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Dirty Laundry

by Paul Abruzzo (Libraries) on 2024-05-06T12:14:00-04:00 in Anthropology, Cultural and Ethnic Studies, Economics and Finance, Fashion, History, Literature | 1 Comment

Recently, Peter Brooks, the Yale literature professor, had a piece in The New York Review of Books* on Proust, focussing on the various English translations of his great multi-part novel In Search of Lost Time. That led me to get excited about trying to read Proust's masterpiece .... again. I'd started the first part, Swann's Way, twice over the years, and was completely entranced, but got distracted both times. That is easy to do since Proust's prose requires sustained concentration, and, by the way, excuse me, I need to check my email, text messages, and Facebook, and...what was I talking about? 

For this new attempt, I got the Lydia Davis translation (Penguin), thinking she has a terrific reputation, and that the prose might be more accessible than older translations. I read her introduction, and realized I had a better an even chance of staying with the novel if I educated myself about Proust's life and the social and historical context in which it was written. Davis recommends, among others, Edmund White's biography, which I remembered as being part of the Penguin Lives series, knowing that meant, also, that it was (mercifully) short. I'd found White's memoir of New York in the 60s and 70s (I love memoirs of postwar New York), highly intelligent and enjoyable, so I picked up his Proust bio.

One of the many pleasures of reading history for me is in coming across surprising facts or social phenomena. And so it was that, on page 21 of the bio, while reviewing social mores of Proust's class of fin-de-siècle Paris, White relates that wealthy Parisian men sent their shirts to London to be laundered and pressed. I found this astounding. Why would they send their shirts all the way to London? Was it something the entire class of men practiced, or was White expanding on a tidbit he'd read about a very limited group? Or, was it all strictly untrue, a kind of urban myth that gets repeated without examination? The only thing I could imagine is that the practice, if it was indeed a widespread, was a matter of conspicuous consumption, a social act done in order to demonstrate one was able to afford such a thing. Penguin Lives are meant for casual readers, and so White's claim lacks scholarly attribution (not only are there no foot- or endnotes, there is no formal bibliography, only a few paragraphs at the end of the work that names other Proust biographies). The text itself also offers no guide as to where one might start to look to confirm this fact of social history.

I went to the New School Libraries' resources to look for confirmation. The first thing I did was go to Google Scholar through our homepage (the advantage of doing so is that Google Scholar "knows" you're searching through the New School Libraries' website, and will therefore provide links to full text articles we have in our databases). I tried a number of searches using a variety of keywords [Parisian rich laundry London, e.g.], and finally turned up an article that seemed promising, one we hold with our JStor subscription. Its title, importantly, gave me a phrase that I hadn't considered using in my initial search (laundry trade): "Laundresses and the Laundry Trade in Victorian England." That is precisely the kind of thing one learns along the way in a search that aids in the search itself, and one more reason to always step back and try to think of, or look up, synonyms for search terms. This question of the dirty laundry is still unanswered for me, but the path I recounted is the kind that we go through with all our patrons in helping with your research. You can email, call on the phone, chat, book an appointment in person or via videoconference, here

Comments on this, or anything else, can be directed straight to me:

*If you don't already know, the New School Libraries subscribes to The New York Review of Books through a few platforms. The most convenient way to access is via our direct subscription, the link called New York Review of Books Archive. For a more directed, accurate search of the archive, use the Gale database (although this one only contains the last 2 years of issues, while, through our website subscription you can access the entire archive).  

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Posts: 2
Brita Servaes (Libraries) 2024-05-10T12:21:48-04:00

Maybe look at the Magdalene Laundries in Ireland (there were some in other parts of the UK as well): did they "import" laundry to increase their profits? Definitely another winding path of research.

I have not been able to find anything much about the business side of these laundries on a first google run-thru, and that may be in part because the religious "charities" who ran these laundries continue to keep most of their docs secret. And they officially cry poverty since they do not want to pay restitution to the last survivors. Also, of course, the main focus of research on these laundries is on the lives and deaths of the women there and on the machinations of slavery these "charities" employed.

Some proper research might dig something up about their economy.



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