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Privacy: Concealing the Eighteenth-Century Self

Privacy: Concealing the Eighteenth-Century Self

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by Patricia Meyer Spacks

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Today we consider privacy a right to be protected. But in eighteenth-century England, privacy was seen as a problem, even a threat. Women reading alone and people hiding their true thoughts from one another in conversation generated fears of uncontrollable fantasies and profound anxieties about insincerity.

In Privacy, Patricia Meyer Spacks explores


Today we consider privacy a right to be protected. But in eighteenth-century England, privacy was seen as a problem, even a threat. Women reading alone and people hiding their true thoughts from one another in conversation generated fears of uncontrollable fantasies and profound anxieties about insincerity.

In Privacy, Patricia Meyer Spacks explores eighteenth-century concerns about privacy and the strategies people developed to avoid public scrutiny and social pressure. She examines, for instance, the way people hid behind common rules of etiquette to mask their innermost feelings and how, in fact, people were taught to employ such devices. She considers the erotic overtones that privacy aroused in its suppression of deeper desires. And perhaps most important, she explores the idea of privacy as a societal threat—one that bred pretense and hypocrisy in its practitioners. Through inspired readings of novels by Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, and Sterne, along with a penetrating glimpse into diaries, autobiographies, poems, and works of pornography written during the period, Spacks ultimately shows how writers charted the imaginative possibilities of privacy and its social repercussions.

Finely nuanced and elegantly conceived, Spacks's new work will fascinate anyone who has relished concealment or mourned its recent demise.

Editorial Reviews

H-Net Book Reviews
"This provocative and stimulating study is a welcome and pertinent addition to scholarship on eighteenth-century interiority. Spacks foregrounds the unknowability of the self which was and remains a source of anxiety and fascination."-,

— Dana Rabin

"One of the most satisfying and informed of literary critics, Spacks provides a look at psychological privacy that is both a thoughtful examination of the nature and history of privacy and a masterful piece of literary criticism. . . . Essential."
Virginia Quarterly Review
“Spacks, who has written some of the most influential studies of the English eighteenth century . . . now turns her attention to another epoch-making change that took place in the eighteenth century—the concept of privacy. . . . Spack’s immense erudition and elegant writing style combine to create a book both profound and readable. . . . The rich and detailed study breaks new ground and invites us to contemplate the origins of one of today’s most cherished values.”
New York Sun
"This is a book about literature and about the act of reading itself-and that is one of its great strengths. Those willing to immerse themselves in the author's discussions of 18th-century novels will find her book both a blessed relief from the current climate of voyeurism and paranoia and an illuminating exploration of our contradictory attitudes about privacy."

— Charlotte Taylor

London Review of Books
"This is a good and informative book."

— Frank Kermode

H-Net Book Reviews - Dana Rabin
“This provocative and stimulating study is a welcome and pertinent addition to scholarship on eighteenth-century interiority. Spacks foregrounds the unknowability of the self which was and remains a source of anxiety and fascination.”

New York Sun - Charlotte Taylor
“This is a book about literature and about the act of reading itself—and that is one of its great strengths. Those willing to immerse themselves in the author’s discussions of 18th-century novels will find her book both a blessed relief from the current climate of voyeurism and paranoia and an illuminating exploration of our contradictory attitudes about privacy.”
London Review of Books - Frank Kermode
“This is a good and informative book.”

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
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Privacy: Concealing the Eighteenth-Century Self

By Patricia Ann Meyer Spacks

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003 Patricia Ann Meyer Spacks
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226768600

I - Privacies

The opposition between public and private, in most formulations, involves a distinction between large and limited arenas--between domestic and national politics, for example, or between the domestic and the civic. The competition thus implied, however, tells us little about privacy, which typically concerns the personal rather than the domestic. Indeed, privacy can ally itself with the "public" side of the public/private dichotomy by its frequent opposition to the domestic: the housewife wants privacy specifically to get away from her family for a time, and from her family responsibilities. Her very capacity to imagine "privacy" depends partly on social class. If significant public functioning, except as a problem for others, seldom belongs to the bottom classes, their lives, though "private," rarely enable physical privacy.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, privacy figures almost obsessively in the media and inhabits an important place in national consciousness. My favorite symptom: I've noticed recently that in upscale hotels the tags that you put on your door to keep the maid from bothering you no longer read "Do Not Disturb." Instead, they say "Privacy Please." Condensing theforce of a negative imperative into a single powerful noun that needs no verb, the new phrase suggests repudiation, rejection of other people, a Greta Garbo stance: I want to be alone. It eliminates the idea of disturbance, some local and limited interference with serenity or pleasure, only to indicate more categorical exclusion of everyone and everything outside the door. The nominally more polite formulation ("Please") in fact conveys greater insistence and a more determined will to be left alone. "Do Not Disturb" hints a desire for noninterference with some specific activity (sleeping, going through papers) for some limited space of time. "Privacy Please" imparts a wish for fundamental separation.

