A thrilling survey of bedrooms across the centuries takes in sex and privacy, God and glamour, rest and death
The bedroom, says French superstar historian Michelle Perrot, is the place where everything important has already happened. From the days when early man first rolled a boulder in front of his cave and told neighbours to knock first, to hospital rooms, ladies’ boudoirs, prison cells and Proust’s cork-lined grime box, the bedroom is the place where we are most authentically, and explosively, ourselves. Perrot sets out to locate what she calls the “multiple genealogies” of the bedroom, “the melodic lines where religion and power, health and illness, body and spirit, love and sex interweave”. This sounds so dreamy and yet so thrilling – thanks in part to Lauren Elkin’s exquisite translation – that you can’t wait to push open the door and get cracking on this search for God, love, rest and death.
The search is a lengthy one, since Perrot works across centuries, even millennia, rather than mere decades. She is as comfortable at Versailles watching the elaborate performance that is the Sun King’s daily levée as she is showing the moment when an increasingly famous Simone de Beauvoir decides to give up writing in the Café de Flore (fans keep turning up to stare) and retreat to a sparsely furnished bedsit. Along the way we encounter Breton box beds (basically straw-stuffed coffins without lids into which weary peasants stack themselves tidily every night), swanky hotel mattresses set on fire by Jean Genet’s Gitanes (his publisher Gallimard has to pay the fines), and VW camper vans that have become semi-permanent homes to both the lighthearted and the desperate.
The bedroom, then, is more than an arrangement of domestic space, it is a litmus test of social and psychic health. A self that is poked in the ribs from sharing a bed with grandma, two siblings and, if it’s chilly, the family goat, is not a self that is likely to build an enjoyable sense of its own interiority. A self like that of the protagonist in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous short story “The Yellow Wallpaper”, who is locked in her bedroom and isolated from everything that she holds dear, is quite likely to go mad. The ideal bedroom is the one that offers its owner a secure but permeable autonomy, the chance to think and feel as she pleases without worrying that by Michelle Perrot, translation by Lauren Elkin, Yale, £20 someone is about to either lock her in or drag her out to a party. When Virginia Woolf insisted in 1929 that a woman required a room of her own, she wasn’t thinking particularly in terms of volume or curtains or whether there was a good northern light. What she wanted for Shakespeare’s Sister and all the other female literary mutes was a humble bedsit furnished with a single divan for sleeping, a table for writing and a sturdy lock to which only the owner had a key. This last point was important: in 1918 Woolf was aghast when her house guest Beatrice Webb bustled into her bedroom and perched companionably on the bed without so much as a by your leave.
If this sounds as though Woolf is setting the bar a bit low, Perrot produces persuasive evidence that authors, both male and female, have never been particularly bothered about the aesthetics of their bedroom. For many it’s a case of the plainer the better. Kafka, who maintained that there was no need for a writer to ever leave his room, liked to fantasise about relocating to a cave furnished with nothing but a lamp and paper. George Sand, worried about being distracted by the furniture in her “Blue Bedroom”, built a “closet” into which to retreat still further during the writing hours of 10pm to 6am. Proust, meanwhile, drew the parameters even tighter, refusing to leave his bed at all as he feverishly engaged with the monumental task of squeezing his vision of the belle époque into a mere million and a half words.
By the time he was forced to leave his apartment at 102 Boulevard Haussmann in 1919, Proust’s bedroom was in a right old state. The cork lining he had ordered for his walls may have muffled the noise, but it was also a spongy magnet for dirt. Luckily, since Proust was a middle-aged man and a genius, no one took this as evidence of moral slovenliness. For ordinary people, especially young bourgeois women, the state of one’s bedroom became a text expressing the state of one’s soul. Jeunes filles were expected to keep their bedrooms clean and pretty as a way of preparing for their adult roles as homemakers. Not too pretty though: obsessing over colour schemes and pelmets suggested a worrying “lightness” and a potential to squander a future husband’s financial resources. Spending too long looking at yourself in the mirror was even worse and hinted that you were half way to becoming Madame Bovary. Reading in your bedroom was fine, just as long as you didn’t do it too often or for too long, at which point it started to count as a solitary vice.
Kafka, who maintained that there was no need for a writer to ever leave his room, liked to fantasise about relocating to a cave
To buy The Bedroom go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846.
The Bedroom: an Intimate History