The Clumsiest People in Europe

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The Clumsiest People in Europe: A Bad-tempered Guide to the World  By (author) Favell Lee Mortimer, By (author) Todd PruzanThanks heavens for Mrs Favell Lee Mortimer for, without the things that today make the world an easier place to know, she managed to tell the people of the mid nineteenth century all they needed to know about life as it is lived in all four corners of the world. Over three volumes, Mrs Mortimer provided a succinct, if blunt, guide to the peoples of Europe, Asia, Australia, the Americas and Africa. Those three volumes have been condensed into the single book reviewed here.

She starts with Europe asking first “What is the character of the English?”

“They are not very pleasant company because they do not like strangers, nor taking much trouble…They are often in low spirits, and are apt to grumble, and to wish they were richer than they are, and to speak against the rulers of the land. Yet they might be the happiest people in the world; for there is no country in which there are so many bibles.”

Of the Scottish

“One of the chief faults of the Scotch is the love of whiskey. Another fault is the love of money. They often ask more than they ought, and are very slow to give.”

When she moves her focus to Ireland we see the first of Mrs Mortimer’s numerous and vociferous tirades against Roman Catholicism

“If you were to go to a Roman Catholic church, you would see a basin of water near the door. What is it for? It is called ‘holy water’, because the priest has blessed it. Everybody dips his hand in the water and sprinkles himself with it, and thinks that doing this will keep him from Satan. O how foolish!”

Mrs Mortimer continues in similar vein making her outraged pronouncements, pontificating on the rights and wrongs of the customs and preferences of people from every country. Nobody escapes her harsh tongue and even when the odd back-handed compliment seems on the horizon, she always manages to find some reason to negate it.

The book is written in the ‘second person presumptive’ and sounds like a teacher instructing a class of very stupid pupils: Mrs Mortimer asks lots of questions of her readers and then immediately answers them herself. She also likes to describe something in detail – a custom or a food item particular to one country – and then tell the reader that they wouldn’t care for it. Mrs Mortimer certainly believes she knows best – and from her fearsome tone I suspect few would want to argue with her.

“There are a great many olive trees in Spain, fine spreading trees, and the olive is a little dark round fruit, about the size of a plum. The Spaniards eat it with salt, but the taste is bitter and I am sure you would not like it.”

Of the Russians

The favourite drink is ‘kwas’. It is made of barley-meal, honey and salt, mixed together in water, and then warmed for many hours in the oven. This is wholesome drink, but you would not like it at all.”

For once Mrs Mortimer was correct: I drank kwas in Armenia and threw up an hour later.

What comes through most is Mrs Mortimer’s strong sense of morality which is not limited only to religious values although her strong faith certainly plays a major part in defining her opinions. Catholics bear the brunt of her disgust with Muslims running close behind.

“The Abyssinians seem to be very little better than heathens or Mahomedans; yet they are better in one respect. They are more ashamed of their wickedness; they tell lies but they are ashamed of them.”

And my favourite line of the book is a pronouncement on Italian beggars “…they are not as thankful as Irish beggars”

Now, I am opinionated; you, my friends are too, that’s why you come here to read these reviews. But Mrs Mortimer is perhaps more opinionated than most. Indeed the book is subtitled “Mrs Mortimer’s Bad-tempered Guide to the Victorian World” and few could argue that she exercises any caution or ‘political correctness’ in giving her opinions.

But the truth is that this fiery lady travelled outside of England only twice in her life. The first time as a teenager when she visited Paris and Brussels with her family, the second time just AFTER the publication of these volumes to Edinburgh. At one point she lived in Shropshire just a few miles from the border with Wales but she still formed her opinions of the Welsh without ever setting foot in that country. In fact, she formed her opinions by reading and researching as much as she could from books, journals and newspaper accounts. Many of the books were fictionalised account themselves by people who had as much real knowledge as she did herself.

What makes reading “The Clumsiest People in Europe” even more fun is to know a little about her background and in this volume Todd Pruzan gives an excellent biography of Mrs Mortimer though I will only mention the key details here for this part of the book is almost as enjoyable as Mrs Mortimer’s tirades.

She was born in 1802 and her father was one of the founders of Barclay’s Bank. She was raised a Quaker but as a young woman she met a young man, Henry manning with whom she formed a strong friendship. Together they explored the bible and she converted with Henry’s encouragement to Evangelicalism. When she was thirty years old her mother forbade her from marrying Henry, who later married the daughter of a rector. Henry’s wife died after only four years of marriage and he entered the clergy.

Meanwhile at the rather advanced age of 39 she married the Reverend Thomas Mortimer who turned out to be a cruel and callous husband. They moved to Shropshire but she spent most of her time at her brother’s house trying to avoid Thomas. Thomas died in 1850 and the following year Favell received some terrible news: Thomas had converted to Catholicism. Nothing could have wounded Favell more than this.

In all Favell wrote sixteen books, some more popular than others. The most successful were known as the “Peep of Day” series intended as religious education for the young. In fact the full title was “A Series of the Earliest Religious Instruction the Infant Mind is Capable of Receiving”. In it were the first examples of the overbearing didactic tone she would use later in her volumes on the peoples of the world.

“God has covered your bones with flesh. Your flesh is soft and warm. In your flesh 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!”

I expect there were few children who went to a Sunday School where these books were used who were not terrified into holiness!

How should we regard Mrs Mortimer today? Of course, there was not the political correctness that permeates our laws today so Mrs Mortimer wouldn’t have thought twice about the possible repercussions from her books. Maybe she thought she was being genuinely helpful and educating those who needed it? Certainly she does give the impression that she is somehow “saving” people from the terrors of travelling by kindly providing you with all you need to know.

What is disappointing is that Mrs Mortimer pays no attention to the current affairs of the day. Her volumes were written during a time when Europe, and indeed Africa as the European powers were scrambling to colonise, was in great turmoil with war raging across the continent but Favell doesn’t make any mention of it at all.

This is a perfect book for dipping into at random. It’s a real laugh-out-loud book that in turns has you cringing then hooting. Thoroughly recommended as one of the (unintentionally) funniest books I have ever read!

Finally on the Egyptians

“It is a rare thing in Egypt to speak the truth. There was an Egyptian, by trade a jeweller, who was a man of his word. His countrymen were so much surprised to find he spoke the truth constantly, that they gave him the name of “The Englishman”.


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Clumsiest People in Europe (The)
by Todd Pruzan and Mrs Favell Lee Mortimer

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Written by Mary Bor
Mary Bor

Aspiring travel writer and avid Yugophile living in the UK and Slovenia. Loves (in no particular order) Scandinavian crime fiction, Indian food, walking, scavenging, Russian dolls

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