Bill Bryson’s delightful At Home: A Short History of Private Life came first, but Lucy Worsley’s If Walls Could Talk separates itself from the predecessor by being, well, more intimate! I promise this will be a review of If the Walls Could Talk, but if you are ever in need of a peaceful “sleep read” then I highly recommend plugging into the audio adaptation of Bryson’s book- it is seriously soothing.
The biggest difference between At Home and If Walls Could Talk is the female perspective. Bryson’s book was framed around the World’s Fair of 1851 and focused greatly on the modern marvels of the age, but Worsley gets down and dirty with the truly intimate acts of the human body, and how those acts and our relationships with our bodies and the people around us have grown and changed what a “home” is since the medeival era.
Now, onto Lucy Worsley! I heartily recommend the audio adaptation of this one as well; the narrator engages in some very silly accent work while embodying the voices pulled from contemporary diaries of the era. The diary excerpts, as well as pieces pulled directly from guidebooks of the day, make the home truly come alive. Worsley also has tried many of the activities of historical housekeeping (turning horsehair mattresses, making tallow candles, scrubbing copper dishes with ash- among many others), and her personal accounts add a modern sense of understanding that can sometimes be lost in historical tomes.
One of my favorite things about the book is how frequently Worsley quotes from Judy Blume. Bits of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret pepper many of the chapters while Worsley uses what it means to be a woman to define what it means to build and keep a home. While many social histories focus on the physical aspects of the home. If Walls Could Talk realizes that many of the things that have been created and brought into what we consider a home came from the needs and wants of women. Usually we get histories on great halls to dining rooms and sacks of hay to mattresses, and we definitely get those here as well, but we also get the social histories of breast feeding, menstruation, the role of the female orgasm in conception, raising children both in and out of the home, and many other things! We also get to focus on the role of the woman in keeping house; a role that, throughout a great deal of history, has been an area where women were organized and in control but made still to remain “behind the curtain”, unable to take ownership or praise for the remarkable work done.
Again, as almost always, this book strikes an oddly clear note in the current age of pandemic. The book closes with a look towards the future; how we will be looking back towards the medeival concept of home (we’re not going back to the Dark Ages, don’t panic!). We see many of these things already! We’ll need to use renewable resources. We’ll need to be careful with water consumption. Our windows will grow smaller and our walls thicker while we rely on ourselves to keep warm in the winter and cool in the summer. We’ll be drawn towards “places”; areas to live that are densely populated, walk-able, and the rich and poor live together and interact every day. We’ll return to the art of home cooking and growing food staples. Most specifically, we’ll begin to see antibiotics fail while viruses rise, and we will be learning again to live around and to tolerate diseases as they come.