Authors: Lucy Worsley
Tags: #History, #Europe
If Walls Could Talk
An Intimate History of the Home
What I want to know is, in the Middle Ages, did they do anything for Housemaid’s Knee? What did they put in their hot baths after jousting?
H. G. Wells,
Why did the flushing toilet take two centuries to catch on? Why did strangers share their beds? And why did rich people fear fruit? These are the kinds of question I want to address in this intimate history of home life.
Moving through the four main rooms of a house – bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen – I’ve explored what people
in bed, in the bath, at the table and at the stove. This has taken me from sauce-stirring to breastfeeding, teeth-cleaning to masturbation, getting dressed to getting married.
Along my way, I was intrigued to discover that bedrooms in the past were rather crowded, semi-public places, and that only in the nineteenth century did they become reserved purely for sleep and sex. The bathroom didn’t even exist as a separate room until late in the Victorian age, and it surprised me that people’s attitudes towards personal hygiene, rather than technological innovation, determined the pace of its development. The living room emerged once people had the leisure time and spare money to spend in and on it, and I’ve learned to think of it as a sort of stage-set where homeowners acted out an idealised version of their lives for the benefit of guests. Meanwhile, the story of the kitchen is also the story of food safety, transport, technology and gender relations. Once I realised this, I saw my own kitchen in an entirely new light.
There are lots of tiny, quirky and seemingly trivial details in
this book, but through them I think we can chart great, overarching, revolutionary changes in society. A person’s home makes an excellent starting point for assessing their time, place and life. ‘I’ve a great respect for
!’ says Madame Merle in Henry James’s
The Portrait of a Lady
(1881). ‘We’re each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances … one’s house, one’s furniture, one’s garments, the books one reads, the company one keeps – these things are all expressive.’ ‘Look around this room of yours and what do you see?’ asked John Ruskin in 1853. The answer, of course, is the same even today: you see yourself. That’s why, now as then, people lavish so much time, effort and money on their houses.
What else have I learned from writing this history of domestic life? It’s been brought home to me that biology has always been destiny. Many major social upheavals come back, in the end, to little changes in the way that people think about and look after their bodies. I also think it’s interesting and instructive to find that the put-upon and down-and-out in the past weren’t always worse off than they are today. Industrialisation was a Bad Thing for many people; to be rich placed certain social obligations upon a person in the past that are now far from familiar. But this is a very old-fashioned history book in that generally, over the centuries, we see living conditions improve. Seemingly iron laws about behaviour eventually relax; amazing inventions remove problems at a stroke; there is hope for the future. My conclusion is that we have some distance yet to travel on this journey towards the good life, but that history can help to show us the way.
Most agreeably of all, I feel that I’ve encountered some real people from the past, from all ranks in society, peasants to kings. If we reach out a hand across the centuries, we find that our ancestors are very much like us in the ways they lived, loved and died. ‘Of all histories’, wrote John Beadle in 1656, ‘the history of men’s lives is the most pleasant: such history … can call back times, and give life to those that are dead.’
In researching this book, I’ve had two sources of extra help from beyond the walls of the library. Firstly, working at Historic Royal Palaces, as I do, I am surrounded by people whose job it is to bring the past back to life for our visitors. We talk about the topics covered here every day. Secondly, I’ve had the privilege of presenting a BBC TV series on the history of the home. For that project I tried out for myself many of the processes and rituals described here. I blackened a Victorian kitchen range, lugged the hot water to fill an unplumbed bathtub, ignited a gas streetlight, waded through nineteenth-century sewers, slept in a Tudor bed, drank a Georgian medicine made out of seawater, coaxed a dog into turning a roasting-spit, and even used urine as a stainremover. Each time we recreated some lost part of domestic life I learned something new about why and how houses developed.
Many of these humdrum tasks were so familiar to people in the past that they were hardly worth thinking about. ‘I was talking about ideals, nobility, principles,’ cries one of the characters in Marilyn French’s classic feminist novel
The Women’s Room
(1978). ‘Why do you always have to bring us down to the level of the mundane, the ordinary, the stinking, f---ing refrigerator?’ But I would argue that every single object in your home has its own important story to tell. Your relationship with your refrigerator reveals a great deal about who you really are. Is it full or empty? Do you share it? Clean it yourself? Have someone to clean it for you? The answers to these questions define your place in the world. As Dr Johnson put it:
Sir, there is nothing too little for so little a creature as man. It is by studying little things that we attain the great knowledge of having as little misery and as much happiness as possible.
Nearly a third of history is missing. You very rarely hear about the hours when people were asleep, or on the borders of it, and it’s worth trying to fill that gap.
Today your bedroom is the backstage area where you prepare for your performance in the theatre of the world. For us it’s a private place, and it’s rude to barge into someone else’s bedroom without knocking.
But this is a relatively new phenomenon. Medieval people didn’t have special rooms for sleeping. They simply had a living space in which they happened to rest – or eat, or read, or party – and they used the same room for everything. The idea that you might sleep by yourself, in your own bed, in your own separate room, is really rather modern.