How do you romp through a millennia or so of British history, painting a picture of life, events and characters? Heading away from the usual lists of kings and queens, or thematic examination of classes and groups in society, Lucy Worsley’s gone for the purely domestic in If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home.
And an entertaining, comfortable read it makes. She strolls from medieval great halls to 1970s Habitat bedrooms, with their wonderful innovation of the duvet, a far stretch from the domestic drudgery of the Victorian bedmaking – which as Worsley explains she’s tried out, hands-on, for herself as a television presenter.
If you’ve encountered a fair bit of social history there won’t be a lot of surprises here – the explanation for medieval and early modern people apparently sleeping half-sitting as a result of sagging bed ropes I’ve read many times before, also that it was normal for ladies to go “commando” (as Worsley puts it – her casual modern language is sometimes entertaining and sometimes a bit grating) in the 16th-18th centuries, when huge skirts made any other arrangement hopelessly impractical.
But I did learn plenty of new things – including the fact that evening sleep was expected for many centuries to be in two parts, first and second sleep (which particularly made sense in long winter evenings). Worsley notes that a 17th-century French doctor recommended that between the two was the best time to conceive children – because then couples would have “more enjoyment” and “do it better”.
And that a garderobe was so called because the ammonia-rich environment would kill the fleas in robes hung there. (I already knew about the laundry use of urine, but did rather enjoy the 19th-century account of wealthy foxhunters having their red coats so douched by their servants, probably, as Worsley notes, without their knowledge.)
There were some errors of fact on matters on which I happen to have knowledge that did give me cause for concern – the heroine of The Women’s Room didn’t run off to Harvard to study literature to avoid housework, but was divorced and forced out of that role, and it wasn’t the class difference between the Earl of Castlereagh and his valet that scandalised peers enough to have him executed, but the act of sodomy. I wouldn’t rely on this work for any academic purpose.
As you’ll gather there’s rather a lot about sex in this book – Worsley’s clearly learned what sells books and television shows – and you do sometimes wish for a little more social analysis and explanation, but that’s perhaps not quite fair. This is clearly signposted as an entertaining read that will add to your trivia knowledge rather than your historical understanding, and it delivers on those terms.
Nonetheless, there’s an interesting conclusion which ventures on to very different ground – with a broad consideration of how the past can teach us about the necessarily low-carbon future, when homes will again need to use much less energy and be far more environmentally sensitive. Worsley notes: “I myself live in a tall glass tower, built in 1998, and must agree with Francis Bacon, who condemned the great, glass-filled palaces of the Jacobean age. In a house ‘full of Glass’, he wrote, ‘one cannot tell where to become to be out of the Sun or Cold’.”