Equal-opportunity bigot Mrs. Favell Lee Mortimer (1802–78) takes a trip around the world, in a collection of excerpts from guides originally written for Victorian children.
One day while browsing in a bookstore on Martha’s Vineyard, freelance magazine writer/editor Pruzan stumbled across Mortimer’s work and, in a moment of inspired literary archeology, took it home to chuckle over its phrasings and outlook with friends and family. From those serendipitous beginnings, he became increasingly fascinated with the foul-tempered Mortimer. She turned out to be a British bestselling children’s author, and although in her entire life she never traveled beyond Paris, Brussels and Edinburgh, she presented herself as an authority on all the cultures of the world. Here, Pruzan provides highlights from three of her works: The Countries of Europe Described; Far Off: Asia and Australia Described, and Far Off, Part II: Africa and America Described, all published between 1849 and 1854. Explanatory text at the beginning of each section describes relevant contemporary political and social events, a very useful bit if context, particularly for such countries as Tartary, Circassia and Prussia. No land escapes Mortimer’s acid pen, though she has a few kind words for Denmark—whose chief asset is its resemblance to England. Of the whole of Africa, she declares, “There are more ignorant people there than anywhere else.” In Asia, she notes that “the Chinese are very selfish and unfeeling.” After all this bile, it’s intriguing to arrive at her thoughts on the American South, particularly slavery. Mortimer observes that although some people say that slaves are happy to labor as they do, “the slaves show plainly that they do not think themselves happy, by often running away.”
An absorbing resurrection of English worldviews widely held during the mid-1800s: strangely entertaining and surprisingly educational.