At Home: A Short History of Private Life
by Bill Bryson
Doubleday, 497 pp., $28.95
We may dream that our attics hold treasure but usually the dusty rooftop spaces are crammed only with cobwebs. Bill Bryson, however, chasing “the source of a slow but mysterious drip” in the old Victorian rectory where he lives, came face to face with a hidden door. This led out onto a tiny flat space between the roof gables, but since this was in Norfolk, one of the flattest counties of eastern England, the small platform offered wide panoramas and misty views. And the peaceful-looking farmland he was gazing at, an archaeologist friend told him, concealed its own treasures: Neolithic tools, Bronze Age graves, Roman coins, Viking farmsteads, all slowly turned up by the plow.
Bryson’s new book, At Home, also looks outward from a small domestic space, revealing vistas of history and uncovering strange finds. As he guides us around his rambling house he delves into the background of home life from the Stone Age to today, telling the story of inventions and introducing a gallery of characters from kings and queens to scullery maids. In the hands of a less playful writer a history of the home might progress staidly through the different rooms, with a potted history of cooking in the kitchen, conversation in the drawing room, and so on. Bryson does follow this route up to a point, incorporating brisk histories of sex, marriage, illness, and medicine in chapters on particular rooms, with a brief excursion into the garden, reminding us in passing how reliant middle- and upper-class home owners were on their hard-worked and ill-paid servants. So far, so conventional. But Bryson’s house of history is full of surprises.
Take the study, the obvious place for a sober account of reading and scholarship at home. The chapter opens thus:
In 1897, a young ironmonger in Leeds named James Henry Atkinson took a small piece of wood, some stiff wire, and not much else, and created one of the great contraptions of history: the mousetrap.
Bryson’s rectory study, it turns out, is so dark and cold that it discourages lingering: “Almost the only reason we go in there now is to check the mousetraps.”
This leads to a long account, complete with an illustration of the patent drawing for Atkinson’s “Little Nipper,” on the relationship between humans and mice. We are drenched in a waterfall of information. The domestic mouse is so adaptable that it can live in a refrigerated meat locker at–10 degrees Celsius; adult mice can squeeze through tiny openings three eighths of an inch wide; a female can start breeding at six to eight weeks and give birth monthly thereafter; in 1917 every surface in the Australian town of Lascelles was coated with furry creatures, and “over fifteen hundred tons of mice—perhaps a hundred million individuals …