Bestselling the Victorians: Bill Bryson’s ‘At Home.’

Bryson’s 2010 “Short History of Private Life,” the newest of the author’s bestselling works, assumes the enormous task of documenting the development of domestic life from the earliest traces of human dwellings up to the present day. The Daily Telegraph’s review, which appears on the opening page of the book, rightly, but perhaps unintentionally, highlights the problematic readability of Bryson’s study: “[Bryson has] extracted the most arresting material [from 508 books] and turned the result into a book that, for all its winning randomness, is […] a genuine pageturner…None of these things, needless to say, are as easy as Bryson in his ever-genial way makes them seem.” The Economist’s review compliments Bryson’s on his “effortlessly digestible prose,” thanks to which “everyone will find something to surprise them.” The aspects of Bryson’s book that these reviews foreground as praiseworthy, namely its consistent tendency to prune historical documents for juicy and shocking facts that portray the people of the past as particularly inventive, primitive or conservative, become acutely problematic in his treatment of the Victorians. Due to his failure to complicate the most “arresting material” gathered from various sources, Bryson provides little new insight into the ways the Victorians functioned within their homes and instead generalises and re-inscribes the stereotypes of their “shocking” sexual prudery, excessive consumerism and social injustice that scholars have been working to deconstruct.

Bryson’s desire to make his subject seem “easy” is the cause of his frequent historical misrepresentations, especially when it comes to the role of middle-class women in the nineteenth century. Because of his decision to limit his portrayal of “the Victorians’” domestic habits to those of the very rich, who employed dozens of servants, he creates a rather un-nuanced dichotomy between victimised servants and their ruthless employers who had “exacting standards that generally only occur to people who don’t have to do the work themselves.”[1] While it is of course true that servants’ lives were hard and often thankless and that they could be powerless compared to their employers, Bryson creates the impression that servants were completely at the mercy of the “ceaseless whims of employers,” thus durably discrediting the intelligence and agency of both parties.[2] Although he admits that the smooth functioning of the household “depended on the organizational predispositions of the master, mistress, butler and housekeeper,” he entirely omits the role of the middle-class woman in domestic management.[3] Instead, he extensively criticises Thomas and Jane Carlyle for their complicated relationships with their servants, offering neither a counter-example, nor any description of the Carlyles’ life. Many scholars have shed light on the everyday duties of the middle-class woman in the nineteenth century, showing that their lives were very active. As Harold Bloom has argued, “the picture of the frustrated and bored Victorian wife and mother who cannot find any outlet for her talents is largely confined to the moneyed upper classes.”[4] Indeed, Ann Thwaite’s biography of Emily Tennyson, who was relatively wealthy, shows the countless tasks that the poet’s wife handled every day: “She paid the bills and subscriptions, kept the accounts, and dealt with the entire money side of the marriage most of the time. She found tenants for the various houses they came to own […]; she organised and supervised builders during the extensive additions that would be made in the years to come.”[5] Emily Tennyson had a very good relationship with her servants, giving them books and organising “treats and outings for them and [ignoring] as many faults as she could.”[6] Bryson’s snide statement that “in 1841, middle-class women everywhere were bored out of their skulls by the rigidities of life, and grateful for any suggestion of diversion,” seems wholly unfounded and, indeed, for him, the publication of Practical Instructions in Gardening for Ladies is enough proof of the idleness of women’s lives.[7]

In his chapter on “The Bedroom,” which deals with attitudes to sexuality, Bryson’s humour is less “self-deprecating” (The Economist) than simply mocking. For the sake of effect, Bryson presents texts that advocate sexual restraint exceptionally strongly, such as Mary Wood-Allen’s What a Young Woman Ought to Know (1898) and Sir William Acton’s The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs (1857), in order to argue that the Victorians had a “troublesome” relationship to sex. Bryson’s mocking observation that “within marriage, sex was of course sometimes necessary” becomes particularly cutting though little interjections like “sometimes” and “of course.” He further sarcastically comments that the penis ring was “science’s” “fortunate” response to the panicky Victorians’ fears that masturbation might be a health hazard. Having spent two pages establishing the extremes of Victorian prudery as the norm and having provided an illustration of a penis ring that takes up half a page, Bryson finally acknowledges that “not everyone agreed with these conservative views, it must be noted,” in a timid claim to historical accuracy.[8] He then spends half a page on François Lallemand’s and George Drysdale’s “philosophy of free love” before laboriously instituting Ruskin as the embodiment of prudery and frigidity.[9] He further asserts that “Victorian rigidities were such that ladies were not even allowed to blow out candles in mixed company, as that required them to pucker their lips suggestively.”[10] These are just a few examples of Bryson’s tendency to present the extraordinary as the conventional.

Evidently more interested in creating shock and surprise than a properly contextualised historical analysis, Bryson’s work cannot really be called a “History” because the author seems to neither have a historical rationale, nor does he seem to possess a sincere interest in the people whose homes he describes. Particularly within the contemporary media context, in which TV- and radio-shows have been presenting the lives and inventions of the Victorians to a wide audience, re-assessing worn-out stereotypes, Bryson’s work surprises through its lack of historical questioning and deliberate omission of current scholarly debates. While I cannot say that the book is altogether un-interesting, I am simply stunned at the way Bryson uses the Victorians as laughing stock to entertain, rather than educate, his readers.

[1] Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life (London: Black Swan, 2010), p. 140.

[2] Ibid., p. 153.

[3] Ibid., p. 143.

[4] Harold Bloom, The Victorian Novel (Infobase Publishing: 2004), p. 95.

[5] Ann Thwaite, Emily Tennyson : the Poet’s Wife (London : Faber & Faber, 1996), p. 273.

[6] Ibid., p. 272.

[7] Bryson, At Home, p. 386.

[8] Ibid., 463.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., p. 564.

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