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I must be honest and say that having lived in modern homes and in period properties, I have discovered I far prefer modern homes. My late husband used to call me a philistine for feeling this way, but having endured the joys of broken sash windows, dado rails which annoyed me and fireplaces which were less a feature and more of a hindrance to me placing a sideboard in a specific location in a room I am far happier with mod cons. Give me double glazing, cavity wall insulation, UPVC guttering and soffits and low ceilings any day of the week thank you very much.
However there is something which fascinates about the home and how we have come to live in a certain way. I often wonder what the street I live in looked like before the houses went up, and how we evolved from a people who generally lived in rural areas subsiding from the land to becoming far more urban in the way we live our lives. What made us move from using our hands to eat to using forks, knives and spoons? How did we evolve from sleeping on the floor to the comfort of the beds we sleep in today?
Bill Bryson, the American author, wondered that too one day as he went to check on a leak in the roof of his Norfolk rectory home. Upon investigating his attic he discovered what he calls “a secret door” leading to a small space on his rooftop which afforded Bryson a view over the county which he hadn’t seen before. From this small discovery Bryson started to wonder about the history of more mundane things that we take for granted and this led to him to consider his house and how history has affected every room contained within.
In the end his slow leak resulted in a book which comes in at just over 600 pages and considers not just a history of private life, but also a history of how we came to live the way we do now.
In this hefty tome, Bryson begins with a floor plan of his house, along with what he knows of the origins of it. The rectory was originally built in 1851 for Thomas Marsham, a country parson who was well rewarded by the Anglican church for a role which didn’t require much in the way of effort from him.
The house is a large one – and Bryson can only speculate on how a man who never married needed so much space. The plans printed in the book are based on the architect’s original plans so rooms are given names not so commonly used today such as the Scullery or the Nursery. I could relate to this - my old house in Edinburgh had a cupboard which I was told when I came to sell was the "maid's room".
I have read a lot of Bill Bryson’s books over the years and have always found them to be incredibly amusing but At Home isn’t full of the belly laughs of some of his other works – this is a fairly serious history book but at the same time it can never be described as boring and there are some examples of Bryson’s delightful use of humour too.
If you like history books which are well structured and focus purely on one person in one place then this isn’t going to be a book for you. Bryson’s structure is really rather lax and even the links to various rooms in his house – with the main rooms all having their own chapters – and the subject matter discussed is tenuous at times. So when you reach the chapter entitled Attic it might surprise you when Bryson talks at length about archaeology; or discusses building materials at length in the chapter entitled Cellar.
Instead this is a meandering book which occasionally resembles a startling number of random thoughts which have somehow managed to come together in a fairly cohesive manner. Generally it works, but sometimes I found myself being reintroduced to some historical figure from several chapters back (and as such that could be at least a hundred pages previous) and having to refer to the index to remind myself of who the person was. I found Bryson’s ability to link historical figures quite endearing – it seemed like a Bryson-esque version of Six Degrees of Separation. It does, however, make it hard to find a “whole” for some life stories.
In the course of his book Bryson considers various topics such as the perception of privacy. I learned that going to the toilet was once something of a social event and certainly not the solitary and whispered about ablution of today. Similarly it was once unheard of to have a bath alone – although it should also be remembered that people rarely bathed in the past and Bryson does take the opportunity to repeat the famous quote about Queen Elizabeth I bathing once a month – whether she needed to or not.
Bryson clearly has an interest in architects and focuses on several in the course of the book – not just the architect who designed his home. He mentions many stately homes and how they came about – and how the owners came about the wealth they spent in building them. Bryson writes a particularly colourful section on James Wyatt, an architect who seems to have spent much of his time in a drunken stupor. Wyatt was responsible for Fonthill Abbey, a stately home built for William Beckford in Wiltshire. For all that Wyatt was something of a sot, Beckford wasn’t such a slouch in the stakes for being a dissipate himself and despite his immense wealth he wasn’t much respected due to several unwise dalliances with members of both sexes. It comes as no real surprise to learn that the story of Fonthill Abbey ends in tears but I shan't tell you why.
Bryson writes about many other subjects as he tours the house figuratively speaking, including syphilis in the “Bedroom” chapter. Apparently syphilis could lead to sufferers losing their noses and there was at one point in London a “No Nos’d Club”. Sufferers were treated with mercury which led to one wag coining the phrase “A night with Venus and a lifetime with Mercury”.
The bedroom chapter also focuses on several other medical treatments and a section on surgery in the days before the advent of anaesthetics is quite chilling to read. Bryson references the author Fanny Burney who in 1806 had to endure a mastectomy following a diagnosis of breast cancer. Her own calm recollection of the surgery – and the almost unbearable wait for the appointed hour of the operation to arrive – is terrifying yet somehow compelling to read.
Despite the loose structure of At Home, Bryson has produced an enjoyable book which will educate and entertain. There are few laugh out loud moments in here however – the wit is dryer. This is probably a wise move on Bryson’s part – because much of his book is based on a lot of serious research, borne out by a bibliography which runs to over 30 pages.
The main focus historically in the book is on Britain but Bryson does also touch on American life and when this is linked to Britain it makes sense – but some of the American links seem to have been included with one eye to the American book market as opposed to being a necessary addition. So while I did enjoy reading about Thomas Jefferson’s quest to build his perfect home in Monticello I can’t help but suspect Bryson included this more for the benefit of his fans across the pond.
This is a well written book and as ever Bryson’s enthusiastic prose has charmed me to the point where I actually enjoyed reading about the perils of early brick making and other such mundane facts. Where he scores is his ability to make a reader think – and certainly his chapter called “The Fusebox” which considers lighting – or lack of – in the days before gas and electric lighting is particularly thought provoking. Most of us use candles these days to scent a room as opposed to lighting it but there was a time when even wax candles were a luxury few could afford.
The book ends upon these thought provoking lines with Bryson pondering on how much energy we use to have the home comforts we are used to today and asks the stark question of if this can continue or not, especially when developing countries are wanting the same comforts that we have.
At Home is an enjoyable wander through history and it’s links to our homes. You will learn a lot from Bryson but be entertained too. That’s the perfect kind of history book for me but if you prefer a more academic or polemic kind of history book then you probably won't enjoy it.