If you are the sort of person who wonders when women started wearing knickers, what people did before the flushing toilet became standard, or why people in much of the past seemed to have feared eating fruit, then If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home is probably the book for you. Written by Lucy Worsley (Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces), it was prepared to accompany a BBC4 documentary of the same name that was first shown about three years ago (and which I unfortunately missed). Having seen several of Worsley’s other documentaries, though, I hoped that her engaging, chatty style would be as evident in her writing as it was in her presenting.
Divided into four sections, If Walls Could Talk gives us an informative and often surprising history of the bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen from the earliest sources available to the present day. Packed into a little over 300 pages plus about a dozen inserts of colour images, this is an awful lot to cover in a relatively small space. Worsley is therefore a little guilty of lingering too long over her favourite periods – the Tudor court and the Georgians – and of subsequently skipping over quite a lot of material the nearer we get to the present in each chapter, often relegating anything post-Victorian to a mere paragraph. This makes some of the text appear a bit patchy and haphazard, leaping from one era to another in a single breath. Having said that, what we do get is certainly entertaining; while I initially set out to merely dip into this book, I ended up reading it from cover to cover.
Never one to take a prudish attitude to history, Worsley takes us through the “dirty centuries” when bathing was considered dangerous and a little odd; retrospectives on toilet paper and menstruation; how to go courting and speak to your servants in the past, and asks that all important question – were people always drunk in the past? (The short answer is no: wine was much less potent than today and people drank weak “small beer” rather than what we think of as beer today – it was much safer than water in most places.) While most domestic histories would probably stop after discussing heating, lighting, furniture and technology, she takes us through the bits of the past that you don’t normally read about, satisfying our curiosities about the darker, forgotten corners of the past of ordinary people.
Take, for instance, the bedroom. In the medieval world, there would have been no separate space kept merely for sleeping and beds were incredibly expensive, so it was quite normal to share one with your entire family. Sleeping areas were thus semi-public, and we are even told of a toddler in the seventeenth century whose third birthday was marked by her starting to share a bed with her many siblings; here, bed sharing was the act of a grown up, not of a child as it might be today when bed-sharing for kids is only to occasionally comfort them. It is only much later on bedrooms become private spaces deemed unsuitable to receiving visitors in, and Worsley takes us through each of their many uses: giving birth, dying, sex, masturbation, contraception and storing undergarments. Knickers, in case you are still wondering, appeared in the Regency period when ladies’ fashions meant that they no longer needed to “go commando” under giant hooped skirts to enable them to use the chamber pot without completely undressing.
Interestingly, living the past may not have been as bad for you as you might suspect. While fruit was feared as something that might make you ill, and vegetables were boiled and mushed to nutritional oblivion even when they were consumed, the Tudor pattern of eating your main meal in the morning was probably much better for the digestion than the big evening meal our lifestyles now dictate. Equally, women before the eighteenth century had quite a good deal in the bedroom, as it was understood that a woman’s orgasm was as necessary as the man’s for conception to occur. Compare this to the later attitudes that such a thing didn’t exist at all.
All too brief in many places and almost too wide-ranging for such a short book yes, but put together it all works to make a cracking introductory tour through British domestic history. I’ll never look at my house in quite the same way again.
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