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Review: If Walls Could Talk

by Lucy Worsley, Faber and Faber

Buildings are about more than the materials they’re made of and the architectural styles they embrace, they’re about the people that live in them and the way they use them. This is something Lucy Worsley understands and, in her book If Walls Could Talk, An Intimate History of the Home, she takes us through the bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen. In the process she gives us an insight into the architectural history of each room and an account of how its use has evolved from medieval times to the present day.

This is a book that doesn’t shy away from explaining what went on behind the bedroom or bathroom door. Worsley relishes in telling us about everything from deviant sex and masturbation to the wonders of sewers but this doesn’t mean the 45 bite size chapters aren’t hugely well researched and packed with facts. We learn that the reason Victorian ladies have such a reputation for fainting is partly because of the shortage of oxygen in gas-lit drawing rooms and that the fitted kitchen was a German invention, first appearing in 1926 in a Frankfurt social housing project.

I always advocate research when taking on a renovation project because, by understanding how the building was used and came to be as it is, we can make more informed decision when it comes to embarking on repairs or changes. By focusing on what people actually did in bed, in the bath, at the table and at the stove – from sauce-stirring to breastfeeding, getting dressed to getting married – If Walls Could Talk helps us with that understanding. The book is a hugely entertaining read and, importantly, rather than being the more usual commentary on how royalty lived, provides a rare insight into the more ephemeral lives of ordinary men and women.

The book was written in conjunction with a BBC television series of the same name broadcast earlier this year. Tomorrow, Monday 29 August, Worsley returns to BBC Four at 9pm with a new series Elegance & Decadence, The Age of the Regency which marks “the 200th anniversary of one of the most explosive and creative decades in British history”.

Buy If Walls Could Talk here.