9 March 2012

Review: If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful - William Morris

If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home is written in a very readable tone, and covers the four main areas of the house: the bedroom, the bathroom, the living room and the kitchen, from medieval times to the present day. While most of the books I review are Christian, this one is not, and those with delicate sensibilities might be advised to avoid it.

As ‘An Intimate History of the Home’, If Walls Could Talkis filled with fascinating, useful, useless and sometimes just plain revolting information about the homes and lives of our British ancestors (with some information on the Americans). Some of the information (like the discussion on childbirth) I Really Did Not Need To Know. At the same time, it makes me wonder what modern cultural or medical beliefs we hold will be mocked or looked upon with horror by future generations.

For example, have you ever said it is time to hit the hay or hit the sack? Worsley reminds us that this saying derives from a time when most beds were a sack stuffed with hay (at the rich end of the spectrum, Henry VIII apparently slept on eight feather mattresses which travelled with him).

There was also some gentle mocking of some of our modern standards, such as our “strange desirability of imperfection”, our belief in the superiority of hand-made products, even through they have “a certain margin of crudeness. The margin must never be so wide as to show bungling workmanship, since that would be evidence of low cost, nor so narrow as to suggest the ideal precision attained only by the machine, for that would be evidence of low cost.”

The author has undertaken extensive research, and If Walls Could Talk has over 40 period illustrations, a comprehensive list of references and a detailed index. Much of the information is from the author’s first-hand experience, gained working at Historic Royal Palaces (who manage properties such as Hampton Court Palace and the Tower of London), and through presenting a BBC TV series on the history of the home.

Overall, If Walls Could Talkis a fascinating history of home and hearth that reminds me to be grateful for modern conveniences - many of which are more modern that I realised. Recommended for those who are addicted to shows such as Downton Abbey, Time Team and Antiques Roadshow.

Thanks to Bloomsbury and NetGalley for providing a free ebook for review.

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