“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 the Western world, which is what the series was intended to be about. It tells us nothing of Germany, the Low Countries, the Iberian Peninsula, or of European communities outside Europe. Nor is any helpful guidance offered in this volume about the degree to which the French experience is representative of the rest of the Continent. At one point, we learn that English society influenced France “in a hundred different ways.” Then, at another, we are informed that British preeminence was superseded by Germany and the United States. But later on we are told that “private life in the nineteenth century cannot easily be separated from the national cultures within which it flourished,” and that “France seems to constitute a separate case in the history of western individualism.” It is impossible for the reader to make any sense of these contradictory signals.

In addition to being flawed by these unjustified (and unjustifiable) limitations in geographical scope, the book is further harmed by its prose, which often fluctuates wildly between the pretentious and the banal, as is well illustrated in Michelle Perrot’s sometimes bizarre introduction. “Today’s worker,” we are told, “looks upon his or her home as an ever more personalized refuge from the boss’s surveillance and the discipline of the factory.” “Ideology, rhetoric, and practice,” she goes on to say, “in the spheres of economics, politics, and ethics were recast in the early twentieth century to embrace ‘the masses.’ ” Processes of sectorization, dissociation, and dissemination,” we are further informed “are at work everywhere.” Not surprisingly, the editor has little time for traditional kinds of more rigorous historical inquiry. “The standard approaches of economic and social history” are grandly dismissed as being “insufficient.” And historical demography “offers only a crude frame-work” of inquiry. Perhaps so. But whatever its shortcomings, it is certainly not as crude as what is presented here.


After this discouraging beginning it is a relief to turn to Lynn Hunt’s essay, “The Unstable Boundaries of the French Revolution,” which explores with characteristic insight and authority the changing and contested borders between private life and the public during the years between 1789 and 1794. Among many other things, the initial aim of the revolutionaries was to reassert the classical view that the public was much more important than the private realm, and should, indeed, have full control over it. As a result, the state became intrusive in the private affairs of individuals to an unprecedented degree. Regulations concerning marriage were secularized and reformed; the time of day and the monthly calendar were both restructured; and even personal names and patterns of dress were used to make political statements. Patriotism was equated with plain, even shabby, clothing, and after April 3, 1793, all French citizens were required to wear one tricolor cockade. But as the institutions of the ancien régime were partly dismantled, especially the nobility, the Church, and the corporations, this also provided new—and unintended—scope for people to shape their private lives, especially in such matters as religion and marriage. In short, while the initial aim of the Revolution was to diminish the realm of personal privacy, Hunt suggests that its longer-term consequence was to provide unexpected opportunities for people to live their personal lives.

This is a stimulating and salutary chapter, and it is a pity that its approach is so little followed in the pages that follow. For Hunt rightly insists that the study of private life should not be segregated from the study of public life or from the rest of history generally. She reminds us that most people lived (and live) lives partly private, partly public, and that it is essential to study the relationship between them. Yet in the remainder of the book, public life is largely ignored, on the grounds that the nineteenth century was obsessed with privacy, as more and more people fled from the world and led their lives behind closed doors. But was private life in France ever this cozy, this comfortable, this detached from public affairs? The 1800s saw unprecedented mobilization for the Napoleonic Wars. During the invasion and defeat that followed women were widowed, children were orphaned. In 1830, there was a political revolution in France, and seventeen years later another. In 1870, there were the Paris Commune and the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War. And at the turn of the century, the country was deeply divided over the Dreyfus Affair. Once in every generation, public events intruded upon the personal lives of French men and women with effects that must surely have been profound and long-lasting. But in most of the book this essential matter goes unexplored.

The exception is also the only essay to go beyond the bounds of France, Catherine Hall’s chapter on “The Sweet Delights of Home” as these were cultivated by the British middle class during the early decades of the nineteenth century. She begins with an examination of the “Queen Caroline Affair” of 1820, which arose from the determination of George IV, the new monarch, to put his wife on public trial for adultery. Beyond any doubt, Caroline had been an unfaithful wife. But the king had been at least as unfaithful a husband. The result was a huge upsurge of popular opinion in support of the wronged queen, and in defense of new notions of virtuous domesticity which, it was widely believed, King George IV had blatantly transgressed. The remainder of Hall’s essay attempts to show precisely how these new, essentially middle-class, notions came into being. Part of that explanation, she suggests, lies in the growth of evangelical religion. Part lies in the increased separation of home from the workplace. The result was the rise of middle-class suburbia, the confining of women into the private sphere of home, and the monopolizing by men of the public sphere of affairs. Very gradually, this new arrangement of separate spheres spread in Britain to the aristocracy and the working class.

