'The Clumsiest People in Europe' Nasty generalizations from a series of 19th-century children's guides to the world form the basis of Todd Pruzan's book. He sees the work of Mrs. Mortimer as "a snapshot of Victorian prejudice."

'The Clumsiest People in Europe'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

A curio from Victorian England landed on my desk recently. It's an abridged reissue of three screeds published in the mid-19th century by one Mrs. Favell Lee Mortimer. They were books for children, guides to the countries of the world. And in Mrs. Mortimer's view, there was grievous fault to be found in all of those countries. Here's Mrs. Mortimer on Poland, as read by one of our staff.

MAWRI STANLEY-DENEHEY(ph): (As Mrs. Mortimer) You may go a great way without seeing anything pretty.

BLOCK: On Sweden.

STANLEY-DENEHEY: (As Mrs. Mortimer) You are ready to think the Swedes are a wise and good people. Not so. There is no country in Europe where so many people are put in prison.

BLOCK: And Mrs. Mortimer's thoughts on what was then Abyssinia, now Ethiopia.

STANLEY-DENEHEY: (As Mrs. Mortimer) Fondness for eating is a common fault. The people eat most voraciously, taking as large mouthfuls and making as much noise with their lips as possible.

BLOCK: Mrs. Mortimer's venomous views of the world have been revived by Todd Pruzan. His collection of her works is titled "The Clumsiest People in Europe." And when friends ask him what the book is all about, here's what he says.

Mr. TODD PRUZAN ("The Clumsiest People in Europe"): Usually, I tell them it's a collection of very nasty Victorian children's writing about geography, written by somebody who didn't get out very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: And they say, `And why would you want to do that?'

Mr. PRUZAN: Well, yeah, that's the second question, which is even more difficult. This was something I stumbled into very accidently. I was in a used-book store in Massachusetts, and came across a copy. And when I pulled it off the shelf, like, I really was having a lot of trouble believing what I was looking at, not only that somebody would commit ideas like this to ink and paper and binding and print them up and sell them, but also that it communicated so clearly to me in the 21st century--you know, it was almost like a snapshot of Victorian prejudice made available for anyone to come find. So I started looking for more of her books and researching her, and that's--it's a bit of a hobby that got out of hand.

BLOCK: It's startling, because a lot of the prejudices that she had then in Victorian England are prejudices that still exist now. Nothing much has changed.

Mr. PRUZAN: Very true. It's very easy to pick this up for the first time and laugh at it and sort of snort very derisively about it, but a lot of what she says are not very different from the bits of conventional wisdom that I think a lot of people hold today. And I guess the lesson that I drew from it is that I really can't hold myself at any kind of a higher standard than I would hold her at. I don't think that's really fair, to say that she's any more bigoted than anybody today.

BLOCK: You describe Mrs. Mortimer writing in a point of view that you call the second person presumptuous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PRUZAN: That's right. I mean, she really wrote these as though she were instructing a class and basically giving them instructions about how to feel about something. And she definitely didn't leave much room for interpretation.

STANLEY-DENEHEY: (As Mrs. Mortimer) England, what country do you love best? Your own country. I know you do. Every child loves his own country best.

BLOCK: Now in your introduction, you write that one of the most remarkable things about her is that she's writing these definitive travel chapters on countries all over the world when she, herself, never went anywhere. She practically didn't go anywhere at all.

Mr. PRUZAN: No, she stayed home mostly. According to everything that I was coming up with, she really only got out of the house here and there. She took a trip with her family to Brussels and to Paris when she was probably in her late teens. And once she had actually published the books, later in life, she went up to Scotland.

BLOCK: So how was she coming to her judgments on all these countries if she hadn't been there?

Mr. PRUZAN: Well, she did the next best thing, which was to gather hundreds and hundreds of books to research all of her own writing. She also encountered a few people who had been abroad, a lot of people in her class in England who were spending time in India in those days. And that's probably where she got some of her apocryphal stories.

BLOCK: Well, here's Mrs. Mortimer on Burma. She's got a blanket pronouncement on the Burmese.

STANLEY-DENEHEY: (As Mrs. Mortimer) The Burmese are very deceitful and tell lies on every occasion. Indeed, they are not ashamed of their falsehoods.

BLOCK: Pretty typical thing that she might write in these books.

Mr. PRUZAN: Unfortunately, yes. I do think, though, to put her into context, I don't think that her attitudes were particularly vicious in context with the times. When I was researching her writing, I spent a lot of time looking at 150-year-old encyclopedias, both from Britain and from America, and these are incredibly poisonous texts. Her writings were quite a bit milder.

BLOCK: Now she's writing these books for children, and you wonder what reaction these children would have had. A lot of these descriptions are violent. She's describing horrible things that she claims are happening in these countries. `In China,' she says, `it's a common thing to stumble over the bodies of dead babies in the streets.' She talks of people getting eaten alive by wild pigs, people killed by molten lead being poured down their throats. This is rough stuff.

Mr. PRUZAN: I think if I were an eight-year-old living in Victorian England, being read something like this, my reaction would probably be fear more than anything else, not so much revulsion as just a general fear of the dangers on offer in almost every country in the world.

BLOCK: Well, what did you learn about Mrs. Mortimer and how she came to have this, I guess, bilious view of the world?

Mr. PRUZAN: Well, she led a very sad life. She was born into a banking family that was part of the Barclays empire. She grew up a Quaker, but she had a conversion to evangelicalism when she was about 25. She really turned her back on her family's wealth, and she was very much in love with a family friend named Henry Manning, who, around the time that she converted to evangelicalism, he became a Roman Catholic, which, of course, was taboo in her eyes. And it became a very difficult relationship, I think. They didn't speak for many years. And she wound up marrying a reverend named Thomas Mortimer. It was a difficult marriage. It lasted about nine years. She never had any children of her own. And once her husband died, she eventually settled in another part of England, in East Anglia, into a short of ramshackle estate overlooking the North Sea, where she led an orphanage and a nursery. And I think that was her way of giving back in a more personal way.

BLOCK: You know, Todd, I've made it through your book. It's called "The Clumsiest People in Europe," and I can't remember now who the clumsiest people in Europe she considered to be.

Mr. PRUZAN: The clumsiest people in Europe, according to Mrs. Mortimer, are the Portuguese. They are not the only clumsy people in Europe. The Swedes also are called to the carpet for that. But the Portuguese in particular are clumsy. Their blacksmiths are very unskilled, and the carts make a terrible creaking noise in the streets. I found this particular comment to be really amazing, that anybody could commit this to print and to have it published. It doesn't make sense to the modern ear, I don't think.

BLOCK: Well, she definitely liked definitive statements, so that's of a piece.

Mr. PRUZAN: Absolutely, yeah.

BLOCK: Well, Todd Pruzan, thanks for talking to us about "Mrs. Mortimer's Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World."

Mr. PRUZAN: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: You can read Todd Pruzan's introduction to Mrs. Mortimer's writings at our Web site, npr.org.

Our Mrs. Mortimer was played by our colleague Mawri Stanley-Denehey. And we'll leave you with one final reading. Here's Mrs. Mortimer's 19th-century take on American youth.

STANLEY-DENEHEY: (As Mrs. Mortimer) The children are brought up in a very unwholesome manner. At the dinner table of the boarding house, they see all kinds of dainties, and they are allowed to eat hotcakes and rich preserves at breakfast and ices and oysters at supper, when they ought to be satisfied with their basin of porridge or their milk and water and bread and butter. The consequence is that many children die, and others are pale and sickly.

(Soundbite of music)

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