Daily life in 19th-century France. Illuminating social history

France, Fin de Si`ecle, by Eugen Weber. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 294 pp. $20. `THE public life of a people is a very small thing compared with its private life,'' a Frenchman once observed. For Eugen Weber, a professor of modern European history at the University of California, a look at private life affords the most authentic means of understanding culture. Not satisfied with focusing on political machinations, Weber turns to late 19th-century France with a clear lens directed at the prosaic, the mundane. ``France, Fin de Si`ecle'' is illuminating social history. Plumbing, pilgrimages, prejudices, and physical fitness all have their place in a study that aims to acknowledge the experience of the ordinary French man or woman, rather than that of political leaders. What, Weber asks, was it like to live in the provinces instead of Paris? What did people wear? What did they eat? How did they spend their days? How did they take their pleasure?

While Weber gives public events (most notably, the Dreyfus affair) their due, he is more interested in describing such phenomena as French hygiene -- or lack of it -- during a time when most homes had no lavatory, when baths were taken only once a year, when instead of toilet paper one used ``small cloth serviettes folded in four.'' Underclothing was rarely changed; shirts, often doubling as nightshirts, were worn for a week or more. Only the collar and cuffs might be detached and cleaned daily. Shampoo was unknown, and hair -- even a woman's waist-length tresses -- went forever unwashed.

Drug use cut across gender and class lines. Violence seemed rampant, and scandals were noisily exploited by the press. Weber uses court records to reconstruct some crimes, and concludes that household conflict and family violence, even murder, were common. If fin de si`ecle became synonymous with decadence, there seemed ample reason.

Weber's proliferation of anecdotes is not designed, he tells us, to expound any thesis. ``I restrict myself to surface phenomena,'' he says, and he resists easy conclusions about the era. Most of his surface phenomena fall into the realm of popular culture; when he moves to art and literature, however, he shifts focus. Here he refers to ``the poets and artists who dive beneath the surface of the unknown and bring back snatches of a more profound truth. . . .'' Mallarm'e and Val'ery, the Impressionists and the Fauves, Chausson and Debussy -- these writers, artists, and composers require a discussion broader than a brief chapter, and they do not lend themselves to the same kind of anecdotal material that is so satisfying in the rest of the book.

In looking at the arts, Weber might better have focused on popular music, the cinema, popular novels, and most important, photography. Here, his astute eye for detail and his sensitivity to common experience would have served him well. As it stands, the chapter on ``The Old Arts and the New'' seems inconsistent with the rest of the book. In this chapter, though, Weber may well have been inhibited by Stephen Kern's recent study, ``The Culture of Time and Space,'' an excellent examination of how technology and science shaped art and culture around the turn of the century. Weber acknowledges this work, and in many ways his own book complements Kern's.

But it amply stands on its own. It is a truly refreshing look at an era that has been examined often and well. Weber aims to give us a sense of the daily reality of the past and, by and large, succeeds admirably.

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