My post is inspired by being asked to offer the historical context of privacy for Radio 4’s Summer Nights episode ‘Is Privacy Over-rated’. The show then decided not to include me, but I thought I’d put to use my thoughts about privacy by writing them up for my blog! And perhaps I was never meant to participate in this series since for me Summer Nights will always mean John Travolta in Grease!
Anyway having got that off my chest: to privacy in the past. I’m going to think about this in terms of the family since that is often what commentators use as the fundamental site for privacy when debating the importance of privacy. For example Article 8 of the Human Rights Act (2000) includes the right to privacy:’ Everyone has the right for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence’. Privacy activists evoke the family sphere too. This is what Simon Davies, the self-termed Privacy-Surgeon, suggests as a response to those who claim that:
Privacy advocates are just paranoid. I don’t care about privacy.
Yes you do. People say this, but the reality is that they are usually responding to the latest news reports about a particular privacy scandal. I have never met a person who doesn’t care about privacy. Almost everyone is fiercely defensive about their home, and everyone resists invasions of privacy against their family. You might not care about big political issues like identity cards, but you sure will get angry if someone sells your child’s school records to an ad agency. And if you don’t, there’s probably something twisted about your parenting skills. (click here for site)
So is the family naturally a private sphere which brokes no interference? How has privacy developed over time?
What is absolutely apparent is that the concept of privacy has changed over time. And you can see links between this and the family. In the early modern period, even grand houses were not designed for what we see as privacy – a space set aside in which to carry out intimate activities: sex, various bodily functions, and close conversations. One room led into another; there were no corridors with doors off them. Rooms were not specialised. Beds were in chambers that had multiple uses.[i] In short, people lived in relatively small spaces so that they spent time together, and family members mixed with other household members. Historians used to think that this household structure indicated that families were quite loose structures, with fewer emotional bonds binding them together, and that thus both intimacy and privacy were weak and ill-defined.
Yet, actually pre-industrial people did have notions of privacy in so far as a place in which they could be by themselves away from the eyes of others. But they were not on a grand scale. Wealthy men and women might have access to a closet: a small room set aside for prayer and contemplation, rather than keeping the body secluded. They also possessed chests with keys that they carried on their person. These strong boxes held what they wanted to be kept private – in the sense of away from others’ eyes and secure: money and documents. Lower down the social scale a small box might serve a similar function. And despite the fact that houses contained lots of people, not all related by blood or marriage, people’s activities and words reveal that intimate family bonds were powerful.
The mid eighteenth century is always seen as a time for change. And this is no exception. Houses, for example, were increasingly built with a corridor as standard. People now entered rooms separately. Rooms were gradually becoming more specialised, terms like bed chamber were being used in larger houses and these were rooms where people slept and dressed, rather than a room in which this was combined with entertaining others. Family portraits began to focus more on parents and children, excluding all those other household members and wider kin. And intimacy between family members was celebrated in the new genre of fiction. Servants were physically excluded so that by the early nineteenth century in the middle classes they did not live in their masters’ and mistresses’ homes and were housed in separate blocks in huge aristocratic homes. Yet people’s homes were no more private than earlier. Mistresses shared beds with their maids when their husbands were away. Servants slept on trundle beds in the same room as their employers. Yes, the bed had curtains round it, but that was all that shielded couples having sex in the same room as their servants, as numerous witnesses in adultery cases testify. Washing, dressing, peeing – all those ‘intimate’ bodily functions remained fairly communal activities. Diarists and memoirists rarely lament the lack of time on their own or as a family unit – away from others. They might praise the snug family, the domestic surroundings, but these came with all attendant hangers on.
In effect, the family was never private, regardless of changes in spatial use that might appear to indicate the growth of the concept of privacy. Homes were places where the outside world intruded in the form of visitors, business activities, paying guests, lodgers, distant family members, servants, and apprentices. There might have been more physical space to be alone for some, as time went on, and the sense that the family was inviolate from external interference, but in practice it was rarely attained. This is evident with marital violence. It used to be said that wife-beating disappeared behind closed doors as families became more private and thus women more isolated. Yet if you chart where marital violence occurs, it is often in places that were overlooked or overheard. Even when husbands tried to hide their abuse in the nineteenth century, such privacy was impossible to achieve. As for working-class homes, well middle-class reformers were always trying to penetrate them to improve conditions by telling the inhabitants how they should behave.
So for all the claims that the family is private and that people have a right to privacy this was rarely attained before the twentieth century. And when it was, it was not necessarily a good thing. Historians of the suburbs show that when homes became more separated from a community in terms of working and shopping in the inter-war years and 1950s, and wives were encouraged not to work outside the home, these women suffered both mentally and emotionally.
So, yes, people have long held that ‘Everyman’s home is his castle’.[ii] But that castle has never been particularly defensible nor unbreachable.
Notions of privacy as linked to the domestic family are really relatively recent. In the eighteenth century private meant closed, secret, and unseen. It was opposed with public which meant visible, and overlooked. It was in the nineteenth century (and with the cult of domesticity) that this shifted so that privacy was associated with the domestic – the family in the home – and public with the non-home and non-family even though this was rarely achieved in reality.
Privacy for twenty-first century people is much more of an abstraction, a conceptual rather than physical space. Indeed the opposite of privacy is now seen as surveillance. Clearly this is to do with technology that allows the harvesting of data and the inability to keep secrets. Also, today there is a sense that privacy is a right and the claim that those who do not keep aspects of their bodily and emotional lives private have lost dignity. I don’t think these views existed in the past, although other rights and liberties due to ‘free-born’ Englishmen were profoundly held beliefs. Nor is there any intrinsic reason why sharing intimacies with those outside one’s relations should be undignified. In fact it has much more in common with people’s behaviour in the past!
It might be better therefore if privacy activists used a different explanatory analogy because the family and home as bastions of privacy have never existed. Why not change the terms of reference to secret and open – essentially what pre-modern people used? Are these less problematic concepts? After all, secrecy is the dangerous thing whether it is online, in the home, or in government and openness and transparency is what we should be defending.
[i] I can recommend a fabulous book by Matthew Johnson on homes – English Houses 1300-1800: Vernacular Architecture, Social Life, 2010.
[ii] A term used as early as the reign of Henry VII and frequently expressed in 17th century legal debates. Read the wonderful account of concepts of privacy in chapter 12 of Chris Brookes, Law, Politics and Society in Early Modern England, 2008.