Bill Bryson on Conversation

For pleasure, I’m reading Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life.  I found this passage funny (I’m chuckling as I type it out), and fitting to Sawyer’s discussion of the effect of setting on conversation:

If we were to go back in time to a house in Chippendale’s day, one difference that would immediately strike us would be that chairs and other items of furniture were generally pushed up against the walls, giving every room the aspect of a waiting room.  Chairs or tables in the middle of the room would have looked as out of place to Georgians as a wardrobe left in the middle of a room would look to us today….

When one had visitors, the custom was to bring an appropriate number of chairs forward and arrange them in a circle or semicircle, rather like storytime in an elementary school.  This had the inevitable effect of making nearly all conversations strained and artificial.  Horace Walpole, after sitting for four and a half hours in an agonizing circle of fatuous conversation, declared: “We wore out the Wind and the Weather, the Opera and the Play…and every topic that would do in a formal circle.” Yet when daring hostesses tried to introduce spontaneity by arranging chairs into more intimate clusters of threes and fours, many felt the result was tantamount to pandemonium, and more than a few could never get used to the idea of conversations taking place behind their backs.


2 thoughts on “Bill Bryson on Conversation

  1. I’ve enjoyed how you’re flavoring your work with quotes from historical and literary sources. I see plenty of “strained and artificial” conversations in all settings, to the point that the word “conversation” really is a contrivance. In education, which is already a contrivance, coordinating conversation is already at a disadvantage.

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