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    The clumsiest people in Europe, or, Mrs. Mortimer's bad tempered guide ...

    Learning with Jesus: a daily devotional on the gospels. Far Off. They were, like their land, dangerous. IT'S Do you know where your great-great-great-great-grandparents are? And more to the point: What's their problem? No matter where your ancestors had the misfortune of living—no doubt smoking too much, or taking snuff, or reading useless novels—Mrs. Favell Lee Mortimer had something nasty to say about them.

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    Their issues, according to Mrs. Mortimer, might have amounted to just about anything. The Irish are very kind and good-natured when pleased, but if affronted, are filled with rage. In Italy, the people are ignorant and wicked. In southern Sweden, the cottages are uncomfortable. Things were far, far worse in Asia and Africa. Take China, where it is a common thing to stumble over the bodies of dead babies in the streets.

    Or Hindostan, where the women spend most of their time in idleness, sauntering about and chattering nonsense. Or Abyssinia, where one mother, who loved her children very much, punished her little girl for stealing honey, by burning the skin off her hands and lips. For the better part of the nineteenth century, Mrs. Mortimer was something of a literary superstar to an impressionable audience, both in her native England and beyond. She published about a dozen children's books, and by the end of the century, her first and most popular title, The Peep of Day, had sold at least a million copies in thirty-eight languages, including Yoruba, Malayalim, Marathi-Balbodh, Tamil, Cree-Ojibbeway and French.

    In the middle of her forty-year career, Mrs. Given her success at the time, it's not impossible that your own elders were schooled in Mrs. Mortimer's pronouncements on the world's many filthy, wicked, heathen cultures. I found Mrs. Mortimer in an old barn. That's an odd place to waste a glorious August afternoon, but whenever I visit Martha's Vineyard, I can't resist spending a couple of hours in the barn that's now the Book Den East, with its attic full of swirling dust motes and faded magazines, farmers' almanacs and sheet music. It's still a mystery why, on my way toward the rickety wooden staircase one day, I noticed a small guidebook with a faded green spine perched halfway up the History shelf.

    The book's title, The Countries of Europe Described, certainly didn't grab my attention. Something so straightforward, so bland, with no author's name on the cover, must've been an ancient pocket encyclopedia, I figured. When I pulled the book down, only vaguely curious, it fell open to a field guide to the habits of German women. The ladies are very industrious, and wherever they go, they take their knitting. They are as fond of their knitting-needles as the gentlemen are of their pipes.

    The number of stockings they make would surprise you. How much better to knit than to smoke! When they are at home, the ladies spend a great deal of time in cooking; they also spin, and have a great deal of linen of their own spinning, locked up in great chests. Can they do nothing but knit, and cook, and spin?

    Yes, they can play on the piano, and the harp, and sing very sweetly. But they are not fond of reading useful books. When they read, it is novels about people who have never lived.