Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The Clumsiest People in Europe, or: Mrs. Mortimer’s Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World

One can only guess that Favell Lee Mortimer must have been a joy to be around. A noted mid-19th century author of children’s books, she also published a series of travel books. Compared to our familiar and trusty Frommer’s or Lonely Planet guides, though, Mortimer’s works are, one could say, less jovial. Mortimer shows unusual creativity in finding something wicked to say about everyone, everywhere. Germans read too much useless literature, she feels, while thieves lurk behind bushes throughout Spain. She struggles to write enough bad things to satisfy her dislike for anywhere so misguided as to be predominantly Catholic. Her writing reveals a peculiar sadism as she imagines all the unfortunate mishaps that might befall a traveler to, well, anywhere. Viewed through her writing, even her native England seems particularly unpleasant. According to this book’s editor, Todd Pruzan, who admits he didn’t know quite what to make of Mortimer’s books when he stumbled across copies in an old barn, Mortimer only twice strayed from home. She went to Paris once, and another time ventured as far as Wales. While these selections from her writings are wickedly funny, Pruzan’s helpful historical backgrounds that precede each entry add a strange sobriety to the work. The mid-19th century world was not all roses. Civil wars, rampant imperialism, famine and disease spilled over huge swaths of the Victorian map. Whatever one makes of Mortimer’s invective, this offbeat mash of history, humor and commentary make for a wonderfully engaging read.


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