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'The Clumsiest People in Europe'


Sweden is full of robbers, Germans are unclean and Spaniards are cruel. Those nasty generalizations are culled from a series of 19th century children's guides to the world by Favell Lee Mortimer.

Todd Pruzan, the author of The Clumsiest People in Europe, a new book that compiles Mrs. Mortimer's works, says he couldn't believe his eyes when he first read them. "It was almost like a snapshot of Victorian prejudice made available for anyone to come find," he tells Melissa Block.

Friends often ask Pruzan what his book is about. "Usually I tell them that it's a collection of very nasty Victorian children's writing about geography, written by somebody who didn't get out very much," he says. Indeed Mrs. Mortimer rarely traveled outside her native England.

Here's a sampling of the cultural slurs relayed by Mrs. Mortimer:

On Poland: "You may go a great way without seeing anything pretty."

On Burma: "The Burmese are very deceitful and tell lies on every occasion. Indeed, they are not ashamed of their falsehoods."

And on her native country: "England, what country do you love best? Your own country. I know you do. Every child loves his own country best."

Excerpted below is Pruzan's introduction to The Clumsiest People in Europe: Mrs. Mortimer's Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World.

Book Excerpt: 'The Clumsiest People in Europe'

It's 1855. Do you know where your great-great-great-great-grandparents are? And more to the point: What's their problem?

No matter where your ancestors had the misfortune of living -- no doubt smoking too much, or taking snuff, or reading useless novels -- Mrs. Favell Lee Mortimer had something nasty to say about them. Their issues, according to Mrs. Mortimer, might have amounted to just about anything. The Irish "are very kind and good-natured when pleased, but if affronted, are filled with rage." In Italy, "the people are ignorant and wicked." In southern Sweden, "the cottages are uncomfortable."

Things were far, far worse in Asia and Africa. Take China, where "it is a common thing to stumble over the bodies of dead babies in the streets." Or Hindostan, where the women spend most of their time "in idleness, sauntering about and chattering nonsense." Or Abyssinia, where "one mother, who loved her children very much, punished her little girl for stealing honey, by burning the skin off her hands and lips."

For the better part of the nineteenth century, Mrs. Mortimer was something of a literary superstar to an impressionable audience, both in her native England and beyond. She published sixteen children's books, and by the end of the century, her first and most popular title, The Peep of Day, had sold at least a million copies in thirty-eight languages, including Yoruba, Malayalim, Marathi-Balbodh, Tamil, Cree-Ojibbeway and French. In the middle of her forty-year career, Mrs. Mortimer published a geography trilogy: The Countries of Europe Described (1849), Far Off, Part I: Asia and Australia Described (1852), and Far Off, Part II: Africa and America Described (1854). Given her success at the time, it's not impossible that your own elders were schooled in Mrs. Mortimer's pronouncements on the world's many filthy, wicked, heathen cultures.

I found Mrs. Mortimer in an old barn. That's an odd place to waste a glorious August afternoon, but whenever I visit Martha's Vineyard, I can't resist spending a couple of hours in the barn that's now the Book Den East, with its attic full of swirling dust motes and faded magazines, farmers' almanacs and sheet music. It's still a mystery why, on my way toward the rickety wooden staircase one day, I noticed a small guidebook with a faded green spine perched halfway up the History shelf. The book's title, The Countries of Europe Described, certainly didn't grab my attention. Something so straightforward, so bland, with no author's name on the cover, must've been an ancient pocket encyclopedia, I figured.

When I pulled the book down, only vaguely curious, it fell open to a field guide to the habits of German women.

The ladies are very industrious, and wherever they go, they take their knitting. They are as fond of their knitting-needles as the gentlemen are of their pipes. The number of stockings they make would surprise you. How much better to knit than to smoke! When they are at home, the ladies spend a great deal of time in cooking; they also spin, and have a great deal of linen of their own spinning, locked up in great chests. Can they do nothing but knit, and cook, and spin? Yes, they can play on the piano, and the harp, and sing very sweetly. But they are not fond of reading useful books. When they read, it is novels about people who have never lived. It would be better to read nothing than such books.

The passage's escalating scorn and rudeness actually startled me, with its absolutist damnation of silly women and smoking and novels, certified by a publisher's commitment to type and paper and an ornate clothbound cover. Half an hour later, my friends and I sat around our backyard, drinking beer and passing the book around, hooting and slapping our wooden picnic table as we read aloud from the little book's casual condemnations of the Portuguese ("indolent, like the Spaniards"), the Jews ("very dirty"), the Icelanders ("I think it would almost make you sick to go to church in Iceland").

Yet months later, as I reread the book, I began to feel unsettled by its vicious, systematic country-by-country savaging of the entire world. I'd previously managed to get cheap laughs by reciting passages to dozens of people, and the cruel pronouncements inspired plenty of gleeful jeering. But now, it became impossible for me to spend even an hour in the book's stern company without feeling a little queasy.

That was partly because I found the writing style so engaging. The voice was direct, persuasive, forceful. The book relied on a no-nonsense narrative tense we might term the second-person presumptuous (on the author's native England: "What country do you love best? Your own country. I know you do. Every child loves his own country best") and a healthy dose of enthralling you-are-there narration ("If you do not like Lisbon when you walk in it, you like it worse when you live there, because it is full of stinging insects; at night the musquitoes annoy you every moment"). The written word proved an efficient medium for documenting the faults of all ethnicities -- from the Aborigines in Australia ("generally very harmless, unless provoked by ill-treatment") to the Zoolus in South Africa ("a miserable race of people"). Not to mention ignorant savages. And Buddhists. And Catholics.

Who would write such bad-tempered stuff? The title page of my 1852 edition of The Countries of Europe Described bore only the coy attribution "By the Author of 'The Peep of Day,' &c. &c." Casting my net into Google, I gradually came up with the name Favell Lee Mortimer, a Victorian children's writer known, if at all, for her first book, published in 1833: The Peep of Day; or, a Series of the Earliest Religious Instruction the Infant Mind is Capable of Receiving. Mrs. Mortimer was thirty-one when she published Peep, a Bible primer aimed at four-year-olds that now seems bizarrely and characteristically sadistic. Here's a glimpse at Peep's terrifying opening chapter:

God has covered your bones with flesh. Your flesh is soft and warm.

In your flesh there is blood. God has put skin outside, and it covers your flesh and blood like a coat... How kind of God it was to give you a body! I hope that your body will not get hurt.... Will your bones break? -- Yes, they would, if you were to fall down from a high place, or if a cart were to go over them....

How easy it would be to hurt your poor little body!

If it were to fall into the fire, it would be burned up. If a great knife were run through your body, the blood would come out. If a great box were to fall on your head, your head would be crushed. If you were to fall out of the window, your neck would be broken. 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.

Among Mrs. Mortimer's other enduring legacies was the innovative Reading Disentangled from 1834, a set of illustrated phonics cards that's been credited as the first flashcards in history. And her 1857 Reading Without Tears foreshadowed a meme of twentieth-century how-to book titles (Divorce Without Tears, Sanskrit Without Tears, Sex Without Tears) that's still in heavy rotation on Reading Without Tears was ornately illustrated, and maybe a little loopy: "E is like a carriage with a little seat for the driver. F is like a tree with a seat for a child. G is like a monkey eating a cake . . ." Citing the book as a foundation of his early schooling, Sir Winston Churchill's memoir sniffed: "It certainly did not justify its title in my case."

Born in 1802 in Russell Square, London, Favell Lee Bevan was one of five daughters of David Bevan, a co-founder of Barclay, Bevan & Co., the bank now known as Barclays. Although she was raised a Quaker, at twenty-five Favell began exploring the Bible with a young family friend, Henry Manning. Their talks led them to a romantic tension that escalated with her conversion to Evangelicalism. By the time she was thirty, Favell's mother forbade her from writing to young Manning, and the triumph of Favell's 1833 publishing début, The Peep of Day, was trampled months later by Manning's marriage to a rector's daughter. When Manning's wife died four years later, the young widower entered the clergy.

