Paints a very vivid picture of the year 1851.
497 pages, ★★★★★
At Home is another classic Bill Bryson page-turner. Reading this, I feel like I’m skimming the surface of something much, much deeper. I admire the overwhelming amount of reading that give Bill Bryson the depth of knowledge for which he’s famed. He writes with subtle, but reassuring references to his previous books, particularly A Short History of Everything (much of which is kindly restrained in the footnotes).
At Home is really a chronicle of Western life in 1851, only loosely connected by the theme of “home”. It’s a vast compilation of distantly-connected facts (the same names appear sporadically). He starts (of course) with the Great Exhibition, covers Darwin’s life story and the chain-reaction of invention that followed the introduction of fixed tithes (and, arguably, fuelled the Industrial Revolution).
At Home reminds us that quality is only linked with price within a particular commodity; whereas the quality of types of commodities is seldom reflected in its current price. For example, servants ate lobster almost daily; and many complained to their masters (even signed a lobster-limiting contract) to reduce the amount they were fed. Workers in the 21st century would be delighted to have lobster at work, daily. There are likely dozens of cheap “undervalued” products with us today (like 19th-century lobster) which our descendants will envy us for taking for granted… (I’m guessing lotus and yam will be two of said products).
As far as descriptions of 19th century Britain go, At Home contrasts starkly with Karl Marx’s Das Kapital. Whereas Bill Bryson uses flattery and wit to describe Victorian Britain as a time of marvel, of invention, and of social transformation, Karl Marx instead depicted many a capitalist scumbag throttling his own parliament to repeal laws and squeeze every ounce of profit out of his disposable child labourers. This conflict with Karl Marx was resolved in less than one page in the penultimate chapter, “Nursery”, where Bill Bryson writes,
“Marx, meanwhile, constantly denounced the bourgeoisie but lived as bourgeois a life as be could manage, sending his daughters to private schools…”
I could be pedantic and prolong the debate with contradictory quotes such as (“even some servants had servants”; and “Marx, too, extorted like a capitalist”) but I don’t feel like doing so. This book is too delightful a glimpse of Victorian history to get wound up in class struggle, morality and the hypocrisies of rich intellectuals. Bill Bryson reminds us that almost everyone in the Victorian age was slightly eccentric anyway; so we should appreciate their work, but not try too hard to understand their thoughts. Eccentricity is genius disguised.
I’m looking forward to Bryson’s next book on the future of human civilization… this is hinted at the end of At Home. This book will be of enormous benefit to anyone who’s read Das Kapital; for it will give them a wider picture of Victorian Britain. The Victorians affected all of our lives beyond comprehension. Anyone with an appreciation for anything will enjoy this book. ★★★★★
- Book Review: At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson (othemts.wordpress.com)