Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Reading Bill Bryson's At Home: Chapter 1, The Year


For Bill Bryson’s purposes in At Home, 1851 featured two significant events. The first was the construction of the parsonage that will be the basis for his book. The second was the “Crystal Palace” Exhibition in London, which brought together technological, botanical, mechanical, and ethnographic marvels inside an enormous glass-and-iron showplace. This was the first “World’s Fair,” and it made a lasting impression on the Western world’s idea of human progress and the material world.

Bryson’s first chapter combines a narration of the Exhibition with a discussion of Anglican parsons, many of whom lead fascinating lives. There are problems in this chapter: the Reverend George Garret, for instance, did lead a fascinating life, but he did not “invent the submarine” (16), and shop windows were used for retail display long before the invention of plate glass (11). But Bryson opening his book with the Crystal Palace is more than just serendipitous. In a myriad of ways, the Exhibition changed how we view things. It not only showcased the latest developments in the material world, but it also democratized this viewing experience in new and exciting ways. Common laborers and working families mingled with society elite and marveled at hardware, textiles, ceramics, and innumerable other objects. The exhibition spurred trends in both consumption and anti-consumption, contributing to the popular conception of the cluttered Victorian home and the self-conscious simplicity of the aesthetic and arts and crafts movements. If Bryson plans to talk about our homes and our things in the “modern” era, there are few better places to start than the Crystal Palace, where more people than ever before were confronted with the dizzying array of entirely new material culture.

Queen Victoria opens the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London in 1851.

I also want to mention two other aspects of Bryson’s account that got me thinking. England is, by comparison to the United States, a remarkably small country, a point driven home when Bryson discusses the close proximity of many notable parsons (19). I will be interested to see whether Bryson considers how this difference in physical space might have contributed to later developments on both sides of the Atlantic. On a different note, I was interested to see that Bryson openly acknowledges his use of computerized searches of digitized sources when explaining the relative commonality of religious figures in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (18). This technique has made processing and surveying large amounts of historical data surprisingly simple, and I will be curious to see how Bryson continues to use such data as the book progresses.


It was not clear to me at first why Bryson opened this chapter with the Crystal Palace until several pages into the chapter when he noted that the Palace was contemporaneous with the “home” at the center of this book. Indeed, Bryson draws a stark contrast between England’s seemingly slow-paced mid-century (private) country home and its vivacious (public) capital. However, as he explains, the rectors and vicars who populated the countryside had enough time on their hands to develop ideas (such as Malthusian theory) that many would deem as progressive and imaginative (or at least as new) as what the Crystal Palace represented. In this way, Bryson supplies readers with an English context for the era in which his home was imagined and built. Many details Bryson presents—-such as the distinction between country rectors and vicars—-had never been explained to me before, and for that, I am thankful.

I must trust that many of the points Bryson presents are, in fact, accurate since the printed version of the book does not include footnotes. As Tyler pointed out, some of his facts are spurious. I, too, balked at the extended discussion of the history of glass-making. Shop windows were “possible” prior to the mid-nineteenth century. See, for example, the images under the section “Premises—Exteriors” that were featured in a Bodleian Library exhibition titled A Nation of Shopkeepers: Trade Ephemera from 1654 to 1860 in the John Johnson Collection. I would need to check Bryson’s source to determine what he meant by this, but perhaps he meant that shop windows of a certain size became possible thanks to mid-nineteenth-century changes in glass-making. I wonder if this lack of clarity of some points will detract from my appreciation of the book’s larger conclusions.

Where are the footnotes? Books written for popular audiences often include abbreviated or informal footnotes that do not conform to standard scholarly styles such as those set forth in The Chicago Manual of Style, but this is the first book I have read that publishes the notes online. (The print version of the book includes a bibliography.) The problem is that the notes that are posted online are for the English printing of the book (I would love to know the story behind the two different book covers: American; English). Therefore, the notes are a few pages off the American edition, making the quest for sources a bit more laborious than I would have preferred.

Despite the footnotes issue, I look forward to learning more about private Victorian English life so as to equip myself to draw better informed comparisons regarding private Victorian American life. As Tyler suggested, Bryson's book lends itself well to churning the imaginations of emerging scholars such as ourselves regarding comparative domestic material life studies.

No comments:

Post a Comment