Book Review: At Home by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life is one of the most interesting, beautifully written and absorbing non-fiction books I have read in a long time. Recommended to me by two friends (thank you Katherine Howell and Jason!) who knew I was trying to get a handle on medieval houses and how they functioned, I quickly purchased this book and began to read it, not really knowing what to expect. What I didn’t anticipate was that I would be alternately enchanted, amused, bemused, shocked and thoroughly entertained.

Buying an old refectory in Norfolk, UK, one-day, Bryson starts to become extremely curious about the reason we do certain things or why certain behaviours have become normalised, if not ritualised, within the home (as one does :)). He ponders, as an example, about why salt and pepper, of all the spices and herbs available to us, are the ones given premium spot upon kitchen and dinner tables and are liberally sprinkled over food practically to the exclusion of all others. He considers why suits often have buttons sewn down the sleeve, serving no ostensible purpose but decorative. These types of questions lead him to move room by room through his house and investigate the history of its purpose and, in the process, discover many amazing facts about rooms, the people who inhabited them and what they did while in these (and many, many other things): in other words, investigate subjects, ideas and practices that we often take for granted.

What Bryson also does, and which makes this book so magical and fascinating, is explore a diverse range of tangential issues such as, when pondering the room known as “the study”, he discusses the sex life of rats; or, when considering ‘the bedroom’ we read about the way medicine was practiced in the past, shonk practitioners, childbirth, mortality rates, body-snatchers and share in part of the account of a woman in the 1800s who, I kid you not, had a mastectomy without an anaesthetic. From the dangers and beauty and expense of wallpaper, to arsenic, funerals, calico, cotton, and the miserable conditions of child labourers, to candles, gas, electric light, the invention of string, the cotton-gin and the push mower; from Queen Victoria, the Crystal Palace, Thomas Jefferson, Capability Brown, Beau Brummel and Charles Darwin, architects, high-class prostitutes, and labourers to princes, Bryson takes us on a whirlwind journey through time and space, introducing us to rich, wonderful and simply awful characters and practices as well. The etymology of words is also discussed, as are some of the less savoury habits of human beings, while many myths of the past are also debunked or upheld.

This is such an amazing and wonderful book. I kept savouring all the details, laughing out loud in some sections while inhaling sharply in others. I kept reading snatches aloud to my partner, who can’t wait to get his hands on the book and share my enthusiasm. I have no doubt he’ll be reading his favourite bits to me and, though I have just devoured them, I will delight in hearing them again.

This book is now up there with my all time favourites. Cannot recommend it enough – whether you’re a history buff, someone who loves to learn unusual facts or just after a great read, this is the book for you!

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