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Eighteenth-Century Studies 40.1 (2006) 141-144

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Knowing Domesticity:

Public, Private, and the Novel

University of Sheffield
Tita Chico, Designing Women: The Dressing Room in Eighteenth-Century English Literature and Culture (Bucknell University Press, Lewisburg, 2005). Pp. 302. $55.
Michael McKeon, The Secret History of Domesticity: Public, Private, and the Division of Knowledge (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2005). Pp. xxvii + 873. $60.

For students of the long eighteenth century, the emergence of domesticity and the distinction between public and private are issues of enduring concern. In [End Page 141] different ways, these two books share common ground in their handling of these issues. Both books consider real spaces, literary spaces, and the connection between them; both books explore the relationship between public and private and the related definition of domesticity, contrasting forms of subjectivity and the emergence of the domestic novel. And yet there are of course significant differences, and this review may appear to be comparing the proverbial apples and oranges. Tita Chico focuses on one key space in the domestic interior and asks about the functions this performed as a literary trope. This is a close and tightly-focused study that takes the reader into the private—and not so private—space of women's dressing rooms in literature. Chico argues that literary treatments of dressing rooms helped define both a new genre and a new female gender; this is, therefore, a thorough and skilful explication of larger narratives through the small space of the female dressing room. Michael McKeon's is a very different book, the sheer size of which reflects the reach of McKeon's thesis. He charts the process through which public and private, traditionally regarded as distinct but not separate modes of experience, became abstractions which were separated out from one another and applied to a wide range of phenomena. This is a history of the production of the modern language of public and private, one which recognizes its conceptual and material foundation. As such, the book considers select areas of human experience alongside print culture broadly defined. The general abstractions that link these analyses forge a self-proclaimed "master narrative" designed to prompt debate, and it contrasts sharply with the sustained close readings of literature and the narrower compass of Chico's book.

Though working with canvases of different extents, the narrative contours of these books closely match. Chico's book offers two key stories. The first chronological narrative charts the depiction of women in dressing rooms first (in satire) as dangerous, sexual beings, and subsequently (in domestic novels) as virtuous mothers and wives. The second narrative explores the key themes that recur in representations of the dressing room: "art, epistemology, education, and maternity" (11). Part I, "Metaphor, Theory, and History," positions this book in historiographical, theoretical, and material contexts. In a useful archaeology of dressing rooms, Chico demonstrates that these spaces served a variety of functions for women, from dressing to learning. Subsequent chapters show that writers were more selective. In Part II, "Satire, Art, and Epistemology," the focus is on the satiric representation of the dressing room, in which authors discussed artifice and truth through female sexuality. Alexander Pope contrasts favorably his own poetic arts with those cosmetic arts of the woman in her dressing room, while Swift uses the exploration of the dressing room/woman's body as a model for knowing. Part III, "Domestic Novels, Education, and Motherhood," argues that later writers such as Samuel Richardson focused instead on other issues—including virtue and interiority—and in doing so created a generic distinction between their own writings and that of the earlier satirists.

Chico's main concern is to contribute to debates about genre. In charting the way in which dressing rooms shifted from being the preserve of satirists to that of domestic novelists, Chico is exploring "the extent to which the tradition of satirizing women contributed to the development of narratives about female subjects" (34). In weaving together these transformations in genre with large-scale changes in female gender roles, this book contributes to another...


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