Review: A History of Private Life

Contributed by Léan Ní Chléirigh

Amanda VickeryKevin O’ Sullivan’s recent rage against ‘diet history, history zero, history free,’ highlights the problem broadcasters face every day when trying to provide sincere, interesting history to an audience which claims to like history yet puts on the kettle or worse, CSI, at the mention of two or more dates in the same five minutes. Channel 4 has opted for the already-famous-presenter-but-not-historian, Kevin McCloud, who adds in his own bizarre analogies between the Medici and ‘Dynasty’. Another tack is to go for a ‘cool,’ young historian who has done the research themselves but finds it a bit too exciting, (bordering on arousing) and pitch it with a dose of jingoism which informs without challenging, see Bettany Hughes and Tristram Hunt. BBC Radio 4 has another plan. It takes an internationally respected historian, gives them 400 years and lets them loose. But here’s the clever part, each programme tackles a compact subject and lasts only fifteen minutes. ‘A History of Private Life’ is born.

Amanda Vickery, a high profile and respected historian of gender and social history from Royal Holloway University of London, is supremely qualified to write and present this series which ‘reveals the hidden history of home over 400 years.’ Her research, and therefore the series, relies heavily on the letters and diaries of men and women and is augmented with reference to contemporary literature, didactic works and court records as well as any other sources she can get her hands on. The result is a really good history series which manages to get the balance right, pitching it at an interested public while allowing those of us with a bit more knowledge to nod along wisely to the radio, our egos intact.

‘A History of Private Life,’ is testament to what a clever producer can achieve with a good historian.Each programme takes a single issue, sometimes unquestionably domestic, such as the closet or the laundry and discusses its place in the home, its development and the way in which it mirrored society. For example the closet, a small room off the bedroom which provided a private space for Christian devotion, soon became a social norm, appearing in the houses of the gentry and merchant classes by the 17th century. The King James Bible recommended retreating to the closet to attain private communion with God. The closet quickly became a refuge for people wanting to escape from the rest of the household and a place where women could entertain their friends, hide their illicit men and demonstrate their wealth. Other programmes investigate wider issues, which affected society at large and view them through the prism of the home. In ‘Things That Go Bump In The Night,’ the witch craze is examined with special reference to people’s faith in the inviolability of their houses even in the face of the supernatural, ‘even ghosts and witches recognised the boundaries of the house.’ Almost all accounts of witching reported that the witches used a door or window to enter, hence the placing of talismans at the threshold of the house to keep away malignant forces. ‘The State In Miniature,’ discusses the mirroring of the hierarchy of the family and the hierarchy of the state in the polemical writings of the 17th Century.

The series is not without its faults however. It becomes clear very quickly that ‘A History of Private Life,’ is in fact a history of middle and upper class English private life, which has no time for those who couldn’t afford closets or who shared a single room with their extended family (it is Radio 4 after all). The producers have also decided to include new recordings of songs from the period which have never been recorded before. It turns out that 17th century music was extremely irritating. Not so irritating that you would turn it off though and here again the fifteen minute rule comes in handy. By the time you are tired of ‘Hey Nonny Nonny,’ the episode is over and the overriding impression is one of clever, interesting broadcasting.

‘A History of Private Life,’ airs Monday-Friday at 15.45 and is available for 7 days on ‘Listen Again,’ which you can access through the BBC i-Player or the Radio 4 website, www.bbc.co.uk/radio4. Catch the omnibus of the weeks programmes every Saturday.

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4 Responses to “Review: A History of Private Life”

  1. Niamh Says:

    This looks like a great series – it’s nice to see the history of private life and domesticity making their way into the media too, because so often popular history is mostly about the ‘important’ people and events – royalty, political leaders, war, revolution etc. – while the history of everyday life remains all too often unexplored… Thanks for linking this, I must check it out!

  2. puesoccurrences Says:

    The series sounds great Léan, and yet another quality programme made by Radio 4. One thing though – I’m not sure I was ‘raging’ against diet history. I actually quite liked the Grand Tour, particularly if taken as it is – history lite. Which, of course, opens up another discussion hinted at by your post – how do we get the balance right? Do professional historians expect too much from history on television and radio?

    Kevin

  3. Non-elitist popular historian Says:

    I think what Kevin is afraid of has been illustrated by Mitchell and Webb- it the link doesn’t work google ‘The Fun Historian’ on youtube…

    • puesoccurrences Says:

      This is absolutely brilliant. ‘We’re using baked beans because it’s more fun’. Genius. Thanks for the link.

      Kevin

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