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the bedroom

3 november 2018

Michelle Perrot, doyenne of French historians, published Histoire de chambres about a decade ago. It has now been resourcefully translated by Lauren Elkin. Elkin makes the point that the French word chambre, while it does mean "bedroom," has many another meaning that allows Perrot to range widely from mere functional sleeping quarters into all sorts of rooms of one's own.

Perrot begins with Louis XIV, whose Ur-legitimacy has cast such a long shadow on the French imagination. You can visit the Sun King's bedroom in Versailles, and back in the day, so could a lot of people, even when Louis was in bed there, as long as they kept distances strictly mandated by protocol. But of course Louis XIV didn't sleep much in his chambre, and certainly didn't perform any conjugal or extra-marital feats there. After an elaborate disrobing and retiring, he would go off to visit his current wife or mistress, and sleep in her room, or in some inner "closet" of his own – then get up early and hie himself to his bedroom for the ceremony of his official rising.

Meanwhile peasants didn't have bedrooms, or rooms at all for that matter. They slept in their single-room houses, sometimes many to a bed, as memoirist Edith Bruck and her siblings did with their parents in 1930s Hungary, as peasants do today in some countries, as communal comrades did in Gorbachev's Soviet Union. The rise of the middle class was in many ways the rise of the bedroom. The bourgeois married couple retreated there for sexual and sleeping privacy – often to find themselves one too many in many a marriage bed.

Bedrooms, Perrot explains, are for reading and prayer, for writing and collecting objects, for "love, or death, or sleep" as J.R. Ackerley put it. They segregate us by sex, marital status, social class, and occupation. Sometimes they are workrooms as well as sleeping quarters, especially for women who sew piecework at home.

Perrot includes a substantial chapter on hotel rooms, usually akin to anonymous cells, but sometimes longterm dwellings unto themselves, microcosms and emblems of all the other rooms possible. Writers seem disproportionately interested in hotel rooms, either because they stay in a lot of them and find them easy to write about, or because hotels are such good settings for fiction, especially mysteries. So are "bedsits," a very Anglo term that probably translates the French mueblé: a tiny furnished apartment, typically for workers who have just moved to Paris.

In fact, though it starts with designs on the Western world, The Bedroom quickly limits itself to France, and is really mostly about Paris. I have only been to Paris a handful of times, but I have usually stayed in some sort of furnished room: small flats, mansarded servants' quarters, odd repurposed corners of old hôtels. In these tiny Parisian spaces one can relive, from the luxurious perspective of temporary tourism, scenes from Hugo and Zola, and from the lives of many a worker or migrant since. If bedrooms were the locus of bourgeois comfort, they were often emblems of proletarian misery.

Perrot takes us into even gloomier rooms, sickrooms, deathbeds, the cells of religious convents, of mental hospitals, of prisons. Again and again she returns to writers and their uneasy slumbers, insomnias, and illnesses: George Sand, Simone de Beauvoir, Marcel Proust. Some of this is agonizing and some just depressing. For all its associations with coziness and refuge, the bedroom is a pretty fraught place, and that's without getting into all the nightmares that occur there.

For all these reasons, The Bedroom is not an easy book to read, and it's certainly not one you'll want to read straight through. It has no narrative, and it does not have much of an organizing thesis. But if you consume Perrot's intense meditations on the bedroom in brief installments – a few pages, say, before going to sleep each night – it can't help but change the way you think about a place so banal that most of us reduce it to mere function: a place nevertheless suffused with social and personal meanings.

Perrot, Michelle. The Bedroom: An intimate history. [Histoire de chambres, 2009.] Translated by Lauren Elkin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018.