Rats cannot be sick, says Bill Bryson. Not many people know that. Rats can have sex 20 times a day. Further down the same page, we read that they also sleep 20 hours a day. Do the sums. Rats must fornicate five times an hour in their waking period, as well as eating rubbish and not being sick.
The phenomenally successful Bill Bryson is an American with an affection for this country, as is evidenced by his most famous book, Notes from a Small Island. He is president of the Society for the Preservation of Rural England and Chancellor of Durham University. He is also the huge, affable, best-selling presence at the popular end of a cultural and social history spectrum whose academic high end is represented by authors like Theodore Zeldin and Marina Warner. The method is to amass a dazzling number of facts and findings from disparate sources to create a mosaic that adds up to something or nothing, but is nearly always riveting.
Bryson does not do much original research. His new book, At Home, includes a 29-page bibliography listing both pot- boiling and scholarly works, all plundered to create his personal pick’n’mix with added insights and asides, simple but to the point — as when, in a section on the almost universal employment of servants, he remarks that ‘households had servants the way modern people have appliances’. They were necessities, for getting anything done. ‘Sometimes servants had servants.’
At Home is loosely structured round the uses of the different rooms — ‘The Kitchen’, ‘The Drawing Room’, ‘The Hall’ and so on — in the Norfolk rectory where he lives. His idea was to write ‘a history of the world without leaving home’. The rectory was originally built for the Rev Thomas Marsham, a bachelor of whom little is known except that his housekeeper of 40 years was a Miss Worm. This domestic history does not detain Bryson for long, though there is a section on the many Anglican clerics who, with a good education and time on their hands, made significant amateur contributions to science, technology, botany and so on. Not that the Rev Thomas Marsham has left his mark anywhere much except in the early pages of this book.
The rectory was built in 1851, and At Home begins with an account of the Great Exhibition. Since the life of the rectory spans 150 years, during which ‘the modern world was really born’, the chapters on individual rooms explode into politics, demography, agriculture, architecture, archaeology, medicine and surgery, diet, diseases, building materials, sanitation, the ‘wondrous machines’ of the Industrial Revolution, lighting and heating, and new technologies of all kinds. (No room in these rooms for art, music or literature.) Links with the parts of his house become tenuous: ‘The Passage’ starts with the story of the building of the Eiffel Tower. Since modern life was increasingly determined by what was happening in America, and since Bryson needs to market his book on both sides of the water, there is a significant amount of material about the building of New York, the personalities of the Gilded Age and their mansions, and specifically American inventions and innovations, the ‘wonders of the age’.
Even all this is not scope enough for Bryson. We are hauled back to the Stone Age and led back home via the Middle Ages. Sometimes, romping through the centuries, I didn’t know where or when we were — just ‘in former times’. Bryson refers to the DNB’s ‘usual charming emphasis on pointless detail’, and to the ‘sweeping generalisations’ of the medical profession (about gynaecological matters). But then, it is only human nature to identify the idiosyncracies of others which reflect our own. At Home is ruminative, a little inconsequential, supremely unthreatening. Sometimes he writes as if this were a Ladybird Book, sometimes it’s like Ripley’s Believe it or Not: ‘About four in ten persons injured in a stair fall have been injured in a stair fall before.’ Being branded a ‘humorous’ writer, he does not do tragic. The bedroom is ‘the seat of more suffering and despair than all the other rooms of the house put together’, and indeed the chapter ‘The Bedroom’ is gruesome. But jocularity is Bryson’s natural mode.
He is inclined to be hyperbolic. It’s arguable, for instance, whether the realisation that fields did not have to lie fallow for a year to rest the soil really ‘changed the world’, except in so far as every single thing that happens — the flutter of a butterfly’s wing — changes the world. In the same way, his vague conflation of historical moments may be seen to reflect the non-linear nature of time. Bryson operates at the point where the simplistic meets the sophisticated.
He remarks that there is always ‘plenty of room for argument’ where not enough is known. But sometimes argument will be because enough is known. The location of a WC on the landing of the main staircase is not ‘a truly odd and irregular spot’, it was quite usual, and still is in cheap French hotels. Nor was it ‘eccentric’ to have no connecting door between master bedroom and dressing-room. I don’t think that a butler wearing ‘trousers that did not match his jacket’ was ‘an intentional sartorial gaucherie’, to emphasise subordination. The use of ice to preserve meat and fish was known and practised in this country at least a generation before Bryson sets it. The crinoline did not ‘give way’ to corsets; the corsets were there all the time. It’s not true that ‘the British never had much success in the East Indies’ — what about Raffles and Singapore?
But arguing with Bryson is part of the enjoyment of reading him, and accompanying him across swathes of layered history — much as he describes medieval householders tramping over their deep-litter floor-coverings of rushes, left undisturbed for decades, providing nests ‘for insects and furtive rodents, and a perfect incubator for plague’. It’s back to those fornicating rats. ‘Wherever people were, were rats.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 29, 2010