Posted by: simmo22hmtholyokeedu | November 12, 2018

A Love letter to At Home by Bill Bryson

I cannot overstate how much I love At Home by Bill Bryson. At Home by Bill Bryson is a great, pop history read for anyone who is into the subject matter of our class. Every interesting anecdote I ever mention in conversation is invariably taken from this book. My friends make fun of me for how much I bring it up in conversation, and I have forced all of them to read it because of this. I have a beat up, paperback copy which is my loaner copy, and I have the special illustrated edition just for me. Yes, it’s weird that my favorite book is a seemingly stuffy history book by some old dude, but at this point i’ve leaned into the weird. At Home is a “history of private life,” so essentially an in depth explanation of why western homes are the way that they are. Since a lot of our current cultural practices took root in the victorian period, stuff from that time comes up frequently in this book. For example, Cullwick and Munby are mentioned in the chapter about the scullery, which examines the labor of domestic workers in the home. though their relationship is not talked about in the most….delicate manner, it’s still cool to read about Hannah Cullwick’s diaries in the context of their evidence of what a domestic servant did every day, even if those recollections are interspersed with the sexual content we discussed last week. Below are a few other of my favorite stories from this book that pertain to our study of victorian visual culture. Hopefully it sparks your interest so that you read it, and my evangelizing about this book can reach greater proportions.

 

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1. The Crystal Palace
Bryson basically frames the entire book around this exhibition. The first chapter, “The Year,” details how the exhibition came to be, focusing especially on the architect behind the massive glass and iron structure that housed it. I love this chapter because Bryson tracks how becoming the head gardener at Kew Gardens inspired Joseph Paxton to enter into the competition for the design of the exhibition hall. He based his plan on greenhouse architecture, which was made possible by the recent advent of a new kind of glassmaking which allowed for bigger, more stable panes of glass to be manufactured. Essentially, the exhibition which revolutionized modern consumer culture was housed in a giant weird birdcage. Huge buildings made of iron and glass might seem pretty normal to us, because of the prevalence of towering skyscrapers with entirely glass facades, but in 1851 it was totally new.
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2. The Bathroom chapter
Here’s a small excerpt from this fun section on bathroom practices:
“What really got the Victorians to then to bathing, however, was the realization that it could be gloriously punishing. The Victorians had a kind of instinct for self-torment, and water became a perfect way to make that manifest. Many diaries record how people had to break the ice in their washbasins in order to ablute in the morning, and the Reverend Francis Kilvert notes with pleasure how jagged ice clung to the side of his bath and pricked his skin as he merrily bathed on Christmas morning in 1870. Showers, too, offered great scope for punishment, and were often designed to be as powerful as possible. One early type of shower was so ferocious that users had to don protective headgear before stepping in lest they be beaten senseless by their own plumbing” (430).
Ok, isn’t that a fun read? Granted, it does utilize the same repressive reading of Victorians that we have been attempting to nuance in this class, but it does offer a fun glimpse into the daily rituals of people in this period, even if it does make fun of them a lot. This story shows the irreverence in this take on history that I love so much. It’s not a critical look into the racist, imperialist origins of bathing in the UK, which [scholar] did a wonderful job of, but it does humanize the people in this period a lot (for me).
Also, look at this image and caption! There’s so much to unpack here.
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3. The Pre-Raphaelites
There are a few anecdotes about the Pre-Raphaelites scattered through this book, and all of them are wacky and entertaining.
The first concerns John Ruskin, the writer most involved with this artistic movement. In the chapter on the bedroom, Bryson discusses Ruskin’s brief and ill fated marriage to Euphemia “Effie” Chalmers Grey, who annulled their marriage because it was never consummated. The reason Effie gave was that apparently the female body was pretty different than Ruskin had imagined it, and he was disgusted (397). Eventually the whole thing was so covered up in the press that “W.G. Collingwood could, without a blush of embarrassment, write The Life of John Ruskin without hinting Ruskin had ever been married, much less sent crashing from a room at the sight of female pubic hair” (398). Come on. That’s so funny. Please read this book.
The second anecdote, which doesn’t actually feature in the main text, but appears in a footnote, is a personal favorite. It talks about Elizabeth Siddal, who was the muse for most of the Pre-Raphaelites. She was a striking redhead with a distinctive angular face. If you have ever seen a Millais or Rosetti painting of a woman, she is probably the model. She is most famous for sitting for Millais’ Ophelia, for which she had to lay in an unheated bath tub for hours causing her to contract pneumonia. Anyway, Bryson’s story about her is this:
“Overcome with grief, [Siddal’s] husband buried her with a sheaf of poems that he had failed to copy; seven years later he thought better of the gesture, had the grave dip up and retrieved the poems, which were published the following year” (467).
Even the footnotes of this book are excellent.
I tell this story about Siddal every time I’m in a museum that houses a Pre-Raphaelite piece. Seriously, if you read this book for no other reason, read so you can tell weird stories in museums. It’s the most fun I ever have as an art history major (sorry Anthony Lee).
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I love At Home by Bill Bryson for so many reasons. It’s irreverent, educational, and a great light read for planes. I’ve reread it so many times that I wrote the entire first bullet point of this blog post from memory, so I clearly find some value in it for this purpose. It’s a great way to learn about Victorian culture from a fun angle, and it’s a great way to impress people in museums. Yes, it’s really weird how much I love this book, but if you read it I think you’ll understand why I’m so fanatical about it.

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