Privacy was a highly valued commodity in eighteenth-century England and was normally invested in a locked cabinet or private closetin the house to which only the male head of the household had access. Samuel Johnson defined the cabinet in his Dictionary of the English Language as a ‘private box’ in which valuable things are hidden (Johnson, 1825, p.326). The word cabinet could also refer to the closet.The form of privacy available to most women was being alone in a public or shared space. To actually have a lockable or concealable private, physical interior was unknown for many women although the development of a private space during the eighteenth century built upon the presence of physical privacy which some women already enjoyed.Even the domestic interior offered them little privacy as the shared space was occupied by other members of the household and belonged to them as well (Fennetaux, 2008, p. 307). As the change from communal living areas to private spaces began, men were the first beneficiaries. They owned the first private areas of the house and while women were able to gain some privacy, it happened at a slower pace than for men.
The recognised importance of privacy.
It has been argued that privacy afforded its possessor power, individuality and independence (Fennetaux, 2008, p. 310). Development of a physical privacy became more recognised and important throughout the late seventeenth century as it led to thecreation of an individual self. As men became more private beings, this importance grew and led to a desire for all people to create the private self and experience it.
The first state of physical privacy which the majority of women experienced came about from necessity. The emergence of pockets gave women a form of privacy in which they could claim ownership over physical objects. These pockets took the form of fabric pouches which were tied round the waist. They were external and detachable. In practice this new privacy came about for convenience as the new pockets could be used to carry tools for housework around on the person, but the abstract notion of independence was manifest in the private space. These pockets and the physical privacy they afforded enabled women to experience themselves as unique beings with individuality and privacy. The appearance of a physical independent interior space for women provided them with the same power that men had enjoyed previously (Fennetaux, 2008, p. 333).
The internal importance of external privacy.
The locked box or private room gave a person the ability to leave the public space of the outside world and the shared space of the family home forthe private space of the cabinet, closet or room and to exercise one’s individuality. In this private and personal space, men were allowed to be away from others and so have the opportunity to exist entirely independently. As Simon Varey notes, privacy was a rare occurrence in eighteenth-century life as ‘few eighteenth-century British individuals enjoyed much privacy in their entire lives,’ (Varey, 1990, p. 33). Yet the emergence of private spaces was occurring and ‘interior space within the house was beginning to be specialised,’ (Varey, 1990, p. 33). The perceived link between the physical design and layout of a building, and abstract human concepts of morality in the eighteenth century is one which Simon Varey makes clear when he says that in Henry Fielding’s fiction ‘the architecture is symbolically allied to moral ideas,’ (Varey, 1990, p. 157). The symbolic nature of architecture has also been explored by Karen Lipsedge. She argues that private closets represented a public symbol of the right to a private life (Lipsedge, 2012, pp. 101-102). The existence of such closets shows the importance that privacy held. This privacy meant power, as whoever possessed it could demarcate between what was theirs exclusively and what belonged to others.
Creative aspects of privacy and the female nature of the private space.
The space or void was considered to be an arena of creativity as ‘The gentlemen’s private closet was a figure for “thinking, writing, and masculinity”,’ (Chico, 2002, p. 42). It was a place to think, contemplate and consider scientific and artistic problems(Baudot, 2009, p. 645). The male presence in this void and the creative acts which were understood to occur within it can be linked with sexual reproduction when it is considered that ‘the void is the space of creativity itself,’ (Baudot, 2009, p. 662). The room becomes the womb; a void waiting to be occupied by the male form, this male occupancy giving life to new thought. Tita Chico highlights the male near exclusivity of the private space.There did not exist a female equivalent in the majority of homes during the seventeenth century (Chico, 2002, p. 42). With no public persona belonging to them, women were able to be subjected to male will and dominance because men did have a private space within which to create their public self. Whether this was a locked cabinet or writing desk, or an entire room, men were able to construct a sense of self and enter the world with a public persona stemming from their individuality. If women had access to this privacy, a more balanced relationship between the sexes would be able to exist. It would not be until later in the eighteenth century when the closet became identified with the female act of letter writing, so important to the personal creation of identity, that women would have access to a designated area in the house. With the room as womb, the exclusive male access to privacy can therefore be read as male dominance over an inherently female space. As the private female room became more commonplace in the eighteenth century, a perhaps unintended challenge to male dominance was felt. Women could be seen as reclaiming the private space and evicting men from it. This change in circumstance began a male anxiety over the power of the private interior as it was wrested from the male grip.
