As its fifth volume, A History of Private Life: Riddles of Identity in Modern Times represents the final installment and chronological climax of an acclaimed French series. The book caps a broad historical inquiry—envisioned by two French senior editors, the late Philippe Aries, and Georges Duby—which began with a look at private life in classical Greco-Roman times and pursued its topic through volumes dealing with the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the period from the French Revolution to the outbreak of World War I (for reviews of the first four volumes, see Magill’s Literary Annual, 1988, 1989, 1990, and 1991).
Originally published in France between 1985 and 1987, the volumes of A History of Private Life gradually began to lose the broadness of scope promised by their title; volume 4, for example, dealt almost exclusively with the French experience. For the fifth volume, however, this widely criticized limitation has been corrected. This American edition includes material not contained in the original French version; the essays dealing with the development of private life in the United States, Italy, Germany, and Scandinavia (the latter appeared in the French original as well) bestow a depth of inquiry that makes this volume attractive to a wider range of readers and more closely fulfills the initial conception of the series.
Ironically, however, it is largely the material which deals with either a clearly presented subgroup of French society, or with private life in another culture, that is most accessible to an American reader. The first section of the book, “Public and Private Spheres in France,” written by one of the editors, Antoine Prost, often leaves stumped a person who does not know the history of France in the twentieth century: Figures such as Charles de Gaulle and groups such as the Popular Front are integrated into the narrative without a nod to readers unfamiliar with French history, whereas the subsequent sections and essays do provide helpful maps of the historical landscapes out of which the landmarks arise.
Nevertheless, for a reader willing to follow Prost through his ingenious discussion of the often drastic and—for an American almost incomprehensible—relatively recent changes in French life, the first section proves rewarding. Here, Prost reveals some of France’s most private struggles, ideals, and obsessions. Themes such as the increasing separation of workplace from living space, the weakening of traditional marriage, and massive urbanization and the emergence of an electronic mass culture are viewed from a distinctively French perspective.
With a good sense for the close relationship between physical space and environment on the one hand, and the possibilities for the individual to develop and maintain a sense of self on the other, Prost leads the reader into a land where living and working situations often pose specific challenges to a personal identity. In 1954, for example, French living quarters were still incredibly cramped. Additionally, scarcely more than half of the households had running water, and not more than one quarter provided residents with an indoor toilet; nine out of ten dwellings possessed neither shower, bathtub, nor central heating. Thus, as in premodern societies, much of life still revolved around communal sites such as public water pumps, neighborhood coal shops, and the streets into which people spilt. The role played by communal settings in French life waned as modern housing was erected. By 1973, 97 percent of all households had running water.
If there remains a sense that something is missing in this book, however, it results from a reader’s longing for a more comparative approach to the startling facts of modernization. Often, Prost presents French conditions in relative isolation, and does not sufficiently develop connections to other cultures—an omission which one should not forgive the final volume of a series which won such praise for its comprehensive approach. Too rare are such moments of insight as this glimpse of the French reaction to American housing developments:
When NATO forces withdrew from France in 1966 and housing developments abandoned by the U.S. Army were sold to French citizens, the new owners’ first concern was to build fences. Within a few months a sort of suburban equivalent of the rural hedgerow had sprung up on what had been a continuous expanse of green.
More of this would have made for an even more valuable book.
The second section, entitled “A History of Secrets?” by coeditor Gerard Vincent, begins with a provocative quote from Jean-Paul Sartre: “We were never so free as under the German occupation.” He points at the fact that because under the Nazis, the State was evil beyond doubt, all citizens gained personal freedom in that they could morally reject all public claims on their lives. In modern democracies, Vincent asserts, the situation is more difficult, since the individual must accept the moral validity of certain official limitations. For...