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The Secret History of Domesticity

, 904 pages

2 halftones, 84 line drawings, 11 color plates

December 2005



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The Secret History of Domesticity

Public, Private, and the Division of Knowledge

Winner, Association of American Publishers’ Professional and Scholarly Publishing Awards in Communication and Cultural Studies

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.

Michael McKeon is Board of Governors Professor of Literature at Rutgers University, the author of Politics and Poetry in Restoration England and The Origins of the English Novel, and the editor of Theory of the Novel.

"The strength of the book lies in the wealth of historical, literary, and pictorial examples that evoke the texture of domesticity, from bedchambers to bigamy."

"Its central argument is wonderfully simple... McKeon will set new agendas in the understanding of the early modern to modern eras."

"Those in the fields of 17th- and 18th-century cultural studies will find this book fascinating."

"The scholarship is breathtaking and the intellectual analysis rigorous."

"McKeon's scholarship is commanding, his erudition staggering, his systematic rigour and intellectual control steady and sure."

"A deliciously rich and generous exploration of the material and conceptual separation of the public from the private, one that illuminates just about every aspect of what it means to be modern: political, sexual, literary, artistic. The erudition is staggering; the play of history and representation is subtle and elegant; the openings to philosophy, to the sociology of knowledge, and to political theory are imaginative and often unexpected. No one will come away from reading this book without learning a great deal about the past and about how to read and to see. To paraphrase Lévi-Strauss, McKeon shows that 'public' and 'private' are good to think with, even better than we might have thought."

"A gift to all teachers and scholars of the British novel."

"I have assigned this book to graduate students... Accounting for most of what has gone on in the last thirty years of scholarship in its dynamic synthesis, The Secret History of Domesticity lays the groundwork for new inquiry into eighteenth-century life. As a reader, as a scholar, and as a teacher, I am grateful for it."

"What defines The Secret History is its elegant waving of thousands of facts, prints, quotations, dates, events and characters."

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