At Home: A Short History of Private Life
by Bill Bryson
England, 1851: Queen Victoria is in power, Karl Marx is in London, and Charles Dickens is in print. It is the year of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park and the Immortal Game of Chess at Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. And it is the year Bill Bryson’s house was built in East Anglia—the house in which we vicariously live while reading his new book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life. Here’s a first glimpse of the old rectory:
A parsonage of a vague and rambling nature, beneath an irregular rooftop of barge-boarded gables and jaunty chimney stacks in a cautiously Gothic style…
A native Iowan, Bryson has pulled a Henry James—or a reverse Christopher Hitchens—on us, having spent most of his adult life living in England with an English wife and English preoccupations. For the first part of his professional life he worked as a journalist for English newspapers, including the Times and the Independent, and in the late ’80s he began publishing books of memoir, travel, and science. For a handful of years in the ’90s, he returned to the United States, settling with his family in New Hampshire. It was this period that produced a pert, florid account of hiking the Appalachian Trail—A Walk in the Woods—the book for which Bryson is best known in his native country. In his newest piece of handiwork, Bryson’s homecoming is as existential as it is actual. His sesquicentennial abode serves as the launch pad for an exploration of the history of private homes, especially, and almost exclusively, in England and the United States. He writes:
The history of household life isn’t just a history of beds and sofas and kitchen stoves, as I had vaguely supposed it would be, but of scurvy and guano and the Eiffel Tower and bedbugs and body snatching and just about everything else that has ever happened.
Bryson’s history of the home necessarily dovetails with the history of invention and the Industrial Revolution. When he writes, rather dashingly, that the history of the household relates to the history of the Eiffel Tower, what he means is that the history of the home includes the histories of ironmongery and engineering. He offers an extended anecdote on the tower’s construction. Why, we might ask, does he include this anecdote in a book that is ostensibly about the history of the modern household? Because at its core, At Home is a measure of the refinement of material sensibility: of porcelain for our flushing toilets, teak for our counter tops, silver for our cutlery, and mahogany for our wardrobes. (Many of these now commonplace materials were shipped to England from its colonies during the time the Royal British Navy ruled the seas. In contrast, the vital, though markedly less sexy, material Portland cement was a specialty of the Anglophonic world.) “If you had to summarize it in a sentence,” Bryson writes, “you could say that the history of private life is a history of getting comfortable slowly.” Although prescription is not a focus of Bryson’s, it is clear that this comfort has a cost attached to it, and the author ends the book with a brief, cautionary meditation on the toll all this “getting comfortable” has taken on our planet.
By inference, a presiding message At Home carries is that absolutely zero percent of life as we know it in the West was preordained. How Mesoamericans cultivated corn from its smaller, nutritiously deficient cousin, teosinte, remains a total mystery. Why, in 1856, Henry Bessemer recklessly “blew air into molten pig iron,” risking fatal explosion and somehow creating manufacturable steel in the process, is to be counted among the greater quirks of human behavioral history. From the banal drudgery of knife cleaning in the late 18th century to the sequestering of different lovers in separate wings of your estate, At Home is a record of weirdness and eccentricity, of brilliant inventors who ended in debtors’ prisons and of morally profligate rakes who built ecstatic, crumbling palaces on sugar money. The history of private life, Bryson attests, owes as much to chance, randomness, and ineluctable good timing, as it owes to ingenuity, ambition, and the strenuous pursuit of one’s vision.
The ornaments of Bryson’s writing—vivid imagery, illuminating anecdotes, the bird’s eye view he casts across East Anglia and the West—are indivisible from the portrait he casts of himself as a writer. In the pages of At Home, our host is a curious middle-aged man plodding around the house slip-shod, asking, “Wait a minute, why salt and pepper?” We learn the derivation of the term board as used in the expression room and board (“Over time, the word board came to signify not just the dining surface but the meal itself”). We learn the evolution of the banquet and the working chimney. We are shown the linguistic ramifications of the words chair, cabinet, closet, and bedroom (the last of which, Bryson tells us, was first used by Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream). An examination of the scullery provides the opportunity for lush digressions: exasperating tales of excess and woeful tales of dearth and prostitution. In this way, the pages of At Home might be summarized as a number of engrossing, eccentric, interlocking digressions, which somehow handsomely culminate in a completed house.
This book was born of happenstance: the author scurried through a narrow hatch in his attic with the idea of fixing a hole where the rain was getting in, only to discover a small doorway in the wall leading directly outside, to a small rectangular platform with no railing and no discernable purpose. This event triggered the book. Like many of Bryson’s works, the impetus behind At Home seems to have been a momentary leap of Bryson’s curiosity coupled with his workmanlike verve and talent for spinning an array of fact and legend into an elaborate history. That it is a history as such is not to say that At Home has a traditional narrative; indeed, the book has no claim even to mere chronological ordering. The pattern of the book, as directed by Bryson’s affable voice, reflects the ordering of his parsonage: we go in through the front door, down the hall, through the kitchen and scullery, into the dining room, out to the garden, and back up the staircase into the bathroom, bedroom, and the attic. What color and variety of human folly and achievement is contained in these chapters reflect Bryson’s associative and anecdotal view of human history. At once, the whole of At Home dutifully teems with an aesthetic splendor, found and recognized by the author, the mirror and masterpiece of which is nothing less than the English countryside where he’s made his home.