The word privacy, by way of its adjectival form, derives from a Latin word meaning deprived: specifically, deprived of public office; in other words, cut off from the full and appropriate functioning of a man. What originally designated a state of deprivation, however, has come, in the Western middle-class world, to refer to a condition alleged by some in the United States to be a constitutional right, a privileged condition of freedom and control. Indeed, one commentator differentiates privacy from "alienation, loneliness, ostracism, and isolation" precisely on the basis of its self-evident desirability: "alienation is suffered, loneliness is dreaded, ostracism and isolation are borne with resignation or panic, while privacy is sought after" (Weinstein 88).

The catalogue of the Harvard University libraries provides 1,384 entries under the heading "Privacy." An enormous preponderance of them-- entries 75 through 1,384--cluster beneath the rubric "Privacy, Right of," a rubric mainly subdivided geographically: "Privacy, Right of--Lichtenstein," "Privacy, Right of--Manitoba." What our forebears considered a danger, we assume as our due; those signs on the door demand something that we feel entitled to. That fact in itself suggests our distance from an earlier ideal of communal responsibility and support.

Yet the situation is more complicated than this single piece of data might suggest. I hardly need mention the enormous contradictions that attend current attitudes toward privacy, or the wide range of issues now evoked by the concept. Journalistic media stimulate anxiety about the possibility that Internet circulation of data may damage our privacy. We reject past customs of housing extended families under a single roof in favor of nuclear families, detached dwellings, a separate bedroom for every child. The richer we are, the more likely we are to seek walled enclaves for our homes and secluded Caribbean beaches for our vacations. In other words, we want our privacy. On the other hand, a man who used to work for a newsmagazine told me that people yearn so deeply to appear on television--to have attention paid to them--that if you stick a microphone at them just after they've lost a child, they eagerly talk into it. A large audience appears to exist for twenty-four-hour-a-day filming of random individuals' intimate lives. We watch Oprah and Geraldo, we share our sexual problems with pop psychologists on the radio, we consider a television appearance on Good Morning America a mark of success.

That we, of course, is slippery. I myself don't watch Oprah, and neither do a lot of other people, although millions do. I have refused opportunities to appear on television. I've never set foot on a Caribbean beach, I find walled enclaves distasteful, and I am not unique. But if we can designate the culture at large, my sketch indeed suggests a set of contradictions that we all inhabit in one way or another. Social class presumably makes a difference in our specific attitudes as well as our possibilities for possessing privacy, and so do the values of our families and our communities--which is to say we all have our own assemblages of contradictions. Each of us establishes individual boundaries of privacy; each of us may willingly, even happily abandon privacy in different specific contexts. In practice, then, privacy carries in modern Western culture no fixed assignment of value. Sometimes we want the state it designates, sometimes we don't.

Or perhaps one should say, rather, that privacy, in our culture, carries with it the notion of choice. If privacy is not an incontrovertible right, it is an uncontestable privilege, and part of that privilege consists in the exercise of control over access to personal material. To talk to a reporter if one feels like it, to live behind a wall, to tell all to Oprah--such are the opportunities of a society that makes privacy possible. It is the absence of choice, perhaps, that exercises people so much about the prospect of governmental spying, of prying into our e-mail, of medical records exposed to unwanted view. A great many of the books cited in the Harvard catalogue concern just such matters.

As an abstract idea, privacy in our culture unquestionably possesses a powerful positive valence. Even those who find every microphone, every camera, appealing might claim to value their privacy--and might indeed value it in certain contexts. If England was indeed "the birthplace of privacy" (Aries 5), the United States became its nursery, providing a social environment in which to cherish the idea more than the actuality of every individual's unalienable right to control over personal space. Legal and philosophic definitions of the word (some of which will appear later in my discussion) become ever more momentous, as the notion of privacy develops from a simple concept of being left alone into a way of condensing ideas about autonomy and integrity.

