Florinda's Reviews > At Home: A Short History of Private Life

At Home by Bill Bryson
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Mar 01, 2012

really liked it
Read in February, 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 rather 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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