Intimate History of Ordinary People, Part IV

By Mary Warner Marien. Mary Warner Marien teaches Fine Arts Department . | The Christian Science Monitor, May 9, 1990 | Go to article overview

Intimate History of Ordinary People, Part IV


Mary Warner Marien. Mary Warner Marien teaches Fine Arts Department ., The Christian Science Monitor


A HISTORY OF PRIVATE LIFE: FROM THE FIRES OF THE REVOLUTION TO THE GREAT WAR VOLUME IV. edited by Michelle Perrot, translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 713 pp., $39.95

WHOSE history is history? The magnitude of that question has enlarged since World War II. Led by influential French thinkers, a movement to transcend conventional history's emphasis on great men and great deeds brought about a conceptual revision of what history is thought to be.

Among other things, history has been nudged closer to the interests of social science. The daily lives of ordinary men and women in places remote from centers of political power began to be researched as avidly as the lives of the famous. History entered the farmhouse, the servants' quarters, the upstairs parlor, and even the bedroom.

In this, the fourth volume of the celebrated "A History of Private Lives" series, six historians trace the trends in intimate human relations from the French Revolution to the outbreak of World War I. The study, which ventures to England in one chapter, centers on the travails of French domestic life.

In the previous volumes, which documented private life since ancient Rome, scholars had to creatively reconstruct what people considered private life from scant evidence. In this volume, they and their readers are on more familiar terrain. In broad outline, what we call private is what people for the last 200 years have designated as private.

The modern idea of personal privacy, nurtured by the concept of individualism, came of age toward the end of the 18th century. It coincided with the founding of the United States. Both the American and the French revolutions sharpened the distinction between the public and private sphere, and placed increased emphasis on family values. The Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution declared the right of people to be secure in their persons and in their homes. As early as 1791, the French Penal Code specified harsh penalties for violations of guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure of private residences.

Home became a refuge from work and the world, but it was not always an escape from toil or care. During the 19th century, women retreated from public life and made motherhood and domestic management their profession. Since a wife was unlikely to inherit his wealth, the death of a husband often augured poverty. Servants, of which the average middle-class home employed three, had a high rate of suicide.

The lives of children varied enormously from city to country. Social, religious, and political differences helped shape how childhood was understood. In general, the public child was expected to be a little adult, to sit up straight, and to not cry. …

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Intimate History of Ordinary People, Part IV
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