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The Secret History of Domesticity: Public,…
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The Secret History of Domesticity: Public, Private, and the Division of…

by Michael McKeon

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Taking English culture as its representative sample, The Secret History of Domesticity asks how the modern notion of the public-private relation emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Treating that relation as a crucial instance of the modern division of knowledge, Michael McKeon narrates its pre-history along with that of its essential component, domesticity.

This narrative draws upon the entire spectrum of English people's experience. At the most "public" extreme are political developments like the formation of civil society over against the state, the rise of contractual thinking, and the devolution of absolutism from monarch to individual subject. The middle range of experience takes in the influence of Protestant and scientific thought, the printed publication of the private, the conceptualization of virtual publics—society, public opinion, the market—and the capitalization of production, the decline of the domestic economy, and the increase in the sexual division of labor. The most "private" pole of experience involves the privatization of marriage, the family, and the household, and the complex entanglement of femininity, interiority, subjectivity, and sexuality.

McKeon accounts for how the relationship between public and private experience first became intelligible as a variable interaction of distinct modes of being—not a static dichotomy, but a tool to think with. Richly illustrated with nearly 100 images, including paintings, engravings, woodcuts, and a representative selection of architectural floor plans for domestic interiors, this volume reads graphic forms to emphasize how susceptible the public-private relation was to concrete and spatial representation. McKeon is similarly attentive to how literary forms evoked a tangible sense of public-private relations—among them figurative imagery, allegorical narration, parody, the author-character-reader dialectic, aesthetic distance, and free indirect discourse. He also finds a structural analogue for the emergence of the modern public-private relation in the conjunction of what contemporaries called the "secret history" and the domestic novel.

A capacious and synthetic historical investigation, The Secret History of Domesticity exemplifies how the methods of literary interpretation and historical analysis can inform and enrich one another.

**
  GalenWiley | Apr 8, 2015 |
Kristine Steenbergh, Earmarks blog:
Old-wives tales
April 2nd, 2006

As my LibraryThing-widget gives away, I am reading Micheal McKeon’s The Secret History of Domesticity. I’m currently enjoying a chapter on the relations between print culture, the private and the public, which contains an intriguing passage by the biographer and antiquary John Aubrey (1626-1697), quoted here as a belated contribution to Women’s History Month.

At the close of the seventeenth century, John Aubrey nostalgically remembered his childhood, when his nurse and the maids told stories by the fireside. Looking back, he describes these tales of female sociability as “Romantique stories,€? “old-wives talesâ€? and stories of Robin Goodfellow and fairies. Critics have analyzed such nostalgic descriptions of childhood in the context of humanist education, which disapproved of these romantic, effeminate tales. Mary Ellen Lamb writes:

Nostalgia for this childhood period of effeminacy and its pleasures, including its narrative pleasures, could not be easily reconciled with a self built upon the rejection of the feminine and the corporeal [in humanist education]. Humanist sentiment suggests that the highly intellectual form of masculinity achieved through the translation of classical texts within this literate culture did not easily accomodate the oral tradition of tales circulated among women at a winter’s fire. [1]

What struck me about the quotation from Aubrey in The Secret History of Domesticity is that the passage does not explicitly contrast an effeminate childhood with a masculine life of education, or vernacular oral culture with latinized literacy. It looks back at a time “before woomen were Readers,â€? thus contrasting the more widespread female literacy of the late seventeenth century with the period before the Civil Wars. And although it does rehearse the associations of fairy tales and gossip, the passage also describes women’s oral traditions in a different light, highlighting women’s roles in the young boy’s education in history — stories of English history from 1066 to Charles the First were handed down from mother to daughter:

The fashion when I was a boy (before the Civil warres) for the maydes to sitt-up late by the fire [to] tell old Romantique stories of the old time, handed downe to them with a great deal of alteration. [My nurse, Kath. Bushell of Ford, was excellent at these old stories.] … In the old ignorant times, before woomen were Readers, the history was handed downe from Mother to daughter, &c. … So my Nurse had the History from the Conquest down to Carl. I. in Ballad. … Before Printing, Old-wives Tales were ingeniose: and since Printing came into fashion, till a little before the Civil-warres, the ordinary sort of People were not taught to reade: now-a-dayes Bookes are common, and most of the poor people understand letters: and the many good Bookes, and variety of Turnes and Affaires, have put all the old Fables out of dores: and the divine art of Printing and Gunpowder have frighted away the Robin-good-fellow and the Fayries.

[1]Mary Ellen Lamb, Engendering the Narrative Act: Old Wives’ Tales in The Winter’s Tale, Macbeth, and The Tempest, in Criticism (1998).
  Owain | Apr 11, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0801882206, Hardcover)

Taking English culture as its representative sample, The Secret History of Domesticity asks how the modern notion of the public-private relation emerged in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Treating that relation as a crucial instance of the modern division of knowledge, Michael McKeon narrates its pre-history along with that of its essential component, domesticity.

This narrative draws upon the entire spectrum of English people's experience. At the most "public" extreme are political developments like the formation of civil society over against the state, the rise of contractual thinking, and the devolution of absolutism from monarch to individual subject. The middle range of experience takes in the influence of Protestant and scientific thought, the printed publication of the private, the conceptualization of virtual publics—society, public opinion, the market—and the capitalization of production, the decline of the domestic economy, and the increase in the sexual division of labor. The most "private" pole of experience involves the privatization of marriage, the family, and the household, and the complex entanglement of femininity, interiority, subjectivity, and sexuality.

McKeon accounts for how the relationship between public and private experience first became intelligible as a variable interaction of distinct modes of being—not a static dichotomy, but a tool to think with. Richly illustrated with nearly 100 images, including paintings, engravings, woodcuts, and a representative selection of architectural floor plans for domestic interiors, this volume reads graphic forms to emphasize how susceptible the public-private relation was to concrete and spatial representation. McKeon is similarly attentive to how literary forms evoked a tangible sense of public-private relations—among them figurative imagery, allegorical narration, parody, the author-character-reader dialectic, aesthetic distance, and free indirect discourse. He also finds a structural analogue for the emergence of the modern public-private relation in the conjunction of what contemporaries called the "secret history" and the domestic novel.

A capacious and synthetic historical investigation, The Secret History of Domesticity exemplifies how the methods of literary interpretation and historical analysis can inform and enrich one another.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:15:11 -0400)

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