Wednesday, 20 October 2010

At Home: A History of Private Life By Bill Bryson


Since 2007, Iowa native Bill Bryson has lived with his family in Norfolk, in a spacious former rectory built in 1851 for an unremarkable Anglican clergyman named Thomas Marsham. As English houses go, this gabled red brick Victorian is neither especially beautiful nor significant. It’s hard, after all, to compete with the medieval grandeur of nearby Wymondham Abbey or even with the ancient church to which the rectory once was attached. And even these antique structures seem rather new, perched as they are on soil dense with the detritus of England’s Roman conquerors.

The Bryson domicile may not be a likely candidate for designation as a National Trust property; but, like its current occupant, the place has an agreeable quirkiness and nearly infinite capacity to surprise. In his latest book, At Home, the author of Notes From a Small Island and A Short History of Almost Everything—among a dozen other titles—Bryson has undertaken “a short history of private life” organized around the rooms of his beloved old rectory.

The wonder is that he didn’t attempt such a book before. Readers familiar with A Walk in the Woods, his epically funny account of failing to walk the Appalachian Trail, will recognize Bryson as a man destined to remain indoors—a tumbler of whiskey in his hand, a roaring fire in his hearth, an attractive Gothic clock ticking away on his mantel. And, of course, a rapt audience at his feet.

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Bryson leaves little unexplored, however cursorily, least of all the foibles of human nature. What would a book by Bryson be without riotous, devastating remarks about those long since dead? Here he is on Queen Anne, apropos of 18th-century gluttony: “Although paintings of Anne always make her look no more than a little fleshy, she was in fact jumbo-sized—‘exceedingly gross and corpulent’ in the candid expression of her best friend the Duchess of Marlborough.” And there is more: “When she died, she was buried in a coffin that was ‘almost square.’”

In lesser hands, At Home surely would have been a tiresome catalogue of anecdotes and arid ruminations. The book is anything but these things—not at all the guilty pleasure that Bryson’s mellifluent prose and high-spirited humor may at first suggest to uninitiated readers. In fact, as Bryson firmly understands, At Home belongs to a distinguished scholarly tradition with roots in the works of Philippe Ariès, Fernand Braudel, John Demos, Simon Schama, and Lawrence Stone. Their books on the history of private life—about childhood, cleanliness and filth, the heart of the English country house—have dramatically altered our collective sense of just want history really is. Bryson’s debt to these historians is amply acknowledged. His grasp of their findings—together, of course, with his own considerable insights—lend At Home a pleasing intellectual heft and credibility that it would otherwise lack.

In this immensely learned and hugely funny book, Bryson draws attention to what all of us tend to forget, steeped to the gills as we are in the ordinariness of our lives and indifferent to the rooms in which they unfold. And you’ll be hard pressed to find a word wasted, or one anecdote too many. If At Home couldn’t be any briefer than it is (at a decidedly not “short” 500 pages), you’ll often wish that had been longer: Bryson is never funnier than when he takes on the past.

Kirk Davis Swinehart, Professor of History at Wesleyan and Contributor.

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