Closets of Knowledge

Frank Kermode

  • Privacy: Concealing the 18th-Century Self by Patricia Meyer Spacks
    Chicago, 248 pp, £25.50, May 2003, ISBN 0 226 76860 0

Among other books by the author of this study is one called Boredom, hailed by the paradoxophile Adam Phillips as ‘spry’, a description that would just about serve for the style of Privacy, which, though redolent of the privacies of the seminar, is public in the sense that it is reasonably free of jargon and won’t mind much if non-professors choose to read it.

Before she gets on to the 18th century, her favourite period, Patricia Meyer Spacks makes some initial remarks about ‘privacy’ and related words, intending to show that privacy is in our time regarded as wholly desirable, indeed as a human right, whereas in the past it could mean something more like ‘privation’ and refer to a condition no sane person would claim or seek; or anyway that its social disadvantages outweighed its individual attraction. She further remarks that in our day, when the right to privacy is written into constitutions and defended in the courts, we seem to be keener than ever to breach the privacy of celebrities (who actually need to have their privacy breached in order to stay celebrated) and to gloat on the couch while other individuals, seeking their own brief moment of celebrity, retail for television interviewers – without compulsion, without shame – the contents of the sad rag-and-bone shops of their hearts.

Later, Spacks will explain that, television apart, the lust of 18th-century punters for information about the private lives of important people was not very different, though the latter probably lacked the means to breach their own privacy unless, like Boswell and Laetitia Pilkington, whose ‘matchless sauciness’ was so pleasing to her improbable friend Swift, they kept candid journals. Talk of candour quickly leads to talk of pornography, intended, if anything was, for private reading, not group recitation. Spacks has good things to say about pornography. The style, as she observes, is often quite decorous, as it is in Fanny Hill, and the essentially private, guilty act of reading pornography is excused, or perhaps made more exciting, by Cleland’s fluent, upmarket language and abstinence from vulgar expressions.

‘Private’ occupies 12 columns of the OED, not counting its various relatives. Spacks, for her part, finds ambiguity in the uses of the word. It comes from the Latin word meaning ‘deprived’ – that is, deprived of public office – so ‘it originally designated a state of deprivation.’ It can still do so: to be a private in the army is to have no rank or distinction, and very little privacy. On the other hand a private member, who might conceivably be said to be deprived of government office, is still an MP and in some important respects a privileged person. The ‘original’ sense of the word is here a very shadowy presence. To have private medical treatment is not to be deprived of the National Health Service but willingly to forego it. This ambiguity is practically aboriginal, but it is the ‘deprived’ sense that has taken second place, and I think this has been so for longer than Spacks suggests.

Here are two uses of the word, each provided, as it happens, by men who were quite closely acquainted, that can be dated fairly exactly at 1650-60. Marvell, praising Cromwell for his emergence into violent public life, says that he left ‘his private gardens where/He lived reserved and austere’, and engaged in a very active public life – if his ambition to ‘ruin the great work of Time’ may be thought to qualify for that description. Cromwell’s progression from private to public could be used to illustrate a point Spacks borrows from Habermas (‘individual self-contemplation prepared the way for the assumption of power’), though in the 17th century the public-private antithesis would have been expressed in terms of action and contemplation. As to the word’s second use, Milton, having described Jesus’ triumphant resistance to all Satan’s temptations, including unparalleled public eminence – ‘the kingdoms of the world, and all their glory’ – ends Paradise Regained thus: ‘He unobserved/Home to his mother’s house private returned.’ Despite all Satan’s efforts he has proved that he is his own self-contemplating man, and, unlike Cromwell, undeprived of privacy. In these examples the writers, both excellent Latinists, seem to ignore the etymological sense and assume that to be private is unequivocally a good thing, though part of its goodness may lie in the fact that it may have to be surrendered for the public good.

Even when the meaning of the word is complicated by wit or irony the good sense remains strong: ‘The grave’s a fine and private place,/But none, I think, do there embrace.’ The privacy of being dead has this obvious drawback: it deprives one of erotic company. Guildenstern’s little joke, ‘Her privates we,’ means that he and his pal regard themselves as occupying a position near ‘the secret parts of Fortune’ and not on her cap, so they are privates in the other sense, mere foot-soldiers, not public men or favourites. This, of course, is the sense of the expression intended by Frederic Manning (Private 19022) when he called his war memoir of 1930 Her Privates We. As in the case of Marvell’s dead lover, the two strains of sense in the word conflict: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are both private and deprived.

Spacks’s main interest is in the 18th century, and its reading habits as reflected in novels and deplored by anxious parents, especially parents of girls, as the source of dangerous imaginings. Richardson, Rousseau and Sterne are important here, but so are a troop of female writers: Jane Austen, here delicately analysed, but also Charlotte Lennox, Sarah Fielding, Frances Burney and others. Dr Johnson remarked that the ‘call for books’ had greatly increased since Milton’s time. ‘To read was not then a general amusement; neither traders, nor often gentlemen thought themselves disgraced by ignorance. The women had not then aspired to literature, nor was every house supplied with a closet of knowledge.’ And in another place, speaking of the early years of the century, Johnson says that ‘in the female world any acquaintance with books was distinguished only to be censured.’ Later, that closet of knowledge, and the leisure provided by servants, transformed the entire culture of reading, filling the bourgeois closet with novels and the drawing-room with female readers.

Despite the continuance of reading aloud in the family or in some other group, private reading by females increased greatly in the course of the century, though physical privacy was still hard to come by. The male world looked on this development with suspicion. And eventually all those silent, dispersed women readers formed a kind of community, its members bound by a share in the peculiar experience of intimate character exploration that the novel can provide. Spacks makes a good case for her belief that female novelists identified this market: they were especially concerned with the exploration of the private feelings of women. This community of interests had the effect of setting apart novel readers, with their ready indulgence of emotion, their ‘inherent lack of discipline’, from their ordinary middle-class social world, in which it was necessary to suppress emotion by the common expedient of good manners and perhaps hypocritical reticence in conversation.

