This is an ambitious distillation of social history using the rooms of a Victorian vicarage, Bryson’s home, as the ‘hook’, crammed to the rafters with interesting facts. Who knew that the youngest chimney sweep apprentice was aged only three and a half? Or that the boating accident on the Thames with the highest number of fatalities involved a pleasure boat sinking in raw sewage? Or that the ‘second best bed’ that Shakespeare bequeathed to his wife was, in all likelihood, the marital bed, since people then generally kept the best bed downstairs to show off to visitors/neighbours.
At times the subject matter is forced into the ‘home’ framework like a Victorian lady into a corset (for example, the topic of mice, rats and other pests is covered by the Study chapter because more mice are caught in that room than anywhere else in Bryson’s house, apparently) and several of the later chapters reprise information from earlier chapters, but these are minor quibbles. Overall it’s an interesting book – and if that sounds less than a ringing endorsement it’s because the scale of the subject matter shrinks Bryson’s laugh out loud humour to a slight smirk.
If you’re a Bill Bryson fan you’ve probably read At Home already. If not, then try one of his travel books first, Notes from a Big Country or Notes from a Small Island, say.
** Worth reading