Readers of Hall’s earlier, collaborative work will be familiar with the outlines of her argument, and she adds little here that is new.5 The belief that the royal family should embody domestic virtue long antedated the accession of George IV, as witnessed by the popular appeal of his father during the 1780s and 1790s. The claim that there was a “moral majority” in support of Queen Caroline is both quantitatively unverifiable and terminologically anachronistic. It is not at all clear that middle-class Victorian women were as exclusively confined to the home as Hall would have us believe and in genteel suburbs like Birmingham’s Edgbaston, there was much vigorous local activity centered not in the homes but in the churches, assembly rooms, charitable institutions, and voluntary societies. Nor does Hall convincingly show that women were forced out of nineteenth-century British public life. This view has been so often repeated in feminist historiography that it has attained the status of a self-evident truth. But it has yet to be verified. The very public lives of such women as Harriet Martineau, Frances Burdett Coutts, Florence Nightingale, and Queen Victoria suggest that such verification may in fact prove difficult.


Michelle Perrot then returns with “The Family Triumphant” and “Roles and Characters,” although there is nothing celebratory in these chapters. On the contrary, she sees the middle-class family as a repressive and suffocating institution, which “took the place of God,” and “sought to regulate its members’ activities.” The pater-familias was possessed of “absolute superiority” according to the Civil Code: he could read his wife’s private correspondence, and could order the arrest of his children. Inevitably, the family seethed with inner tensions and conflicts which occasionally erupted into terrible violence. Husbands quarreled with wives over the household budget. Recalcitrant children were dispatched to reform schools or lunatic asylums. Sons longed for their fathers’ deaths, and then argued bitterly over their inheritances. Adolescents rebelled against “heightened surveillance” by their parents. Many bourgeois marriages were “dictated by family and company interests.” There was constant fear of scandal, especially madness, illegitimacy, bankruptcy, or the birth of an abnormal child. Perrot’s conclusion is as somber as it is incoherent: “a source of existential anxiety, nineteenth-century family totalitarianism was in many ways profoundly neurotic.”

Anne Martin-Fugier’s essay on “Bourgeois Rituals” seems much better balanced. For her, the family was a place “for sentimentality, tenderness, and joy,” and she provides ample evidence of the way in which the ceremonials of private life generated and reinforced these feelings. She explores the carefully structured schedule of a family day, and notes how much time and attention were given over to conversation and entertainments at home, and to maintaining social relations outside. She examines the annual calendar, and gives appropriate weight to Christmas and to the summer holidays as essential elements in the rituals of family life. And she investigates the most significant rites of passage: baptism, First Communion, engagement, marriage, old age, death, and mourning. Her treatment is more evocative than analytical, she makes no attempt to explore the different levels of meaning that must have attached to such a sacred yet secular festival as Christmas, and she has little to say about the emotions associated with marriage or mourning. But as a celebration of the warmth and comfort of family life, this essay is a welcome antidote to Perrot’s morbid and unsympathetic musings. “The family,” Martin-Fugier rightly and imaginatively concludes, “shared common emotions and rejoiced in its own existence.”

Unfortunately, no other contributor to this volume shares her perspective—certainly not Roger-Henri Guerrand, whose essay “Private Spaces” opens with a view of social relations that can hardly be called subtle: “Throughout the nineteenth century the dominant class displayed contempt for proletarians.” Guerrand provides a useful survey of bourgeois apartments and town houses as well as the chateaux built by the old and new nobility during and after the Second Empire, and his description of urban and rural slums vividly evokes the squalor and deprivation of working-class life. (He also suggests that homes and workplaces continued to be mixed together, at least among the French working class, for far longer than Hall’s argument would allow.) But Guerrand’s main purpose, in an essay that becomes increasingly unbalanced as it proceeds, is to expose the housing that French companies provided for workers as part of an elaborate conspiracy on the part of the entrepreneurial middle class to “trap” their employees in domesticity, so as to make them more docile. Only when “the subversive winds of socialism and social art” began to blow, and architects began to react against the idea of “confinement in the single-family home” by designing apartment buildings, was it possible for members of the working class to emancipate themselves from the thralldom and tyranny of the bourgeoisie. This seems a rather simplistic view of architectural history, no less than of social history.

