I love Bill Bryson. L-O-V-E. I realize this isn’t the most unbiased way to begin a book review, but I should be honest here. I’ve read most of his books and circle the date on the calendar when the next one is due to be published. And so on that note I begin…
At Home: A Short History of Private Life takes us on a room to room romp from the wealthiest to the poorest, royalty to servants. “The history of household life isn’t just a history of beds and sofas and kitchen stoves…but of scurvy and guano and the Eiffel Tower and bedbugs and body-snatching and just about everything else that has ever happened. Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.” Think this sounds like a giant yawn? Then, my friend, you haven’t read Bryson. He can make the phone book read like a Coen Brothers script.
The book (and a hefty tome it is at 452 pages) is organized like the structure of a house. We tour through each room and use it as a jumping off point beginning with Bryson’s own home, an 1851 Victorian parsonage in rural England. Bryson focuses on Britain with enough U.S. tossed in to, as The Guardian astutely notes, “keep my American publisher happy,” but unfortunately leaving out the majority of the world. (Otherwise we’d be dealing with a multi-volume epic.)
What we have here, and what Bryson neatly summarizes for us, is that “the history of private life is a history of getting comfortable slowly.” Until the 18th century, even the word comfortable didn’t have the same meaning as it does today. The term was something you did for the wounded or distressed, not something that was part of everyday life. And Bryson goes out of his way to show us just how uncomfortable life was in those days. Suffice it to say that I will never again complain about doing laundry.
Sometimes the connection between the book’s structure and the content is logical and enlightening. The chapter on the nursery considers childbearing and child mortality rates. And the chapter on the bathroom, leads to a detailed, and effectively gross, discussion of the history of hygiene (or often lack thereof). One fascinating section takes us from the light bulb to the history of whaling. Another leads us from fashion to string: “The weapon that allowed the human race to conquer the Earth,” he quotes a source. Ridiculous? Not at all by the time Bryson gets done with it. But sometimes the connection is too much of a stretch and then seems irrelevant. The attic chapter begins with Darwin, comes around to the British government’s death duties tax on large landowners and finishes with the end of the era of English country parsonages.
There are so many facts, figures, biographies and names, it’s clear Bryson has done his homework, and even clearer that he likes doing it. The bibliography goes on for 20 pages and apparently it’s not the comprehensive list, which can be found online. He synthesizes and distills this information beautifully for us, often slyly throwing in his own two cents of dry, goofy wit. There are so many great Brysonisms, but I’ll just offer these: “By withholding affection to children when they were young, but also then endeavoring to control their behavior well into adulthood, Victorians were in the very odd position of simultaneously trying to suppress childhood and make it last forever. It is perhaps little wonder that the end of Victorianism almost exactly coincided with the invention of psychotherapy.” And, “When wood-shavings and sawdust make it into a top-10 list of bedding materials, you know you are looking at a rugged age.” But then there are points when even his interest must have waned because it seems like it is just that – a listing of facts.
If you haven’t yet been inducted into the Bryson Hall of Fandom, may I suggest starting with A Walk in the Woods or In a Sunburned Country. I’m not sure I would have picked up At Home: A Short History of Private Life if I wasn’t a Bryson fan. But I’m glad I did. It’s interesting, funny and breathtakingly researched, and leaves you feeling thankful for the conveniences in your life and wondering how far it can all go.