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If Walls Could Talk by Lucy Worsley

If Walls Could Talk (edition 2011)

by Lucy Worsley

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2211252,606 (3.76)13
Title:If Walls Could Talk
Authors:Lucy Worsley
Info:Faber And Faber Ltd. (2011), Hardcover, 256 pages
Collections:Your library, Read but unowned
Tags:history, library, 2012

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


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Fascinating bits about British homes of history, largely in the Henry VIII and Victorian eras. The bedroom and bathroom sections were the most interesting, and I scanned a lot of the rest, but it wasn't scanning because the book was bad, I just had certain things I was researching.

Lori Anderson

Book Blog ( )
  limamikealpha | Jun 5, 2014 |
For readers who enjoy social history this a swiftly paced, conversational-style book packed with facts, anecdotes and stories. It's highly readable even if you haven't seen the BBC television series which was made from the book (which I haven't) due to Dr Worsley's informal, humorous and witty commentary on bedrooms, bathrooms, living rooms and kitchens and their associated activities, through six hundred or so years of history, in mostly English and some American settings.

For those readers who prefer social history to be a little more in-depth and clearly documented as to the original sources, this book could prove quite problematic. While there is a bibliography at the back and a lengthy acknowledgements page listing eighteen specific books and reference papers; it's difficult to discover immediately where all the secondary sources were gleaned from as the bibliography is listed without reference to chapter numbers or footnotes within the text.

The text itself, whilst a lively read, does jump quickly from century to century covering specific subjects. With some history writing the details set the context and specific cultural and social mores, so that the reader can feel absorbed in that time period, but If Walls Could Talk is not that kind of book. To be fair; it was most likely never intended to be so.

I would have given four stars but there were a couple of things that altered my initial good opinion. One was encountered in Chapter Two - Being Born. This section notes the change of birthing practises: once the preserve of women-only midwives, who used birthing stools for the assistance of gravity in childbirth, it shifted over time to that of male doctors encouraging mothers into beds so as to apparently save the risk of backache due to bending down to deliver babies. The paragraph concludes with; "It strikes one as more for the benefit of the doctor than patient." Possibly this is meant only as mildly pointed sarcasm; however, it leaves some doubt in my mind as to that being the sole reason for why bed birthing became standard practise. Were there any other viable medical reasons, ones thought to be an improvement in hygiene or for women in labour, at all? We aren't informed of any, if so.

In the following chapter - Was Breast Always Best?, there is comparison of Hannah Glasse to Gina Ford (a U.K parenting guru with best-selling book published in 1999) with a quote on how babies should be correctly dressed. Another reference in Chapter 8 - 'Speaking' to the Servants, includes a quote from Hannah Glasse's advice for housemaids. The comparison and quotes brought me to a sharp halt as there is only one well known Hannah Glasse of eighteenth-century England and that is the woman who produced the immensely popular book 'The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple' in 1746. There is no mention at all of her considerable and groundbreaking influence on domestic cooking, nor that she has been extensively championed over the last decade by food historians and was labelled 'the mother of the modern dinner party'. The late Clarissa Dickson Wright even presented a BBC documentary on her achievements (Hannah Glasse - The First Domestic Goddess). Both the quotes used appear likely to have be taken from 'The Servant's Directory', a much later work on household management, although no source is clearly listed in the bibliography.

Readers can be forgiven for thinking that Mrs. Glasse was considered a prominent expert of the day on childcare practices and the household duties of servants because of the book's portrayal. The only problem is that it isn't really true. Hannah Glasse never achieved another notable success on a level of 'The Art of Cookery' with her later works published in England (The Art of Cookery is noted as reaching sixteen reprints after first being published. The Servant's Directory, by contrast, only had four). As noted above; 'The Servant's Directory' was written about household management, not specifically on childcare, and there is no evidence at all to say the author was considered "the eighteenth-century Gina Ford". If it is possible to mislead readers with an inaccurate depiction of a documented figure then who and what else has been presented in a similar way?

Unfortunately, these examples removed any confidence in the overall veracity of the research and its presentation. Dr Worsley cannot be expected to be an expert on every single aspect of historical matters related to the home, but, of those doing the professional research, proofing and editing I would think it possible to catch points that undermine the book's intent to inform as well as entertain. (Other reviewers have noted elsewhere there are also misleading pieces of information regarding the etymology of phrases and easily researched details about Queen Victoria and Sir Walter Raleigh)

Overall, it could have been a truly fascinating read but is a disappointment for the glaring errors and false conclusions. ( )
1 vote Belochka | May 1, 2014 |
A largely anecdotal and breezy romp through "house and home," in which Worsley touches briefly on various and sundry aspects of life, from the brushing of teeth to the preparation of food to the composition of pillows. I noticed a few small errors, some very questionable etymological excursions, and some grand generalizations that don't entirely seem backed up by evidence ... and without any sort of citations, it's very hard to take them at face value. A fun read, but I'm not sure it's entirely to be trusted on all counts. ( )
  JBD1 | Mar 18, 2014 |
I am only on page 36 and am already pretty frustrated with this, and I may or may not keep reading. This is exactly the type of chatty, sociological survey that I adore, but I also adore proper citations in my non-fiction.

For this book, there's a bibliography, there's a topical index, but there are NO FOOTNOTES. If you tell me that a medieval travel guide used certain phrases, then I want to know what travel guide it was, I don't want to have to pour through the bibliography hoping to stumble across it. If you tell me that most people in England use duvets rather than sheets and blankets, I want to know sales figures that back this up, because I'm over here in the US and this is not necessarily what I see represented in movies, TV shows, and books. And if you're going to tell me that the origin of the phrase "sleep tight" has to do with the sagging ropes in medieval bed frames, you're just wrong, because a search will show that the OED doesn't record that phrase until 1933, and a couple easily-found articles offer an alternate, research-supported theory that you don't even mention in your text.

There are some fascinating pieces of information and interesting suppositions in this book so far, but frankly I am going to have to take everything else in the book with a grain of salt. Boo. ( )
1 vote MelissaZD | Jan 1, 2014 |
A bit superficial but interesting look at the English home and how it came to be the way it is. A good companion to the TV series it has an extensive bibliography. It does show how the English home was influenced by other factors but it's largely about the British home.

It does suffer a little from trying to cram it all in but at the same time I found it interesting and quite readable. There were details about things that wouldn't find their way into a TV series and at other times I wanted more illustrations and information. ( )
  wyvernfriend | Jun 20, 2013 |
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What I want to know is, in the Middle Ages, did they do anything for Housemaid's Knee? What did they put in their hot baths after jousting?

H. G. Wells, Tono-Bungay, 1909
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Why did the flushing toilet take two centuries to catch on? (Introduction)
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"Why did the flushing toilet take two centuries to catch on? Why did Samuel Pepys never give his mistresses an orgasm? Why did medieval people sleep sitting up? When were the two "dirty centuries"? Why did gas lighting cause Victorian ladies to faint? Why, for centuries, did people fear fruit? All these questions will be answered in this juicy, smelly, and truly intimate history of home life. Lucy Worsley takes us through the bedroom, bathroom, living room, and kitchen, covering the architectural history of each room, but concentrating on what people actually did in bed, in the bath, at the table, and at the stove. From sauce-stirring to breast-feeding, teeth-cleaning to masturbation, getting dressed to getting married, this book will make you see your home with new eyes."--Publisher.… (more)

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