A History of Private Life, Volume IV

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

A History of Private Life: From the Fires of Revolution to the Great War is the fourth volume in a five-volume survey of private life from antiquity to the late twentieth century. First the domain of sexuality and dreams, of intimate experience. Finally, it refers to the thought-worlds or mentalites characteristic of the period under study.

All of these aspects of private life are examined by the contributors to this volume. The recurring themes are dominant: the preeminence of the family in nineteenth century French society and the “triumph of the individual.” Though there is no overarching narrative, these two themes give the volume a “plot” that helps to unify the essays: Private life in the nineteenth century is seen as a battleground, with the coercive forces of the family challenged by increasingly vigorous demands for individual autonomy.

An important subplot makes the story more complex. Several of the essayists discuss ways in which the wealthy and the powerful sought to coopt rising individualism (within limits) in order to defuse what they perceived as a greater threat: collective action by working people. Such were the “true motives of ruling-class thinkers” when they advocated individual home-ownership for workers, argues Roger-Henri Guerrand in “Private Spaces.” The image of many workers living in close proximity haunted the bourgeoisie:

Architects, following the recommendations of social theorists, used all their ingenuity to make relations with neighbors difficult in the housing developments they designed. It was feared that communication among the residents would lead straight to that major bugbear of the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, sexual immorality, and to political agitation fomented by irresponsible troublemakers.

While these recurring themes are insistently developed, the variety of topics treated in the essays is enormous; this volume is a veritable encyclopedia of historical lore. Laws that guaranteed the “omnipotence” of the father in the family structure; the increase in letter-writing throughout the nineteenth century, followed by the vogue for the postcard at the turn of the century; the fad for the piano; the “democratization of the portrait,” formerly the prerogative of the aristocracy, via the photograph; the growing fascination with collecting (books, stamps, medals, anything), another activity once restricted to the elite; attitudes toward adultery;...

(The entire section is 1008 words.)