A thrilling sur­vey of bed­rooms across the cen­turies takes in sex and pri­vacy, God and glam­our, rest and death

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Kathryn Hughes

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

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The Bed­room: an In­ti­mate His­tory

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