‘Conversation’ is a word that causes Spacks some trouble. She quotes from Guazzo’s The Civil Conversation, a late 16th-century courtesy book, in which the author’s doctor, counselling him against too much solitariness and insisting that man cannot live alone, uses the word as if it were synonymous with ‘company’. But the word had that sense; it meant ‘intercourse’, or at any rate what that word meant before it was narrowed to its sexual sense. Indeed, she quotes Defoe as using ‘conversation’ to mean ‘sexual congress’. That sense persisted in the legal expression ‘criminal conversation’, meaning ‘adultery’, until the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857.

The first sense of ‘conversation’ given in the OED (two and a half columns) is ‘the action of living or having one’s being in a place or among persons’ (obs.), and the second, also obs., is ‘the action of consorting and dealing with others’. The third is ‘sexual intercourse or intimacy’ (not obs.). Later, we get to the ‘manner of conducting oneself in the world or in society’ (arch.). It is quite a while before we reach ‘interchange of thought and words; familiar discourse or talk’. It looks as if the exclusive modern sense developed quite late (around 1600), and that it did so at first as an aspect of or accompaniment to the one given immediately above, which was probably uppermost in the mind of Guazzo’s translator. When Hamlet, again around 1600, told Horatio he was ‘as just a man/As e’er my conversation coped withal’, he was not merely saying he enjoyed talking to him; and when Othello said that he lacked ‘those soft parts of conversation/That chamberers have’, he was speaking of social disadvantages in general, though he perhaps meant to imply that sweet talk was one of the parts.

The difficulty, or impossibility, of avoiding conversation of any kind is often the theme of 18th-century novelists, especially the women, though it is also prominent in Clarissa and other novels by men. Spacks defines a conflict between privacy and sensibility (Clarissa speaks of ‘the privacy of the soul’), both of which were regarded by some as enemies of social order. Women are especially subject to the ravages of sensibility, for, like the heroine of Jane Austen’s Sanditon, they ‘learned romance’ as they grew older, having been forced into prudence in their youth. But men join in because it came to be accepted that feelings, and their free expression, are enviable, as Sterne remarked.

Spacks quotes a passage from La Nouvelle Héloïse describing a competitive display of sensibility: Rousseau’s express aim, we recall, was to celebrate the satisfaction of weeping over one’s own sufferings and those of others. Julie and her sister Claire are prostrate, having fainted from joy at their reunion. Claire’s daughter screams. St Preux strides about uttering broken exclamations and experiencing convulsive spasms. Julie’s husband looks on, doing nothing, but ravished by the spectacle. Sensibility, the product of fine private feelings, requires public performance, but its performance is bound to conflict with a gentleman’s idea of good manners, or indeed with common sense.

Such manifestations of sensibility were not easy for the gentry to deal with, but they were accompanied by a substantial increase in gentlemanly privacy. They had always had more of it than the rest of the world, and their architects now enabled them to increase it. The development of backstairs and downstairs kept the servants more out of their way than they had been, except when large numbers of them were needed to advertise claims to wealth and magnificence. But these enemies of privacy were still numerous: one had to be poor not to have servants. As Spacks points out, the Dashwood family in Sense and Sensibility keep two servants when utterly impoverished. They were as necessary as privies. Well into the 20th century families living on £8 a week would keep a servant girl. Though probably housed in a garret, she too could be an unwilling intruder into the family’s privacy. Servants were known to know too much about what was going on upstairs, and there was great concern that they should be discreet about it. A great nuisance, but fortunately middle-class women found ways of getting on with their reading and writing, secretly exercising their sensibility while the family sewed and chattered around them.

Spacks is led, as she says inevitably, to Laurence Sterne, whose tone she finds difficult. In A Sentimental Journey Yorick remarks that he was sometimes pained by things the French said, but soon got used to their ways. The correct and virtuous Madame de Rambouilet, taking a fancy to him, invites him on an expedition in her coach. Unexpectedly she orders the coach to stop, descends and urinates, Yorick handing her out of the coach: ‘Had I been the priest of the chaste Castalia I could not have served at her fountain with a more respectful decorum.’ And he advises other nymphs to imitate her: ‘Pluck your rose,’ he counsels them, as Madame de Rambouilet did.

Spacks makes a good deal of this euphemism: the rose is ‘jarringly equivalent to urine’, she says, as if the expression were an outrageous invention of Sterne’s, and ‘pissing is glorified.’ But ‘to pluck a rose’ was a conventional slang expression, not Sterne’s invention. The OED faithfully records Sterne’s allusion to it, but supplies other examples 150 years earlier, and it is clear that it was in general use, probably to refer to both sexes, though the Dictionary suggests it was applied only to women. The jarring equivalence of piss and roses was not a nasty conceit of Sterne’s making, though some may think that recounting the episode in order to emphasise his own, or Yorick’s, refined sensibility deserves to be called nasty.

One can pick quarrels with Spacks, but this is a good and informative book. She reports that in 1890 Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis influentially defined privacy as the ‘general right of the individual to be left alone’, and while she admits that this definition is inadequate, she finds it ‘more satisfactory than most of its more intricate successors’. I doubt if it can be said that she herself has avoided adding to the intricacy of her subject, and it cannot have been her aim to do so. In this respect she was quite right. Having meditated the topic of privacy in private, one must publish. As Habermas almost remarked, contemplation must be followed by action.