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97 of 109 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Bryson's personal view of private life, 5 Jun. 2010
This review is from: At Home: A short history of private life (Hardcover)
Bill Bryson's book is ambitious entitled 'a short history of private life', but it concentrates mainly on private life over the last 150 years - the period since his own home, a rambling former rectory in Norfolk, was built.

Each chapter concentrates on one room in the house, and describes how things have changed over the years. There are several factual errors in the book, for instance Bill Bryson claims that sugar first became available in England in the reign of Henry VIII which is not so - sugar was being eaten during the medieval era. And he makes the claim that people did not bathe during the medieval era, which again is not so, medieval art contains many illustrations of people bathing, and there were public bath houses in London for example, which were very popular.

There is much interesting information in this book, but Bryson prefers, on the whole, to look on the bleak side of the past. So for instance he describes relations between masters and servants, and between husbands and wives, and parents and children,in mostly gloomy terms. He doesn't seem to feel that anyone in the past ever liked each other very much, though the evidence of letters, journals, and memoirs suggests otherwise.

I found this book interesting, but quite irritating in parts. I wouldn't take Bryson's word for everything that you read here.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 3 Aug 2010 13:37:58 BDT
A says:
As an historian I'm somewhat picky when choosing a book that is supposed to be about the real past. I like my facts to be correct. If the above is true, Bill Bryson seems to have simply repeated a number of shibboleths and I too would find it irritating to read - so I won't.

In reply to an earlier post on 17 Aug 2010 11:59:17 BDT
Sandy says:
Shibboleths ???

In reply to an earlier post on 19 Aug 2010 11:16:26 BDT
Last edited by the author on 21 Aug 2010 11:11:57 BDT
JJA Kiefte says:
A. Douglas-McCaig probably means 'customs' or 'practices'.
I do not think that the book contains 'factual errors'. It rather depends on which sources the author draws upon; some will say that people in the middle ages didn't wash, others will say that they did. Which of the two is true?
About sugar Bryson is indeed a bit equivocal: "The British had always loved sugar, so much so that when they first got access to it, about the time of Henry VIII, (...)". To me this indicates that sugar was known to Britons before Henry VIII, but was not widely used because of it being very expensive. Some editing would have been welcome here.
The 'gloomy terms' with which Bryson describes human relationships are borne out by many quotations from letters, journals and memoirs too, so they will, at least in part, represent contemporary experiences. Again, this largely depends on the sources an author draws on.
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