This book review from this week’s Economist
Sep 2nd 2010
A house, a cup of tea and me
At Home: A Short History of Private Life. By Bill Bryson. Doubleday; 512 pages; $28.95 and £20. Buy from Amazon.com , Amazon.co.uk
THE fruits of Bill Bryson’s fluent and amusing writing have been fame and fortune, so he now lives in one of the most desirable dwellings in the world: an old rectory in an English country village. The social and technological history of this lovely old house is the theme of his latest book, published earlier this year in Britain and coming out in America next month.
Readers of Mr Bryson’s previous books will find many familiar pleasures: effortlessly digestible prose, wry self-deprecating humour and lightly-worn erudition. His cellar-to-attic survey of his beloved house covers the habits, gadgets and techniques that have allowed mankind to move from cave to hovel to mansion.
Most readers will know some of the points he makes, but everyone will find something to surprise them. People could manufacture striped fabric before they could make doors and windows. Rats steal eggs through teamwork (one rodent lies on its back, holding the egg in its paws; its pal then tows it by the tail). Old pillows are rich in mite dung and human skin flakes.
The central message is the pace of change in the 19th century (Mr Bryson’s house was built in 1851). Thomas Marsham, a Norfolk clergyman who was its first occupant, was born in 1822 into a world of candlelight, medicinal leeches and travel no faster than a galloping horse. He lived to see steamships, express trains, “telegraphy, photography, anaesthesia, indoor plumbing, gas lighting, antisepsis in medicine, refrigeration, electric lights, recorded music, cars and planes, skyscrapers, radio” and much more besides.
American-born but an ardent anglophile, Mr Bryson neatly balances the social histories of his original and adopted homeland. He reminds readers of the glory days of the English country clergy from the early 18th to the late 19th century: a kind of tenured rural intelligentsia, with the time and brains to write, research and think (Thomas Bayes, of the eponymous probability theorem, is a signal example of this leisured excellence). A classic bit of Bryson research is to notice that Britain’s “Dictionary of National Biography” contains 4,600 mentions of “rector” and 3,300 for “vicar” compared with a modest 639 for “inventor” and 741 for “scientist”.
American settlers in those years had to ship most of their building materials and furniture from England, at great trouble, cost and uncertainty. Mr Bryson pays sympathetic tribute to their efforts, focusing on Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. He also highlights the later American fascination with European style and English aristocracy that led to the marriages and mansions of the great 19th-century tycoons.
Even the most unpromising rooms in Mr Bryson’s rectory provide food for thought, such as the miserable provision made for the servants, an all but invisible presence in the grand old days of yore. The hallway, now a neglected in-between room, is the last remnant of medieval times when the hall was the main (or only) room in the house. The toilet gives a chance to write about the vital subject of modern sewerage.
For good measure Mr Bryson also gives potted histories of, among other things, feminism, childhood, personal hygiene, bedding, sex, archaeology, parks, landscape gardening and staircases (the most dangerous place, statistically, in the home). Sharp-eyed readers may note that in places the seams in this patchwork quilt are a little clumsy. A tougher editor might have clamped down on some of Mr Bryson’s lazy habits, such as the tiresome re-use of the phrase “very real”.
Old rectories used to be seen as draughty and impractical (which is why the Church of England sold them off cheaply). Now they are the preserve of the rich, who can afford to furnish, clean and heat them comfortably. Mr Bryson’s book gives humbler readers a feeling of what they are missing—and how lucky they are to enjoy what comforts they have.