For anyone who is already burdened by the holidays—the cooking, cleaning, entertaining, putting up with difficult houseguests—I’m offering a bit of perspective. I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s latest book At Home: A Short History of Private Life, and I must say we don’t have it that bad, no matter how laborious our holidays seem.
In most of his books, Bryon’s recounts in hilarious fashion his adventures as he treks around places such as Australia, England, Africa, and the Appalachian Trail. But, in At Home, Bryson takes a look around his own house, an old Church of England rectory in Norfolk, England. (Born and raised in Iowa, as we learned in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bryson has been living and working in England for years. He now speaks with a curious British/Des Moines-ish accent.) He takes us on a tour of the house, but it’s not really about the house. He uses each room as a starting point to look at the development of building materials, inventions such as gas lighting and the telephone, why salt and pepper are always on the table, and countless other investigations. I haven’t gotten to the “Bedroom” chapter yet, but I can just imagine.
Anyway, his stories of social customs got me thinking about how lucky we are during modern-day holidays compared to our forebears. You think you have a lot of houseguests? Be glad you’re not entertaining Queen Elizabeth I. About 150 of her entourage accompanied her on her visits to noble households around England. Says Bryson, “Hosts not only had the towering expenditure of feeding, housing, and entertaining an army of spoiled and privileged people but also could expect to experience quite a lot of pilfering and property damage. After the court of Charles II departed from Oxford in about 1660, one of those left behind remarked in an understandably appalled tone how the royal visitors had left “their excrements in every corner, in chimneys, studies, coal-houses, cellars.”
By the end of the Thanksgiving meal, do you feel like a cook and scullery maid rolled into one? In the “Scullery and Larder” chapter, Bryson offers a diary entry from a servant woman named Hannah Cullwick, who recounts her endless days of cooking, cleaning, dishwashing, scrubbing the street and sidewalk in front of the house on her knees, emptying the slops, and on and on. Funny thing was, the man she called “master” was secretly her husband.
Wish your children or your guests had better manners? Keep in mind that “John Jacob Astor, one of the richest men in American but not evidently the most cultivated, astounded his hosts at one dinner party by leaning over and wiping his hand on the dress of the lady sitting next to him.”
So, if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re in good company. Try to find time to escape to Bill Bryson’s house for a little diversion.