October Book Review: At Home: A Short History of Private Life

Why did soldiers in the 1800s fire rounds into their canned food?

Which British monarch was so fat he or she could not go down stairs, but had to be lowered through a trapdoor with a pulley?

Why was the aspidistra the indoor plant of choice in Victorian times?

I confess this was not originally intended as this month’s reviewed book; looking for something entertaining, and misled by the word “short,” I checked it out as my fluff book. However, it being both more serious and considerably longer than Bill Bryson’s other books (it is, in fact, 9 times longer than his “African Diary,” which I highly recommend, and which, at 49 pamphlet-sized pages, was only one evening’s reading for me), here we are.

Bryson is known chiefly as a humorist, and the origin of the book is explained with a comedian’s typical curiosity:

Sitting at the kitchen table one afternoon, playing idly with the salt and pepper shakers, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea why, out of all the spices in the world, we have such an abiding attachment to these two…. Suddenly the house seemed a place of mystery to me. So I formed the idea to make a journey around it, to wander from room to room and consider how each has featured in the evolution of private life.

What he found, to his “great surprise, is that whatever happens in the world – whatever is discovered or created or bitterly fought over – eventually ends up, in one way or another, in your house.” The result is that one receives the impression that, having found the subject far more immense than he supposed, the book became both rushed and crammed and, at times, not as focused or organized as it might have been.

Fortunately, for the most part this has little effect on the reader’s enjoyment. Bryson’s humor, though relatively subdued, shines through on every page in his entertaining digressions and delight in the absurdities and improbabilities of life, expressed with his usual gift for a good turn of phrase.

There is his exuberant declaration that “Nothing – really, absolutely nothing – says more about Victorian Britain and its capacity for brilliance than that the century’s most daring and iconic building [the Crystal Palace] was entrusted to a gardener.”

After relating how horrified famous diarist Samuel Pepys was to find, in 1662, that his fish dinner “had within it ‘many little worms creeping,’” Bryson assures us that “finding one’s food in an advanced state of animation was not common even in Pepys’ day.”

Or, perhaps my favorite tidbit out of the whole book:

Curiously, the one service room not named for the products it contains is dairy. The name derives from an Old French word, dey, meaning maiden. A dairy, in other words, was the room where the milkmaids were to be found, from which we might reasonably deduce that an Old Frenchman was more interested in finding the maid than the milk.

One theme that appeared throughout and struck me with a kind of understanding sadness was how, in the days before professional certifications, anyone could be anything:

Even after architecture became a recognized profession, most practitioners came from other backgrounds. Inigo Jones was a designer of theatrical productions, Christopher Wren an astronomer, Robert Hooke a scientist, Vanbrugh a soldier and playwright.

Of course, there was a downside to this. “In one decade in America [in the mid-1800s], more than four hundred theaters burned down. Over the nineteenth century as a whole, nearly ten thousand people were killed in theater fires in Britain” – because there were no safety standards, and theaters used wildly unstable lighting developed by amateurs. I understand why the way it is now is “better,” and is the way it must be. But, as Bryson says, the old way contained much capacity for greatness.

The book is in turns shocking-funny:

Even though sugar was very expensive, people consumed it until their teeth turned black, and if their teeth didn’t turn black naturally, they blackened them artificially to show everyone how wealthy and marvelously self-indulgent they were

shocking-tragic:

Of scurvy alone it has been suggested that as many as two million sailors died between 1500 and 1850. Typically, scurvy killed about half the crew on any long voyage [but although experiments in the 1760s pointed to the cure] the British navy… procrastinated for another generation before finally providing citrus juice to sailors as a matter of routine

and shockingly coincidental: one man of no significance to history, James Chiswick, single-handedly connects the sewage of London, the beginnings of professional baseball, the discovery of the atom, and the French Revolution, just because he happened to have gifted children, students, and roommates.

Unfortunately, after about 350 pages of this, the endless factoids and digressions start to get wearing, and just at that point the book reaches the bedroom and takes a decidedly darker and more depressing turn.

Nothing upsets me more than the lack of legal rights for women throughout history, and Bryson manages not only to find the worst examples (one woman, after finding out that her husband was slowly poisoning her, applied for a divorce. After listening to the arguments the judge counseled her to go home and “try to be more patient”), but to follow them with other equally disturbing subjects, such as including a detailed account of one woman’s 17-and-a-half-minute mastectomy, written by the woman herself – because, of course, this was in the days before anesthesia and so she was awake for the whole thing. This is followed up by such everyday horrors in the nursery as are not worth repeating.

Which leaves me in another unexpected place: giving this book, which was mostly very entertaining and by an author I like, a negative review. The casual reader may enjoy reading the odd chapter; the student of history and trivia certainly will. I’m glad to know the 2% of the facts the book contains that I will remember. But as a whole – if I got bored by this kind of Britain-centered trivia, then most people will.

By the way, if you’re still curious about the questions posed at the beginning, the answers are:

  1. Because early tin cans were welded shut, and it was the only way to open them
  2. Queen Anne
  3. Because the fumes of gas lamps were fatal to most other house-plants.
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3 thoughts on “October Book Review: At Home: A Short History of Private Life

  1. Good book review.  I like that you started with questions and answered them at the bottom.  Am quite certain I couldn’t have endured the book nearly as long as you did.  As for the mastectomy, remember that scene from John Adams where that happened to his daughter.  Most people would probably prefer to die.

    On that happy note, let’s think about happy things before we fall to sleep!   Love you,   Mazzie 

    ________________________________

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