Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Illicit Privacy and Outdoor Spaces in Early Modern England

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

Illicit Privacy and Outdoor Spaces in Early Modern England

Article excerpt

Historians such as Lawrence Stone, Marc Girouard, and Alice Friedman have traced the development of domestic privacy in England in the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, linking an increasing desire for privacy with architectural changes in home design that made it possible.1 Critics such as Patricia Fumerton, Richard Rambuss, Alan Stewart, and others have explored the impact of these new spaces-closets, private dining rooms, withdrawing rooms, and banqueting houses-on subjectivity and on social relations in this period. Although Stone emphasized that opportunities for privacy within the home were scarce until well into the eighteenth century-because of servants among the wealthy, and because of space constraints among the poor-discussions of privacy in the seventeenth century have nevertheless tended to focus on indoor spaces and on the development of the concept of selfhood that they enabled, a concept tellingly called "inwardness" or "interiority." In examining such spaces, however, both Fumerton and Stewart acknowledge that closets most often presented occasions for a kind of "public privacy," for activities such as prayer, reading, self-examination, and account-keeping that practitioners wished others to know about, even while carrying them out in ostentatious privacy.2

Critics have paid less attention to the fact that real privacy, especially for illicit activities, was, until well into the seventeenth century, most often represented as readily attainable only outdoors.3 Nor have they acknowledged that the distinction between indoors and outdoors was defined less absolutely in the early modern period, when cultivated private gardens offered spaces that seemed to have been conceived as having characteristics of both. The lack of truly private space in homes of the relatively wealthy (where servants were ubiquitous, and often slept in the same bedchamber as family members) and in poorer households (often one large open space shared by the whole family and sometimes animals) left the outdoors as the only place where real privacy was possible.4 The presence of servants meant that even a closet could provide only minimal privacy: when you entered, with whom you entered, and audible sounds might all be within a servant's purview. As Lena Orlin has noted, early modern houses were riddled with holes, both accidentally and intentionally placed, through which illicit activity was often observed (Locating Privacy 177-92). Indeed, as both Rambuss and Stewart have argued, a secretary was often present within the closet itself (Rambuss, "The Secretary's" 320-21; Stewart 171-72). Orlin has persuasively questioned the argument that a desire for privacy motivated "the great rebuilding" that took place in sixteenth-century England, noting that "the material history of privacy is not, after all, a settled one."5

The OED defines "privacy" as "a state or condition of being alone, or free from public attention," "seclusion," or "freedom from interference or intrusion" (def. 1). Early modern subjects sought these conditions for a range of reasons, including desire to elude discovery, desire to keep something secret, desire to avoid embarrassment. Illicit sexual activity, excretory functions, treasonous plotting, and gossip are commonly and casually associated with outdoor spaces in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts of various kinds. Focusing on indoor privacy, which accords most closely with our own conception of the private, may cause us to miss the very different spatiality and relation to the natural world that shaped early modern representations of privacy and therefore of subjective interiority. If increasing privacy is linked to the development of the private subject, then a different configuration of private space must have implications for how we understand the development of the modern self.

Why do critics and historians tend to link the development of subjective interiority with changes in domestic architecture that increased access to private space? …

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