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?

There are perils in success. Highly fashionable as well as highly theoretical, French history can sometimes appear to outsiders to be weighed down and distorted by fashionable theories. Highly popular, it inevitably attracts groups and individuals far removed in ability from the rigour, the boldness and the originality of the pioneer Annales men. And one always needs to remember, what some of its current practitioners seem to forget, that the history of France is not the history of Europe or the history of the world. It is not entirely unfair to see represented in these two books some of the enormous strengths, and some of the characteristic failings, of a great deal of current French history. Alan Sheridan’s excellent translation of Alain Corbin’s Filles de Noce makes widely available what is probably still the best, the most formidably-researched and the most wide-ranging study of 19th-century prostitution. The fourth volume of A History of Private Life, originally published in 1987 and now translated by Arthur Goldhammer, is considerably less impressive. Splendidly illustrated and full of good things, it suffers from parochialism and an excess of flabby fashionability.

A history of private life was bound, of course, to be an intensely difficult project. As originally conceived by the late Philippe Ariès and the Medievalist, George Duby, this five-volume extravaganza was to range over the entire Western world from Roman times to the 20th century. Driving it was a distinctly partial as well as anachronistic notion of what private life consisted of: ‘We started from the obvious fact that at all times and in all places a clear, commonsensical distinction has been made between the public – that which is open to the community and subject to the authority of its magistrates – and the private ... a zone of immunity to which we may fall back or retreat, a place where we may set aside arms and armour needed in the public place, relax, take our ease, and lie about unshielded by the ostentatious carapace worn for protection in the outside world. This is the place where the family thrives, the realm of domesticity. It is also a realm of secrecy.’ As Ariès and Duby knew very well, this essentially approving definition of private life would have been incomprehensible to the majority of men and women living before the 16th century. Long after that, just how private you wanted or were able to be remained closely determined by age, sex, place, wealth and class. The great houses of the European ruling élites were often sites for political entertaining, intrigue and negotiation, not homes in which to retire from the public sphere. Even when their male and female inhabitants retired to bed and sitting rooms, they might still be within range of their servants’ eyes, ears and voices. ‘The rich ... have no privacy,’ Michelet would write, ‘no secrecy, no home.’ Nor did a working-class woman living, say, in a poorly-built terraced house have much opportunity for secrecy. She could overhear her neighbours quarrelling and copulating just as they could listen to her. Her children would certainly share a bedroom with each other; if they were very young or very many, they might well share it with her. By way of the help they lent her in childbirth, and with regular gossips across the backyard walls, her women friends on the row might be almost as familiar with her body and medical ailments as her husband. This was how my own grandmother still lived between the wars. What could private life mean to her and millions like her?

To their credit, Michelle Perrot and her contributors are sensitive to the diversity of human experience in this respect. The strategy they have adopted to cope with the vast miscellany of information before them is, however, unfortunate. Already, in the preceding volume in this series, the ambitious geographical and temporal scope of the project had narrowed down to a focus on France over the space of three centuries. The range of this volume is narrower still: ‘a history concerned with France in the 19th century’ is the editor’s description in the introduction. Catherine Hall is allowed to contribute one chapter on the English middle class in the first half of the 19th century ‘because England offers the most fully developed form of private life in the period’: but there is no discussion of Germany, Holland, Italy, America, or Late Victorian Britain, and no consistent attempt to establish how far cultural and social developments within France itself were or were not peculiar to it.

But the most obvious way in which this volume diverges from its predecessors lies in the bias of its contributors. As suggested by the military metaphors of their initial manifesto (‘arms’, ‘armour’, ‘retreat’, ‘unshielded’), Duby and Ariès leaned instinctively towards the easy, masculine view that the public is the sphere of action and that family life is where one retires to seek refuge from these external pressures. Since four of the six contributors to this volume are female, feminist historians, their approach to family life is understandably very different. They devote concentrated attention to the influence of gender on the experience of sex, work, family and privacy, sometimes at the expense of other important topics. Nor do the particular anxieties and agonies of men in this period always receive the same sympathetic and perceptive analysis that they quite rightly strive to extend to their female subjects. Indeed, when anger takes over and they deliver portentous (not to say downright silly) generalisations like ‘Sisters were soft, malleable wax, and their brothers liked to play Pygmalion,’ or ‘the father sat enthroned like a god in the tabernacle of his house,’ or ‘Women for the most part were condemned to public silence,’ or ‘Brevity of intercourse was clearly the rule throughout the century ... the satisfaction of the female could safely be ignored,’ they do violence to the female as well as to the masculine history of France. Surely the authors cannot believe that 19th-century women were quite as passive and pathetic as they sometimes appear to suggest? Joel Schwartz’s warning from a few years ago bears repetition: ‘All men are not born predators, all women are not born victims, and women are done no favour by those who emphasise their total inability throughout recorded history to take care of themselves.’

For all these limitations, however, what does emerge very successfully from this volume is the unprecedented degree to which the public sphere invaded private life after 1789. For the Jacobins, as Lynn Hunt describes in a good opening chapter, the family was chiefly valuable as the forge of a virtuous citizenry. Happy mothers would bear children for the republic, breastfeed them, brainwash them, and joyously yield up their husbands and sons for the revolutionary armies, and subsequently for Napoleon’s Grande Armée. From 1793 to 1815, millions of men were conscripted not just in France but throughout Western and Eastern Europe. Families disintegrated. Wives were widowed or deserted. Children were orphaned, and men slaughtered, maimed and impoverished on a massive scale. It is surely not too much to see in this violent intrusion into private lives by the state the genesis of the Victorian insistence on the sweetness of home: home as the place of safety, home as the still point in a changing world, and home as the fortress of the family, ‘the one thing’, as a journalist rather naively argued in 1849, ‘the only happiness, that revolutions can never take from us’. True, the fortress could sometimes become a prison to its inmates, restricting their ambitions, suppressing their desires. But not until the last third of the 19th century did large numbers of men and women feel sufficiently secure to explore other ways of living. It was then that the marriage rate declined in France, then that the laws governing divorce were increasingly relaxed on this as on the other side of the Channel. More women began to seek out different kinds of work and access to higher education; and more became willing to have sex without expecting matrimony as well.

