- Purchase/rental options available:
Eighteenth-Century Studies 39.3 (2006) 394-397
[Access article in PDF]
The Public, the Private, and the In-Between:
Revisiting the Debate on Eighteenth-Century Literature 1
Stephanie M. Hilger
A critical rethinking of the ubiquitous terms "public" and "private" in the eighteenth-century context informs the three books under review here. Susan Dalton, Alessa Johns, and Patricia Meyer Spacks explicitly address the influence of Habermas' 1962 Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (translated, in 1989, as The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society) on the entire field of eighteenth-century studies. In their nuanced readings of eighteenth-century literary and cultural production, Dalton, Johns, and Spacks question the prevalent interpretation of Habermas as establishing a strict binary opposition between the public and the private and, perhaps even more importantly, an equation of the private with the domestic and the public with the political. While Habermas has coined these terms and injected them into the critical discourse about the eighteenth century, the strict demarcation of supposedly separate spheres is more a product of Strukturwandel's subsequent reception than of Habermas' theory itself, prompted by critics' desire to establish some kind of coherent categorization for the complex nature of eighteenth-century life and letters.
Habermas himself discusses the intersections of the public and private spheres and explores the arising ambivalences. He argues that the opposition between the "intimate sphere of the conjugal family" (51) and the "public sphere" was, above all, a discursive construct because the intimate/domestic sphere formed part of the private sphere of the gradually developing market economy. Even though the domestic was imagined as unaffected by the workings of the private realm of the market economy due to the accelerating division of labor and family life in the eighteenth century, both were connected not only to each other, but also to what Habermas calls the "public sphere in the world of letters" and "the public sphere in the political realm" (51). While the ideological construction of these separate spheres affected reality to some extent and women became increasingly equated with the domestic in the discourse of the time, an analysis of this reality also shows how porous and connected these areas were. Habermas' discussion of these intersections serves as the starting point for the studies of eighteenth-century literature and culture by Dalton, Johns, and Spacks. They explore the space which Habermas himself highlights but which has often been overlooked: the third space where public and private aspects meet in complex and ambivalent ways. The authors' well-reasoned and compelling analyses of these intersections [End Page 394] in British, French, German, and Italian writings underline the complexity of eighteenth-century textual production by men and women.
In Engendering the Republic of Letters: Reconnecting Public and Private Spheres in Eighteenth-Century Europe, Susan Dalton looks with a historian's eye at the correspondence of four French and Italian salon women, Julie de Lespinasse, Marie-Jeanne Roland, Giustina Renier Michiel, and Elisabetta Mosconi Contarini. Dalton explores the communities formed by social networking and polite sociability in the eighteenth-century republic of letters and investigates salon women's engagement with the political and philosophical debates of their time. Her argument perceptively unravels the ambivalence that characterizes these elite women's theoretical writings and their practical applications. Yet, rather than classifying these ambivalent moments as contradictions, Dalton disentangles these women's strategic negotiation of gender discourses. This mediation allowed them to express their political views at the same time that it enabled them to echo discourses of propriety and...