Home is probably the most cherished place in the world for most of us. We spend huge chunks of our lives cleaning, decorating, organising, and simply enjoying our homes, but how has the house change throughout history? What would our houses tell us about what went on in them before? Lucy Worsley tackles this topic by exploring the history and evolution of four different kinds of room in an English house, from the medieval period right through to the present. The living room, the kitchen, the bathroom, and the bedroom are Worsley’s subjects, but the people who populate them truly make them what they are, and this is a fascinating journey.
I must admit a little bit of bias and prior knowledge of this book. The series, hosted by Worsley, was actually televised here in the UK over four episodes, one for each room. So I already knew that I was interested in the subject matter (although that wasn’t a surprise) and I’d picked up many of the facts previously. If you have seen the show, though, the book adds bits and pieces and draws more conclusions from Worsley’s experiences living certain aspects of old-fashioned lives.
Social history, for me, is completely addictive; I love finding out why there might be a shoe hidden in my attic or how recently some British homes actually got proper bathrooms and plumbing. There are Victorian ash-midden privies in my little garden and, even though now they’re considered “outbuildings”, that little slice of history is one of the things I love about England. Worsley gives equal time here to the ordinary and the aristocratic, particularly because in many cases developments made for the wealthy finally trickled down to the poor.
Worsley’s writing style is also very engaging and the book is a pleasure to read. There are plenty of endnotes, but this is not dry history at all. It’s full of facts that I’m sure I will regale people with for weeks to come, lots of curiosities about how our homes actually got to be the way they are and how differently people treated them. Consider the bedroom, once simply integrated into the main living space with little to no privacy, which slowly migrated to becoming one of the most private places of all, especially as the living room took its place.
One of the most interesting aspects of a book like this, for me, is how the home can highlight just how much society has changed. Just one part of this is obviously the presence of servants in our lives. Not that long ago, a huge proportion of the population was employed in service, a respectable occupation and one that had a huge part to play in the development of the home. Some things certainly wouldn’t have been possible without servants – older kitchen ranges, for example, required daily cleaning and blacking, not to mention the issues surrounding the chores of actually preparing and serving food. The monumental shift away from servants, along with the inventions and innovations that replaced them, have played a role in the development of the home today.
All in all, If Walls Could Talk is a fascinating journey through the home, a joy to read, and a trove of worthy little details for those interested in the history of ordinary people as well as royalty. Definitely recommended.
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