Bryson (The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir, 2006, etc.) takes a delightful stroll through the history of domestic life.
Now living in a 19th-century church rectory in Norfolk, England, the author decided to learn about the ordinary things of life by exploring each room in his house. In each, he finds the stories that make up this discursive romp through British and American life of the last 150 years. The hall, a large barn-like space with an open hearth, was once the most important room in the house. Indeed, the smoke-filled hall “was the house” until the introduction of chimneys, which allowed houses to grow upward. In the kitchen, Bryson discusses such matters as canning, refrigeration and the serial plagiarist Isabella Beeton’s hugely successful Book of Household Management (1859), which guided homemakers into the 20th century. In the bedroom, the author considers masturbation, syphilis and Victorian advice on how women could avoid arousal by not using their brains excessively. Aspects of other rooms prompt Bryson to relate stories about the spice trade, the rise of cities, Chippendale furniture, the servant class, kerosene, Gilded Age excess, home gardening, epidemics, mousetraps, electricity, arsenic-laced wallpaper, bats, Central Park, fabrics, water cures and the many ways in which people fall down stairs. He traces the derivation of domestic terms, such as ground floor (bare earth floors), the drawing or living room (originally the “withdrawing” room) and boarders (from dining table or “board”); describes the building of homes from Monticello and Mount Vernon to George Washington Vanderbilt’s 250-room Biltmore in North Carolina; and offers wonderful anecdotes, including that of Lord Charles Beresford, a famous rake who, confused by weekend crowding at a country house, entered what he thought was his mistress’s bedroom, cried “Cock-a-doodle-doo!” and leapt into a bed occupied by the Bishop of Chester and his wife. In a sense, Bryson’s book is a history of “getting comfortable slowly,” and he notes that flushing toilets were the most popular feature at the Crystal Palace exhibition in 1851.
Informative, readable and great fun.