According to Alain Corbin, in “The Secret of the Individual,” the most significant trend during the nineteenth century was the growth in personal identity, by which he means the increased awareness people had of themselves and their subjective experience. This seems an unexceptionable opinion, and there is considerable evidence that can be cited in its support, from the development of the photograph to improved sanitary facilities which, Corbin writes, resulted in increased “communing with the self.” But much of this essay consists of increasingly wild generalizations which are at best unverifiable and at worst almost meaningless. Thus we are informed that as the nineteenth century advanced, “introspection became commonplace,” fetishism and masturbation were on the increase, and “the body became an obsession.” But none of these subjective matters can be historically proven. We are further told that “the formulation of individual ambitions” caused “family structures to disintegrate,” and that there are “innumerable signs of growing disregard for family members, and of the evaporation of family feeling.” But what is the evidence for any of this? And when we learn that “dolls encouraged daughters to think about their relations to their own mothers,” and that, by 1914, “animals were on the verge of becoming sovereign masters of domestic space,” we have reached the territory of pure fantasy.

Corbin’s next chapter, on “Intimate Relations,” seems no less confused. He tells us that many middle-class adolescent young men “abhorred the commonplace and believed themselves called to do great things.” But what is the historical significance of this? We learn that many brides were subjected to brutal sexual initiation “because many husbands concealed their true nature until the wedding night.” He does not tell us how he knows this to have been the case. He informs us that “sexuality, a central part of every modern marriage, in the nineteenth century was merely a backdrop to married life.” But it is difficult to believe that either part of this generalization can be verified. We are also told that the wider use of contraceptives, the rise of “sexology,” and the increase in divorce rates and in adultery meant that the traditional, bourgeois notion of romantic love was “on the wane” during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Of course, such new developments in the long run (particularly after 1945) were to have an immense impact on sexual relations and family life. But Corbin coyly admits elsewhere that divorce and adultery were very much the exception in the late nineteenth century, and “criticism of matrimony was only heard from the emancipated few.”

Those who like books to have sad endings may be particularly drawn to this volume, since it closes with a chapter entitled “Cries and Whispers,” which presents a morbid cavalcade of the disaffected and despairing, who are misleadingly presented as if they stood for French humanity as a whole. “Individual feelings of malaise,” we are portentously informed, “assumed considerable historical importance at this time.” There were widespread fears about the degeneration of the species and of the family. The urban working class aroused feelings of “revulsion, terror, and fascination.” Women became increasingly hysterical, “to draw the attention of those around them to their private suffering.” In both the country and the town, there was an extensive increase in alcoholism. The suicide rate rose rapidly and alarmingly: men preferred the rope, women opted for drowning. There was a predictable growth in the medical profession, in hospitals, and in asylums. Not surprisingly, “neurasthenia and psychasthenia” became “common diagnoses.” In short, the inhabitants of fin de siècle France seem to have been struck down by irresistible collective neurosis; and those few who did not succumb to this all-pervasive depression were merely demonstrating “obligatory happiness.”

The best that can be said for this book is that it is beautifully produced, that the profuse illustrations are a delight, and that the essays by Hunt, Hall, and Martin-Fugier will well repay a second reading. But as a whole it is not at all satisfactory. It claims to be treating a subject of continental—perhaps global—significance, yet is concerned almost entirely with one country. Much of the writing consists of wild and pretentious generalizations ranging from the unverifiable to the meaningless. And many of the contributors are more eager to indict and to convict the middle-class family than they are to understand it or even to imagine it. How devastatingly has Georges Duby’s metaphor about historians spying through the keyholes of the past been turned against the historians themselves. For the view taken through the keyhole by most of the contributors is at best limited, at worst misleading. They have zealously sought out the most disagreeable elements in nineteenth-century private and family life, but in so doing, they have missed—and willfully missed—the larger picture. And as a result, they have unintentionally cast the gravest doubts on the type of history which they practice.

It should by now be clear why Amanda’s words furnish so appropriate a summary of this book; for it dwells almost exclusively on the darker side of human nature with a morbid relish bordering on the obsessional. Wherever possible the family life of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie is given an unambiguously pathological interpretation. Husbands and wives retreated into domesticity because they were unable to “connect with others.” Their upholstered furniture and heavy wall hangings were “a sign of unconscious fear of the masses.” The widespread craze for collecting and for keeping diaries were “forms of self-destruction.” The growing affection for animals betokened “a veritable collective neurosis.” Piano playing was a form of masturbation. The obsession with “drapery, slip covers, casing, and upholstery” showed “the extraordinary hypertrophy” of the bourgeois erotic imagination. And “the fascination that lesbians exerted on the male imagination” was “yet another symptom of the morbid character of male desire in the nineteenth century.” The best that can be said of such remarks, like many other statements in this book, is that they are arbitrary and often tendentious generalizations incapable of historical proof.

