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*At Home: A Short History of Private Life*, by Bill Bryson

  • Feb 17, 2011

I've occasionally reflected on the pace of change during the 20th century, but in this "short history of private life," Bill Bryson makes a convincing case that the magnitude of change may have been more striking during the 100 years preceding it. Domestic life as we know it today didn't really exist until pretty recent times, and Bryson explores its development via a room-by-room ramble through a 19th-century English country home - the former parsonage he lives in with his family. And "ramble" is the appropriate word, as it applies to the style of the book as well - there's really not much in the way of a strong narrative thread here, and that makes reviewing it a little challenging.

Bryson's writing is highly descriptive and very conversational. I could easily imagine I was hearing it as narration for a documentary miniseries - and, by the way, I think it would make a very good one. It might actually be more effective in that format, come to think of it. It's full of interesting facts, figures, and individuals, with one digression after another. With a chapter devoted to each room of the house, the author does manage to bring his stories around and tie them back to whichever room he's talking about before he moves on the next - and that's helpful, because all the digressions made it difficult for me to remember which room we were in at times!

The book falls a bit short of being "a history of the world without leaving home," as its focus is more narrow than that. Most of the discussion is focused on British history and society - as might be expected when one's vehicle is a particularly British country house - with a few side trips to America, continental Europe, India and China (countries whose histories are entwined with England's at one point or another), and is heavily concentrated on the years between 1600 and 1900. Bryson's attention isn't on the big events, but on how people lived - and how very differently they lived at opposite ends of the economic spectrum, since during the last couple of millennia, most people were at one end or the other. The evolution of domestic private life rather coincides with the establishment and growth of the middle class, and this is traced through new inventions, discoveries, and social practices. A few examples:
  • The dining room wasn't part of most houses until Victorian times, and is the site of discussions of etiquette and upholstery
  • The dressing room inspires talk about fabrics, fashions, and wigs
  • The nursery prompts consideration of how the concept of childhood has changed over time
And here's something to keep in mind when you arrive at the "bathroom reading" portion of your house tour, tweeted from my own personal experience:
"There are some things that should NOT be read during lunch. Descriptions of 19th century pre-indoor-plumbing London are on that list."
This was my first exposure to Bill Bryson, and I intend to read more of his work. At Home is both entertaining and informative, and its lack of a strong narrative through-line makes it a book you can readily pick up and put down; I read it straight through, and I'm not sure that was the best approach. But however you approach it, it will fill your head with lots of new factoids to share with friends and family.

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February 18, 2011
Excellent review! You never know...it might be made into a mini series! Thanks for sharing it with the Cafe Libri Community.
February 18, 2011
Another great write-up! Have you had a chance to check out the other reviews on here? I think you'd really enjoy them.
More At Home: A Short History of Pr... reviews
review by . October 26, 2010
Even more than his boundless curiosity and wit, or his appreciation for the foibles and capacities of human nature, what makes Bryson so much fun to follow as he leads us on a tour of his 19th century English rectory house is the meandering pathway of his thoughts, probing back, back to the nub of things.    He doesn't know much about Mr. Marsham, the rector who built his house in 1851, for instance, but he makes up for that with fascinating snippets about more interesting clergymen. …
review by . October 22, 2010
Bill Bryson is at it again, he is back to telling history from an unique and witty perspective. With "At Home" Bryson wanders through his mid-1800s home and offers a bit about its history. I really do mean, "A bit" because while Bill Bryson begins in a particular room, such as the kitchen, dining rom, and etc. but he rarely stays there long. instead we are taken on tangets throughout history.     We discover the meaning of words (such a "Chairman" and "Room & Board")that routinely …
review by . September 13, 2010
Bill Bryson is a Renaissance man for our time. His books always seem to cover a myriad of subjects, no matter what the main object of the book is designed to cover. In this latest book, he moves through the old parsonage he and his family live in in the English countryside, and uses that building as the launching point for a history, not only of houses, but of each individual room within a house.      The book not only covers that particular subject, but it goes into a myriad …
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Florinda Pendley Vasquez ()
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Starred Review. Bryson (A Short History of Everything) takes readers on a tour of his house, a rural English parsonage, and finds it crammed with 10,000 years of fascinating historical bric-a-brac. Each room becomes a starting point for a free-ranging discussion of rarely noticed but foundational aspects of social life. A visit to the kitchen prompts disquisitions on food adulteration and gluttony; a peek into the bedroom reveals nutty sex nostrums and the horrors of premodern surgery; in the study we find rats and locusts; a stop in the scullery illuminates the put-upon lives of servants. Bryson follows his inquisitiveness wherever it goes, from Darwinian evolution to the invention of the lawnmower, while savoring eccentric characters and untoward events (like Queen Elizabeth I's pilfering of a subject's silverware). There are many guilty pleasures, from Bryson's droll prose--"What really turned the Victorians to bathing, however, was the realization that it could be gloriously punishing"--to the many tantalizing glimpses behind closed doors at aristocratic English country houses. In demonstrating how everything we take for granted, from comfortable furniture to smoke-free air, went from unimaginable luxury to humdrum routine, Bryson shows us how odd and improbable our own lives really are.
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ISBN-10: 0767919386
ISBN-13: 978-0767919388
Author: Bill Bryson
Genre: Arts & Photography, Home & Garden, Nonfiction
Publisher: Doubleday
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