Bill Bryson, Safe At Home

For a book so modestly titled, the range of subject matter and erudition in At Home:  A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson, who also narrates the book (Random House Audio, 2010) is almost overwhelmingly ambitious. I hardly know where to start. Bryson’s focus, and I use the term loosely, is domestic life in the nineteenth century, primarily in Great Britain, which probably sounds, for most people like it couldn’t be more boring.

This book is not boring. So let’s start with that. At Home contains insights and revelations minute after minute. It is also populated throughout by the famous and the obscure, but all of it is fascinating. Bryson has an inquisitive mind, a zest for his story and a style that seems breezy and transparent until you realize that you’ve been listening for an hour or so and have covered an astounding quantity of ground – Thomas Jefferson’s devotion to Monticello, his source in the great Andrea Palladio’s I Quattro Libri dell’Architettura, Thomas Edison and basically the history of illumination from the pre-candle era to the electric light, Thomas Crapper (just to kind of round out the Thomases) and the history of indoor and, for that matter, outdoor plumbing.  (And, no, the word “crap” does not derive from Crapper, who invented the pull chain toilet — remember The Godfather?). No shit.

Bryson’s device is to use each of the rooms of his home (a former rectory in Norfolk in England) as a departure point for dissertations on topics so various – well, to really get the full effect, you need to listen to the book.

So, for example, a discussion of the nursery provides Bryson the opportunity to discuss issues like child labor in the Victorian era and the famous brutality of English boarding schools. (In the kitchen section, by the way, is where I believe we learn how and why the term “room and board” is used; it seems that early dining tables were nothing more than that—boards that sat perched on the knees of diners who sat on bancs, or benches, whence the word banquet – this stuff just goes on and on in this book.)

In the chapter entitled “The Scullery and the Larder” we get a discourse on the lives of servants. Just to show you the kinds of connections Bryson can make, this chapter allows him to tell the famous story of how John Stuart Mill lost the draft of Thomas Carlyle’s (sigh, yet another Thomas; was this by chance the most popular boy’s name in the 19th Century English-speaking world?) first volume of the projected multi-volume history of the French Revolution. Seems it wasn’t Mill’s fault, at least according to Mill. In Mill’s improbable explanation, one of his servants saw the manuscript just sort of lying around and tossed it into the fireplace. Carlyle was disappointed, but undaunted. He rewrote the thing from memory (in keeping with the incineration motif, it seems that Carlyle was in the habit of burning his notes for each chapter upon completing it).

In “The Dining Room,” we learn, among many other things, the history of salt and pepper and how they came to be the most common spices on most modern tables. In “The Passage” we get topics as various as the story of the Eiffel Tower, the development of the telephone and a short history of concrete. It’s not completely clear to me why “The Passage” is the proper area of the home for addressing these subjects, but by this time the listener doesn’t care. He or she is just dazzled by the wealth of information. Did you know that the stairs were the most dangerous part of the house, that back about a decade ago when such records were still being kept that 306,166 Britons were so badly injured in falls on stairs as to require medical attention? Of course you didn’t. But that’s why God invented Bill Bryson.

In “The Bedroom” Bryson relates the imagined horrors of masturbation (and how this nasty habit could be cured by the even nastier Penile Pricking Ring, which sounds as painful as it apparently was) and the real horrors of syphilis. This leads to a discussion of 19th Century medical treatments, wherein we learn that a surgeon’s most important skill was speed, since no effective anesthesia existed (think about it).

Then it’s on to “The Bathroom” and the exploits of Mr. Crapper and others, “The Dressing Room” and the curious customs of wigs and corsets, and, oh, yeah, how could I forget “The Garden,” where we hear about the great Frederick Law Olmsted, the growth of the massive

Scott Fountain on Belle Isle in Detroit (the park itself was at least partially designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, so this would be, like, a shameless plug for the park)

 

industry in bird-droppings (for fertilizer) and the introduction of a rudimentary lawn mower by a gentleman named Edwin Beard Budding. You can’t make it up, and Bryson doesn’t. It’s just all so wonderful.

As I mentioned, Bryson narrates the book himself, a practice about which I have expressed my reservations on several occasions. However, whereas Bryson is not a professional voice talent, it works here. There are some inconsistencies – changes in pitch and tone – but his enthusiasm for the material overrides them.

It’s too bad Bryson ran out of rooms. I could have listened to more.

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