April 11, 2016 by auntkatefirmin
I’ve recently finished two very entertaining books:
Lucy Worsley’s If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home
Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life
Both authors use the rooms of the house as a frame to discuss all sorts of social history (and more). Both authors are “personalities” and express their own definite opinions, and neither work is intended to be a historical reference. I was amused and informed, and sometimes disgusted. I came away with a muddled sense of what might have happened when, as both authors wander back and forth in time due to the focus on particular aspects of the home, and with pointers to places to look for more information on topics of interest to me.
I recommend either, or both, books to anyone wishing to get a light-hearted look at how the use of space (rooms) in a home changed over time and what certain aspects of daily life might have been like for their ancestors. Worsley’s book is shorter (325 pages of content in hardcover) than Bryson’s (452 pages of content in the hardcover and 21 pages for the bibliography).
Now for a bit of nit-picking. Neither book includes footnotes, though Bryson posts a pdf on his website with all his references, which I appreciate. Worsley states “as the work is based so much upon secondary sources, it seemed wiser to free the text of footnotes.” I found this a bit annoying as there are unsourced direct quotes in the text that are simply in the format so-and-so said “something” in such-and-such year with no corresponding author in the seven page bibliography. Really? Why not add a short section with the direct quotes from each chapter cited? it could be done without any scary footnote numbers appearing in the text. The Worsley book also uses references such as “figure 23” for the color section in which there are several illustrations to a page – none of them numbered; would it have been that difficult to add a number to the caption so I don’t have to flip through the entire color section each time a figure is mentioned?
The information in Worsley’s book overlaps with the BBC program of the same name. Worsley is clearly having an enjoyable time on the show and in the book. It’s possible to get the main points from the book by watching the show, plus you get more visuals, including the London sewers. She draws a good deal of attention to correspondence between modern historic use of space, historical thoughts on public and private spaces, changes in how a space is used over time (and how the changes are sometimes cyclical), and expectations regarding privacy in the different eras. She also likes adding the supposed derivation of common expressions like “by hook or by crook.” There’s a lot of interesting information and though the bibliography is quirky, and lumps fiction, historical sources and research works all in one place, I will probably seek out some of her references and attempt to follow up on some ideas that were new to me.
Bryson’s enthusiasm is also catching. He’s a bit of a magpie, but that’s perhaps his trademark and why his books are so entertaining. He delights in presenting quirky bits of information about researchers, historical figures, and hare-brained experiments. He takes you on a wild ride. He anchors the book in the year 1851 using the metaphor of the actual rooms in his home and referencing the inventions displayed in the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition in 1851. He chose to use black and white illustrations which could be placed throughout the text rather than asking the reader to flip to a color section.
The books complement each other as the authors highlight events from different perspectives. Both discuss meal times and the names of meals and give differing explanations for why we or our ancestors might have eaten their meals at different times than in the days of Shakespeare. They both include information about the window tax that started in 1696. Both have similar remarks about the basic regulations and why windows from this period were often bricked up to minimize the taxes. Worsley adds quotes with details about the visits of the tax inspector while Bryson adds information about the related tax on the weight of the glass and how that lead to bull’s eye glass being used in cheaper inns after 1746, as it was a portion of the pane of glass that while flawed was both usable and exempt from the glass tax. While both authors are English and start in England, American examples crop up frequently in both books.
I get the distinct impression that I am in a minority in terms of actually using the bibliography to follow up on topics of interest. I suppose I’m more accustomed to reading either fiction, or books that are more friendly to the user that intends to use them as a springboard to more in-depth research. I appreciate it when the author adds a short discussion that prefaces the bibliography that highlights important books to know or breaks a long bibliography into topics, perhaps based on the chapters or sections of the book.
Nit-picking aside, the books are well-written, and definitely worth reading. They set out to entertain, and to introduce the notion that not everything we do today in the home was approached with the same attitude in the past, and are successful on both points. To quote Bill Bryson: “Until the eighteenth century, the idea of having comfort at home was so unfamiliar that no word existed for the condition.” One of Worsley’s themes is that the smell of food in the home signals comfort for many modern people but was not always considered desirable in the past.
Both authors provide much food for thought. If the books tend to present some aspects of history in rather sweeping strokes, that’s hard to avoid in popular works that cover such a broad topic.