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The Bedroom: An Intimate History.

The Bedroom: An Intimate History. By Michelle Perrot. Translated by Lauren Elkin. [Orig. Histoire de chambres, Paris: Editions du Seuil, 2009.] (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018. Pp. ix, 371. $30.00.)

Michelle Perrot, the distinguished labor historian and pioneer of women's history in France, here applies her deep knowledge of French society and literature to a study intended for a general audience. In spite of its title, however, it is in no way a history. It is more in the nature of what the French call "belles lettres," what in America might be called "a good read." Drawn mostly from secondary sources but enlivened by snippets from novels (Zola and Proust do yeoman service here), the book is organized thematically, with chapters devoted to, for example "The King's Bedroom," "Hotel Rooms," "The Women's Room," etc. References to historical figures and literary characters abound, to the extent that even French readers would have had to ace their baccalaureate exams to follow it all; the rest of us can consult Wikipedia.

While it is often a pleasure to wallow in this richness of anecdotal evidence, historians might quibble that often we can't even be certain what century is being discussed. Despite occasional references and brief sorties into other Western cultures, the armature of the book is the French experience "universalized." Throughout, there is the assumption that the Western trajectory from shared sleeping on straw to separate bedrooms is both evolutionary and natural, and yet even in Western industrialized nations it is by no means universal, even today, for each family member to have a separate bedroom. In other parts of the world this is rare. While the absence of a bibliography makes it difficult to comprehend the intellectual foundations of this work (the notes refer virtually exclusively to French sources) we might note that Fernand Braudel's name does not appear in the index despite his magisterial Civilization and Capitalism, which takes a more global view of Perrot's subject.

Perrot's translator had to deal with the difficult problem that, in effect, chambre in French is a broader term than the English narrowly-defined bedroom. Perrot's subject, then, can be understood more accurately as wherever people slept; often this was the same room in which the entire family lived, ate, slept, and even died, a prospect that is still the norm in large parts of the world. The publisher appears to have accepted the translation with no editorial queries. This is unfortunate as it is unlikely, for example, that an aristocrat would receive her guests in her "toilet room" (better understood here as "dressing room"); how many Anglophone readers are familiar with "Guichet Day" or the crime of the Papin sisters? A few words of explanation would have been welcome.

The book doesn't even seem to have been proofread (e.g. "the the"). An editor could have improved this book immensely, insisting on a modicum of clarity--chronological, stylistic, and historical. Despite these drawbacks, however, the book is engaging, and often moving. The chapters on "Workers Rooms," and on "Sickbeds and Deathbeds," alone merit forgiveness for its shortcomings. Within the narrow social strata of Western culture, and that of France especially, Perrot's account of the growing demand for individual separate rooms for sleeping can best be understood as participating in the larger history of privacy and individualism.

Patricia Mainardi

CUNY Graduate Center
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Author:Mainardi, Patricia
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2019
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