Let’s just get to the heart of the matter. It’s going to be tough to explain how much I loved this book. This may help: my heart raced every time I saw its black, cloth-bound cover (the gorgeously-styled dust jacket was, of course, packed away carefully to be reunited with said book after I had malued it to death in bed every night).
And as my heart raced, a variable of other things happened to my body. My eyes misted over, my brows knit together, my throat opened to gasp in horror and my lips twisted wryly. My stomach turned, my eyes widened and giggles fluttered from my mouth. But it was my brain that copped the brunt of this book. Essentially, I was smacked squarely in the cerebral cortex and lo, it was good.
Subtitled A Short History of Private Life – this is indeed a short history of the world we call home – hearth, house, dwelling, abode. It is a peramble through not only the rooms of a house and its associated idiosyncrasies, but also of the pursuit and attainment of comfort – for comfort as we know it in the West is actually a very new concept – and has only really been enjoyed by a priveleged few (ie: you and me) for a very short segment in the history of humankind.
Up until very recently, the home has not been a place of comfort nor safety – neither a place to hang your hat nor lay you down to rest. Rat, lice, poop and disease-infested death traps come to mind for many of the Westernised people who have lived in the ‘houses’ before us – particularly those in great cities like London and Paris whose people were often swallowed up by the perils of life in a poor-ventillated, dimly lit, bitterly cold and filthy dwelling that was more often than not shared with a multitude. Even the greatest houses and castles built as recently as the 19th century were enormously susceptible to fire, cold, disease, ill comfort, and even crumbling upon one’s own head.
But At Home is about more than the various states and mutations of the world’s dwellings and how we came to achieve what it is we have today that makes our lives so dry, warm, safe and… comfortable.
This book is an extraordinary compilation (as Bryson does so well) of the events, the plagues, the perils and most importantly – the people who have been associated with the creation and development of (as well as the destruction of) modern human comfort, health and undoubtedly sanity.
Opening with the construction of one of the world’s greatest architectural marvels – the Crystal Palace – in London in 1851, At Home follows Bryson’s account of the great minds and achievements of modern history – a period roughly covering the 200 years around the Industrial Revolution. Bryson centres his meanderings around the foundations we call a House by exploring his very own home – a rectory in Norfolk once owned by a certain Reverand Marsham – a bachelor who had affections for his housekeeper – Miss Worm (scandal!).
Starting with the hall, we move through all parts of a modern day dwelling – the kitchen, larder, fusebox, drawing room, dining, cellar, garden, bedroom, bathroom, passage, nursery, attic – even the stairs – which are exposed as the most dangerous part of the house, with injuries and death stats that will boggle the brain (and will soon kybosh any delicate stair skipping or bounding, and instead reduce you to some serious rail-clutching).
But it’s what Bryson does inside these rooms – to expound on their creation, development, mutation and modern usage – that really makes for fascinating reading. Let’s take the toilet as example. Did you know, for instance, that the English word ‘loo’ probably came from the French phrase ‘un lieu à l’anglaise’ which means ‘an English place’ – a term used to describe the new and highly sought-after indoor toilet?
The word toilet itself actually began as a type of cloth (think ‘toile’), then it was the cloth used on dressing tables, then the items on the dressing tables (toiletries), then the dressing tables themselves, then the act of dressing, then when people came to watch you dress (ahem), then the dressing room where you dressed, then any kind of private room that happened to be near a bedroom, then a room used for washing and toileting oneself then the actual lavatory.
Love it love it love it. And there’s much much more.
At Home is jammed with seemingly insignificant facts like how toilets came to be – but it’s these little things that add up to an incredibly satisfying whole. Bryson knits together these fascinating little quirks with major and triumphant tales of the people that essentially created modern day living – from the creation of the lightbulb and fusebox to the scandal surrounding the Boston Tea party and the planning of New York’s Central Park.
He continually surprises us with facts both sordid and mind-blowing – and, most delightfully, reveals and reminds us of the people – some long forgotten – and societies that sacrificed much to bring us the many comforts we take for granted today.
Part information book, part saga, part jaw-dropping fact file on a history many of us are completely clueless about, this book will warm not only your hearth – it will warm your soul.