Sweet Homes and Tolerant Houses

Linda Colley

  • A History of Private Life. Vol IV: From the Fires of Revolution to the Great War edited by Michelle Perrot, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
    Harvard, 713 pp, £29.95, April 1990, ISBN 0 674 39978 1
  • Women for Hire: Prostitution and Sexuality in France after 1850 by Alain Corbin, translated by Alan Sheridan
    Harvard, 478 pp, £31.50, April 1990, ISBN 0 674 95543 9

The rise in the reputation of French history, not just in its own territory but throughout the Anglo-Saxon world as well, has been one of the most remarkable cultural developments since the Second World War. The reasons for its triumph are instructive, not least to historians of Britain, whose own discipline has so conspicuously declined in popularity over the same period of time. Some of the credit must go to a succession of scholars, Philippe Ariès, Fernand Braudel, Michel Foucault and Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie among them, who combined intellectual power with formidable originality and entrepreneurial verve. But it is the kind of history writers like these have publicised that has been the main cause of French history becoming so indisputably chic. In part because of the campaign against traditional historiography launched by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre in the 1920s, and partly too, I suspect, because the humiliations of the German Occupation encouraged alienation from the political, there has been a concentration instead on the private and on the popular. Not monarchs, or ministers, or diplomats, or generals, but demography, manners, sexuality, the family, the body, the senses, the symbols and language of everyday life and ordinary people: these have been the objects of desire for the most influential post-war historians of France.

The tactical benefits of this have been enormous. By its very nature, political history can easily seem highly specific, illuminating the past of one state but very little else. But to the extent that we are all blessed or burdened with families, bodies, rituals and class, the stuff of social history and, above all, of cultural history can appear much more widely interesting and relevant. By focusing their energies on these approaches to the past, therefore, French historians have aspired to elevate their subject from the parochial to the universal. In practice, the vast majority of them may only study one French region, one provincial town, or even one Parisian arrondisement, but armed with a mixture of grand theory, methodological ingenuity and chuzpah, they often address their conclusions to a far broader humanity. And this is an enviable achievement. It is also a further demonstration of how much better the French have coped with the contraction of European power and the end of empire than have the British.

Scholars have been much less successful in marketing the history of this side of the Channel so that it appears generally significant. They have been slower in taking up social and cultural history (perhaps because the French championed them so vigorously), and some of them have been uncertain about their own product: minimising the impact of the Industrial Revolution, diminishing the importance of Parliament, glossing over the Empire, reducing the events of 1642 to 1649 to a little local difficulty in East Anglia, and shrinking 1688 to an oligarchical hiccup. Having lost the massive confidence of the great Whig historians, the British have still to find a new and attractive role for their past. And this failure has helped to discourage others from studying it. Before 1960, every American university worth its proverbial salt had at least two historians of Britain on its staff, often more. Now, in 1990, this has largely ceased to be the case: and Britain’s loss has tended to be France’s gain. Most British historians in American universities today are middle-aged or older. By contrast, there are now far more French historians in the United States than there are in France itself, and they are disproportionately young. Far more than ever before, it is now their historiographical world. But how far do they deserve it?

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in