Monday, April 11, 2011

At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson - Book Review

For those of us who grew up in the relative comfort and liberal sensibility of the mid- to late twentieth century, the difficulties and dangers of life even into the late part of the nineteenth century are nearly incomprehensible. So is the vast separation of wealth and the almost total lack of concern for those less fortunate shown by the wealthy in both America and England during that period. Bill Bryson, an American who has lived a major portion of his life in England tells this story, as well as many others, in his wonderful book At Home. In telling the story of the home using a country rectory where he lives in rural England, Bryson catalogs, in both amusing and starkly shocking ways, the development of our present ideas about what constitutes the elements of the homes we live in and, to a lesser extent, the development of the idea of family.

At Home uses the device of the rooms in a house to explore social, economic, and cultural history in, mostly, England and America with the year 1851 as the central date from which to move forward and back in time. Bryson lives in a former Anglican rectory built in that year and once belonging to a certain Mr. Thomas Marsham, a largely unmemorable Church of England parson, for whom it was built. By examining the rectory room by room, Bryson can, with his characteristic combination of careful research and gentle humor shed light on the Victorian world as well as what it developed from and changed into. He has an eye for irony and coincidence so that very often he finds the small invention or change that makes big movements in society possible. Furthermore, he finds connections between ideas and events that many others don't perceive so readily.

Let's take one chapter as an example of what Bryson accomplishes. Chapter IV is called “The Kitchen.” At the opening of the chapter, Bryson describes a dinner party hosted by famed diarist Samuel Pepys. During dinner Pepys notices his plate crawling with worms. This leads to a discussion of keeping food fresh and safe as well as the use of various fillers in food – saw dust, powdered sheep dung, sand, and dirt. Bryson then moves to the difficulties in producing a good loaf of bread, which created a need for bakers to enter into business to provide it. A small section describes how ice, taken from Wenham Lake in Massachusetts was shipped to England insulated by sawdust to be used in refrigeration as well as to make ice cream, which then became very popular in Victorian England. Along the way canning developed and was perfected by an American named Mason. In another section of the chapter, Bryson details the exceptionally hard work of preparing food for the wealthy and getting it to the table warm and edible. The amount of food and its variety, by contemporary standards, was stunning, and the waste and wealth necessary to serve it disgusting. This carefully structured chapter takes us into a world that, for most of us, hasn't been explored and makes connections we wouldn't imagine on our own. Similarly, a chapter on The Garden details how the development of gardening as a hobby led naturalists to comb the world for exotic species to plant and also encouraged scientific classification of thousands of previously unknown plants. Eventually, as a result of this movement toward gentleman scientists, Charles Darwin authored Origin of the Species.

Bill Bryson

Bryson doesn't only treat with the wealthy, however. He spends considerable time showing how the concept of childhood hardly existed, leading to the horrid child labor conditions during the industrial revolution. He also suggests that largely because of high infant mortality rates parents often did not allow themselves to care for their young children while Victorian middle and upper classes enforced a cold and even vindictive discipline on their children, often scarring them for life. Presenting chapters on each room of the house, Bryson shows how, in a little more than 150 years, our lives have been changed so substantially as to place us truly in a different world. All this is done in a breezy style that makes reading it simultaneously interesting and amusing. By showing the marked contrasts between high and low classes and the rigid stratification of society in England, Bryson points to a world we hardly recognize. Rather than being a world of grace and social comfort, the Victorian world emerges as a harsh, dangerous, and rigid society no contemporary person would seek to live in.

  As with other books by Bill Bryson, most notably for me A Short History of Nearly Everything, he has accomplished what readers of serious but light non-fiction truly enjoy. At Home: A Short History of Private Life informs as it entertains. In doing so, the book leaves a reader with a sense of having a keener understanding of the world we know today and the ways it developed through time. Bryson provides the sort of social and cultural history that makes learning a true pleasure.