“If you had to summarise it in one sentence, the history of domestic life is the history of getting comfortable slowly.”
Whew… Ladies and gentlemen, I have spent an exhausting yet exhilarating ten days with Bill Bryson at his Norfolk home. When he invited me to take a look at this former Church of England rectory, I hardly expected spend more than an afternoon there – a spot of tea, maybe a couple of beers in the evening, along with the promised tour of the house. But I got much more than I bargained for.
Initially, Bill took me up to the attic (we had to clamber up a stepladder and wiggle through a ceiling hatch – an extremely uncomfortable exercise, mind you) to show me a small door which opened out into a curious rooftop space, which afforded a view of the countryside which was breathtaking and panoramic. As I stood entranced, drinking it up, Bill asked me whether I would like to chat with him about domestic life – and I agreed.
What followed was an expedition through the house, starting with the hall and ending, once again, in the attic. But I must confess I had little time to notice the features of the domicile in particular, as Bill was filling my head with an absolute avalanche of trivia connected with domestic life in Britain and the United States of America.
After giving me a general background on the era on which he was going to hang his exposition of domesticity (the Victorian Age, with the 1851 Great Exhibition as its pivot) and the development of English clergy in general, Bill Bryson properly got going on how the British forgot all about the civilised Roman Era and started from scratch once they left England. In the hall, he told me that most homes were just that – a big hall – until the 1500’s, when the fireplace was invented and people could think of building upstairs; till then, the people all lived together communally and slept, ate and copulated around a roaring fire in the middle of the room. He gave so many fascinating details (though some of them were definitely unsavoury) that my head was hopelessly spinning by the time he pulled me into the kitchen and started to talk about how eating habits developed and changed. The things he told me! I am extremely glad that I did not have to visit England prior to the advent of ice in 1844, let me tell you (though being something of a trencherman, I would have been perfectly at home in the eighteenth century – if I was able to ignore the quality of meat an fish on the table, that is).
Going now into the scullery and ladder, the discussion turned to the subject of domestic servants – how great a workforce was required, and how they had to be punishingly overworked, to keep the gentry in comfort. I was so blown away by the account that I asked him why there hadn’t been a revolution. Bill then told me that even though life was tough for a servant, most country houses were lived in only a two to three months a year, so they had a relatively calm life for the rest of the year: and considering the circumstances, they made good money.
Under the fusebox, Bill waxed lyrical about electricity, and how it changed domestic life for ever – about how unsafe it was initially, but how ultimately this elemental force was tamed by mankind. Happily here I could contribute something to the conversation, as I work in the field of safety and am aware of how the concept of electrical safety is improving day by day.
Now he took me down to the cellar. I was expecting to be treated to some vintage wine, but no: Bill started on giving me a lecture on the building of the Erie Canal! It was quite some time before I caught his gist – he was talking about house construction in general, and about bricks in particular. The exposition was so interesting that I forgot the damp and mustiness, I must tell you.
Then we came up to the passage. Here also, the subject was only tenuously connected to the room: we talked about the Eiffel Tower (of all things!), the development of architecture and civil engineering (a subject which interested me), concrete and the invention of the telephone, based on an instrument of this particular family sitting quietly in an alcove in a corner. We moved on to the study then, a dark and dingy room, which was never used for the purpose it was named for – or so Bill said. Here, he began to expound at length on mice, rats, bats, locusts, microbes and myriad other pests until I was on tenterhooks, expecting a rat to take a bite at my ankle at any moment!
By this time, I wanted a breath of fresh air very badly, so Bill took me out into the garden. He told that my apprehensions were quite understandable: it was the same obsession that Britons had for fresh air (and the rather mistaken belief that all maladies were the product of bad odours) that led to so many of the beautiful gardens and parks we see in England. He then gave me such a fascinating history of parks and gardens in England and America that left me spellbound. This was undoubtedly the most pleasurable part of the tour.
After a while, we went in again, and visited the “Plum Room”. Bill confessed that he did not know what it was used for – they called it that because the walls were painted that colour. He hazarded a guess that the original rector, Mr. Marsham may have used it as a library. It was built in great architectural style: and the mere mention of the fact sent Bill into the history of ornate architecture. It was originally conceived by an Italian stonemason named Andrea di Pietro della Gondola – better known as Palladio – in the sixteenth century, and copied by stately homes in England and America in later centuries. The most famous examples are Monticello in Virginia built by Thomas Jefferson and Mount Vernon in Colombia built by George Washington.
We climbed up to the bedroom now; and on the way, Bill explained to me the dangers of staircase climbing (the main safety hazard in any home) and the history of paint, through an extremely toxic past to the relatively safe present. But in the bedroom (one my favourite places in my house), Bill treated me to such stories of horror that I was almost sick. Beginning with the extremely uncomfortable nature of old-time mattresses, he proceeded to sex and how it was seen as a lamentable necessity; the horrific devices employed to stop “self abuse”; the travails suffered by women because doctors knew nothing about their anatomy; the ravages of syphilis; and finally about surgery without anesthesia, the disposal of dead bodies… well, you get the point, I guess.
But these were nothing compared to the stories of squalor he related in the bathroom. It seems that up until the eighteenth century when Dr. Richard Russell popularised his water cures, Britons were strongly opposed to exposing themselves to water. (There was the story of a lady who had not bathed for 28 years, and the Marquis d’Argens, who wore the same undershirt for so many years that when it was removed finally, pieces of his skin came along with it.) As if this was not enough, Bill started talking about toilets, and… no, better hear that yourself; just the memory of that scatological exposition makes me sick.
When we entered the dressing room next, however, Bill came off this morbid thought stream and started discussing about fashions – about how Victorians made dressing a sort of torture with the men’s wigs, women’s tall hairdos, and impossible dress items such as the corset and the crinoline. He also educated me on the history of cotton – a fascinating subject.
Then we came to the nursery. I thought this would be one of the areas for discussing the pleasantest subjects – but guess what? Bill took me to streets of Victorian London: the filth, the squalor, and the inhumanity. This was the world of Oliver Twist and the chimney sweeps, where poor children could hope to survive for a maximum of twelve years with backbreaking labour. Even though not life-threatening, however, life was no cakewalk for well-to-do children also: they lived in a loveless world of strictures and duty, with frightening stories and the ever present cane to keep them in line.
I thought then that the tour was over. But no: Bill hauled me up to the attic again, and gave a scholarly lecture on Charles Darwin and Sir John Lubbock, the man responsible for the preservation of most of Britain’s archaeological heritage and also the creator of the secular public holiday. He also talked wistfully about the stately homes which disappeared due to the agricultural crisis of 1870.
As we were climbing down, he said:
“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 to have what we have, and to get it as easily as we got it, and that will require more resources that this planet can easily, or even conceivably, yield.”
Sobering thought, that.
Well, Bill, I really enjoyed my visit with you. But pardon me if I do not make another visit in the near future. I need some time to digest all these information that you have poured into my head!