Through the Keyhole

A History of Private Life Vol. IV: From the Fires of Revolution to the Great War

edited by Michelle Perrot, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
Harvard University Press (Belknap Press), 713 pp., $39.95

“I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives.” These frivolous, dispiriting words, spoken by Amanda to her new husband, Victor, early in Noel Coward’s Private Lives might also serve as the damning epigraph for the book under review. It is the latest installment in a five-volume series, originally conceived by Georges Duby and the late Philippe Ariès, which was first published in France in the mid-1980s, and is now appearing in translation. The idea was to provide a wide-ranging survey of Western private life from the Roman Empire to the present day.1 As the editors candidly, if rather theatrically, admitted, their enterprise was “fraught with peril.” By definition, the inwardness of private life remains largely unknowable, and the further back in time the historian probes, the more this is bound to be so. Until the nineteenth century, the very idea of private life as something separate from the public realm would have been incomprehensible to most European men and women. Undismayed by the vaulting nature of their ambition, and by the unavoidable anachronisms inherent in its realization, Duby and Ariès brought together a team of (mainly French) historians, and charged them to “put their eyes to keyholes” and to “spy out what happens in other people’s houses, and tell the neighbors about it.”

For the first two books in the series, this worked reasonably well. Volume one ranged across the Roman Empire, and even-handedly surveyed the early Middle Ages in the West and Byzantium in the tenth and eleventh centuries.2 And it dealt with many subjects commonsensically encompassed by the term “private life”: individuals and groups, work and leisure, homes and households, the body and the inner self, religion and belief. The second volume, covering the period between 1000 AD and the early sixteenth century, made imaginative use of contemporary literary sources, and showed how notions of privacy and intimacy evolved even in a society dominated by noble households and great abbeys.3 But there was a regrettable contraction of geographical range, and this was narrowed still further in the third volume, which was almost entirely restricted to France. 4 The time scale was also more limited, being confined essentially to the early modern period, and most of the essays were evocative rather than analytical. Ironically enough, the most recent volume, which deals with the very period when the idea of a fully developed private life first truly flourished, is much the weakest so far. Confined to the “long” nineteenth century between 1789 and 1914, it displays a narrowness of sympathy which makes Amanda’s disenchanted comment on the human condition seem positively upbeat by comparison.

It is also, apart from a brief, token chapter on early nineteenth-century England, exclusively concerned with the French. Of course, the rich diversity of private life in nineteenth-century France is an entirely legitimate subject of historical study. But it is certainly not the same as a history of private life in the whole of…

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