If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 July, 2011, 12:00am


If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home
by Lucy Worsley
Faber and Faber

Lucy Worsley has been a time traveller of late. London's Historic Royal Palaces chief curator gave readers a look at a 17th-century member (William) of England's Cavendish family in her 2007 book, Cavalier: A Tale of Chivalry, Passion, and Great Houses, and her 2010 Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court explored England a century later. In her new book, she - as did the Roman god Janus - looks forward and backward in time, taking readers inside homes and palaces, from the Middle Ages to the 21st century.

While An Intimate History lacks the historical and topical focus of Worsley's two prior books, it does reveal curious aspects of home history. It takes readers through the histories of the bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen, offering insights into the household lives of various historical figures, some titans of history and some little-known. While the overarching narrative charts the continual development and change of social function, features, layout and make-up of these four rooms, the book is most valuable for its intriguing bits of home history.

Who would have known, for instance, that Father John Gerard wrote - in the 1590s - secret letters from prison, using orange juice as ink (invisible until exposed to low heat, easily generated in ovens), or that more alcohol was consumed in 1877 than in any year before or since, or that Henry VIII's engineers tunnelled under the Thames for the sole purpose of creating enough pressure - using gravity - to bring water into the king's second-storey royal bathroom?

While the writing can at times be slightly dry, there is always a surprise lurking around the corner; readers will quickly realise this, reading with anticipation of the next palace, person or pot of the past.

Worsley's take on the future of the home is intriguing. She believes many of the major home trends of the past few centuries - towards room specialisation, increased comfort and ease of cleaning, and away from natural building materials and chimney construction - will reverse course due to rapid population growth and strain on the planet's resources.