Privacy, I should emphasize once more, has relatively little to do with the much-debated split between "public" and "private." It has become received wisdom that the eighteenth century saw the creation of a new kind of public sphere, a newly defined division between private and public concerns, although much uncertainty remains about the definition of terms and the precise timing of events. Learned journals devote issues to the eighteenth-century "public," or to the nature of the private-public debate. Most scholars believe, at the very least, after several decades of controversy, that the concepts of public and private bear historical significance and that their nexus in the eighteenth century warrants special investigation.

The term privacy has received much less historicized attention, despite its ubiquity in current media discussion. The debate about private versus public of course bears on privacy, but the "private life" does not necessarily entail privacy (as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, for one, long ago pointed out), despite the fact that the noun derives etymologically from the adjective. Discussions of "private" versus "public" characteristically concern the operations of the state, the relation between members of the state in their communal and their individual functioning. The subject of privacy, in contrast, especially if considered historically, often demands focus on the ways people expose and guard themselves in relation to limited numbers of others. Within the private life--the life of people operating in the family, or in relatively small communities of friends--many forces impinge on the privacy of individuals, their capacity to protect themselves from other people's desire to know about them or to insist on their participation in social activity. As Gilman puts it, "Such privacy as we do have in our homes is family privacy, an aggregate privacy; and this does not insure--indeed, it prevents--individual privacy" (258). The dynamic of retreat and self-protection, as it was represented in the eighteenth century, provides the subject of this book.

Jurgen Habermas's seminal formulation of the modern relation between public and private exemplifies the way in which what might be called the third term of privacy gets elided in discussion. Initially, he ignores the subject, defining his key concept of the "bourgeois public sphere" without reference to privacy: "The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor" (27). The precursor to this development, Habermas goes on to say, involved "a public sphere in apolitical form." By this, he apparently means that individual self-contemplation prepared the way for the assumption of power. This apolitical sphere "provided the training ground for a critical public reflection still preoccupied with itself--a process of self-clarification of private people focusing on the genuine experiences of their novel privateness" (29). Now Habermas involves privacy (I assume the equivalence of "privateness" and "privacy") in his public-private distinction, claiming the experience of privacy as a vital precursor to the development of a new public. He argues that the all-male coffeehouse society of eighteenth-century Britain contributed to the evolution of a self-aware public, but he claims also that the conjugal family, with its "self-image of its intimate sphere," served as an important "agency of society," especially in mediating the "strict conformity with societally necessary requirements" that the larger public required (47).

To value the state of privacy as a precursor to public functioning of course makes it only a means to a dramatically different end. Moreover, it elides the important differences between the person operating in privacy and one acting even within the limited sphere of the family. If the family, and those performing within it, serve as agents of society and encourage social conformity, no such claim could readily be made about the person secure within his or her privacy. Privacy can provide a venue for "selfclarification," but perhaps little encouragement for "strict conformity." Although Foucault and his successors have abundantly demonstrated how internalized principle polices private consciousness, it remains conceivable that the individual in privacy might at least explore some marginal realm of personally rather than publicly ordained standards. The relation between privacy and society, thus far largely unexamined, proves intricate: so literary discussions of that relation, devious and indirect though they often are, suggest. Although the state of privacy implies at least temporary self-sufficiency, it may involve diverse forms of dependence on the public sphere.

To look at the idea of privacy in an earlier stage of its development reveals, unsurprisingly, differences from our own situation as well as similarities to it. The debate over privacy in eighteenth-century Britain often took covert forms. Psychological privacy, rather than its physical counterpart, attracted the most insistent attention. Discussion did not begin from the premise that privacy was at least theoretically a good; its social disadvantages arguably outweighed its individual attraction. Privacy presented, many thought, clear and present dangers both to the social order and to vulnerable persons (women, the young) within that order. As a psychological possibility, it appeared to encourage hypocrisy, a major focus of anxiety in the period: people might employ masks of various kinds in order to retain control of secret thoughts, feelings, and imaginings. Possibly connected with secrecy and with performance, as well as with seclusion, the very idea of privacy could arouse fear.

All of which is not to say that individuals failed to seek privacy, or to value it. This was a period in which curiosity (as well as curiosities) played an important role (see Benedict). Inasmuch as curiosity operated on a personal level, it encouraged penetration into feelings and events that persons might prefer to conceal. Adding to the constraints of widely shared physical space, the efforts of individuals to violate psychic space must have felt like an enormous imposition. Textual evidence suggests that the matter loomed large for women, whose conventional lives deprived them in particular of opportunity for physical isolation. By late in the century, the poet William Cowper could declare at length the importance of privacy to his poetic and moral achievement. Diarists throughout the century left indications of their concern for the matter. Samuel Richardson's earliest novels could not exist without the idea and the imagined actuality of both physical and psychological privacy.

