I have been greatly enjoying the serialisation of part of Bill Bryson’s new book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life in The Guardian over the past few days. You can read the first three parts from this page. Domestic history has always fascinated me more than any other type; it’s the stuff of real life and involves everybody rather than just the few whose names have found fame for whatever reason over the mists of time. Home is, for most of us, the space where we can feel safe and comfortable and most free to be and express ourselves. It’s where the most meaningful events and moments of life are lived out; where our dearest memories are formed, where we are happiest and most relaxed, enjoying treasured simple pleasures; Saturday morning lie-ins, home cooked meals, quiet cups of tea, cosy chats on the sofa, raucous evenings around the dining room table, endless summers spent in the garden…I could go on, ad infinitum.
I am sure many of us have lived in awful homes, with peeling paintwork, mould, and dodgy, unidentifiable smells that seem to have no discernible source (or is that just my experience of cheap rented flats?!), and have had the misfortune of sharing our homes with people we can barely tolerate, let alone like, but these experiences aside, in essence, home conjures up feelings of warmth, comfort, love, family, and peace. It’s an intimate space that we adapt to suit our needs and tastes, as our homes are an expression of who we are and what is most important to us. What objects we choose to use and display, what colours we choose to paint our walls, what type of furniture we have, what we choose to surround ourselves with, all say something about who we are, what we enjoy, what we find attractive, and what matters to us. Often, however, we don’t stop to wonder how and why we have and use what we do within the home; who, for example, invented knives and forks, and why? What’s wrong with using our fingers? Who decided that bay windows were nicer than flat ones? Why do we eat three meals a day and call them breakfast, lunch and dinner? Who invented hangers for our clothes? All interesting questions. These are the sorts of details Bill Bryson also appears to be concerned with, and I am keen to get my hands on the complete book after reading the snippets featured in The Guardian. I’ve never actually read a Bill Bryson book before and am beginning to feel like the only person in the world who has never done so, so perhaps this will be a good place to start.
Other than reading The Guardian, I am also steaming my way through Harriet Reisen’s absolutely superb biography of Louisa May Alcott, which is educating me in many ways. When biographies are done well, they open up not just the life of the person they are profiling, but the world within which they lived as well. Reisen’s life of Louisa May Alcott is doing just that, and 19th century New England is coming to life before me on every page. Like me, and like Bill Bryson, Louisa May Alcott treasured her home life; the second of four much loved daughters of the prominent Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott and his intelligent, passionate wife Abby, she grew up in an atmosphere charged with revolutionary intellectual, spiritual, and moral thinking, great love and affection, and constant financial worry. Her father was a thinker rather than a doer, and the family was perpetually in financial ruin, causing them to move dozens of times over Louisa’s childhood and constantly have to beg for help from their wealthy friends and relations. Shuttled from house to house in her childhood, the cosy, sentimental, idealised version of the four Alcott sisters’ upbringing that was immortalised in Little Women is actually very far from the truth, and as much as she loved her family, she never really had a place to call home. Her desire to create a stable, comfortable home for her mother and sisters is what mainly fuelled her immense literary output; desperate for money to pay off her parents’ debts, she would churn out several stories a month before Little Women was born.
Alcott’s life was inextricably linked with New England, with Transcendentalism, and with all of the great social and moral debates of her time. Growing up with the good and great figures of Transcendentalism; Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and so on, at her breakfast table, she was bound to become an intelligent, passionate, just, and liberal woman. The times she lived in were exciting and eventful; the atmosphere of noisy, busy, cultivated revolutionary Boston comes alive through Reisen’s wonderful descriptions of Louisa’s life there; bloody civil war battlefields are explored through Louisa’s nursing experiences, and the turbulent political times are exemplified by the moral and physical battles of anti slavery campaigners such as Louisa and her family. Reading this has not only caused me to reassess my previously limited appreciation of Louisa May Alcott as merely a goody two shoes children’s book writer, and has now made me want to read everything this amazing woman ever wrote, but it has also revealed my shocking ignorance of American history and literature.
Reisen is writing for an American audience, and a detailed knowledge of American cultural, literary and factual history is assumed as she writes breezily of the Revolution (which one was that, then, I wonder), of the Civil War (not the same as the Revolution then?), of abolitionists, of American famous faces I have never heard of, and so on. Of course I have a basic knowledge of these topics but nothing like the in depth and taken for granted knowledge I have of English history and literature, and I am finding it personally frustrating to be so lacking in knowledge of what is, to so many, general and obvious topics. I know there was a Civil War, but I assumed it was in the 18th century, not the 19th. I have read Uncle Tom’s Cabin so I know about the abolitionist movement, but I had no idea it triggered the war. I thought it was about Americans wanting to be free of the English. Apparently that was a different war. And then there’s all of the American famous faces and literary giants I’d barely heard of before, and haven’t read any of. Growing up and being educated in England has rendered me very Europe-centric in my knowledge of the world and this is now something I am desperate to correct. I’m hoping to track down a one volume history of America from somewhere so that I can brush up on my facts, pronto! I’d be interested to hear from Americans; do you have the same issue with English history and culture, or do you get much better taught about Europe than I have been about America?!