Sunday, February 13, 2011

Reading Bill Bryson's At Home: Chapters 2-3, The Setting and The Hall


For all the Americanists out there, what this book does well is remind us that our history as “Americans” does not go back nearly as far as does the history of the English. In London, the Roman ruins scattered throughout the city are old—not the medieval cathedrals. Falling in step with his countrymen, in “The Setting,” Bryson provides his readers with a sweeping pre-history of not only England but Civilization—and its first homes—more generally.

From “The Setting,” Bryson moves on to the evolution of the home. “The Hall” is so titled to invoke the “first” way in which we referred to a permanent (or semi-permanent) home (49). I was expecting a deconstruction of his own home’s front hall (see, for example, Ames’ brilliant Death in the Dining Room), but instead I read about the increase in homes’ rooms over time (suiting evolving preferences for privacy) and the developments in indoor plumbing…and that is where I stopped and realized that Bryson is really only giving us one story, the story of the “upper” classes. For example, Bryson explains that “In England the cabinet became the most exclusive and private of all chambers…Often this private room had a small cell or alcove off it, generally known as the privy (61). However, what Bryson does not note is that this indoor bathroom arrangement would have been available to the wealthiest individuals and their families. Most people made do with chamber pots shoved into dark corners or outdoor privies. In short, Bryson’s observations on excretion relate to the finest homes. To be sure, there are similarities in how the “home” evolved in general, but there is no monolithic home.

So, what about class? The nature of Bryson’s book, filled with unqualified generalizations such as those related to bathrooms, prevents Bryson from teasing out stories based on class differences. How would the bathrooms or bathroom facilities that preceded Bryson’s Rectory look and how would they have been used depending on whether we were peeping into the home of a laborer or a countess, and is it possible to explain with more detail why the Rectory’s Hall or bathroom facilities look the way they did when the home was first built? I doubt this, seeing as all we learn about the rectory hall in question is that it is a “shrunken vestibule” (65).


Bryon’s past is squalid, illogical, and uncreative. Of course, I don’t really blame him for portraying history this way. He is the tour guide for a modern audience who would in fact view most historical homes as dirty, uncomfortable places. If you were to be transported back to medieval Britain, you would also certainly react with the same disgust that Desiderius Erasmus did, as cited by Bryson (51). But it is essential to remember that, like Erasmus, we have been raised in a society that values certain aspects of life which were ignored for much of human history. These things were not ignored because people were unenlightened. The individuals who lived in the past were not simply ignorant version of ourselves, content to live in squalid conditions because no one had told them about germs. Thousands of years of homemaking had created a complex world which seems quite alien to us today. People did not live with smoke-filled rooms because they were too stupid to invent the chimney. A central hearth provided the best possible heating for a small house, and smoke helped preserve foodstuffs in the rafters and keep out insects. People did not sit on the floor because no one had stopped to think up a chair. In fact, according to much recent historical thought, even the idea of comfort itself is a cultural development of fairly recent vintage (see John Crowley’s The Invention of Comfort).

I don’t mean to sell Bryson short. There are hints of relativism in his work, the idea that we must consider another culture without adding our own system of values, and he is writing in a way that makes the past evocative and intriguing. But we cannot view the past as simply another primitive culture to be ogled like rain forest tribesmen in an old copy of National Geographic. If we really want to understand people in the past, to react to them as humans no slower, smaller, or simpler than us, it is important to consider their own view of their worlds. Their entire way of thinking was a product of their culture, and it is well worth our time to set aside condescension, and maybe even consider our own peculiar ways.

Take our own homes, for example. Why do most new houses place the garage at the forefront, almost as if it was the most important aspect of a home’s façade? Or our foodways. Why do we refrigerate thinks like mustard and jam, foodstuffs that were literally invented to avoid spoilage well before artificial coolants? As for our clothes – are our outfits really more comfortable than the past, or do we simply believe we are comfortable because that’s what we have learned? These are only three examples of products of our own culture that may seen as illogical to the future as a central hearth. And it’s important to remember that we’re just as much creatures of our culture as anyone has ever been.

Further Reading

Kenneth L. Ames, Death in the Dining Room & Other Tales of Victorian Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992).

John E. Crowley, The Invention of Comfort: Sensibilities & Design in Early Modern Britain and Early America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, c2001).

Katherine C. Grier, Culture & Comfort: Parlor Making and Middle-class Identity, 1850-1930 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997).

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