To look at textual records and registers of privacy holds particular interest because of the dual valence of writing for publication. Both the writer and the reader function simultaneously in privacy and as members of a community. The writer writes alone, in seclusion, but with awareness of an audience and within a historical and contemporaneous community of other writers. The solitary reader bears a similar metaphorical relation to a community of readers and exists in relationship--often affectionate, hostile, or both--with the writer. Readers and writers therefore inevitably know, at some level of consciousness, something about the complexities of privacy. Those complexities emerge vividly in the important literary genres of eighteenth-century Britain.

Eighteenth-century England did not originate the concept of privacy, but the evidence indicates a new level of attention to it during the period. Such evidence includes architectural history, which obviously bears on questions of physical privacy. Mark Girouard points out the "growing feeling for privacy which became noticeable in the seventeenth century. Households in the old style had the disadvantages of all tightly-knit communities. Everyone knew what everyone else was doing, and quarrels and intrigues were endemic right across the hierarchy. As soon as families began to value their privacy they inevitably started to escape from their servants" (11). Habermas likewise observes, speaking specifically of Great Britain, that "the privatization of life can be observed in change in architectural style" (44). The "revolutionary invention" (Girouard 138) of back stairs, a late-seventeenth-century development, definitively separated servants from masters. Previously, the great hall had provided a center for social activity and a gathering place for servants, guests, dependents, and petitioners, as well as the family. Now, gradually, various kinds of activity became divided from one another.

Girouard warns that "it would be a mistake to see country-house history in terms of greater and greater privacy." He comments on the "growing sociability" of country families and observes that "Privacy was perhaps at its greatest in the early eighteenth century, when servants had been moved out of the way, and individuals among both family and guests enjoyed the security of private apartments, each containing two or even three rooms" (11). Christopher Hussey, however, observes that such apartments, strung out along a single axis, often supplied the only means of passage to other parts of the house (21): they might be "private," in other words, but they did not necessarily provide privacy. Not until interior halls became commonplace, a development later in the eighteenth century, did the great houses offer dependable separation of individuals from one another.

Few people, of course, have ever inhabited great country houses. But what happened in the upper reaches of society suggests a shifting consciousness that would gradually permeate other social levels sufficiently prosperous to have the luxury of choice in matters of privacy. Toward the end of the seventeenth century, Pepys reported on his "very fine close stool"--which occupied his drawing room (Wright 76). In seventeenth-century France, the "Royal Stool" "played an official role. Kings, princes and even generals treated it as a throne at which audiences could be granted" (Wright 102). A hundred years later, human excretion occurred mainly in solitude. Something had changed radically.

Yet I do not mean to imply a steady, straightforward progress toward privacy. That would make a far less compelling story than the one I want to tell, which is above all a story of ambivalence and ambiguity. If textual evidence suggests that the possibility of psychological privacy presented a vexing social and moral issue for many eighteenth-century thinkers, the implications of that issue's discussions extend to physical privacy as well. Privacy, whatever its definition, always implies at least temporary separation from the social body. To seek or advocate it therefore entailed a degree of threat to the values of a society still hierarchical and still retaining ideas about the importance of the communal.

It remains something of a surprise to me that this book has turned out to concern itself primarily with what I've been calling "psychological privacy": the kind of privacy that entails self-protection of a sort not immediately visible to others. At the outset, I intended to write about physical privacy, assuming that literary discussion of the subject would accompany architectural evidence of its increasing importance. But it turns out that, after Richardson (whose treatment of privacy has attracted previous critics), few writers in letters, diaries, autobiographies, or fiction concern themselves significantly with the subject. Perhaps they assume the impossibility of physical privacy; perhaps they feel no need for it; perhaps they consider it a matter too trivial for discussion. In contrast, the matter of psychological privacy comes up everywhere--not necessarily (indeed, rather rarely) with reference to the word, but as a problem both social and personal. The topic generates anxiety about the degree to which social prescriptions should control individual lives and ingenuity about ways to avoid the restrictiveness of convention. It encourages reflection about the value of isolation and worry about the difficulty of controlling those who internally absent themselves.


Excerpted from Privacy: Concealing the Eighteenth-Century Self by Patricia Ann Meyer Spacks Copyright © 2003 by Patricia Ann Meyer Spacks. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Patricia Meyer Spacks is the Edgar F. Shannon Professor of English at the University of Virginia. She is the author of eleven previous books, including Desire and Truth: Functions of Plot in Eighteenth-Century English Novels and Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, both published by the University of Chicago Press.

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