THE BLOG
07/17/2013 10:29 am ET Updated Sep 16, 2013

Bill Bryson's At Home: A Short History of Private Life Is a Fascinating, Funny Exploration of How We Came to Live As We Do

"BY THE middle of the nineteenth century, gargantuan portions had become institutionalized and routine. Mrs. Beeton gibes the following as a menu for a small dinner party: mock turtle soup; fillets of turbot cream; fried sole with anchovy sauce; rabbits; veal; stewed rump of beef; roasted fowls; boiled ham; a platter of roasted pigeons or larks; and, to finish, rhubarb tartlets, meringues, clear jelly, cream, rice pudding, and soufflé. This was food for six people."

• THE ABOVE, digestive-disturbing quote appears in Bill Bryson's amazing book, "At Home: A Short History of Private Life." (So don't carry on so when your waiter brings you a groaning plate. Nothing new!)

Ostensibly, this book is about the Victorian parsonage where Bryson and his family lived. An unexceptional place of unexceptional happenings. But suddenly, Bryson found himself caught up in the history of his home--more to the point, the particulars of the place. The bedroom, kitchen, drawing room, nursery. etc. How had each of these rooms come to be? How had hundreds of years shaped the Home as we know it today?

"At Home" is one of the most delightful, incisive, exhaustively studied, and truly humorous histories I have ever read. The book is not new. It was published three years ago. And why I never got around to writing about it I'll never know. (Maybe the Kardashians got in the way!)

The masterful aspect of this work is how the author segues from where he lives now, to the historical creation of each aspect of domesticity, how every room was initially conceived, who lived in them, who served in them. And the times in which each generation gestated--their attitudes, prejudices and licenses. And all joined with a great big dollop of quite funny anecdotes about each epoch.

• HERE ARE SOME of my favorite quotes:

"Virginia Woolf's contemporary Edna St. Vincent Millay was rather more blunt: 'The only people I really hate are servants. They are really not human beings at all.'

"WHEN Queen Victoria went on her afternoon walks through the grounds of Osborne House...no one at all from any level of society was permitted to encounter her. It was said you could fix her location by the sight of panicked people fleeing before her."

"SOME thing of the prevailing ambivalence (to electricity) was demonstrated by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, who went to a costume ball dressed as an electric light, to celebrate the installation of electricity in her Fifth Avenue home. This was perhaps the only time Mrs. Vanderbilt could have been described as 'radiant.' But later she had the whole system taken out when it was suspected of causing a fire."

"INCOME tax wouldn't become a regular part of American life until 1914. People would never be this rich again. Spending all this wealth became for many a more or less full time occupation. A kind of desperate, vulgar glee became attached to almost everything they did. At one New York party, guests found the table heaped with sand and at each place a little gold spade; upon a signal they were invited to dig in and search for diamonds and other costly gifts buried within."

"THE BEDROOM is a strange place. There is no place within the house where we spend more time doing less, and doing it mostly quietly and unconsciously...it is in the bedroom that many of life's most profound and persistent unhappinesses are played out. If you are dying or unwell, exhausted, sexually dysfunctional, tearful, racked with anxiety, too depressed to face the world, or otherwise lacking in equanimity and joy, the bedroom is the place where you are most likely to be found."
BULLET

"TO AVOID sexual arousal more generally, women were instructed to get plenty of fresh air, avoid stimulating pastimes like reading and playing cards, and above all never use their brains more than was strictly necessary."

"WITH SO many people dying, mourning became a central part of most people's lives. The masters of mourning were of course the Victorians. Never have a people become more morbidly attached to death or found more complicated ways to mark it."

"BY THE time the Europeans began to visit the New World in large numbers, they had grown so habitually malodorous that the Indians nearly always remarked on how bad they smelled....for some, however, filthiness became a kind of boast. The aristocratic Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who was one of the first female travelers, was so grubby that after shaking her hand, a new acquaintance blurted out in amazement how dirty it was, 'What would you say if you saw my feet?' Lady Mary responded brightly."

"FOR MOST human beings, children and adult, the dominant consideration in life until modern times was purely, unrelievedly economic. In poorer households--and that is what most homes were of course--every person was, from the earliest possible moment, a unit of production."

• AUTHOR Bill Bryson accentuates, time and again, how long it took for what we today know as "modern life" and the home as we experience it, to evolve from the more or less civilized and clean ancient times of Crete, Greece and Rome. (The collapse of the Roman empire, the onset of Christianity--which was not a smooth ride to heaven, as the Bible was re-thought and re-written. Then the great plagues and their aftermaths. All this stunted the world for centuries.) What we take for granted now began only about 100 years ago. (Just as, I suppose, the Internet and cell phone phenomenon will be taken for granted in the future. Indeed it already is by young people!)

This is Mr. Byson's last word: "Today it takes the average citizen of Tanzania almost a year to produce the same volume of carbon emissions as is effortlessly generated every two and a half days by a European, or every twenty-eight hours by an American. We are, in short, able to live as we do because we use resources at hundreds of times the rate of most of the planet's other citizens. One day--and don't expect it to be a distant day--many of those six billion or so less well-off people are bound to demand what we have and to get it as effortlessly as we got it. And that will require more resources than this planet can easily or even conceivably yield. The greatest possible irony would be if in our endless quest to fill our lives with comfort and happiness we created a world that had neither. But that of course would be another book."

Bill Bryson's other books include A Walk in the Woods, I'm a Stranger Here Myself, In a Sunburned Country, Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words, A Short History of Nearly Everything, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, and Bryson's Dictionary for Writers and Editors.