volume of one of Mrs. Favell Lee Mortimer's travel guides gathering dust in a used book store, took it home to amuse his friends, & was hooked.

His introduction details his find & the research he did on Mrs. Mortimer, who, though quite famous in her time, is unknown to us today. Besides the multi-volumed travel guide (titles included The Countries of Europe Described, 1849), Mrs. Mortimer was well known in Victorian times as the author of The Peep of the Day; or, a Series of the Earliest Religious Instruction the Infant Mind is Capable of Receiving, which, as Pruzan explains, is “a Bible primer aimed at four-year-olds that now seems bizarrely and characteristically sadistic.” The Peep of the Day features helpful & caring instruction such as “If you were not to eat some food for a few days, your little body would be very sick, your breath would stop, and you would grow cold, and you would soon be dead.”

Pruzan's introduction sets the stage for Mrs. Mortimer's "bad temper", then offers up selections of her travel guides--the listing for each country starts with a brief historical background written by Pruzan, then features Mrs. Mortimer's thoughts on different topics, including customs and appearance, character, dress, schools, cottages, food, children, the poor people, religion, government, amusements, mountains, slaves, and the forests. Then she usually discusses a couple of the country’s major cities before moving on. Sometimes she compares the habits of one country to another-Hindoostan [India] to China, Brazil to Peru.

Mrs. Mortimer believes in calling a spade a spade (frequently & forthrightly). Here's a list of some of her pet peeves:
  • drinking (On Russian food: "I wish they loved no other drink except kwas [a wholesome drink of barleymeal] and tea; but they love brandy too well, and drink it, not in little cups, but in large tumblers...")
  • religions other than her own Evangelical Christianity (On Roman Catholicism: “The religion they teach is called the Roman Catholic religion, but it is a very bad kind.”)

  • bad character traits—including idleness, cruelty, covetousness, treachery, deceitfulness, cowardliness, wickedness, not keeping the Sabbath holy

  • untidiness (On Italy: “The houses are very dirty, especially the staircase and the doorway; but the Italians think more of painting their ceilings and placing statues in their halls than of keeping their houses clean. The English think a clean house is better than a pretty one.”)

  • bad eating habits (On Swedish food: "In England meat is boiled or roasted, but in Sweden meat is often only smoked. You would not like smoked salmon or smoked reindeer flesh.”)

  • children who are not trained up to behave well (On French children: "Children of five or six years old often dine with company, when they ought to be alone with their papa and mamma, or else in the nursery.")

It's interesting to realize that Mrs. Mortimer felt perfectly suited to write a travel guide, considering she had been out of England twice in her life--she visited Brussels & Paris as a child, and Edinburgh (‘the most beautiful city in the world’) as an adult. She also sees nothing amiss in devoting 60 pages to Madagascar, 14 pages to Greenland, and 6 sentences to New York City.

Some of the most interesting passages give us a real sense of the how the world has changed in the past 150 years or so--Mrs. Mortimer is writing in a time when Australia was considered an island, not a continent and before explorers had found the pharaohs' treasures in the pyramids. She has a section on slavery in the 30 states 0f America--a practice which she abhors, but, as she she also points out "[t]here are no slaves in the Northern states, but there are many blacks there; and perhaps you think they are kindly treated as they are not slaves. Far from it."

Most of her observations are arbitrary and rude: “Nothing useful is well done in Sweden.” On Spanish: “It is true their language is the finest in Europe, but there are very few wise books written in it.” However, one of the points Todd Pruzan makes, as he describes beginning "to feel unsettled by [Mrs. Mortimer's] vicious, country-by-country savaging of the entire world", is that we can be reminded today how easy it is to fall into long-standing stereotypes: “Still, the apparent conventional wisdom of the 1850s—that the “merry” Irish are “fond of drinking”, that the Chinese “are quiet, and orderly, and industrious”… --are still ugly, horrifying, disturbingly familiar. How many centuries have these offensive clichés existed, anyway?”

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