AT HOME, A SHORT HISTORY OF PRIVATE LIFE by Bill Bryson

Book Quote:

“On one occasion in the 1890s, Lord Charles Beresford, a well-known rake, let himself into what he believed was his mistress’s bedroom. With a lusty cry of ‘Cock-a-doodle-doo!’ he leapt into the bed – only to discover that it was occupied by the Bishop of Chester and his wife.”

Book Review:

Review by Vesna McMaster  (OCT 14, 2011)

What would the world do without Bill Bryson? One simply wants to sit at his knee with a huge grin and listen interminably. I’m an irredeemable skinflint and get all my reading material from the library, but At Home is one book I would seriously like to buy for myself. Considering I have almost no books apart from reference books, my Complete Shakespeare and a Bible I once found in a discard pile somewhere, that’s saying quite a lot.

The volume is in essence a long and amiable discourse on the marvel that was the Victorian era. It’s loosely based around (and supposedly inspired by) the Victorian rectory Bryson lives in. The chapters have titles like: “The Hall,” “The Kitchen,” and so on. The theory is that “houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.” However, apart from in the early chapters (notably “The Hall”) there’s little talk about anything prior to the Victorians. It’s the speed of change and the immeasurable vigor with which so many Victorians pursued their eccentricities and interests that really fascinates Bryson, and he re-tells it at the top of his engaging best.

The downside of the book may perhaps be that it has little structure. It is a little like swimming through thick soup, but oh such good soup! It’s the perfect book for sitting companionably of an evening. The urge to exclaim “Listen to this one!” and regale anybody within earshot with the latest snippet of fascinating information Mr. Bryson has dredged out of history for you, probably occurs about once every fifteen minutes. Which, incidentally, is the perfect interval for this sort of activity: any less and it’s startling, any more and it gets annoying.

The best thing about it is that it’s simply so shockingly knowledgeable. The bibliography alone goes on for 25 pages of dense text, with a further note at the bottom: “for Notes and Sources, please go to www.billbryson.co.uk/athome .”

Despite this, there are a number of curious little niches which harbour the oddest throw-away statements. Like the one that claims the dining room really came about because of the advent of upholstery, with the Victorians not really wanting people smearing greasy chicken over their expensive sofas. What on earth were all those Medieval dining halls doing, then, one wonders briefly? Or the later Elizabethan private dining rooms? Oh Billy, one thinks – but it’s such a lovely idea that a specialised room should be invented because people couldn’t quite envisage a table napkin that one quite forgives it.

These little anomalies only seem to add to the charm: they’re like “Easter eggs” in a computer game. The vast majority of the time, one is overwhelmed with gratitude at the sheer volume of reading and dredging that has been done to winkle these pearls of Victoriana from dusty obscurity. They range from the obscure (why forks usually have three tines: actually it’s never quite explained but apparently people have experimented with other numbers and it’s never quite right) to the monumentally important (such as the discovery of the sources of cholera and scurvy). Electricity holds sway over a whole chapter in “The Fuse Box,” and seems to hold a particular fascination for Bryson, as the “characters” who feature here pop up throughout the book. Perhaps it is not surprising, as without electricity so much of further development would simply not have been possible.

I would recommend this unreservedly to anybody, but actively prescribe it if you are feeling glum. Perhaps that’s why I’d like it on my shelf permanently. It’s cheering for three reasons. The unquenchable amiable spirit it’s written in, along with the sheer love of language and words that beams through the pages are two of these reasons – but any Bryson fan will already be familiar with these. The third is that the book will immerse you entirely in the day-to-day reality of Being Victorian. Which includes carrying 40 bucket loads of hot water upstairs nightly for a bath, having to take clothes apart and re-stitch them together for the laundry, refrigerating food (if one were so lucky) with ice brought over from lakes in the States, and countless other inconveniences and checks to daily living that we would simply never consider possible. The writing is so engrossing one’s arms almost ache with the weight of the water-buckets… only to look up and find that: joy! One can just turn the hot water on instead. If you think you’re bogged down with a tedious job or an unrewarding existence or poor working conditions, just read this. You’ll be skipping in no time.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 491 readers
PUBLISHER: Anchor; Reprint edition (October 4, 2011)
REVIEWER: Vesna McMaster
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Bill Bryson
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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October 14, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Non-fiction, United Kingdom

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