This shift in the sexual behaviour of ‘virtuous’ women was, as Alan Corbin explains, one reason why the nature and organisation of prostitution in France also began to change after the 1860s. More easily able to find extramarital pleasures outside the brothel, men became more likely to look within its walls for sexual exoticisms that were not normally available: for flagellation, for bestiality, for exhibitions of real or simulated lesbianism, for special beds and custom-made devices. Instead of being in the business of selling sex to those who were for one reason or another in need of it, prostitutes were now rather more likely to serve as supplements to conventional sexual relationships or as alternatives. It is this ability to show how the sex trade fits into the pattern of much wider developments that makes Corbin’s book so illuminating. So does an abundance of superb data which enables him to treat an often murky and always emotive topic with unusual rigour and detachment.

The French counted their prostitutes in the 19th century for much the same reasons as governments and statisticians throughout Europe sought at the same time to keep tabs on their working populations. They knew their numbers were growing. They believed they were indispensable. And they wanted to control them. Prostitution remained illegal, but its practitioners were tolerated providing that they registered with the authorities. Once registered, a woman could either set herself up as an independent operator, in which case she was known as a fille en carte and carried a special ID. Or she could join a maison de tolérance as a fille à numéro. In either case, this French system gives a new perspective on the professionalisation of government and career structures which was so marked a feature of 19th-century Europe, as well as revealing how anxious contemporaries were to regulate worrying social phenomena by reducing them to the comforting certainty of number. By 1851, the French census revealed that there were more than 16,000 registered prostitutes: this total representing only a fraction of the women engaged in the trade.

Why did they do it? As Corbin admits, very few explanations by the prostitutes themselves survive. But he uses the rich documentation that regulation provided to dispel some of the more enduring myths. The majority of registered French prostitutes were both literate and legitimate. Most did not come from the criminal or impoverished classes. They came from all social backgrounds, mainly from small shopkeeping and artisanal families. They came from all parts of France, but were more likely to work in ports, towns, tourist, garrison and industrial areas than in the depths of the countryside. Very few joined the profession because they had been seduced by upper-class blades or overbearing employers. Most seem to have lost their virginity in their mid-teens to men of their own social type. Prostitutes known to the authorities were not in the main raddled harridans worn down with disease, or beautiful and doomed dealers in filth like Emile Zola’s Nana, or victims of casual exploitation, but working women in their mid-twenties moving rapidly between different towns and brothels, and moving, too, between other occupations and prostitution because the latter paid: ‘Women of almost every background turned to prostitution because the social structures of the time created an enormous demand and, by the same token, a profitable industry.’

There is no reason to assume, then, that prostitutes saw themselves as degraded creatures. But no reason either to believe that the authorities and many of their customers did not view them in this light. Registered prostitutes were known as filles soumises – quite literally, submissive girls. When they joined a maison de tolérance, they lost their own names and assumed others, often diminutives to emphasise their youth and marginality – Violette, Odette, Ninette and so forth. In the eyes of their apologists, prostitutes were the sewers that kept respectable French society clean, sweet and wholesome. Without this escape valve for masculine desires, decent women might not preserve their chastity before marriage, or remain idealised angels of the domestic hearth thereafter. Only when these kind of anxieties gave way to others did official attitudes to prostitution in France change markedly. German unification and the war of 1870 sharpened concern about the size of the population and the health of the soldiery. No longer a sewer, an aid to national hygiene, prostitutes came instead to represent the spectre of syphilis, a ‘seminal drain’ who corrupted the race and distracted men from patriotic paternity.

Very similar worries about the quality of British manpower led Parliament to pass legislation in the 1860s enforcing medical inspection of all prostitutes in seaports and garrison towns. These were the Contagious Diseases Acts bitterly opposed by Josephine Butler and her Ladies National Association as being both immoral and an insult to the dignity and liberty of the prostitutes themselves. In the 1870s, as Corbin describes, Butler extended her campaign against the treatment of prostitutes into France, where she received marked support from the Protestant community. And this fact, together with the scale and ultimate success of Butler’s campaign in Britain, raises some important questions about the nature of female influence in the 19th century which neither of these books seriously address. The agitation against the Contagious Diseases Acts, like the campaign against slavery and the slave trade, like the movement to repeal the Corn Laws, and like Chartism, drew on the active support of thousands of women, particularly Quakers and Protestant dissenters. In Britain, at least, it is simply not the case that – as Lynn Hunt claims – ‘in the 19th century women were restricted to the private sphere more than ever before.’ Rather, this period saw a marked increase in active female involvement in social, philanthropic and political movements. To the extent that a similar rise in female activism did not occur in France, how far was this due to that country’s dominant Roman Catholicism and very different political traditions? Neither Perrot and her collaborators nor Alain Corbin tells us. They hardly discuss religion at all, nor do they often touch on the distinctiveness of French government and political theory. Yet all of these things influenced attitudes to the family, to sexuality and to morality. It is surely time for what used to be called the New Social History to come to grips with the older histories of state and church and nation: time for the history of the private to intersect properly with the analysis of power.