Equally one-sidedly, most of the contributors condemn the nineteenth-century bourgeois family as a “totalitarian unit,” a “nest of vipers,” a “place seething with internal conflict” between men and women over power in the home, and between the generations over money and freedom. They see the family as a life-denying institution, founded on patriarchal tyranny and the oppression of women and children, which was mainly concerned with transmitting wealth and property. Victor Hugo is regularly brought on to do duty as the typical domineering patriarch, “who sat like a god in the tabernacle of his home,” and locked away his demented daughter, Adèle, for the sake of the good name of the family. There is also a part for Pierre Rivière, the “red-eyed parricide” who killed not only his mother but also his sister and brother for good measure. Appropriately enough, Michelle Perrot quotes André Gide: “Families, I hate you,” and that view seems to be shared by many of the contributors. Apart from Anne Martin-Fugier, none seems willing to admit that nineteenth-century families might have been sources of warmth, security, comfort, or hope. The setting of domestic happiness recently and vividly evoked by such different historians as Simon Schama and Peter Gay finds no echo here.6

This book is also insufficiently nuanced in its treatment of privacy as it was experienced (or not experienced) by people of different social levels. We are told, quite correctly, that in the country and in the town, the working classes were often so poor, so crowded together, and housed so close to their work that they were obliged to live “a different style of private life” from people who were better off. Put more bluntly, this means that many of them had no real private lives at all. Even the middle classes, apparently safe and cozy behind their closed doors and lace curtains, were usually obliged to share their houses with servants. But the extent to which this might have limited their privacy, their intimacy, and their freedom is never seriously considered. (Indeed, the fact that most middle-class people today do not have live-in servants must mean that contemporary private life is significantly different from what it was only a hundred years ago.) Nor can the very rich have enjoyed anything close to what we would call private life. Their houses, both in the town and the country, were not domestic residences as we would understand that term. On the contrary, they were theatrical settings, for entertaining, for political intrigue, for the informal conduct of public business. As Michelet observed, “the rich…have no privacy, no secrecy, no home.” This remark, too, though quoted, is unexplored.

It is also unclear precisely how important French women were in public affairs during the period covered by this book. The prevailing view put forward here is that during “the nineteenth century, women were restricted to the private sphere more than ever before.” But if this was the case, we need to know why. Perhaps it was because of the country’s essentially conservative Catholic culture, which might, in turn, explain why French women could not vote until 1945. But as in the case of England, the view that French women were forced out of public life and back into the home has been asserted more than it has been proved. Indeed, Olwen Hufton has recently suggested that there is no convincing evidence that nineteenth-century French women were more home-bound than their ancien régime forebears.7 Upper-class women continued to play their traditional roles as social and political hostesses. Poorer women took part in bread riots in 1812 and 1816, were among the demonstrators in 1830, and were to be found on the barricades in 1848. And in between such events, many of them worked. During the second half of the nineteenth century, French women provided between one quarter and one third of their country’s work force, a higher proportion than in England.8 In the light of these figures, the argument advanced here that most French women between, say, 1820 and 1914, spent their lives imprisoned at home, stands in need of serious reexamination.

Nor is Perrot’s book any more convincing in describing the relations between the sexes. Two models are provided: both caricatures, and mutually exclusive as well. The first stresses the brute force of male dominance, and “feminine passivity and docility.” According to this interpretation, men made “ever more strenuous efforts” during the nineteenth century to control women, who were increasingly “oppressed” by “their experience of the male world.” But this picture of the physically masterful man and the pathetically passive woman is on both counts based on the crudest form of sexual stereotyping. And so is the second model, which simply reverses these propositions. Men, so this argument runs, were “convinced of their sexual inferiority,” and so were “obsessed by fear” of the “terrifying, castrating female.” While women were smoldering volcanos of devouring sexual passion, their menfolk were pitiful wimps, racked with anxiety, worried about their virility, and no better at maintaining their jobs than keeping their erections. To put forward two opposed interpretations of the relations between men and women that are equally crude, condescending, and contradictory, is indeed an extraordinary accomplishment. How is it possible to take a book on family life and private life seriously which deals so simplistically with the relations between the sexes?

