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.
The Bedroom: An Intimate History, translated lucidly from the French by Lauren Elkin, is a sort of sinuous essay on a subject that cultural historian Perrot admits is “inherently ephemeral and unknowable”. At first glance, the slightly gamey cover and transparently provocative title might suggest pseudo-intellectual erotica. Sex is, obviously, acknowledged by Perrot as something that happens in bedrooms, but — like the space itself — the book is considerably more nuanced. The architectural and historical significance of sleeping arrangements is covered, incorporating areas as diverse as the hotel room, the monk’s cell, the hospital ward and the associated rituals of each.
Grandiloquent statements – “the bedroom crystallizes the relationship between space and time” (as opposed, say, to the second law of thermodynamics) – are tossed gaily through the text like abandoned underclothes in the boudoir, while solemn banalities – “many women died in childbirth” – are earnestly footnoted. The overall effect is of an entrant to the grandes écoles rehearsing for her viva. The usual suspects – prominent among them Barthes and Foucault – are carefully cited, but the extent of Perrot’s research often appears to reach no further than the contents of her own bedroom bookshelves.