In 1841, at thirty-nine, Favell married the Rev. Thomas Mortimer -- by most accounts a cruel, violent husband -- and after they'd moved from southern England to Broseley, Shropshire, just east of Wales, she spent much of her marriage at her brother's house, hiding out from her husband's rage. In 1847, Manning, now an archdeacon, broke years of silence with Mrs. Mortimer by writing to her and asking her to return all the old letters he'd written to her. When Mrs. Mortimer asked him to reciprocate, he declined.

While Mrs. Mortimer was writing The Countries of Europe Described, the world was enduring unprecedented turbulence. In 1848, the fires of revolution raged through France, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and more distant flashpoints from South Africa to Ceylon to Mexico. Yet any child reading The Countries of Europe Described in 1849 would have had no understanding that much of the world was in flames. "Superficial, incomplete, trifling! Such is the true character of this book," warned Countries of Europe's pre-emptive introduction. "Inaccurate we hope it is not; but errors, in spite of care, may have crept in; and the world, old as she is, would not sit still for her picture."

At home, near Wales, Mrs. Mortimer was suffering through tumult of her own: first, the death of her husband in November 1850, followed by even greater tragedy months later. Mrs. Mortimer's 1901 biography (called, perhaps inevitably, The Author of The Peep of Day: Being the Life Story of Mrs Mortimer, by Her Niece Mrs Meyer) describes her 1851 horror: "Mrs Mortimer, this spring, had the grief of hearing that her friend Henry Manning had become a Roman Catholic." It's difficult to read the anti-Catholic venom of Mrs. Mortimer's geography books without sensing the freshness of her romantic wounds. Ultimately, her great unrequited crush would ascend in the ranks of the Church; upon his death in 1892, Cardinal Manning was revealed to have regarded Mrs. Mortimer not as his first love but as his "spiritual mother." (No hard feelings.)

The 209 dully impassive pages of Mrs. Meyer's biography offer two striking revelations about Mrs. Mortimer's melancholy life. One is that, despite having written three authoritative geography books, full of omniscient, anthropological narratives that race from the Abyssinians to the Brazilians to the Dutch to the Zoolus, Mrs. Mortimer set foot outside England only twice in her life. As a teenager, she visited Brussels and Paris with her family; as a widow, after publishing her geographic trilogy, she made it as far as Edinburgh. Apart from that: nothing. Her sources were not her own experiences in foreign lands but hundreds of books, some of them decades old. Slogging through them surely wasn't an easy task, but shoe leather might have proved a useful research tool. Perhaps she could be forgiven for skipping out on Hindostan and Siberia -- but Wales? Her writing desk in Broseley was just a few miles from the border.

The other revelation is that Mrs. Mortimer's personal life could be boiled down to an index of Victorian misery and misfortune, which her niece Mrs. Meyer catalogued with vicious delight. After just a few chapters, the lives of Mrs. Mortimer's family and friends devolve into a laundry list of spasmodic cholera, a face crushed by a wagon, erysipelas in the shins, the tail of a dressing gown set alight in a fireplace, influenza, water on the brain, an apoplectic fit, asthma, scarlatina, jaundice and pleurisy, blindness and deafness, bronchitis, and cerebral weakness. Mrs. Mortimer herself expired -- over the course of eleven pages -- in August 1878, at seventy-six.

In 1933, to mark the centennial of The Peep of Day, The Times of London published a caustic reminiscence of Mrs. Mortimer by her nephew, Edwyn Bevan, who acknowledged, "As a whole her life can hardly be thought to have been a happy one." Mrs. Meyer's 1901 biography put it less delicately: "Her doctor said she was the only person he ever met who wished to die."

From The Clumsiest People in Europe: Mrs. Mortimer's Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World. Copyright 2005 by Todd Pruzan. Published by Bloomsbury.

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