Pockets to private room and letter writing.
Along with the emerging ubiquity of pockets, came the development of closets used for letter writing, which was seen as an inherently female activity. The closet in which letter writing took place saw the creation of a public self from a private environment in the same way men had done before. Smith sees this as evidence that women began to take control of the creative void as she writes ‘Women forged social and intellectual relationships with each other: correspondence,’ (Smith, 2008, p. 168). The shared nature of letter writing and its power in creating a public persona is one summed up by Simon Varey when he writes, ‘Writing letters is simultaneously an individual and a social act: individual because it expresses the self , social because it communicates with other ‘selves’,’ (Varey, 1990, pp. 184-185). The act of communication is an act of expression of the created self. This act of construction was carried out in private closets where letter writing occurred. The self was forged in private and then displayed in public through communication. Without a private place, there could be no public self because ‘words therefore depend on place’ (Varey, 1990, p. 185).
Female centred education and female to female mentoring also allowed women an independence from men in terms of their development as individuals through correspondence, (Smith, 2008, p. 176). As anyone in a position of authority would feel when they see those upon whom their status is based exercising independence, men became increasingly wary of this new opportunity afforded to women. Dressing rooms and pockets were regarded cautiously by men who were concerned that they would lose their influence, as ‘By the early eighteenth century, women’s dressing rooms appeared with increasing frequency in English homes, and their presence in such households subsequently raised concerns about what women would do in private,’ (Chico, 2002, p. 41). This male wariness, although sexist, was entirely well founded, a private independence was understood to develop into a public existence, and it was in public where female power would be exercised were it allowed to grow in private. The existence of male anxiety shows that it was understood that women were a part of private and public lives and would inevitably influence the lives of men to some degree. The male was anxious to have control over this influence as much as possible but realised this would not be possible.Tania Smith recognised this progression from the private to the public in her analysis of Elizabeth Montagu’s rhetorical identity; ‘Her letters idealize not the strict separation of public/political and private/literary spheres, but the fairly frequent alternation and overlap between them,’ (Smith, 2008, p. 185). In the progression from private pockets to a designated room and letter writing correspondence, women could control their lives in a way previously not available to them.
With the development of individuality as a moral and political philosophy, women were able to experience this individuality which gave them opportunities beyond the traditional and limiting roles of wife, mother, and daughter. While these roles were still maintained, women could now personalise them as they saw fit. The portable aspect of the pockets of which ‘every woman, regardless of her rank or status, had one or several pairs’ (Fennetaux, 2008, pp. 307-308), enabled them to carry this individuality with them outside the house.They were able to fully exercise their unique personalities in the public sphere by having a privacy and private identity, ‘They also allowed women to go out of the domestic interior and, as one of the few places women could call their own, pockets were key to their experience of privacy,’ (Fennetaux, 2008, p. 308). It is this relationship between the private interior and the public exterior and the manner in which the former informs the latter which created so much power in women and which led to anxiety in men.
The development of pockets, a portable privacy, allowed women to leave the house and engage in traditionally male activities, ‘Their appearance was also emblematic of women’s increasing mobility and emancipation from the confines of the domestic interior,’ (Fennetaux, 2008, p. 333). Women were now able to engage in the transfer of capital for commodity by carrying money in their pockets, however this would make them targets of crime.
The importance of pockets and the way they enabled their wearer to engage in the public sphere is evidenced by examples of theft from pockets in the eighteenth century. Court records tell of the plague of ‘cutpurses’(Johnson, 1825, p. 460) roaming the lawless streets, and of pocket watches, pocket books and looking glasses being stolen from pockets. In 1719 there is the case of a woman who was carrying three pounds and ten shillings in her pockets which were forcibly pulled from her. So serious was the crime that the criminal was sentenced to death (Old Bailey Online, 2013a). Pockets of course could also be used as a means to hide a crime perhaps giving rise to an anxiety over privacy. Katherine Walters was found guilty in 1730 of stealing candles and other assorted items. She was searched and the candles found in her pockets leading to her conviction and transportation (Old Bailey Online, 2013b). The power associated with privacy was well understood and men were alerted to the fact that women would be growing in power.