The Big Necessity

profile-toilet-largeI sometimes find, when I’m reading, that I’ve picked up a book (or two or ten) with a particular theme for no specific reason–only to discover, a little way down the line, that there was a reason, only I didn’t know it yet. It’s like I’m researching before I realize what–or why–I’m researching. Example: before I started working on Sold for Endless Rue which is set in medieval Italy* I found myself rereading The Name of the Rose, The Doomsday Book, and several of Sharan Newman’s excellent Catherine LeVendeur mysteries. Only later did I realize that I wanted to see how other writers handled the day-to-day of medieval life and, in particular, day-to-day faith.

So: anent research I read Chasing Clean, Suellen Hoy’s lovely history of the pursuit of cleanliness in America (so glad I didn’t live in pre-Civil War America. So glad) and Rose George’s The Big Necessity, a riveting look at the history, engineering, and health management aspects of, um, human waste. It’s fascinating, not least because I’m reminded of how much I take for granted every time I flush the toilet and wash my hands. There’s a wonderful anecdote at the beginning of The Big Necessity in which the author, asking for a bathroom at a restaurant in the Ivory Coast, is shown to a hut–a small, white tiled room. No light, no toilet, drain, no hole, nothing: just find your spot and go. She’s taken aback, and goes out to check with the waiter who had shown her to the, um, facitilities. “Do it on the floor. What did you expect? This isn’t America!” And the author, who would have used the bushes or a one-holer, takes care of business, having been reminded of how privileged she is. Because it is a privilege to have an outhouse, or even a chair to sit on (as in a memorable scene from Slumdog Millionaire) while one does ones’ business.

Not to mention what becomes of all that effluvia. Okay, I don’t mean to gross anyone out; you’re likely drinking coffee and getting a start on your day. But Rose George’s point is that where there are people there are these issues, and they matter. And have mattered throughout human history.

I do wonder why I read these books when I did (certainly they seem somehow germane to Covid-19, although the disease vector angle is very different). Partly, I read them when they came my way (well, the Hoy book did–a friend loaned it to me; I saw a review of the George and got it for myself as a Christmas present–I’m such a romantic). But I also found myself eying Clean: A History of Personal Hygiene and Purity when I came across them. There was a theme cooking in my brain.

I hope my brain will tell me, someday, what the theme is. I’m really quite curious.

*Medieval Italy=a term which has no real meaning, as what we call Italy wasn’t until well into modern times, and in the medieval age was really a battlefield for Lombards, Arabs, and as far as I can tell, Sino-Celtic traveling salesmen.


  1. Yes, this is a fascinating subject I often think of myself. My grandparents had an outhouse, and while I was grossed out by it as a child, I grew to appreciate our indoor facilities much more than most children I knew. Bill Gates is very smart (genius?), and he has been obsessed with inventing toilets for the third world for a while. It is just like road and bridges, something we never think about until it is gone. I often think while I read historical novels or nonfiction that I am so glad I was born into a time of relative cleanliness. I recently read Fever by Mary Beth Keane, and her descriptions of dodging excrement all over the streets of NYC while wearing a floor length skirt stuck in my head for a long time. And shoes! How on earth did they keep their shoes clean? And walking in the house with those shoes on! I will have to check out these books. I really enjoyed the Doomsday Book.

  2. One of my favorite throw-away lines in Sense and Sensibility is Mrs. Jenkins telling the Dashwood girls “watch your slippers, girls, the horses have been here.” Street sweeping–clearing away all sorts of excrement for the well-to-do crossing the street–was a job done by poor boys for a penny or so.

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