At Home: A Short History of Private Life
Using the floor plan of his own house to give this book its structure—there’s no mistaking the American quality of Bryson’s voice, but he lives in a mid-19th-century rectory in Norfolk, England—Bryson traces the development of the mundane activities of daily life, which, in his entertaining, quickly moving account, is as compelling as the course of battles or decisions of state. Human needs have always been much the same, of course, but the meeting of them has changed far more than people might imagine. Bryson’s approach here is characteristically omnivorous, suggesting a bear stripping the fruit and leaves off every bush he can reach, and the book is chock-full of illuminating asides and witty, revealing anecdotes. What makes it all stick together, however, is the nifty way that technological change begets social change. The development of good bricks, for instance, in the late Middle Ages, allowed for chimneys and fireplaces to replace an open fire in the center of one large room, which allowed for an upper floor, which, in turn, for the first time separated masters (upstairs) from servants (downstairs). These changes strengthened distinctions among people who previously “ate, dressed, and slept together.” Upper floors were then divided into rooms, and voilà, the idea that people might enjoy privacy when pursuing certain activities was born.
This wondrous book—written by the preeminent historian of British architecture, and beautifully designed and printed, crammed with more than 300 meticulously chosen illustrations and color photographs—combines sweeping range and a precise grasp of detail to illuminate houses “in numbers, richness and inventiveness unsurpassed at any other time in the history of English architecture.” Girouard pays due attention to such great public buildings as King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, but his focus is perforce on the glory of Elizabethan architecture, “the intensely artificial, elaborately composed houses of great people”—and his most brilliant achievement in this impossibly rich book is his psychological and emotional sympathy with the (in many ways, alien) people who inhabited the buildings that he analyzes with such exactitude and brio.