Dan's Reviews > If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home

If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley
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's review
Feb 01, 2012

really liked it

Making magic by imagining the past
Want to know how Tudor England dealt with a gravy stain on the tablecloth? They peed on it. Or more accurately and with more decorum, the household laundry staff blotted the greasy spot with urine, which it turns out is a great stain-fighting agent.

Worsley loves to ham it up and obviously delights in imagining all that history can offer the present. Her interest is infectious and passing on her enthusiasm seems to be her purpose in writing the book. To me, she succeeds in a way as entertaining as educating.

The book is a tour of four main rooms of the house from medieval times forward, the bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen. Throughout, anecdote means more than evidence.

The Victorian bedroom, for example was a place as you can imagine for many things. Among them, it served as an operating room where Restoration diarist Samuel Pepys famously had surgery to remove bladder stones.

The preparations took place in a cousin’s bedchamber. “Pepys was tied down on a table so that he could not thrash about, and two strong men were also present to ’hold him by the knees’ and ‘by the arm-holes.’ “

When death came to Mary II from smallpox in 1694, “rich gums and spices to stuff the body” kept her corpse sweet smelling during the period of mourning. (I couldn’t help but think of the accounts of exploding pontiffs whose bodies were prohibited by canon law from being embalmed.)

Bill Bryson covers much of the same territory as Worsley in his cultural history “At Home.” His book felt to me as cluttered as some of the overstuffed rooms he described. Where Bryson aggregates facts and offers up lists, Worsley tells us how people lived.

For example, where Bryson instructs us on the making of soap, Worsley recounts that Henry VIII paid his laundress Anne Harris £10 a year to wash his tablecloths and towels but out of that she had to supply her own soap. It’s much more entertaining and enlightening to learn from Worsley why for two centuries people feared eating fruit that it is to be given a list of apples found in the 19th century English kitchen.

In Lucy Worsley’s capable hands the past comes across more often as being a candlelit, cheerful place filled with sweet and savory aromas. That’s because she’s tightly filtering history through a prism of the upper classes. She doesn’t dig too deeply into the muck and mire by examining lives of those who lived in squalor. Worsley gives us a merry look at upper class cultural history that more than anything makes “If Walls Could Talk” eminently readable.
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