I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s most recent book, At Home, which I wanted for months and then received for Christmas (and even then, it took me another couple of months to get to it, which goes to show how out-of-control my to-read stack has gotten). Its subtitle is “A Short History of Private Life,” and its chapters are named by rooms of the house. Bill Bryson’s 19th century former rectory house, to be precise.
I thought the book was going to be full of anecdotes about each of the rooms: what activities were typically performed there, how those varied over time, how each would be furnished, etc. And there certainly is plenty of this information in there, but that’s only a beginning. With his typical charm, Bill Bryson supplies bucketfuls of mostly random (but still fascinating) facts that are often only tied to the room in question by the loosest of associations:
- the building of the Crystal Palace for the Great Exhibition of 1851
- the usefulness of bats as a species and how many are now in danger of extinction because of rabies myths
- the building of the Eiffel Tower and how it is constructed of iron, not steel
- how ice became a commodity
- how very dark it used to be at night, and various techniques of lighting
My main take-away from the book is that it really sucked to live in the West after the Roman Empire and before the twentieth century. It was dark and painful and exhausting and dirty, full of back-breaking daily labor for almost everyone. People would get sick all the time, sometimes even from the chemicals they used in the wallpaper and paint on their walls, and there was no anesthetic. Rats and mice would scurry over your bed, especially if you were a child sleeping in a trundle bed. And if you didn’t want your loved one’s body stolen by grave robbers, you had to keep it in your house until it went bad and began producing maggots. Yuck.
As a woman, it sucked even more. You either had to perform repetitive back-breaking labor (like laundry, which also involved chemicals that made people sick) or, if you were lucky, you had to sit around and be bored out of your mind while preserving your delicate sensibilities. Thank goodness music and art were considered appropriate activities for woman, but heaven forbid you read a novel. You were considered property and in England, at least, it could be quite difficult to get a divorce. Beating was commonplace and no grounds for leaving; it merely showed you lacked sufficient patience. Doctors would often dismiss your medical complaints because you were a woman. And you’d probably end up dying in childbirth anyway.
I am even more grateful than usual to be living now, in an age of antibiotics, safer childbirth, labor-saving devices, electricity, and more opportunities for women. If I could choose any time period to live in, which would I pick? I’d pick NOW, thank you very much. I like having teeth and the right to vote.
In any case, it’s a great book and I recommend it. And now I have to ask: if you could choose any time period to live in, which would you pick?