Review – At home: a short history of private life

Title: At home: a short history of private life

Author:    Bill Bryson                                                                                                

                                                                      Sarah’s pick 

Bill Bryson looked around his house, an old rectory in Norfolk, and used it as the basis for his latest book- examining the everyday things in our lives. 

The book covers the history of so many things large and small- the Crystal Palace (built for the Great Exhibition in London in 1851); food preservation; the thankless jobs of a servant; the spice trade; electricity; personal hygiene (or more accurately the lack of it); the dangers of staircases; surgery without anaesthesia; 19th century fashion; the awful childhoods of both rich and poor; among other topics. 

It is well researched although it focuses predominantly on Britain and the growing European settlement in America. Occasionally I found it going a little off track but overall it was interesting, informative and amusing. The origin of many words is explained and some myths dispelled. I realised how much we now take for granted, and how uncomfortable life must have been for many people, “We are so used to having a lot of comfort in our lives- to being clean, warm and well fed- that we forget how recent most of that is. In fact, it took us for ever to achieve these things, and then they mostly came in a rush”. 

There are some black and white illustrations, a good index and a comprehensive bibliography.  

Bill Bryson is a bestselling author who has also written on travel, language and science.