History, Home, etc

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?!



  1. Ha, poor you! I had nearly the exact same experience when I first read Michelle Magorian’s Back Home, and it mentioned the English Civil War. I read loads of book about English history to get myself sorted out on that front. However, it is hard to find one good book that gives you a nice overview of all of a country’s history (sadly). If you could get hold of a seventh-grade American history textbook, that’d probably be the most useful thing.

    I’m trying to remember what European history we learned in school. A lot of it didn’t stick, especially history of countries with which little me was less obsessed than Britain. 😛 I know we learned about Henry VIII (about fifty thousand times), and Elizabeth I and Cromwell canceling Christmas; we did the Glorious Revolution and sped through the Georges to get to the bit where Thomas Jefferson called them tyrants. Oh, and we did the French and Indian (Seven Years) War as well, in some detail, because I live in Louisiana and that was the war where the Cajuns got kicked out of Canada, poor things, and moved down to Louisiana to make delicious food and be awesome. I think I have a far better idea of the general thrust of British history, and French to a lesser extent, than I do of the histories of most other European countries.

    The Revolution is the American War of Independence, btw – we call it the American Revolution over here.

    What you’d really want would be a high school textbook sort of thing. I wish I’d saved mine from my American History AP class, I’d totally send it to you. :/

    1. Jenny, it sounds like you know more British history than me!!! I think I’m going to have to go back to school and find some textbooks to help me figure out the main events in American history – it’s a good thing I like to learn! It’s a shame you didn’t keep that textbook!!

  2. I totally know which volume of history you should pick up to brush up on American history as it was required reading on a course I took but I can’t remember it’s name! I’ll have a bit of a look around for it this week and drop back if I find it, so thorough and written without a lot of jargon. Otherwise I think there’s a Penguin guide to American history that is really helpful.

    I’m ok on American history, although I find it so hard to remember exact decades and centuries for different parts of the journey from abolition to black power. Now Australian history, there’s a confusing subject for me. Strange that they don’t teach us that in the UK, commonwealth and all.

    1. Yes I’ve seen the Penguin one but the reviews aren’t great – I hope you can remember the name of that book!

      I wish I had taken an American history course, just so I had a basic knowledge of dates etc. Australian history is a complete blank area of knowledge to me – scratch an American history book, clearly I need to get my hands on a World History one and go back to basics!

  3. You shouldn’t feel bad about your lack of knowledge on American History. Sad to say there are probably many Americans who don’t know the difference between the American Revolution and the Civil War.

    I studied history in college so my knowledge of British and European history may be a little more than average (I hope!).

    Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced beheaded survived…That’s all I need for English history right?

    1. Ha! Probably true of English people about British history too, if I’m honest!

      Oh well, as a history graduate Thomas, I do expect great things of you on that front! Most of my history has been picked up from reading period novels, I have to say.

      Yes, just about – but do you know the Queens behind their respective fates?!

  4. Now, there was another history of private life serialised on radio 4 in around October last year – i am pretty sure that it was a different one and I really enjoyed listening to it whilst pottering around the house (life imitating art in a way that I was not 100% comfortable with!). I will look up this new one. Thanks indeed for the tip off. I agree with your point about domestic history – the domestic sphere is dreadfully overlooked by historians.

    thanks for sharing


    1. I’m going to have to look that up on Radio 4 now!
      Isn’t it just? Domestic history should be written about far more often than it is – there’s no type of history more interesting in my opinion!

  5. I can speak to both sides of this issue: I was born and raised in England, moved to the States when I was 11. I’ve now lived in America for decades and am a naturalized American citizen. By and large, people here have as little knowledge of English history as the English have of American history. Once an American argued with me that Henry VIII was “the eighth” because he had eight wives. On the other side of the coin, I have a copy of my childhood history book (A Pageant of History, from the 1960s) where the American Revolution is dispatched of in one sentence in the chapter on George III.

    If you’re looking for a good overview of American history, I recommend Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

    1. How interesting, Deb! Thanks for sharing that both sides of the coin view! It’s interesting that two countries so linked historically can know so little about the other. That Henry VIII comment is hysterical!!!
      Howard Zinn’s book is one that didn’t come up when I was searching before but I have now looked it up and it sounds perfect for me – thanks so much for the suggestion!

  6. Long time lurker popping out to second Howard Zinn’s fabulous A People’s History of the United States if you’re looking for an overview and to reassure you that the American system is horrid at teaching European history, so no need to feel inadequate. It’s an area that’s barely bothered with until you get to university. I’m from the States, so much of what I learned prior to college I picked up through reading on my own.


    1. Thanks so much Kaitlin, and thanks for commenting! It’s always nice to see a lurker come out of lurkdom!!

      Howard Zinn is definitely my man, it seems – thank you for the recommendation!

