Thursday, October 19, 2006

Book-A-Day #95 (10/19): The Clumsiest People in Europe by Mrs. Favell Lee Mortimer, edited by Todd Pruzan

Mortimer was a 19th century author of books for children (all non-fiction; she seems to have had the deep-dyed Protestant's horror of all things fictitious) who even I find mean-spirited and judgmental. Pruzan is some contemporary guy who found three of Mortimer's old books (all guides to the countries of the world), and edited together the good bits for a modern-day audience. And so The Clumsiest People in Europe exists.

Pruzan says that Mortimer is hilarious, but I think her pronouncements would be better read aloud in company; they can be vaguely funny when read silently, but they're not knock-'em-dead material. It is entertaining, though: she doesn't seem to like anyone, and she casually slanders a good 95% of the world's population as she explains to her young readers that nearly everyone everywhere is dirty, lazy, stupid and shiftless -- oh, and their religion is wrong and/or evil as well. (As is usual, she seems to be even more horrified of Roman Catholics than of Muslims, Hindus, or what she refers to as the devil-worshippers of Sri Lanka.)

Of course, there must be cheap irony when looking at the past (or else we wouldn't do it): she's fervently anti-slavery, and even takes her own England to task for its past role in the trade. This, of course, puts her in what we today would consider the positive, progressive vanguard of public opinion for the early 1850s. And yet, of course, and yet...everything else about her opinions strikes us as just exactly what we'd expect from an insular, misanthropic, and sour 19th century Englishwoman.

I'm not sure precisely who to recommend this book to, though I do think books like this should be read widely -- it reminds us that historical people were real people, not the background to historical movements or cardboard cut-outs marching forward to produce our glorious world. They were all just as weird and conflicted and nasty and friendly and unpleasant as any of us today -- sometimes in exactly the same ways.

There is something to be said for reading primary sources now and then, so, if you don't read this book, try to read something like it in the next few months. Your brain will thank you for it.

The Fabulous Book-A-Day Index!
Edited 1/2/07: the huge list of links was getting annoying, and screwing up my Book-A-Day searches, so I've killed them in these posts that had them.

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