Lucy Worsley is a celebrity in England. Not so much in the United States, although her new book might change that. (A profile of her in the Nov. 21, 2011, issue of the New Yorker has already raised her visibility here.)
In England by day, Worsley is chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces. By night, she is a widely viewed television host. "If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home," published in England last year, accompanied a four-part TV series with the same title. The American edition of the book feels very, well, British, and not only due to the British spelling of words later Americanized.
Some folks equate "very British" with stuffy. There is nothing stuffy about Worsley or her book, which is primarily an intimate history of bedrooms, bathrooms, living rooms and kitchens. Wondering how such rooms came to be as they are circa 2012, Worsley explains, "I've explored what people actually did in bed, in the bath, at the table and at the stove. This has taken me from sauce stirring to breastfeeding, teeth cleaning to masturbation, getting dressed to getting married." An explanation like that in Worsley's introduction makes the book itself difficult to resist.
Among the highlights of her historical explorations: Not until the 19th century did most bedrooms become private locales used primarily for sleeping and sex. Before then, bedrooms tended to be "rather crowded, semi-public places."
Living rooms became practical only after homeowners found leisure hours and enough money to enjoy such spaces. In a book filled with psychological as well as historical insights, Worsley comments she has learned to think of living rooms "as a sort of stage set where homeowners acted out an idealised version of their lives for the benefit of guests."
In a curtsy to the present, Worsley concludes the book with thoughts about what living homeowners can learn from those long dead. She predicts a return to practices from earlier eras: "In a world where oil supplies are running out, the future of the home will be guided by lessons from the low-technology, pre-industrial past. ... When the oil runs out, we'll see a return to the chimney" because wood is a sustainable resource if forests are carefully preserved. Wood-burning stoves, she predicts, will become increasingly popular.
Worsley views the looks backward as positive, and closes with a quotation from the past, attributed to Samuel Johnson: "To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition."
Steve Weinberg is a journalist and writer in Missouri.