  7. I now have to read this biography; I’ve read (in my youth and wa-a-a-ay beyond) all of LMA’s books, up to and including Jack and Jill. Your comments around her up-rooted life, of which I vaguely knew, are particularly interesting to me just now as I have gone back and re-read both Little Men and its sequel/follow-through, Jo’s Boys. An important theme in Little Men is home life, and the importance of providing it for children. And Jo’s Boys is, at least partly, about the pleasures of a home base to come back to, to re-group, to take stock, to renew affections. I’ve loved both books (almost, dare I say, more than Little Women -emphasis on almost) but never looked objectively at the importance of home which pervades both of these books. Good post, thanks.

    1. Hi Virginia, so glad you enjoyed the post. I can’t sing this biography’s praises enough – Harriet Reisen is a very talented writer and she really brings Louisa and her family to life. I am yet to read beyond Good Wives as I can’t find a suitable copy of Little Men (I want a nice old edition!) but your comments have very much intrigued me. A comfortable, stable home life seems to be something Louisa was constantly trying to create as she progressed through to adulthood, and her idealised version of the home in Little Women is actually very poignant when considering the fractured and quite stressful sounding lifestyle the family led when she was a child.

  8. I was so hoping you would enjoy Reisen’s book, and you are right. She is writing to an American audience. I would venture to say, however, that even that audience is small. Most Americans that know LMA do so through Little Women, both parts, and are mainly female, and know little about her life or the transcendentalist movement. They may have gotten a little Thoreau or Emerson in American Literature classes in high school, and a smidgeon of English Lit as well.

    Alcott’s home in Concord is just a few miles from Lexington, where the American Revolutionary War began. Emerson’s grandfather’s house looks out over the famous site. Hawthorne, himself, lived there with his family for awhile. There is marker nearby that honors the British soldiers that fell there in 1776. The area is still today an area where authors live and write and flourish.

    As an American, I would say, yes, we struggle with the particulars of English history and culture, as well as European. There are those of us, however, myself included, that cannot get enough of English literature. We love PBS (your BBC) and that has brought so much of English literature alive for many of us. I think I have gleaned more from reading than from what I learned in school, though I did have excellent teachers and your history is so much older than ours.

    David McCullough has written some excellent books about the American Revolution, 1776 and John Adams being two, and Doris Kearns Goodwin has Team of Rivals, about Lincoln, and Ordinary Time about Franklin Roosevelt. There are some excellent books for children that cover periods of American history as well as any textbook. My Brother Sam is Dead and Fever come to mind.

    I could go on and on and then I would forget to tell you how much I enjoy Bill Bryson. We read A Hike in the Woods a few years ago for our book discussion, which brought a lively discussion. I will, indeed, check the serialization of At Home … that you cite in the Guardian.

    I love this post and all of your posts. Please keep reading and writing and I will keep reading you and together we all can learn a little more about each other and enjoy good words in the process.

    Another lively post. Thank you.

    1. Penny, thank you for yet another kind, lovely and informative comment! These books you mention are very interesting and I am predicting a Saturday spent in the library looking up all of these very soon!

      I think there are a lot of Americans who are Anglophiles but there don’t seem to be as many of us Brits who love America – I am one of the latter and I try and make as many trips across the pond as I can afford. I am now desperate to visit Concord and see the home of the Transcendentalists, and visit Orchard House, too.

      I’m glad you enjoyed this post – there is more coming as I have so much to say about the biography!

  9. Oh, I am feeling your pain with regard to housemates that we can hardly tolerate! In my days of house-sharing I had to put up with more than a few complete weirdo’s, lunatics and downright freaks! Bleurgghhhhh, so glad those days are long gone.

    I am loving the sound of Bill Brysons new book from your description, Rachel. And you’re not alone – I haven’t read anything by him yet either. I must rectify this too.

    1. Hahaha I wish those days were gone! It does provide you with plenty of stories to dine out on though!

      It does sound like a fascinating book and if I didn’t already have a ton to be reading I’d be putting a hold on it at the library. From the extracts I’ve read, Bill Bryson has a very engaging and humorous tone that is easy to read yet still very informative – no mean feat!

  10. This discussion of what history we all grow up learning is interesting — as a Canadian, I spent my school years learning what I took to be a very boring amount about the Canadian fur trade! I did read a series of historical novels as a teen, which followed one American family from the Mayflower on through the Revolutionary & Civil Wars, so got at least a fairly good idea of that, though I never studied it in school, not even the War of 1812 (Americans tried to invade Canada, British troops burned The White House…)! By the time I finally got to ‘the good history’ in high school, like Napoleon and the world wars, I was incensed that I hadn’t known anything about all that sooner! I have taken some history in university, but a bit scattered, from modern Germany to medieval Britain… My knowledge of British history isn’t entirely clear (someone in the library asked me for a book on the British Civil War and I started showing them books on the Wars of the Roses before realizing my mistake…), but at least I know that Jane Austen didn’t write in the Victorian or Elizabethan period. 😉

    1. Yes it is interesting isn’t it – where we grow up affects so much – our knowledge base, our view of the world, our tastes, our beliefs…I must say my knowledge of Canadian history is even dimmer than that of American history, so a World History volume is definitely going to be on the agenda soon!