The final problem with this volume is that it is distorted by its contributors’ very limited historical perspective. On the one hand, many aspects of life and thought that are deemed to have originated during the nineteenth century—the keeping of private diaries, the cult of friendship, the concern for bodily modesty, the desire for separate spaces, the craving for individuality—had their origins in earlier centuries, and are, indeed, dealt with in the preceding volume. On the other, the book gives altogether disproportionate space to the late-nineteenth-century minorities who desired to bring the repressive, patriarchal family to an end: “playwrights, left-wing politicians, bourgeois feminists, neo-Malthusian propagandists, advocates of free love, and the scientists who invented the discipline of sexology.” It is with these people—the forerunners of contemporary progressive opinion—that the contributors’ sympathies primarily lie. And it is easy to see why. For this enables them to berate the nineteenth-century family from the ahistorical standpoint of the 1980s. How ironic that the very period when the history of private life can first be written about nonanachronistically should find itself treated here in this unacceptably anachronistic way.

To these specific objections should be added some that are more deeply rooted, and more wide-ranging in their implications. For it seems clear that most of the contributors to this book know very little economic or social history, and are at least a generation out of date in what they do know. Many of them implicitly accept what might be called a vulgarized version of the arguments put forward nearly thirty years ago by E.P. Thompson in his The Making of the English Working Class. In that masterly book, Thompson suggested an eighteenth-century golden age of freedom and rights; he described the Industrial Revolution as a disaster which took away those rights, and subjugated and enslaved the people; and he implied that, since then, their unfinished struggle had been to regain those lost rights. If women are substituted for workers, this scheme provides the basic trajectory for much recent feminist history: an eighteenth century in which women played a conspicuous part in the public sphere; a nineteenth century in which they were driven into the home; and a twentieth century in which they have sought to reemerge. This is a comforting and reassuring teleology. But a generation of historical research since Thompson’s book was published has largely overturned his view of the history of men, by casting doubt on the validity of his class analysis, and by undermining his picture of the Industrial Revolution as a sudden and catastrophic occurrence.9 And there is no necessary reason to suppose that this interpretation is any more valid for the history of women.

The second historical model which this book—like much other feminist writing—implicitly accepts is equally out of date. Once again the historical model follows from a view of E.P. Thompson’s: that the key to history during the modern period is to be found in class conflict. During the Industrial Revolution, so this argument goes, the middle classes triumphed, in the shape of the bourgeoisie, and they gradually imposed their values on the classes above, and even more so on the classes below, by means of “social control.” Again, if this argument is suitably adjusted, it provides the essential underpinning of much women’s history, which is preoccupied with the middle classes, and with the entrepreneurial middle classes at that. But again, the interpretation has been largely discredited in its original form: the rise of the entrepreneur looks much less majestic than it once did; class conflict no longer looms so pervasive in histories of Victorian society; and the concept of “social control” has very largely been abandoned.10 Yet these interpretations all too often remain self-evident truths for feminist historians.

Relying heavily on these two essentially outmoded historical models, feminist historians have grafted onto them the distinction between the private and the public. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, they argue, women were increasingly confined to the private sphere, while men took full control of the public sphere. It is this argument that forms the central organizing principle of this book: “the greatest debt of all,” the editor writes, “is to recent feminist reflection on the public and the private, the formation of distinct spheres of life.” But it is no longer clear that two such distinct spheres actually existed. In the nineteenth century, women spent time inside the home, and time outside. Some of them worked, and others took part in public life. And some men, like Mr. Pooter, were more interested in domestic arrangements than in their jobs; some preferred the life of clubs and hotels to the hurly-burly of business; some restricted their activities to their professional work; others went into politics. Under these extremely varied circumstances, which are not restricted to either gender, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain that there were two separately demarcated realms: the public, inhabited by dominant men; and the private, inhabited by downtrodden women.

Two general conclusions follow from this. The first is that there is an urgent need to end the widespread segregation of women’s history and women’s studies from what, for want of a better phrase, might be termed mainstream historical inquiry. In many ways, the most significant and regrettable separation is not in the domestic confinement of women in the past, but in the isolated position of women’s studies departments in universities in the present. It is time that the work undertaken there was reintegrated with more recent developments in historical scholarship: not just for the benefit of women’s studies, but for the well-being and improvement of historical understanding generally. The second lesson to be drawn from this book is that, like those many binary distinctions of which historians have recently been so enamored—conflict and consensus, class and community, continuity and change, high politics and low politics, elite culture and popular culture—the contrast between public and private lives has by now long since outlived its usefulness. Although this book may be faulted for many reasons, it does accomplish at least one worthwhile objective, albeit unintended: it unanswerably subverts the very subject that it seeks to illuminate. It gives private life the kiss of death.

This Issue

November 21, 1991