Friday, April 10, 2015

Near Home, or, the Countries of Europe Described

 Favell Lee Mortimer - Near Home, or, the Countries of Europe Described (1849)

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This is where I regret using book titles for post titles.  Instead of that rather bland one this should be called "Arrogant Homebody Trash-Talks Foreigners".  The author did indeed write a kids book about the countries of the world but she couldn't repress, and apparently had no idea she was making, a stream of snide, condescending and prejudicial remarks.

Some examples:

"Have you not already found out the character of the Spainards?  They are not like the French, lively and talkative: they are grave and silent. They are not active like the Scotch, but indolent; nor warm-hearted like the Irish, but cold and distant; nor fond of home like the English, but fond of company."

"The Russians live in very miserable dwellings, made of trees cut down and laid along the ground one on top of the other.  The windows are very small, and some of them have no glass, but only wooden shutters.  In the middle of the room is a large stove that fills it with smoke."

"Do you think you should like Berlin?  I have not told you yet of the kennels, or ditches, which are found in every part, even near the king's palace, and which are so black and dirty, that the whole city is quite unpleasant in summer-time.  The Prussians think nothing of it, and say, 'Are not all cities like this?'"

"Do you not hope that these industrious, honest people [Belgians], love to read their Bibles in their pleasant cottages?  Ah! you will soon see that they know very little about God.  Alas! they worship idols.  They are Roman Catholics."

I didn't discover Mortimer - that credit goes to writer and editor Todd Pruzan (McSweeney's, Blender, New Yorker).  In 2005 he introduced her to the world with a selection from her travel books called The Clumsiest People in Europe: Or, Mrs. Mortimer's Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World.  It's still in print and an ebook is available.  (Mortimer hadn't been entirely forgotten though close enough - there were pieces on her in the (London) Times in 1933 and the New Yorker in 1950.)

Mortimer became a sensation in 1849 with The Peep of the Day, which instructed children in both reading and religion.  Having found her calling she wrote several similar books, the oddest of which is Reading Without Tears (1857).  It's full of blatant class privilege and at times resembles modernist poetry - one highly repetitious section describes the duties of a housemaid.  "She makes the beds and the cribs. / She shakes the mats and the rugs. / She bakes the cakes and the loaves" and so on for an entire page.

Mortimer wasted no time in helping children understand the world around them by producing Near Home describing Europe and then two volumes of Far Off for the rest.  Did I mention she never traveled?  All research was done from books.  Even if some of her sources were far outdated, Mortimer clearly made some attempt at accuracy which is why the books have more a disconnect than a straight rant.  As a hardcore evangelical she didn't like Catholics and often comes across more negatively about them than other religions.  (Still, even genuinely great writers can also be petty and narrow-minded as anybody who's read Graham Greene's book on Mexico knows.)

But Near Home is a compulsively browsable book.  Some more selections:

"Is there a king of France?  There have been many kings.  But the French often send away their kings.  The last king left his palace in great haste.  There were crowds under his window and he was afraid they would burst in."

"There are a great many other foolish amusements in Italy.  Sometimes people put on masks and run about the streets, and see whether anybody can find them out when their faces are hid.

"But many [German women] are not as fond of reading as English and Scotch ladies are.  When they read, too often they read novels--histories of people who have never lived.  It would be better to read nothing than such books."

"The chief town in Turkey is built by the sea.  Like many other towns it looks beautiful at a distance, but turns out, when you arrive there, to be very unpleasant."

"The Greeks do not know how to bring up their children."