A History of Private Life, Volume IV

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

For lovers of history, the appearance of a new volume in A HISTORY OF PRIVATE LIFE has become an annual event. First published in France between 1985 and 1987, the series has been published in the United States by Harvard University Press in the excellent translation of Arthur Goldhammer. Each volume presents a loosely unified set of essays by several contributors. Like its predecessors, this penultimate volume is beautifully produced, with a large central section of color plates and black-and-white illustrations scattered throughout the text; the illustrations alone are worth the price of the book.

Like its predecessors, too, but even more so, volume 4 reveals a marked ideological bias: What has been an irritant in earlier volumes has evolved into a major problem. Perhaps that is to be expected in a survey that centers on the nineteenth century and the bourgeois interior. Several of the contributors barely attempt to suppress their contempt for “middle-class” values and above all for the family, which is personified and demonized her rather in the manner of Marxist sloganeering. Indeed, there is a good deal of crude personification in these pages, exemplified by these lines from editor Michelle Perrot’s conclusion: “The nineteenth century made a desperate effort to stabilize the boundary between public and private by mooring it to the family, with the father as sovereign.” In some ways the new history turns out to be the old history (or one...

(The entire section is 411 words.)