In her new book, Trustee Professor of French Joan DeJean counts the many ways—from padded sofas, to “casual” clothing, to flush toilets—that France taught the world how to make itself comfortable. By Caroline Tiger


Mar|Apr 2010 contents
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  Joan DeJean initially wanted to call her new book The Sofa. Sitting and all its accoutrements—sofas, chairs, benches, stools—is not something the Trustee Professor of French in the Department of Romance Languages takes lightly.

Greeting me at her apartment on the top floor of a three-story townhouse on Delancey Street in Philadelphia, she offers some advice as I take a seat on her 19th-century, blue silk-upholstered sofa. “It’s only comfortable if you put a pillow behind your back,” she says, moving our conversation over to a pair of 1920s tub chairs after a few minutes. “Feel how much support this gives you?” she asks, sitting lightly in one of the chairs after briskly collecting the drinks she’d set down near the couch.

A few weeks before meeting her in Philadelphia, I spoke with DeJean by phone from her Paris apartment, where she was spending the recent winter break, and she described for me how she was seated. “I’m sitting in an armchair that’s comfortable,” she said. “Nevertheless, I’m sitting in it sideways, and I have my legs draped over one arm and propped up on the edge of my sofa.”

DeJean talks, moves, and writes quickly—she has published nine books and edited or co-edited 11 more since 1977. In other words, she’s no slouch in her field. Still, she’s an expert on lounging, having studied its origins and history for that new book, titled not The Sofa but The Age of Comfort: When Paris Discovered Casual—and the Modern Home Began (Bloomsbury USA).

The Age of Comfort, named one of 2009’s top Art and Architecture books by The New York Times, follows DeJean’s 2005 book, The Essence of Style, which traces modern luxury back to Louis XIV [“All Things Ornamental,” Mar|Apr 2006]. After finishing that one, DeJean began taking note of various 18th-century portraits from France and England. What caught her eye was how people were sitting differently depending on the period and the place—in French portraits the subjects reclined on sofas, while the English sat upright in stiff-backed chairs. She began to wonder about these disparities. “No one would have been able to do this,” she said of her own relaxed posture in Paris, “without various new kinds of furniture.”

Style and Comfort represent both a continuation of and a departure from DeJean’s earlier scholarship on French literature, the history of women’s writing in France, and the history of sexuality. “Joan was a pioneer in the feminist readings of French texts, and in the feminist literary critical movement, a field that was neglected for many years,” says Lance Donaldson-Evans, Professor of Romance Languages and undergraduate chair of French. He and DeJean have been colleagues for 30 years.

He cites two of her works as classics in their fields: Tender Geographies (1991) argues that women were the originators of the modern novel in France; and Fictions of Sappho (1989) looks at the changing cultural context of female sexuality from the mid-16th century to the mid-20th century by examining how each age received the work of the great female poet of antiquity. “Joan has a world-renowned reputation,” Donaldson-Evans says, “because her work is original and her research is minute.”

That minute research posed significant challenges while DeJean was working on The Reinvention of Obscenity (2002). Even for an experienced, tireless researcher, tracking down censored documents that had been suppressed or destroyed was a trial. She met the challenges, but she made a resolution. “One day I just decided I will never do this again,” she recalls. “I wanted to do something different, something where you can see the results.” It’s what led her to embark on The Essence of Style.

At the same time, writing about material objects and cultural history in the 17th and 18th centuries in France was a natural extension of her research interests. The texts that she’d been poring over since she was in grad school included firsthand accounts of changing mores and practices written by people who were living through them. Francoise de Graffigny, a female novelist DeJean has studied extensively, is one of these writers whose correspondence the professor has mined for clues. When she moved from one place to the next, the writer would fall newly in love with her surroundings and describe the furniture, fabrics, and color schemes in great detail. “When something is new, you write about it,” says DeJean. “When things matter to you, you note them.”

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FEATURE: Slouching Towards Elegance by Caroline Tiger
Photography by Candace diCarlo

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