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BOOK REVIEW : Peeking Through 3,000 Years of Western European Keyholes

April 11, 1990|JONATHAN KIRSCH

HISTORY OF PRIVATE LIFE VOLUME IV: FROM THE FIRES OF REVOLUTION TO THE GREAT WAR edited by Michelle Perrot, translated by Arthur Goldhammer Belknap/Harvard University Press $39.95; 736 pages

There's something wonderfully audacious about the very concept of "History of Private Life," a five-volume study that seeks to reveal the most intimate details of everyday life over three millennia of Western European history. Here is one scholarly work in which the bathroom and the bordello figure as importantly as the storming of the Bastille or the defeat of Napoleon.

The previous volumes in the series, originally published in France and now offered by Harvard University Press in Arthur Goldhammer's English translation, provide a fascinating glimpse into the distant and exotic past: Volume 1 chronicles private life in Rome and Byzantium. Volume 2 gives us "Revelations of the Medieval World." Volume 3 describes "Passions of the Renaissance." Now, in the newly published fourth volume of the series ("From the Fires of Revolution to the Great War"), we begin to recognize ourselves in the pages of history. "Privacy," writes general editor Michelle Perrot, "is the experience of the present age."

To be sure, we read about great ideas and great events in "History of Private Life"--as well as arts and letters, politics and politicians, architecture and urban planning, law and religion and medicine--but only as they are reflected in the obscure but powerful undercurrents of private life. The original sources of the scholarship in "History of Private Life" consist of "cries and whispers," as Perrot puts it, "creaking doors, locked drawers, purloined letters, glimpsed gestures, words spoken and unspoken."

Thus, for example, we come across a reference to Karl Marx--but only as an example of how the master of a household in the Victorian era might impregnate a housemaid without scandal or second thought. "Helen Demuth, who bore a child by Karl Marx, kept silent about the boy's existence throughout her life," Perrot explains. "Helen Demuth's position in the Marx family . . . is a paradoxical example of the abnegation to which good-hearted serving women were reduced, women like those visible in the corner of the photograph of one family whose name has been forgotten."

The six historians whose work is presented in the new volume--including general editor Perrot and contributors Lynn Hunt, Catherine Hall, Anne Martin-Fugier, Roger-Henri Guerrand and Alain Corbin--are concerned with the dark secrets that were hidden behind the noble edifice of 19th-Century middle-class family life.

The family was regarded as " 'society's 'invisible hand' and the economy's 'hidden God.' " In a world where privacy suddenly was regarded as a human right, the bathroom became "a sanctuary" and the parental bed amounted to "an altar of family life." And yet private life was the domain of the husband and father, who was empowered by law to forbid the marriage of his own children until they reached the age of 25, to send his wife to prison on charges of adultery, and to commit a troublesome or eccentric daughter to an insane asylum.

For a book of more than 700 pages, each page dense with particulars, the latest volume of "History of Private Life" is remarkably accessible and readable. It is organized more nearly like an encyclopedia than a monograph, with short entries under well-marked topical headings.

Then, too, the book is generously decorated with more than 400 well-annotated illustrations, which amount to a kind of parallel historical narrative as well as an intriguing picture gallery.

Of course, the ideals of family and father that defined private life in the 19th Century fell under the weight of their own hypocrisies, and that's the real story which is told at length in Volume IV of "History of Private Life."

In that sense, the new volume is a study of sexual politics that strips away the polite veneer of Victorian manners and exposes the aches and anxieties at the heart of modern consciousness. "Concern for self, for a body . . . whose complexity was better understood, for the depths of the psyche that were only now coming into clear focus, for sexuality liberated from procreation and marriage," Perrot concludes, "all these things were at the heart of twentieth-century aesthetics and philosophy."

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