Wednesday, January 2, 2013

If Walls Could Talk

If Walls Could Talk, by Lucy Worsley

I got this book for Christmas!  It's just the kind of thing I like: a book all about domestic arrangements, from the medieval era up to the present day.  Written by the chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces--in other words, she is in charge of the Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace, among other big-deal places--this book was accompanied by a BBC mini-series, which I now need to see.

Worsley covers all the topics you might not usually see a lot of information on: underwear, beds, bathrooms, drains and smells.  And breastfeeding and toothbrushing and dishwashing!  There are four major sections, on bedrooms, bathrooms, living rooms, and kitchens.  The book is crammed full of wonderful details and interesting quotations, such as...

[...the Elizabethan commentator who disparaged how soft Englishmen were getting,] "wanting all kinds of unmanly luxuries. Pillows, he said, were formerly 'thought meet only for women in childbed'; how times had changed when even men wanted pillows, instead of making do with 'a good round log under their heads'."
[Henry VIII] "slept upon eight mattresses, and his servants had to roll upon them to make sure that enemies had hidden no dangerous daggers inside."
"Foreigners were also intrigued by the phenomenon of toast: 'You take one slice of bread after the other and hold it to the fire on a fork until the butter is melted...this is called toast'. It was 'incomparably good', thought a Prussian visitor in 1782."
[Victorian middle-class people ate hearty breakfasts to sustain them during a day of work, but] "Higher up in society, the peculiar tradition persisted that an aristocrat somehow didn't need a breakfast. It was considered a middle-class meal, necessary only to wage slaves, and males made light of it by refusing to sit down while eating it....'only cads ate their porridge sitting down.'"

Sometimes I would have liked more documentation, when a detail sounded more like an urban legend than a real thing, but on the other hand Worsley did point out several well-known legends.  For the most part, she really sounded like she knew what she was talking about (and I should hope so, given her job).

My edition has clearly been edited a little bit for an American audience.  Sometimes near the end of a chapter, you'll see details on American practices jammed in.  But this is really a British book focused on British history, most especially English history--really, you'll not find a whole lot of detail about Wales or Scotland (though there is a bit about James Boswell).  I did think that there were a few strenuous efforts toward political correctness, usually when Worsley got to more recent days, and those felt kind of stuck in. 

I enjoyed this book a lot and found it very educational, so if you like domestic history, this should be on your list.  And really, who doesn't want to know more about why flushing toilets didn't become more popular when they were first invented in the late Elizabethan Age?


Alex in Leeds said...

I enjoyed the TV series this goes with, lots of fun seeing how long a bed with eight different layers takes to make or just what a Victorian dinner party looked like. :)

Amanda said...

I heard an interview with the author on NPR. Fascinating stuff! I'm now on the hunt for the series.

Eva said...

This sounds like such fun! I tried Bryson's history of homes and was disappointed, so maybe this will be more my style.