Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life.

NY: Doubleday, 2010.

Of Bryson’s other books, I’ve read The Mother Tongue and Neither Here Nor There, neither of which impressed me in the slightest. In the former, he demonstrated that he doesn’t really understand much about the development of language, and in the latter, his general air of supercilious superiority over anything and anyone who isn’t English simply pissed me off. “The Ugly Briton.” (Except that Bryson was born in Des Moines.) But he gets such adoring press, I thought I should give him another chance. And since I know a good deal about social history over the past couple of centuries, this seemed a good book with which to do it.

As an essayist, Bryson is a practitioner of the discursive digression. He often goes off on tangents which, though usually interesting in themselves, have little to do with the subject at hand. The book begins, for instance with a detailed discussion of the design and construction of the Crystal Palace, because that took place in 1851, the same year as the building of the repurposed rectory in the Norfolk village in which the author now lives. This strategy may annoy you or not — but this isn’t meant to be a history text or a reference book. Sometimes this method gets away from him, though. The chapter on the kitchen, while going on at some length about the development of the ice industry and its effect on food preservation — which might have been better placed in the chapter on the pantry anyway — says almost nothing about the arrival of the modern stove-oven combination or the replacement of the outdoor pump by the kitchen faucet. And there’s the effect that importation of mahogany had on the tastes of the new middle class, and Queen Caroline’s creation of the Serpentine in Hyde Park, and Magellan’s motives for circumnavigating the globe, and the locust plagues in the Western U.S. during the 1870s, and the part that a new type of waterproof cement played in increasing New York City’s population 50-fold in three generations, and on and on.

This jumping from topic to topic kind of reminds me of James Burke’s “Connections” series on PBS. But much of it is highly interesting in its own right, so that’s okay. In fact, some of this stuff is first-rate, such as his extended appreciation of Jefferson’s building of Monticello and Washington’s building of Mount Vernon — both men being amateurs with a great many other obligations and distractions and with insufficient materials or skilled labor at hand — which so completely epitomize their parallel but disparate personalities, and which remain “two of the most satisfying houses ever built.” Bryson also provides a much-needed revisionist view of both Mrs. Beeton and Thomas Edison.

The author makes a point, too, of skewering as many historical myths as possible, which is always to be encouraged among the credulous. As he points out, for instance, spices were not imported to disguise the smell and taste of rotted meat. Spices were far too expensive for such use — cinnamon cost its weight in gold at one point — and those who could afford to buy them were unlikely to be those afflicted with decayed food. Nor was medieval Britain filled with dark and gloomy forests primeval, because the country’s thirst for timber had already made vast inroads into the tree supply.

But sometimes he just flat gets it wrong. In describing the enormous quantity of fowl famously dispatched by Baron Walsingham during a weekend country-house party (which was in 1888, though he doesn’t mention that), he says “the grouse were almost certainly released a few at a time from cages.” No. No way. The Prince of Wales was present on that occasion, not to mention a number of other aristocrats, and all of them would have been loudly outraged had such an ungentlemanly subterfuge been resorted to. No gentleman would take such a risk with his reputation — nor, with enough acreage and enough game-drivers, which the shooting party in question certainly had, would it have been necessary. A bit of additional reading in the works of Mark Girouard, Pamela Horn, and Phyllida Barstow would have disabused him of his supercilious assumptions.

Again, in discussing (very briefly) the nature of servants in 19th century England, he notes that servants “were a vital indicator of status,” which is certainly true. But then he claims that “guests at dinner parties might find that they had been seated according to the number of servants they kept.” And that’s ridiculous. A certain status demanded a certain minimum number of servants and a gentleman who had more status than money might be driven to do without some things in order to maintain the number of servants his status demanded. But the number of servants one employed did not create status. Bryson gets it exactly backward.

For some reason, the author also spends a lot of time declaring this or that situation “a mystery,” commenting that some noteworthy person’s background is “unknown,” and throwing in a “we simply don’t know” on every third page. I have to wonder how much of this actually translates to “I didn’t do enough research.”

However, he does do well with his version of English dry wit. In describing the Neolithic Revolution, for instance, he describes Mesoamerica as “an accommodatingly vague term that could fairly be defined as Central America plus as much or as little of North and South America as are needed to support a hypothesis.” I remember one of my anthropology profs making a similar comment on methodology. And his description of one country lady’s first “engagement” with the new drink called tea is very funny.

Final judgment? There’s a lot of interesting stuff in here, presented in an often amusing and highly readable fashion. Most of it, I believe, is reasonably accurate (based on my own forty years of experience). And one must remember that his audience is made up not of specialists but of ordinary readers. Bryson is a journalist, after all, not an academic historian. (Though his bibliography is extensive.) With all that in mind, I have to say he does a decent job — most of the time.


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