Monday, April 22, 2013

Book Review: At Home

At Home
Bill Bryson

It’s impossible to measure the total aggregate pleasure each nonfiction English language writer brings worldwide, but if you could, I’ll bet Bill Bryson’s would be right there at the top. I’m one that would boost the total. A Short History of Nearly Everything, which took on the history of science, was one of my life’s Himalayan reading experiences. At Home’s subtitle, A Short History of Private Life, recalls the former book, with a bit more modesty. Like the former, it’s also a joy to read, and like it, it provides a quirky, sometimes impressionistic history of its subject rather than a conventional one. At Home uses the parts of a typical house, from the basement to the attic, as jumping off points and metaphors for a history (mostly American, British and Western European) of houses and life inside them. Bryson’s springboard to this springboard is his own house, a parsonage in England built in 1851. How did it-and all houses-get to today’s house? How did private life arrive at today? He operates under the notion that the house is where history ends up.

The 1850s were when a lot of what we call modern comforts started. The Crystal Palace exhibit heralded the start of the era of the consumer. Its acres of labor-saving contraptions might have almost seemed science fictional to the attendees who saw them, but it was still the Victorian Age. Bathrooms were called “retiring rooms.” It was modern enough, though, to send the Romantic craftsman utopian, William Morris, fleeing outside, where he vomited in the bushes.

Did you know where your humble hall came from? It used to be grand indeed, it used to be the house. But, over the centuries it shrank and shrank again, until it became the modest corridor it is now. Scattered through the hall chapter (and all the chapters) are conventional wisdom-busting facts (or “assertions” for the skeptical) making for a stimulating narrative. You sometimes may wonder, “Is conventional wisdom usually wrong?” Bryson states that doors on old houses weren’t low because people were shorter (people were about our height) but because doors were very expensive. Similarly, England wasn’t settled by invaders but by farmers. Royalty, up through the 1600s anyway, didn’t have good manners by today’s standards. They weren’t above occasionally defecating in houses where they were staying as guests. Some of this iconoclasm hit home for me. I was humbled to learn that some of my ancestors, the grooms, were originally latrine-cleaners. (Later, they came to be advisors to monarchs. Still, though.)

The little fact-charges never stop shooting off: ice was once the U.S.’s #2 crop; it took centuries for cookbooks to give exact measurements and cooking times; Thomas Jefferson was “practically a vegetarian”; lobsters used to be so plentiful in America they were fed to prisoners and caviar was common enough to serve as a bar snack; by 1851, one-third of all young women in London were prostitutes. These bits, fascinating as they are, aren’t delivered in gee-whiz fashion, but arise naturally out of the text. Bryson simply refuses to be dull for even one page, one paragraph.

Followers of Downton Abbey may be dismayed to realize that the reality of the country house was snobbish, repressive, filthy and brutal. And life as a servant in these houses was a good working-class job. The house owners, typically, were expected to know only one thing about their servants: their last names. Humiliating a servant in front of your child was considered a moral action. The show is great fun but, after Bryson, you see it’s rose-tinted fun.

Much of the book has to do with the Victorians. Margaret Thatcher might’ve swooned over “Victorian Values” but, after reading Bryson (or even before reading Bryson) you can see that the age was defined by negligence, cruelty, filth, miserliness, emotional and sexual repression, greed, and plain nastiness. Which values did she mean? Those reformers who did get things to move somewhat past the direness are the precursors to our more humane era.

There’s an abundance of humor here, as there is in all Bill Bryson books, and it leavens everything, even the Victorians. Queen Victoria expected everyone to keep out of her way and never address her. That led to this contemporary observation: “It was said that you could fix her location by the sight of panicked people fleeing before her.” By the 1950s, most English country homes had been torn down or converted to other uses. Some original owners could only afford to stay if they made home a tourist attraction. In one house, a posh grandmother refused to abandon her tv horse races when the tourists came calling. A user survey later revealed that granny watching tv was the customers’ favorite part of the tour. That one put me on the floor.

One of the best reasons to read At Home is to the see what an overwhelming case Bryson makes for the conclusion that we (Western) moderns have more comfort, are better fed, have better medical care, and are cleaner and better educated than any generation prior to the 20th century. This reality was very hard won and took a gigantic amount of time to happen. The road from Nasty, Brutish and Short to Us is, thanks to the author, a lot funnier, more gross and diverting that it has any right to be. Bad as the present situation may be, you’ll breathe an enormous sigh of relief when you see what it used to be like.

Submitted by Richard Grooms
Fiction Department
Central Library

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