      You sound like you have an excellent general knowledge of history – far more than me!!

  11. This history of private life sounds really interesting.

    I can imagine that reading a book that’s about American history without explaining it must be hard to read. I have a degree in history, and although I have a basic knowledge of US history, I have to admit that my knowledge of European history is much better, I simply never specialised in US history.

    1. It really does, doesn’t it? I am itching to see what other aspects of home Bill Bryson discusses in the actual book.

      It is a bit tricky – it doesn’t make it unreadable by any stretch of the imagination, but it just makes it difficult for me to understand the context because I have no idea what time period she’s referring to or who or what or why or when which is frustrating more than anything else!

  12. Bill Bryson’s latest sounds right up my street! I often ponder the ‘spookyness’ (is that a word?) of everyone going to bed at night for slumber. There’s a sci-fi element, like getting into a pod for recharging but that’s a whole other topic!

    As a Canadian, it was all about Native Peoples, portaging, beaver pelts, Jacques Cartier and the white man bringing disease when I was in school. Of course Europe and England was discussed in context with the aforementioned. I enjoyed all of it and desperately wanted to be able to start a fire from nothing and live in a teepee. My idea of home has changed which brings me back to Mr Bryson’s new book! Off to see if my library has it on order…thanks Rachel!

    1. Oh I think of that ALL the time! It’s so weird how we’re just totally unaware of our surroundings for eight hours every day – twilight zone!

      I want to read about Canadian history – it sounds fascinating! I hope the library has it on order – I think you’d love it, from the extracts.

  13. What wonderful posts you write! I’m funny about Bryson – I usually like the beginnings of his books and get tired part way through. But I loved the Australia book – so many terrible creatures over there! :<) Have you read American Bloomsbury by Susan Cheever? It is a really lovely overview of the whole crowd. If you want to know a bit more, I wrote about it three years ago this very month!


    Cheever has a new book coming out in the fall about Louisa. And there's a fictional book about her that I've been reading about on some blogs.

    1. Thank you Nan! That’s interesting – I can’t comment as I haven’t read anything by him but some of his titles certainly interest me more than others.

      I had never heard of American Bloomsbury before but I have now put it on my Amazon Wishlist, thank you – it sounds absolutely up my street.

      Yes I saw that on her website – interesting, as Reisen’s bio is very new. I wonder what fresh insights she will have? I’ll have to remember to look out for it in a few months. Thank you for the tip!

  14. These posts re Alcott have been very illuminating, as well as fun – I’ve suddenly had a re-think of Little Women, Men, Boys, Old-Fashioned Girl et al. Taken together, and seeing them from an adult POV – they are fascinating. She was a feminist, though she might not have called herself that, but her faith in women’s humanity and abilities and capacities just shines through them all. They are worth re-reading, just to think about them in this light. Thanks for starting me off on this new appreciation – very exciting. The biography is on order….

    1. I’m glad you’ve enjoyed them, Virginia, and that they’ve prompted a re-read – I wish I had more of her books at home as I’d love to steam through them all now! Your points are exactly right – her books are multi dimensional, and a woman with such strong opinions can not have left them out of her writing. I hope you love the biography as much as I have done – it really is one of the best I’ve read and has fostered a great admiration for Alcott in me. I am so excited to now know there is such a wide variety of writings by her available in the world and gradually I hope to be able to read them all!

  15. Thank you for the link to Bill Bryson’s new book – it sounds like a lot of fun.

    The comments here are almost as interesting as the questions you pose. I think most Americans would be as blank about the English Civil War as Europeans would be about ours, unless American history is just something they’ve had exposure to. I was lucky enough to take an AP European history class in high school, but I have shockingly huge gaps in what you would probably consider general knowledge. I hope you can find a book that helps. I may be biased, but American history is really fascinating, filled with interesting people and movements.

    Alcott is interesting, isn’t she? Have you read An Old Fashioned Girl? If you’re looking for the ways she both used norms of femininity and transgressed them, you should really read it!

    1. Hi Kate! American history does sound fascinating and very tumultuous to me, and I am very keen to plug my gaps of knowledge. There are areas of British history I am hazy on too. Once you leave formal education it’s so easy to become complacent about ongoing learning, I think. I need to read more non fiction.

      I would love to read an Old Fashioned Girl! You make it sound wonderful. I will try my best to get hold of a copy!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s