With The Age of Comfort, DeJean has made experiences like these accessible to every reader. Taking her research and packaging it in a way that appeals to non-academics—sharing it with a world beyond graduate students and professors—is now a defining aspect of her career. The fact that her two most recent books weren’t published by university presses, she says, doesn’t make them any less scholarly. “There’s even more research involved,” she says, “because there are so many things I don’t know.”

Take the time she visited the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, carrying with her a Xeroxed stack of those disparate portraits of lounging French folk and upright Brits. A young curator showed her how to look at a chair or sofa’s back legs to see how it’s built to handle stress. “She had me thinking about joints,” DeJean says. “We were on the floor lying beneath 18th-century sofas, looking at stress points.”

DeJean is starting to bring her recent research to undergrads, too. This semester she’s offering a course that had previously been open to grad students only: French 350, “The Invention of Paris,” looks at the city’s evolution, from 1630 to 1730, into the intellectual, cultural, and artistic capital of Europe.

On a Wednesday in mid-January, French 350 is meeting for its second class of the semester in Van Pelt’s wood-paneled Lea Library. DeJean and 11 young women discuss an array of 18th-century broadsides laid out on the seminar table. “Literacy is not just for aristocrats who went to school,” DeJean tells the class, beginning to paint a picture of the period. “The average person who could buy things could read. I can’t tell you how amazing this is.”

She singles out an ad for a shop that contains an illustration of its sign. “The streets weren’t numbered yet,” she says. “That began in the late 18th century. So how do you find someone? You say, ‘I live at the shop sign.’ Or, ‘I live two houses down from the shop sign.’ Can you imagine the streets of the city with whole walls covered with these signs?”

DeJean has collaborated with the staff at Penn’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library to help them acquire materials from French dealers, including a number of 18th-century political pamphlets she’ll teach in this class. “These help students understand the ephemeral life of this early modern time,” says John Pollack, library specialist for public services. “These are the kinds of things people would see on the streets, that would’ve been distributed during a hot political moment.”

DeJean has also donated a number of books to Penn—29 entries in the library’s online catalog list her name as their provenance. These include a 1752 edition of Lettres d’une peruvienne, the most important novel written by Mme. de Graffigny, and a 1759 edition of Voltaire’s Candide.



DeJean’s enthusiasm for her finds and the connections she’s able to draw between them bubbles over in her vivid, animated prose as much as it does in person. In “The Flush Toilet,” chapter four of Comfort, DeJean shows the evolution of some highly intimate practices in the court of Louis XIV. Until the turn of the 18th century, she writes, “even great nobles did not mind being seen while sitting on a closestool,” a portable boxy stool with a ring cut-out and a baseline pan to catch droppings. The Sun King, we are told, received visitors and did his business while doing business—as did his grandson’s wife, the Duchess of Bourgogne, who simultaneously “chatted with the ladies of the court.” In one incident demonstrating the lack of guest facilities at court, a princess partakes of a grand meal at Versailles, then takes to the hallway and hikes up her skirts to relieve herself right then and there.

Thanks to these hard-won details, it’s easy to picture the duchess on her stool and to hear the rustling of the princess’s skirts. DeJean’s knack for rendering the historical immediate partly explains the appeal of her books. “They’re so enlightening because you not only see how we live and how it has evolved,” says her literary agent, Alice Martell, “but you also feel an intimacy with people who lived centuries ago.” DeJean’s thesis in Comfort, that France in the 1700s was a time and place during which many contemporary concepts, practices, and material objects first emerged, makes history relatable.What we think of as contemporary is really history,” says Martell. “There’s actually this intimate connection with this period with which you thought you had nothing in common.”

From the comfort of her 1920s tub chair in Center City Philadelphia, DeJean speaks of history as if it’s highly immediate. She seems as excited as if she’d just now discovered Louis XV’s great adventures in plumbing. “I just get the giggles when I walk around Versailles and think about them ripping out those walls to put in pipes,” she says. “I mean, it was a real change in what I consider creature comforts,” she continues. “And it spread amazingly quickly, like storage. Storage was amazing. In less than a half century the trunk is superseded by a chest of drawers. It becomes affordable that fast. I mean, imagine.”u

Caroline Tiger C’96 is a Philadelphia-based freelancer who often writes on design.


 

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Slouching Towards Elegance by Caroline Tiger
Photography by Candace diCarlo

DeJean uses contemporary materials from Penn’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library in her class, “The Invention of Paris,” on the city’s rise from 1630-1730.

   


 
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