Summer reading lists are sprouting in the weekend newspapers. Everything sounds beguiling, so how does one choose? I’m sometimes lucky judging books by their cover. For example, my latest purchase, irresistibly entitled Vile France, delivers everything the short title promises.
But when it comes to stereotyping other countries, a newly reprinted trilogy of travel books shows we’re mere amateurs compared to our 19th-century forebears.
The book, The Clumsiest People in Europe: Mrs. Mortimer’s Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World, puts up for ridicule Favell Lee Mortimer, a British eccentric who specialized in the moral and patriotic education of children—a task she saw fit to accomplish by cataloguing the alleged character deficiencies of countries she never visited.
In an elegantly written New Yorker profile of Mrs. Mortimer, the trilogy’s editor, Todd Pruzan, offers a commentary on her life and times. Pruzan is in outlook a postmodern liberal, and nothing pleases one of his type more than the methodical public flogging of a sinner against Political Correctness.
And oh, what an easy target is Mrs. Mortimer! The profusion of prejudice culled from her “travel” writings is damning: Italians are “ignorant and wicked”; the Spanish “cruel, and Sullen and revengeful”; the Jews in Poland “are very troublesome … They follow travelers about, offering to help them, and will not go away when they are told.” The Portuguese are “indolent, like the Spaniards.”
“I think it would almost make you sick to go to church in Iceland.” In China, it is “a common thing to stumble over the bodies of dead babies in the streets.”
The chauvinistic Mrs. Mortimer was so egregiously bigoted that her views were considered extreme even by Victorian contemporaries. Yet, as Pruzan wonderingly reports, she was immensely popular both in England and abroad. Her most successful title, The Peep of Day; or a Series of the Earliest Religious Instruction the Infant Mind is Capable of Receiving, sold a million copies in 38 languages—including Cree and Ojibwa!
On the whole, Pruzan’s lively deconstruction of the life and writings of Mrs. Mortimer is a fascinating diversion. Then Pruzan takes it to a more serious, moralistic level. As his exposition slides into pontification, he tells us he was at first “startled” by Mrs. Mortimer’s derision of other nations, then “unsettled” and finally “queasy.” A troubled Pruzan ends his piece on a more-in-sorrow-than-anger note: “Take heart … Evolution takes time.” We are to conclude that bigotry, once such a serious problem that whole peoples might be dismissed with a poisonous hiss, is in its final stages of being torn down—by enlightened liberals like himself.
But Pruzan has missed half the story: Bigotry was not eradicated by modern liberalism. Liberals have simply stood Mrs. Mortimer’s template on its head.
Mrs. Mortimer felt pride in her British and Christian identity, and used her unlimited freedom of speech to be as offensive and ignorant as she pleased in regard to those cultures she considered inferior. (Indeed, she did not spare even her own: “The English are not very pleasant in company,” she wrote, “because they do not like strangers.” Who can argue?)