Wednesday, May 11, 2011

History's Details

I've always been attracted to social historians who, instead of making sweeping statements about the political and economic issues of an era, focus on people's lives: what they ate and wore, how they worked, what they did. This seems to bring the past alive in a way that conventional history never does. I call it microhistory.

So the discovery of Bill Bryson's work, especially his book At Home, has been a welcome one. It has led me to some of his other books, including lively and amusing studies of the English language and the life of Shakespeare. He is a curious fellow who unearths vast amounts of information about the past that he presents in an engaging manner. He deserves to be a best-selling author.

Living as he does in a Victorian house in England, Bryson gives us an anatomy of each area of the house, with all the interesting "digressions" about the oddities of human behavior as they manifest themselves in the customs of English life from 1750-1900, mainly. In At Home, I have learned the following delicious tidbits:

1. The Duke of Malborough, who paid untold millions for the building of the extravagant Blenheim Palace, was so stingy he refused to dot his i's to save ink. A detail like this is worth the price of the book, and it tells me a lot about the man.

2. Ladies' wigs in the 1790's became so extreme, rising on wire scaffolding that made the wearer look seven feet tall, so high were they that the ladies had to keep their heads out of the carriage windows when they traveled. These hairpieces were so elaborate they were untouched by soap and water for months at a time, leading to unpleasant things, like the lady who found mice nesting in her upper decks.

3. Landscape architects often added mock ruins to an estate for picturesque effect. A nobleman in Surrey once had a hermitage installed and hired a man as a live-in hermit. He paid him handsomely to live for seven years in monastic silence in this hermitage, but the man quickly grew tired of the solitude and silence and ran off to a nearby pub. If only the nobility had kept the monasteries destroyed by Henry VIII, I thought: they would not need ersatz hermits.

Anyone interested in the building or dining or bathing customs of our 19th century ancestors or who wants to appreciate the modern conveniences we take for granted will enjoy books like Bryson's. The truth about life in the past is often found in amusing details; and history, far from being a dull record of the past, can be hilarious.

No comments: